I was part of a design team responsible for the Kongsberg Maritime Auto Chief C20 in my role as Senior Industrial Designer and Partner at Hareide Designmill.
The cooperation with Kongsberg Maritime we had at Hareide Designmill is a good example of what ingredients is needed to create a good product and a good design. Its not enough that we as designers have strong vision and a good concept, you need to get everyone involved to believe in the same vision and share the same goal to achieve something exceptional.
The working relationship with Kongsberg Maritime was instrumental in that sense. We had a very open and creative working relation. We basically had a lot of fun. KMSS produces (among other products) panels that controls the propulsion system on large ships. Usually these control panels installations were 40 x 40 cm metal panels with a user interface consisting of a 10 x 10 grid of similar buttons. Not ideal when navigating in critical situations and, more problematic, very important functions sat next to less important ones in no particular order or system. The thing looked the way it did purely because of engineering and cost. This control panel was also installed together with a mechanical propulsion control, the machine telegraph, a big handle that basically works as an accelerator pedal.
At an initial stage of the project, we focused on the interaction and the integration with the machine telegraph. After visits to some of these ships and talks with captains we found out it can be pretty rough conditions so being able to hold on while you use the control panel, turned out to be a big benefit. Also readability is a serious issue. Many of the captains are 50+ and long-sighted so clearly legible graphics were important.
We did many rounds of explorations, through sketching by hand, in model (CAD: Cardboard Aided Design) and in Alias. At a crucial stage in the project we invited the actual end-users and important stake holders to get their feedback and input on our design proposals. At the end of this we were very confident about choosing a final design direction. Our final design proposal for the AutoChief C20 was a display interface with a big dial to easily navigate through the menus. We kept six physical buttons, as these turned out to be the most critical ones and they should be visible and reachable without thinking about it. The panel and telegraph is machined out of solid aluminium and has integrated grab rails to give operational support and comfort. The machine telegraph has the same curvature and size as the rails and they can easily be mounted together, something that was impossible before. The overall size is much reduced from the original but the important functions are more evident and easier to use.
The AutoChief C20 has been a success and a true brand ambassador for Kongsberg Maritime and was awarded the Norwegian Award for Design Excellence in 2003.