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Designing the Perfect Helm Chair for Inland Towing

Designing the Perfect Helm Chair for Inland Towing

Author: Conrad Taylor/Wednesday, August 10, 2022/Categories: Commercial Products, Imtra Product Spotlight

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In 2012 Ingram Barge Company presented Imtra with a problem: they were throwing away helm chairs after about 6-12 months of use due to wear and tear. As one of the United States’ largest river carriers, Ingram has a fleet consisting of over 150 towboats and nearly 5,000 barges, so the towboats are constantly in use. As a result, the helm chairs were taking a beating and needed replacing constantly, so they were in search of a more robust chair that would last longer and offer more support and comfort to their operators. 

Imtra introduced Ingram to Norsap, and Ingram was immediately impressed with the quality of construction and sturdiness of the Norsap 1500 chair, but they had a few additional requirements of the chair that weren’t yet in Norsap’s product offering. First, they needed a footrest that spun with the chair, as the wider wheelhouses of inland towboats require the captain to spin around to operate all the systems and equipment on board. While the chair and footrest on a base model Norsap 1500 chair do have the ability to swivel, they move independently from each other, not as a single unit. 

(First Generation Prototype Pictured Above)

The second modification that Ingram required was to have the chair be mobile on wheels like an office chair. This request was a departure from Norsap’s standard offering at the time, as their chairs are designed for ocean-going vessels to withstand the toughest sea conditions, so they used fixed bases that would get bolted down to the floor of the wheelhouse. They did have a rail system that would allow the chairs to move along the rails, but only at 90-degree angles and the rail system itself also required installation. Given the slow speeds and calm nature of navigating rivers, inland towboats have no issues using rolling chairs so the operators can move about the wheelhouse without leaving the chair. 

Determined to help Ingram find the right solution for their helm chairs, Imtra & Norsap sent representatives to meet with them and collaborate on an ideal design. Out of this meeting two different test chairs were built and put into the field for Ingram’s operators to try out. Based on Ingram’s real-world feedback, Imtra worked with Norsap to modify the design to meet the ergonomic needs of the operators and the durability demands of constantly being in use. 

That feedback led to the design of the chair Ingram uses today, the Norsap 1500 Towboat chair. The five-point base was reinforced so that each of the five points were built to be larger and more robust, and a ring-style footrest was added so that the operator could swivel in any direction and still be supported. With over 80 chairs in service on Ingram’s towboats, many of which have been in use for over 5 years, this design has stood the test of time and Ingram is yet to need to replace a chair. The durability of the Norsap chair is a vast improvement for Ingram who used to replace chairs once or twice per year prior to using Norsap. 

One of the main benefits of the Norsap chairs is their serviceability and replaceability of parts. Instead of scrapping a whole chair when the seat wears down or something breaks, Norsap offers replacement fabric, cushions, arms and more for when things get worn out. Ingram also likes that the chair and base can be separated, and the seat can be folded up, making it easy to bring the chairs in and out of the narrow entryways to their wheelhouses. In addition to the customizations to the base and footrest, the Norsap Towboat chairs have all the high-quality features that are standard to the Norsap 1500 chair like gas-assisted height adjustment, reclining seatback, adjustable armrests and optional attachments like cupholders. In all, it’s a purpose-built chair perfect for the inland towing industry.  

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