• Job title Researcher
  • Organisation Cranfield University
  • CourseCurrent Aerospace PhD part-time student

Why did you choose Cranfield?

I wanted to study aerospace at Cranfield because it’s highly applied so you know that if your work isn’t going to directly be used in industry, it may contribute to something that will. By carrying out work in an applied sphere, you know your work’s going to have an effect on the wider world; it’s going to contribute to someone helping and I think that’s the most fascinating thing about doing it.

Cranfield offered the connection with industry but from a more academic research orientation than had I gone into consultancy. If you go into consultancy you’re just meeting the boundaries or the expectations that companies coming to you have asked for. At Cranfield part of our work is very consultancy based, but between the works of consultancy we’re expected to come up with our own research ideas and follow them through and see what we can develop ourselves. That’s been interesting and fascinating; it’s why I wanted to come here and do the job.

What was Cranfield's impact

I work within the industrial psychology and ergonomics group and the problems that we’re looking to solve tend to be oriented towards the operator on the shop floor within aerospace. We want to gain a better understanding of how operators carry out their job and the types of physical and psychological stresses that they face while they carry out their jobs.

Why do you think this area of research is important?

This area of research is important because your operators are your key resource. They’re the people who produce the product so you need to have a better understanding of how they carry out their work to be able to understand how to improve product rate. It’s all well and good knowing how long it takes to make a product and how many products you’re going to have at the end, but if you have a better understanding of the types of stresses that an operator is facing on the shop floor, you can look to mitigate them and, in some cases, improve and reduce the time it takes to complete the task.

Why is it of particular relevance to the aerospace industry?

The research is of particular interest to the aerospace industry because you still have a lot of operators carrying out craft-based work on the shop floor such as lifting, carrying, moving and holding things in place while parts of the job are completed and you tend to have high levels of noise, high temperatures in some cases, or particularly low temperatures in others. There’s very little automation of tasks because of the skill required to do the job.

Tell me a bit about what you do?

My research activities include going onto the shop floor and interviewing operators to understand how they do their job, what tasks they do, what could make their job easier, where things are particularly difficult and if they’ve got any solutions that we can feed back. We want to gain an understanding of what their job is in comparison to what the instruction manuals or the standard operating instructions say they should be doing. We also have a non-optical motion capture suit that we ask the operators to wear and carry out a job in occluded conditions. While we cannot see what the operator is doing, we can gain a better understanding of the type of postures they adopt while they complete the job. We’ve also got a pair of eye-tracking glasses that we use to enable us to gain more information on the more cognitive aspects of the task the operator carries. It’s all about developing a better understanding, both objectively and subjectively, of all the encompassing parts of the tasks that an operator carries out.

Tell us about the motion-capture suit?

We’ve got sensors on each of the major parts of the body which allows us to capture the movement of an operator as they’re completing their task. It helps us to identify whether there are particular aspects of the task that may be putting operators at risk of developing musculoskeletal damage.

Do people worry that you are going to replace them with robots?

A couple of people have worried that we are going to replace them with robots but robotics isn’t at a stage yet where it’s possible to replace humans. The tasks being carried out by operators has a huge amount of tacit knowledge in it – tacit knowledge tends to be knowledge that you apply without the understanding of why you’re applying it - it’s very much a subconscious thing. Much of what the operators do at the moment within aerospace on the shop floor uses a huge amount of this tacit knowledge and it’s just not possible for this to happen with robotics systems.

Would you say that the ultimate goal is to replace man with machine?

The ultimate aim is not to replace humans with robots. Operators have a level of expertise that they’ve developed over time, where they’re able to tell the difference with just a finger whether there’s an undulation in a piece of metal or not. Anyone not trained would not be able to feel, see and judge particular depths like that.

Tell us a bit about what you’ve discovered?

One of my main findings is that operators tend to use a huge amount of tacit knowledge while they carry out their tasks. We have also learnt that you’ve got operators carrying out tasks that put them under physical strain and, in some cases, you may see levels of mental strain or high mental workload while they carry out their jobs. It’s my job or part of my job, to identify those things and then make suggestions for why, how you may change it or to go to an engineer or a designer and say this is a particular issue, is there anything that can help mitigate or reduce those?