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There's nothing easy about Vern Raburn's plan to revamp the air travel industry with the introduction of the Eclipse 500 Very Light Jet. The SUV-size plane, which seats six and weighs 25% less than a Chevy Suburban, aims to make jet travel more personal and more affordable—affordable, in this case, being $1.52 million, or roughly half the cost of any plane in its class.
Thanks to an innovative engine that allows the 500 to land at some 10,000 secondary airports in the U.S., Eclipse also aims to break the national "hub and spoke" flight pattern by making point-to-point travel less expensive. You might never have to change at O'Hare again— though that isn't why the jurors at this year's BusinessWeek/IDSA International Design Excellence Awards honored the plane with four awards.
The Eclipse Aviation story begins in 1998, when Raburn, a former Microsoft (MSFT
) executive and longtime amateur pilot, founded the company, bringing the perspective of a high-tech entrepreneur to the aerospace industry. Eclipse would employ avionics and other advanced technologies, and it would use off-the-shelf components where possible along with high-volume manufacturing techniques borrowed from the PC industry.
DANGEROUSLY BAD DESIGN. But the key to success for Eclipse Aviation lay in the design of its first plane, the 500, which in 2006 became the first "very light jet" to be approved by the FAA. And designing the new plane posed a greater challenge than developing a new business model. After all, when it comes to airplanes, design flaws can be deadly.
The plane crash that killed singer John Denver in 1997, for instance, was caused in part because a fuel-valve switch was placed in a hard-to-reach location behind his back. In the case of a Korean Air Lines B747 that went down shortly after take-off from Stansted Airport on Dec. 22, 1999, the crash was blamed on a faulty Attitude Director Indicator.
In fact, during the pilot's previous flight he had noticed that his ADI was out of sync with the co-pilot's, which agreed with the back-up instrument, and had acted accordingly. In the discussions that followed the crash, many pilots and others questioned why the back-up ADI wasn't located next to the pilot's, which would have made a faulty reading immediately obvious.
AN OUTSIDER PERSPECTIVE. So first and foremost, the design of the new 500 jet—and most critically, of the cockpit and instrument panel—had to be rational, efficient, and pilot-friendly. But in the case of the Eclipse, "pilot-friendliness" wasn't a straightforward issue. Because of its low cost, the plane had a wide range of potential buyers, from private owners and charter pilots to corporate travel departments to air taxi and air freight companies. And those potential buyers represent two quite different types of pilots: those accustomed to flying larger commercial or private jets and those flying small propeller planes.
By the spring of 2002, Eclipse Aviation had built the first test model of the 500, and its chief pilot, Bill Bubb, was putting the plane through its paces. The same needed to be done for the interior design, which had been developed internally, and to do that Eclipse made the unusual move of hiring a firm from outside the aerospace industry—the innovation consultancy Ideo. "This strategy enabled new design concepts that would not have been considered without a fresh perspective from an outside firm," says Mike McConnell, Eclipse vice-president for marketing and sales.
The multidisciplinary Ideo team, based in the firm's Boston office, was given the task of evaluating and making design recommendations for the cockpit control panels (excluding the "glass" controls, as the screen-based instruments are called) as well for as storage and lighting throughout the plane. They were given eight weeks.
FITTING IT ALL IN. The design team's initial research uncovered several potential problems with the locations of certain controls. For instance, the circuit breakers were located in the center of the panel, while the rest of the electrical switches were grouped on the far left. The switches for the landing gear and the taxi/landing lights were similarly separated, despite their obvious relationship to each other. When the designers asked Bubb and other interview subjects why, "People would just say, 'It's always been there,'" says Kate Schreiber, Ideo's human factors expert.
Uncovering the problems was easy compared to solving them, especially when the designers had so little space to work with. The instrument panel features two primary flight displays, measuring 8.5 in. by 6.5 in., along with a multifunction display measuring 8.5 in. by 12 in. The designers not only had to reorganize the existing controls into a more rational motion-efficient, pilot-friendly layout but they also had to find a place for some controls, such as the manual deicing switch, that were missing altogether. Move one instrument half an inch, and you have to move three others as well.
The challenge of instrument placement was made even more difficult because of disagreement within Eclipse. "We rolled out there thinking it would be a piece of cake," says Schreiber. "Then we asked, 'So what's on the instrument panel?' And people from marketing said one thing, engineers said another, and so on. We quickly realized this wasn't going to be a simple skin job."
USER-FRIENDLY COCKPIT. Tensions stemmed from the cultural and behavioral differences between pilots of small or large planes. Small-plane pilots were accustomed to instrument panels crowded with steam gauges. Many are hobbyist owners, and even those who are professional pilots retain an element of do-it-yourself spirit—taking pride in their customized cockpits. Larger-plane pilots are used to flying more sophisticated planes with "glass cockpits," the term for digital screen-based instrument panels. These different types of planes required different procedures. Both factions were vocally represented within Eclipse.
The design team aimed to bridge the two user groups by creating an instrument panel that was user-friendly enough that it would help a prop-plane pilot safely make the transition to the glass cockpit environment, yet sophisticated enough that it didn't alienate the big-plane guys. Stylistically, Ideo's final design took its cues from larger planes: The designers made the background color of the instrument panel "jet fighter gray" rather than the black typical of propeller planes, and they outlined related controls in white, another feature common in larger jets. The look, says designer Bill Stewart, was "machined and very organized."
Several of the new design elements had practical benefits as well: The more rational grouping of related controls and their white outlining, for instance, helped simplify the panel for pilots who had never flown a jet before. And the lighter-gray background lessened the visual distractions, making it easier on the eyes.
USING DESIGN DIPLOMACY. After they had arrived at what they thought was the most rational, user-friendly layout, the team had to sell the design internally. "A big part of our job was to build consensus," says Stewart. To do that, the team created a schematic it called the "design rationale"—a single image that presented the logic behind the layout. The various points were presented as questions—"Does the close proximity of the parking brake and landing gear pose any potential problems?" and "Should thumbprint reader be located in the engine start panel?"—intended to spur discussion.
"It was a diplomatic tool," recalls Ideo designer Florian Altmann. "It helped get everyone on board and excited about the design process."
Most of the Ideo team's suggestions were incorporated into the final design of the Eclipse 500, which went on sale this year. To date, some 2,700 planes have been sold. "While we cannot directly quantify the impact that the flight deck design has on a customer's purchase decision, we believe that its cleanliness and simplicity contribute significantly to the sales effort of Eclipse 500 aircraft," says Eclipse's McConnell.
SAFE AND STYLISH. Meanwhile, Ideo's work—the design research, the cockpit interaction design, and the overall design—scooped two BusinessWeek/IDSA IDEA Golds, one Silver, and one Catalyst award, which recognizes a winning design's business success. "The Eclipse cockpit provides precisely the assurance passengers pray for when they put their lives in the hands of a pilot: that the chance of an accident or "pilot error"' has been engineered away," noted Michael Schrage, IDEA juror and a researcher at MIT's Sloan School of Management.
Of course, the cockpit design also reflects the revolutionary nature of the Eclipse 500. The Ideo team added LED lighting, machined aluminum panels, and a larger, more sculptural throttle pull. In other words, says Stewart, they added "some bling." By Jessie Scanlon