The Inside Story: Why Interiors Matter

Not so long ago, being assigned to an interior design program for a Big Three vehicle was not unlike being put in a penalty box, at least compared to the people assigned to doing exteriors. But driven by the need to catch up to the likes of Audi and Scion, all that’s changing.

“In the past, when someone was assigned a vehicle on the interior side, they thought it was pretty much a punishment. Today, that focus has shifted dramatically and people in the industry are understanding how much time consumers spend in their vehicles and how important being comfortable and having high-quality materials are,” says Kathy Sirvio, GM’s strategic color and trim design manager. Although exterior designers have long been the rock stars of vehicle design and interior designers have had the status of Rodney Dangerfield, things are changing. It’s not that exteriors are becoming less important. Rather, interiors are becoming more important. For example, GM learned a tough lesson on just how important the details of grain, color, material, and gloss really are a few years ago, when Cadillac introduced the CTS, the first model in the brand’s attempt to recapture the attention of younger, affluent buyers around the globe. The edgy exterior design was spot-on, but the interior failed to live up to the expectations set by GM product guru Bob Lutz, who delayed plans to export the CTS to Germany in 2003 because the interior finish wasn’t on par with the likes of BMW, Mercedes-Benz and other European luxury marques. Lutz ordered GM’s interior design team and its suppliers to give the CTS interior a more luxurious feel, toning down the highly technical grain and trim appearance set by the original design. “We learned a lot on doing that in terms of the approach used for technical grains and trendy patterns and using them in a more cautious way in smaller areas that can be changed out quickly if needed,” Sirvio recalls.

 

A MATERIAL WORLD

One thing that makes the task of perfecting vehicle trim and texture increasingly complex is choice. Consider an instrument panel. Traditionally, it was composed of molded-in plastic materials, period. Today, engineers and designers can select from a multitude of panel construction methods, including cast skin, vacuum forming and the old molded-in-color stand by. On top of that, add the various materials used on interior trim pieces, including numerous thermoplastics, leathers and vinyls, and you have a dizzying array of complexities. The real trick is trying to make all of these various materials and manufacturing processes work in harmony to provide a visual appearance that is pleasing to the customer, while meeting brand character attributes established by the vehicle development team and the budgets set by procurement. It’s a daunting task that is becoming increasingly important for product success. 

 

PART OF THE TEAM

One consequence of the acknowledgment of the importance of interiors is that it is being introduced earlier in the timetable for vehicle development plans. “We really need to know the texturing early on because we have to know which materials we are going to use and the tooling needed. We need to know how the tool is gated and how to control the flow of the material selected to avoid flow marks and control the gloss of the part,” Margaret Hackstedde, director of product design for color and trim at Chrysler, explains. “We also need to make sure that the grains really are cohesive with one another.” Most OEMs have catalogs with several dozen grains to choose from. Most are characterized as organic, or animal hide-like, but a new trend is developing towards more “technical” textures, similar to those found on athletic gear and consumer electronics equipment. Those two industries are playing a huge role in the development of future grains, textures and fabrics for automotive applications, according to Susan Lampinen, group chief designer-color and materials and program interior at Ford. Her team scours the marketplace to find products that breakthrough when it comes to feel and appearance. She points to Apple’s iPod as the perfect example of a product that could set a standard for vehicle interior designs: “What we’re seeing now is the consumer out there is really growing in terms of their understanding of design and increasingly American consumers are not going to accept mediocrity when it comes to design.”

 

BREAKING THROUGH

Finding the next big breakthrough in interior grains, color and trim has become such a huge issue at Chrysler that Hackstedde has hired an outside consultant to help identify areas where it can accelerate grain design to move ahead of the competition. “We needed someone who has the expertise as a designer but also had the technical expertise in grain texturing,” Hackstedde said, admitting this is the first time Chrysler’s interior craftsmanship studio has hired a consultant in its nine-year existence. Since an automaker can go through hundreds of grain, color and trim concepts for each vehicle interior design, reducing the number of iterations can lower vehicle development costs and improve time to market. GM is developing its next-generation grains and textures prior to vehicle development, in what it calls a “decoupling” process, where designers and engineers will test new grains on various materials to verify gloss and appearance before assigning it to a vehicle program. This will allow GM’s vehicle development teams to take a validated grain off the shelf.

Both Chrysler’s and GM’s approaches should help make U.S. manufacturers more competitive against the Europeans and Asians, who have capitalized on building harmonious and sensory appealing interiors. However, according to an industry source with expertise in the area of grain and trim, U.S. manufacturers have to be willing to work with their texturing suppliers on a more advanced basis, while also helping them fund research and development initiatives aimed at improving grain, color and texture perfection across the board. It’s a strategy the European and Asian OEMs have embraced for years, and the attitude seems to be gaining traction in the U.S. “These people [texture and grain suppliers] have a very skilled craft and there are not a lot of them out there. They seem to be a dying breed. We need to work with them as early as we can in the process,” says GM’s Sirvio. Currently, texture and grain suppliers are brought into the process approximately one year before vehicle launch. Earlier would be better.

Refinement is the key to the interior of GM’s new family of full-size SUVs. The automaker studied the materials and textures used in vehicles from Audi and BMW as a benchmark and it appears consumers are noticing as sales trend upward.

