Are you sitting comfortably?
About forty years ago, Volvo achieved a world first when it introduced a "steplessly adjustable" lumbar support in the front seats of its Amazon car. The new lumbar support could be adjusted with a screwdriver to suit the anatomical characteristics of the individual driver.
Since that day, Volvo seats have arguably become the best in the business. Closer study of the Amazon seat reveals why the development was regarded as something of a revolution. After its introduction, Volvo quickly acquired a reputation for superb seating, which it still enjoys today. Volvo's continued leadership in seat design can be attributed to our advances in technology, ergonomics, safety, and appearance.
Beginning with the lumbar support technology, Volvo engineers developed its seats through con*****tion with medical experts in the areas of back problems. The seats were of a particularly modern design, with cushions of foamed polyester for optimum support and comfort. Both the height and longitudinal position could be adjusted, while the angle of the backrest could be varied using a hand wheel.
Customer Satisfaction Paramount
The seats and seat cushions used in current Volvo models are the product of cooperation between the company's own engineers and the seat suppliers. The suppliers are responsible for all of the development work, while Volvo engineers verify the results in thorough vehicle testing.
Volvo Cars product planners translate the customer's requirements into an order, which the supplier uses to produce the seats with the aid of drawings, simulations, crash testing, strength testing, etc.
Development activities at Volvo have recently been divided into two groups - a group of eleven working on front seats and a group of nine responsible for rear seats.
Malcolm Resare, head of the front seat group, explains that the design of the seats and cushions is discussed at an early stage of the new-car design process. The seats are a complex product that represents a high proportion of the car's value and are also emotionally charged:
"We have ambitious goals. The driver must find the seat comfortable on both long and short journeys. It must also be designed to suit all kinds of male and female drivers, whether they are short, tall, light or heavy. It must be attractive in appearance, comply with the highest standards of safety and ergonomics, and keep its fresh appearance - in other words, it must retain its 'new car' feel for a long time."
"Development is a process involving many 'loops'," he goes on. "This means that we test as we go and modify the design accordingly. Then we test again, modify again - and repeat the procedure as often as it takes."
"After testing for comfort, vibrations and other characteristics, the seats are matched with the styling. Visual harmony is essential since this aspect is very important to the customer. We must ensure that the appearance makes a good first impression."
Volvo Sets Own Standards Higher
Car seat design appears to be influenced to some degree by 'cultural' differences. For example, German carmakers often choose harder upholstery padding, as well as different springs and elastic webbing, compared with Volvo.
"We believe that more care goes into a Volvo seat," maintains Malcolm Resare.
He tells us that perhaps 90% of the requirements for a seat are adhering to codes and statutes. Volvo bases the remaining 10% on its own goals and on the need for safety margins.
Importance Of Ergonomics
Beginning with the famous Amazon seat, medical experts have been instrumental in the development of seats at Volvo. Volvo has had the inestimable advantage of working for many years with Professor Alf Nachemson, the renowned Gothenburg specialist in back problems.
The term 'ergonomics' was still unknown in 1964. Ergonomics began as a science soon after that time and has grown dramatically in importance since then. The Volvo Cars product development department now includes a number of ergonomics specialists from various basic disciplines who also work with independent researchers.
Ergonomics is often used loosely to describe seating comfort. However, the term covers infinitely more. For example, HMI (Human-Machine Interface) is an area of the rapidly growing science.
Sporty seat in S60
Industrial designer Lennart Liedberg joined Ergonomics in 1994, having worked as a con******t in production ergonomics. His first working assignment was on the new V70 and S60 cars.
"The S80 was first introduced as part of the big platform, so that the basic design of its seats was already determined," he explains. "However, the V70 and S60 were a challenge. In this case, a new foam was to be used and the upholstery was to be of a different cut. The seats were to be sportier, with a lower seating position and a pronounced bucket shape, especially in an optional variant."
Mr. Liedberg adds, "A 'sports' seat limits freedom of movement somewhat more [than a luxury seat]. The challenge is to design a shape providing the optimum balance between stability and support for a large number of body types."
Lennart Liedberg's latest project was the XC90, which has a completely different seat with a unique foam and upholstery fabric. In this case, ergonomics intertwined with design throughout the creation.
Two types of ergonomics
He mentions that the 16-strong Ergonomics staff is focusing on two main areas - HMI (Human-Machine Interface) and physical ergonomics.
HMI deals with the user interface between the different on-board functions and the human being behind the wheel. This involves practical problems, like changing the climate in the car, or more user-friendly controls on the console.
"To put it simply, we must not make things more difficult for the 'normal' user. The driver must not be made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe by having to shift his or her gaze too long from the road to look at a display."
Ergonomics often deals with both the inside and outside of the car's architecture, such as door openings, seating geometry, space requirements, ease of access to controls, and so on. Mr Leidberg states that the goal is "to design a car which is a mix of everything and which suits our customers expectations...preferably so that we can surpass them."
"With this understanding, we can deliver a good product. At the end of a long, all-day journey, the driver must feel just as fresh as when starting out!"
"This is our criterion for success!"
Ergonomics in brief
Derived from the Greek ergon, meaning work, and nomia, meaning knowledge or science, the word 'ergonomics' is the study of human work (and the methods used to perform it). It can also be described as the interaction between the human being and his working tools. Ergonomics is a young, cross-disciplinary science, which emerged in the 1950s. It is characterized by the combination of biology, technology and psychology used to analyze the interaction between human beings and machines.