Cost pressures, time, and timidity are keeping OEMs from realizing the full potential of leather trimmed interiors, says Seton Leather. "Suddenly, leather in non-seating applications is really taking off, so we are either lucky or smart that we made the decision 20 years ago to focus on wrapping interior components with leather," says Rodney Hammond, v.p. and general manager, Seton Leather (Farmington Hills, MI; www.setonleather.com). That decision saw Seton wrapping instrument panels for Mercedes and Volvo, and has expanded to include programs for Cadillac and Buick, an upcoming Chrysler model, and few of the transplant OEMs. Hammond sees these new programs as "rather interesting" since the automakers have chosen to use "a substantial amount of leather" on instrument panels, door panels, center consoles, arm rests, and even headliners in mid-range luxury vehicles. "We're not talking about an expensive option," he says, "and both Seton and the OEMs make a decent return on an option consumers just love."
Cost pressures, however, can have a profound effect on what automakers demand of companies like Seton. "There are some companies that will pay for innovation and others that won't," says Lorene Boettcher, Seton's Design Manager-America & Asia Pacific. Show OEMs a technology that keeps the leather's surface temperature down in direct sunlight, she says, "and the first question some of them will ask is if it costs the same as the untreated version." Undoubtedly, the same question will be asked when Seton eventually reveals technologies that give limited protection against germs and bacteria, provides an even-greater cooling effect, has a self-cleaning or a high UV protection nano-technology, or can provide a warming effect on cold days. These cost pressures also have caused some OEMs to launch vehicles with a full leather seat, and then gradually pull the real stuff out over time so that eventually there is a "leather appointed" interior with no more than a 1- or 2-in. strip down the center of an otherwise vinyl seat. "There is still such a price difference between leather and vinyl that it makes economic sense to strip out the leather and replace it with vinyl," says Hammond. "However, vehicles with lots of real leather consistently come out on top of the quality ratings, and their residual values are substantially higher."
In addition, competition from China and Eastern Europe has brought into the market a number of companies whose previous business was supplying furniture- or shoe-grade leather. Not only has this forced established automotive-grade leather companies like Seton to deal with the deflationary effects of their inclusion, it has brought in a number of new competitors. Says Hammond: "If you go back to 1990, there were a dozen companies supplying the automotive market globally. Now there are 70. However, the top six suppliers are the same today as they were 20 years ago, and-combined-they have more or less the same market share." As a result, in constant-dollar terms leather is cheaper today than it was 10 years ago. Other problems facing the industry are time and timidity. Though many OEMs claim they want interiors with maximum impact, their actions belie this claim. Says Boettcher: "I don't believe the vast majority of OEMs have enough time baked into their product development schedule to create leather that has impact like you'd see from Audi or BMW, and the decisions are based on exit costs so things often are carried over." Furthermore, many OEMs will wait until Audi has created a new pattern, color, or detail before venturing ahead, and still leave the ultimate decision of what is acceptable not to the customer, but to their most vocal dealers. Even when an OEM is "courageous" enough to create its own feature color, it may drop it in order to reduce in-plant complexity or to assuage dealers who aren't interested in anything other than the black, gray, or tan interiors that have always been steady sellers. "Companies," she says, "have to take ownership of this process and realize there is money to be made in doing what is best for the customer."
"These are polarizing times in that cost is still an issue at the same time there is pressure to create high quality interiors," says Rob Huber, v.p. Advanced Marketing and Design, Faurecia. This comes bundled with pressure to reduce interior weight and increase sustainability. That's a problem when, as Huber puts it, "There is a desire to turn everything into a commodity-level product, and you can't change things for the better if you only look at pieces and parts."
Huber sees the convergence of sustainability, gas prices, fuel economy, and associated issues as a catalyst for OEMs and suppliers to redefine and change their roles since it is easier to make large changes when there are large obstacles to overcome. "The challenge is to look at things from a pure end-customer viewpoint, and get that solution into the market," he says. "Unfortunately, making that innovation is a full-contact sport since there is no simple process or easy way." That's because a consumer approach requires that the development environment and system has to be optimized while focusing on the authentic needs of the consumer. "It demands collaboration with outside groups and early collaboration with our customers," says Huber, "to make changes that are relevant."
Huber argues that you could remove the identifying badges from any number of cockpits in a segment, line them up in a room, and be hard-pressed to identify which OEM did each interior. "It's not because we have hit upon some ideal solution," he says, "but it leaves a tremendous opportunity for OEMs that want to define value by creating a fresh look and differentiation." As an example of this definition, Huber refers to the passenger-side front airbag that is hidden behind either a hidden or visible seam. "What if we approached it as a visual reference for creating value, and highlighted it instead of hiding it?" he asks. "Potentially, you would eliminate a lot of elaborate items that would lead you to a more pure of designing-in content or a feature or a value proposition of safety to the end customer."
