The interiors of Australia’s future submarines are being crafted, not in the dockyards where you may expect, but in an anonymous building in the UniSA labyrinth between Adelaide’s Hindley Street and North Terrace.

Peter SchumacherHere, the structure and design that will define how our sailors work, eat and sleep, even how they shower or read a book, is being tested and analysed in full-scale, detailed cardboard models.

It is one of the few human-centred industrial design approachs specific to the shipbuilding industry in the world.

The unlikely project was seeded when the future submarine programme approached Dr Peter Schumacher, director of the Studio for Complex Human Environment Design (SCHED), to help design new operations consoles for the boats.

“In retrospect, it’s interesting that there were people in the Navy who recognised that this was going to be a big thing and knew they had to start sowing the seeds across a range of areas,” says Schumacher.

They’d come to the right shop.

As a design studio, SCHED’s focus is on improving the human experience in complex manufactured environments. That tallied perfectly with the Navy’s need to improve habitability on board Australia's submarines.

​“Engineers often start with the technology. But we’re not interested in the technology in and of itself, we’re interested in the person – their story, their world, their tasks.”

Peter Schumacher

Model of Galley and Mess

Applying those principles, Schumacher and his research assistants began to get their heads around how sailors interact, not only with equipment and technology but with each other in cramped conditions for months at a time.

“And that was key for us to develop an alternate way of arranging the consoles to address some of these issues about how people not only look at their screens, but how they talk to each other while they are working,” says Schumacher.

Perhaps the most surprising part of the job was that someone in the Navy saw the potential to look at things differently.

“There’s a great line from Churchill which I've always liked – ‘we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us’.

While Churchill used it to argue that the House of Commons chamber, destroyed during the war, should be rebuilt on similar lines to the old one, to Schumacher the words are an invitation for disruption – but it highlights the underlying principle, we are shaped by our environment, and we have the power to shape that environment if we choose.

“We create these technological artefacts and then they start shaping our behaviour. They then impose on us ways of doing things and ways of living,” he says.

“Mostly we’re quite unconscious of the fact that it’s going on. We don’t realise there's maybe other ways of doing it because patterns have already been shaped and then the habit takes over.”

But technology itself changes a lot and many of the reasons for the original arrangement no longer apply.

So successful was SCHED’s rethinking of the consoles that the Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG) asked the team to help to completely reimagine the interiors of the Collins class subs.

DSTG had in 2015 undertaken the Anthropometric Survey of the Royal Australian Navy (ASRAN), in which Schumacher’s UniSA colleagues Dr François Fraysse and Dr Nathan Daniell had measured 1,500 sailors to provide a database of the different body sizes of operational personnel – some surprisingly large.

This data was then used for the design and evaluation of vessels, equipment and clothing. 

This became a central touchstone for SCHED researchers, and mannequins representing the largest and smallest of the body shapes ASRAN identified still stand in the centre of the studio, overseeing all that is designed around them.

But it was only a starting point.

“There’s more to people being in space than just the maths around the body size,” says Schumacher.

The conundrum for Navy and the scientists at DSTG was that in the future they were going to need more submarine crew, going on longer missions.

While pay and conditions were important to luring more crew to the boats, habitation was also a big factor. Already feedback from Collins was that living conditions left a lot to be desired.

“It was interesting because you had the DSTG, which is a very scientific organisation, recognising that design adds value,” says Schumacher.

That insight was groundbreaking and put Australia at the forefront of human-centred design in naval architecture, which has traditionally found engineering solutions for fitting humans into an engineered environment.

“It’s actually a problem in the shipbuilding industry in general – an international problem,” says Schumacher.

​“It's a very challenging thing to design ships and make them work. And the designers have a very technical mindset. Plus construction is very decentralised – you get a hull bit and an engine there ... The consequence of that is they might be quite blind to the fact that a decision here might create a huge problem for the user over there.”

Peter Schumacher

Humans at the helm of our submarines

Human-centred design has only become more important as systems become more sophisticated and automated through algorithms.

“People are no longer doing the work. They’re managing systems that are doing the work,” says Schumacher.

In a naval context that means many command and control systems are successful not because of hardware superiority but because of decision-making superiority.

“How do you create, then, a war-fighter who has the capacity to do this superior decision-making under very challenging, ambiguous, difficult situations?”

The question has led Schumacher to work with a range of specialists elsewhere in the university.

“You need to understand that fatigue, and managing people intelligently in terms of circadian rhythms, is always going to be challenging on a submarine.

To better understand the issues, Schumacher reached out to Professor Siobhan Banks, Director of UniSA’s Behaviour-Brain-Body Research Group. 

“We've been learning an enormous amount from her and we work very closely with her in terms of understanding,” says Schumacher.

“It all boils down to having to take habitation seriously. It matters. Living and working on a submarine is always going to be hard so why make it harder than is necessary?”

Profile of SCHED written by Bill Condie - 0450 952 365

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