Why Workstation Ergonomics Matter

28 Jul, 2015 By: Alex Herrera

Herrera on Hardware: Modern machine design involves more than just speeds and feeds.


Cooler, Quieter, and More Reliable Too

An ergonomically desirable feature that also enhances either or both of the two hallmark features of a workstation — performance and reliability — is a win–win. Such is the case with optimized cooling, which not only reduces the temperature of the box (and the desk area), but directly contributes to making the machine quieter and more reliable.

Noise has become a surprisingly important influence on model selection, especially for high-volume buyers outfitting large CAD floors, and particularly where office space is tight. I've heard of more than a few buyers whose foremost purchase criterion — before even concerning themselves with specs and purchase prices — is decibel rating. Engineering for noise (or rather, quiet) is important enough that HP's workstation engineering group invested an acoustic chamber at the company’s Fort Collins, Colorado, design center. New workstation models such as the Z series get their own test runs in the chamber to ensure they're not exceeding prescribed (and increasingly challenging) decibel limits.

HP's acoustic chamber exemplifies the importance of engineering workstations to limit noise. Image courtesy of HP.

What's the source of a workstation's noise? Well, fans are by far the biggest contributor. Hard disk drives have historically been a secondary source, but even those are being hushed thanks to the increasing penetration of solid-state drives in CAD workstations. Reducing fan noise can involve refining the fan design, but more importantly, it involves reducing the thermal output of the machine and increasing the efficiency of its cooling so there’s not as much need for fans. Vendors such as HP choose higher-efficiency power supplies, for example, to reduce the overall power footprint, and with it, the heat produced. But since all workstation suppliers tend to have access to the same components, noise reduction ultimately depends on how efficiently they can cool the internals.

Open up any quality workstation chassis, and the attention to thermal engineering will be staring you in the face. Lenovo's Tri-Channel cooling, for example, creates three airflow zones within its P-series chassis, each optimized to handle the thermal load of that zone's components with limited interference and turbulence. Some vendors are now even leveraging liquid-cooling CPUs to better manage thermal and noise output (even if the processor is not overclocked). And any effective approach has the added advantage of also improving system reliability, as cooler components are less likely to fail.

Lenovo's Tri-Channel technology, with its three separate airflow channels, is an example of the attention paid to thermal management in modern workstation design. Image courtesy of Jon Peddie Research.

Ergonomics Can Be the Deciding Factor

The ergonomic attributes of workstations do not command the prominence of other machine features, but that’s not really logical. Because when you step back and think about it, ergonomics is about improving productivity for work, a goal that aligns precisely with the fundamental premise of a workstation. It may not capture the imagination of computer technologists, but the simple fact is that a well-thought-out ergonomic improvement can have as much impact on improving productivity as an upgrade in the CPU or memory — and sometimes more.

Consider also the fact that, for all intents and purposes, workstation products today — whether they come from large or small suppliers — all share the same basic building blocks of third-party components (such as CPUs, GPUs, memory, storage, and power supplies). I can virtually always configure a machine from each of these suppliers with the same basic hardware components, making that a poor means of differentiation.

Add all that up, and what we're left with is the reason that ergonomics has justifiably become a primary means of differentiation among workstation suppliers. And that heightened attention to ergonomics is being reflected in the machines built and marketed by the industry's top vendors. Sure, something like an integrated handle might sound trivial at first, but when all else is equal between two comparable purchase options, it may very well make the difference in which vendor earns a sale. And that's a reality of today's workstation market that all CAD professionals should consider when shopping for their next machine.

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About the Author: Alex Herrera

Alex Herrera

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