The interior of Ford’s Mustang gets high praise for its detail, most notably the aluminum trim, which Ford plans to use in other models, including the Edge.

While scoring huge points in the area of exterior design, Chrysler knows it still has to make huge strides on its interior material quality and finishes in order to compete. The use of sub-par plastic materials in vehicles like the Dodge Magnum has the potential to drive away customers looking for more than a pretty face.

The interior of the ’07 Volvo S80 shows signs of subtle innovation in the area of material usage and textures, including a new grain that mimics the ripples of a stream.

 

LIGHTING:THE NEXT CUSTOMIZATION FRONTIER

When Ford debuted the My Color instrument panel system on the 2005 Mustang, doubters lined up saying customers would balk at paying extra for having the ability to switch the color of their gauges. It appears Ford may have been more forward thinking than the doubters as auto makers and suppliers begin to show keen interest, developing all kinds of customization solutions using electroluminescent and light emitting diode solutions for vehicle interiors. Intier Automotive Interiors (Novi, MI; www.intier.com) is busy working on a number of solutions for OEMs to build brand awareness and accommodate customization via lighting solutions. A recent survey of vehicle consumers resulted in nearly 93% of respondents saying they would be interested in a variety of lighting solutions to improve the interior appearance of their vehicles, while 50% of those said they were willing to pay as much as $200 for improved ambient lighting solutions. “Some of the specific preferred locations on the vehicle indicated were the door remote handle, IP and dash, the grab handles and console bins and storage areas,” says Steve Polakowski, executive director of electronic and electrical engineering at Intier. “The quotes we have seen across the board from virtually every OEM have had a noticeable increase for integrated lighting requests.”

The main obstacles remain cost and consumption, according to Polakowski. Since electroluminescent lighting systems require a power converter and use more electricity at an additional cost, automakers are showing some reluctance to incorporating the systems into future vehicles. “OEMs will have to modify their lighting circuits to support electroluminescent systems,” Polakowski says. He expects automakers to show increased acceptance for LED lighting solutions, since they are less expensive, consume less energy and have longer lifecycles than electroluminescent or incandescent systems. GM’s Saturn brand introduced LED-based ambient lighting as an option on its Vue Red Line SUV. The system contains a yellow and purple colored LED underneath the seats that illuminates the footwell via a switch on the lower IP, replacing the heated seat switchgear. This solution cost GM a few dollars to implement, but is included as part of the $2,495-premium paid for the Red Line package. Chrysler’s Dodge brand recently leapt into the electroluminescent ambient lighting game with lighted cupholders on the new Caliber small car. Other automakers are keen on following Dodge’s lead, Powalkowski says, hinting that one automaker intends to use red and blue electroluminescent lights on their heated and cooled cupholder system to signify when the heated or cooled function is operational. “Where we are really seeing a lot of electroluminescent growth is the use for cupholders and pull-handle accent applications,” he says.

Designers are also getting into the lighting game as electroluminescent systems are being incorporated into IPs, center consoles, seats and headliners to accentuate design features and develop interior themes. Scion’s Fuse concept has taken the idea of using ambient lighting to the extreme as electroluminescent lights are built into the front and rear seat cushions, rear armrests and headliner. “We’re definitely seeing a bigger push to focus on highlighting craftsmanship and some of these technologies allow you to show off design features,” Polakowski says. Intier has developed LED and electroluminescent solutions to display design cues on instrument panels, door panels and center consoles, along with the potential to illuminate console mounted gear-shifters and highlight various switchgear. Luxury OEMs are looking to utilize white LEDs for map light and gauge cluster lighting solutions to provide a more upscale cabin ambiance, but look for Asian OEMs to adopt more electroluminescent solutions, while domestic automakers are likely to stick with LED lighting solutions, geared mainly towards higher-priced and youth-oriented segments.—KMK

The use of electroluminescent and LED lighting on a center console provides better visibility inside the vehicle, while also showing off subtle design features, including cut lines, fabrics and textures.

The blue and red electroluminescent lights on this cupholder can be used to tell the operator when the heated or cooled functions are operational.

 

Pull, Flip, Pivot!

Access to the third row of a vehicle can be a major problem, especially if the door aperture is small or irregularly shaped, or if closely parked vehicles keep the door from opening all the way. Not only are middle seats often heavy and tough to flip and fold, it is necessary to step behind them to gain entry to the third row seats.

The EZaxis seat from Johnson Controls (www.johnsoncontrols.com)
addresses this problem by giving rear seat passengers a large entry area. A sizable access handle located on the upper portion of the seatback pivots inward and unlocks the lower seat cushion and seatback. As the lower cushion pivots up, the seatback rotates toward the center of the vehicle where it stays until the seatback is pulled back into place. (The left and right EZaxis seats can be used simultaneously.) The lower cushion can remain in this position to provide room to carry oddly shaped items, and this facility also can be employed without unlocking or pivoting the seatback. Other features of the system include a lockable storage are in the lower cushion, a fold-flat seatback and headrest, built-in child seat anchors, and the ability to fold the seat flat to the floor when the front seats are in their rearmost position for greater storage area. According to Paul Lambert, v.p. and general manager, Seating—North America, “A number of OEMs are looking at this seating system for SUVs, crossovers and minivans later in the decade.”—CAS