However, asking consumers directly what changes they'd make often ends with a negative reaction that is interpreted as a desire to retain the status quo. Huber says there can be two reasons for this perceived negativity: 1) it is an aesthetic change with no alteration to or improvement in the overall function of the interior, or 2) the buyers don't understand the value that change could create for them. As an example of the latter, Huber points to how every office chair once had thick foam and leather wrapping until Herman-Miller's Aeron and Steelcase's Leap chairs changed buyer's expectations by broadcasting their performance enhancements visually. "It's not about eliminating my cushion and creating an uncomfortable seat," says Huber. "It's about performance, and providing a visual reference value of that to the customer."
This idea extends to looking at things differently in order to inspire change, and from this to creating new methods of evaluation. As a result, Faurecia has begun working with "a leading university, a leading manufacturer in the office space, and a leading aerospace manufacturer" to re-evaluate seating comfort. "We are creating a new level of science," says Huber as he describes how the consortium is moving beyond pressure mapping to looking at how seat design impacts the spine, muscles, and how the oxygen level within the muscles affects fatigue. Though some of the methodology was developed for other applications, it is being redeveloped to look at physical performance under different seated conditions, including initial comfort and recovery time after exiting the vehicle. "We are approaching this from an environmental level that includes ergonomics, thermal comfort, visual comfort, etc. to help us ideate new solutions and product opportunities," says Huber. "It's already impacting what we do."
"Compared to PET [polyethylene terephthalate], nylon will be around forever," claims Ryan Pike, president and general manager, U.S. Operations, Futuris Automotive Interiors, Inc. (Troy, MI; www.futurisautomotive.com). It's an observation he makes as he motions to the thick-pile carpeting underfoot made from virgin and recycled PET. Futuris has overcome durability problems that kept it from standing up to grinding heels, salt and other abrasives that broke fibers down very quickly. It also has eliminated the need for conventional rubber backing.
"Our backing uses a patent-pending process that enables the PET to stick almost like Velcro in terms of shear," he says, "even with the relatively short pile used in an automobile." Pike also points out that the carpet stack-a PET top weave followed by several layers of PET-based engineered materials that extend down to the backing-acts as a natural water barrier, and will mate with any acoustic package on its lower face. While he admits 100% virgin PET is best from a cost standpoint-adding processes such as regrinding used water bottles, for example, costs money-and a 100% regrind material is feasible, most OEMs are interested in a carpet with no more than 20%-40% post-consumer feedstock.
Despite the fact that its PET carpet eliminates rubber and the tools to press it, the plasticizers that eventually leach out of it, and it removes up to 3.0 kg of weight, some automakers are reticent to change. "Most OEMs think it's a great sustainable solution," says Pike, "but want it to be drastically cheaper than nylon because it's new technology. Because there is no incentive to change without a big cost save or feature enhancement, they stick with what they know best." Perhaps the change in fuel economy standards will be enough to tip the balance for most OEMs.
Come September 1, 2009, side impact standards will become more severe. Instead of a 90? slide into a pole at 18 mph coupled with a 33.5 mph smack from a rolling deformable structure that crabs its way into the vehicle, the new standard adds a 20-mph oblique slide into a pole, occupants other than the timeworn US-SID biofidelic dummy, and new body regions that must be protected. "Not only have rule makers replaced the US-SID with the ES-2re mid-size male and added the SID-IIs small female," says Mark Wehner, Chief Technology Office, KSS (Sterling Heights, MI; www.keysafetyinc.com), "they have increased the body regions and enhanced measurement of the injury criteria through the use of the new, more biofidelic, dummies."
Greater protection of the pelvis and thorax areas required the creation of a new type of side airbag, the dual-chamber Pelvis-Thorax Airbag (PTAB). It can be packaged in the tight quarters of a seat frame and looks like a very large lima bean when fully inflated. According to Joe Massa, director of Engineering, North American Airbag, KSS: "The pelvic area of the PTAB fills first with a majority of the gas, and is made of a coated material that transmits some of the energy to help push the occupant away from the intrusion while still providing cushioning." Hidden within the seam between the two chambers are vents that move the gas from the pelvic to the thoracic region. It mixes with gas from the initial inflation used to position the thorax, and its transfer speed is controlled by the occupant's force against the lower chamber. Because the thorax is a more sensitive area than the pelvis, the upper chamber is uncoated to provide a softer surface.
A cold-gas inflator with a mix of helium and argon stored under 6,000 lb/in.2 pressure provides the power for the 14-liter cushion. The complete PTAB module measures 330-mm high, 70-mm wide, and 40-mm deep with its lowest part located 90-mm above the H-point of the seat. It weighs about 570 grams.-CAS