Spending the day at Ikea is a fun treat in the best of times, a relationship-destroying nightmare in the worst. For one Airbus designer, though, following the yellow arrows around the bins of votive candles and wall hooks was a breakthrough moment.
The cockpit of any airplane is the result of millions of hours of research and development. It takes years, sometimes decades, to study and analyze the best way to design them. Even then, ideas about the most ergonomic setup—both physically and mentally—are always evolving. And since simulators are very, very expensive, mocking up new designs can be a huge chore.
Airbus recently posted an interesting story about the way its designers dealt with the problem. A systems designer named Raphael Andre, who works at Airbus’ facilities in France, was shopping for cheap flatpack furniture when he realized it would be a good way to mock-up cockpits. “After a trip to look at some furniture (at IKEA), it occurred to me that a simple-to-construct, wooden version of a cockpit would do the job very well,” he says in an Airbus’ release. So he started mocking up prototype cockpits made out of cardboard and wood, which needed zero hardware or tools to put together. Just pull the pieces out, slide them together, and viola—a mockup of a cockpit in minutes, rather than months.
According to Airbus, the system has migrated into different industries. Continental—which makes a lot of the dashboard interiors for major automakers—is now using to to test its own designs. Meanwhile, Australia Business Traveler says the system was used to design the cockpit of the A380.
It’s no wonder that plane makers are investing in cockpit design research. A debate has raged for years about how cockpit design—and its increasing digitization—affects pilot performance. For example, the 2012 crash of Air France Flight 447 was partially blamed on the design of the Airbus A330-200 cockpit. The junior pilot at the controls panicked, and through a series of maneuvers, manipulated the plane into a state where it was likely to stall. Because of the design of the side stick he was using to shift the plane’s position, his superiors didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late. Both The Telegraph and Co.Design have pointed out that the design—which was intended to simplify and streamline flying—actually contributed to the crash.
This is just one issue in a larger discussion about how planes should be designed in the post-digital era, when humans at the controls are increasingly optional. A recent New York Times article about autonomous planes looked at what human pilots still have to offer. As the Air Line Pilots Association put it:
A pilot on board an aircraft can see, feel, smell or hear many indications of an impending problem and begin to formulate a course of action before even sophisticated sensors and indicators provide positive indications of trouble.
For the past 40 years, cockpit design has moving towards automation—where algorithms and artificial intelligence can take some of the complexity and human errors out of flight. But increasingly, pilots and plane designers are questioning whether taking information away from humans is the best solution. Wouldn’t a better solution be to design a cockpit that looked closely at how humans function under extreme physical and mental stress, while being buffeted with information, rather than simply subtracting more and more of that information without close study?
That’s why planemakers are so interested in mitigating the digital overload of the modern-day cockpit—and why testing their ideas with real humans is so vital. At Airbus, at least, some of that research will be faster and simpler to carry out thanks to simplified setups like Andre’s.