Starting and ending with design

Steve Jobs once said: ”People think it's this veneer - that the designers are handed this box and told, 'Make it look good!' That's not what we think design is. It's not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” In this article, Nir Kahn, director of Design for Plasan, looks at the importance of design for the armoured vehicle market

When asked what design is, different people have different preconceptions. Many, perhaps most, will talk about styling and aesthetics. They see design as mere decoration and this misunderstanding can lead to designers being all but left out of the process of developing military products. The military, the perception is, has no need for the fluff of design and so the products and vehicles that they use are developed by practical engineers without the distraction of designers and their airy ideas. I preach a different definition of design though.

The difference between engineering and design is a simple question of interfaces. Engineering deals with mechanical and environmental interfaces, between components and each other, between the vehicle and the ground, between materials and the climate; while design is concerned with human interfaces, between the vehicle and the users, and those who will interact with it either physically or emotionally. Once you look at armoured vehicle design through this prism, it becomes clear that the process starts and ends with design.

There are many day one decisions that significantly affect the efficiency of the vehicle, in terms of weight, cost, manufacturability, maintainability, and its ability to allow the team inside to comfortably fulfil their mission. It starts with the ergonomic package. When a set of requirements lands on my desk, this is the first thing that is addressed. Armoured materials are heavy. Plasan has the broadest range of material solutions, from the most advanced light composites to plain old hardened steel, but the very lightest armour is the square metre that you managed to do without. If we can design the vehicle to answer all of the requirements, to accommodate the crew in compliance with ergonomics standards, to house all of the equipment in accessible positions, and to do so with less surface area of heavy armour, then we simultaneously save weight and cost.

We put a lot of design effort into optimising the driving position to reduce the size of the transparent armour without adversely affecting the driver's vision, establishing the ideal angle to chamfer the roof edges, and many other details, all in the interest of maximising usable space and minimising weight and cost. This is a fundamental part of the armoured vehicle design process. This can only be achieved successfully with close cooperation between designers, mechanical engineers, ballistic engineers and production engineers.

When this is done well, and designers experienced in the nuances of armoured vehicle design are integrated into the entire process from concept to production, the result offers benefits to all; to the manufacturer who builds and supports it, to the buyer who purchases and maintains it, and to the end user who ultimately interacts with the vehicle on a daily basis.

Protecting against multiple threats
But it is remarkably easy to get the job of developing an armoured vehicle very wrong, and the market is full of bad examples. An armoured vehicle must protect against multiple threats, but this isn't just about how thick the steel is. Stopping a projectile with a 400x400mm sample plate in a ballistic lab is only the beginning. A vehicle needs ballistic door seals that prevent even the smallest fragments of a broken bullet from entering the passenger cell. Windows must be attached in a way that seal against the elements as well as ballistic and blast threats, but that also allow for easy field replacement. The doors and windows are a critical interface between the users and the vehicle. Taking care to design them so that ingress and egress are easy and comfortable, and to minimise blind spots, despite the thick glass and necessary ballistic overlaps, is a big differentiator between a well-designed armoured vehicle and one that was built with less attention paid to these human interfaces. Quick access and good situational awareness are vital to allowing the users to successfully complete their daily missions, yet these issues of design are often erroneously given low priority.

The same disregard is often held for improving the comfort of the soldiers inside. I am sometimes asked what the best blast seats are. My response is always that the best place to be sitting in the event of a blast under a vehicle is at home, with your feet up, and a beer in your hand. You are perfectly safe there. When soldiers are sent to the battlefield, they are sent to perform a task, and to do it well. The prime purpose of a blast attenuating seat is to be a secure comfortable place for a soldier to sit for 12 hours a stretch. Their ability to absorb the energy of a large underbody blast (and the slam down that follows) must not detract from their prime purpose which is driven by design and ergonomics.

Too many manufacturers of military vehicles forget this. They forget that it's all about the humans inside. It is easy to pass a blast test by carefully placing a test dummy's feet on a raised footrest, but in the real world nobody can comfortably sit like that for more than a few minutes. When the blood stops flowing and the leg starts to ache, real people take their feet off these bars and reposition them to places that put them at risk. Our job as military vehicle designers is to save lives, not to pass tests. So in Plasan we design wide floating floors that allow occupants to treat the floor naturally, placing and moving their feet for their own comfort, and we ensure that wherever they happen to be, if they are unfortunate enough to encounter a blast, the design will protect them.

Designing aesthetic into the vehicle
And yes, design does deal with aesthetics. The appearance of a vehicle, the image that it portrays, can affect the ability of the team inside to do their job. What are you trying to say to the people who you face? If it's a sworn enemy sitting in their own armoured vehicle then maybe your own strength and invincibility, perhaps even lethality, are key characteristics that you want to project. But if you are operating in an urban environment, surrounded by non-combatant locals who are scared and suspicious, then rolling around in an aggressive fortress could be counter-productive. It can make you look detached from their plight and pain. It can make enemies of people who may have otherwise been open to cooperation. For these sorts of missions and environments, ever more common for modern armies, a vehicle styled to send a progressive message, of a positive force that has come to help lift them out of their state of despair, can actively contribute to the success of the mission.

Styling armoured vehicles is a particularly difficult task. It cannot be a veneer, it can't be added on at the end. The aesthetic needs to be designed into the vehicle. The basics of vehicle design, lining up shutlines so that they flow and have a common language with the surfaces and vehicle as a whole, are very hard to control if the designer isn't intimately involved in the details. When armoured vehicles are a collection of improvisations, last minute changes and patches, they will end up looking like a stylistic mess, and this ugly uncomfortable appearance is an alarm bell warning to all who see it that none of the design process was conducted in a considered manner. But if the finished vehicle looks right and if there is a coherent aesthetic then this is a sure sign that the same level of care and attention went into the things that you can't see too.

Design is a holistic discipline. It encompasses ergonomics, design for cost, weight and production, as well as aesthetics; and when done well it should add value to the product far in excess of any cost that it adds. In fact, good design can often save cost. By considering multiple issues early on, combining functionality into single parts, and generally getting things right from the start rather than adding quick fixes to patch up problems later, a well-designed armoured vehicle will be lighter, cheaper, and better all-round than vehicles that didn’t undergo a comprehensive design process. The difference with a well-designed vehicle, which is observable at first sight, runs more than skin deep.

Nir Khan at work - Plasan

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