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Where Comfort Is an Engineering Discipline

The people at Johnson Controls Automotive Systems Group have pushed the limits of the vehicle interior envelope by creating a lab that allows optimization by design. Here's a look inside.

Being a supplier used to be a pretty straight-forward thing. The customer—regardless of what point it was at in the supply chain—would say, in effect, "We want this." And it would supply prints indicating precisely what that is. Additionally, it would provide information on how many, when, how frequently, how much, etc. Then it would—with few exceptions—be a matter of making what was being asked for. Of course, there was the responsibility to assuring that what was being made was being made properly.

To be sure, times have changed significantly, especially in the relations between automotive OEMs and tier 1 suppliers. More and more of the responsibility for defining various aspects of the product to be supplied have been transferred to suppliers. Which means, certainly, that several of the things that had historically been done by the customer are now the responsibility of the supplier. Which means that the capabilities of suppliers must undergo significant modifications in order to fulfill their customers' requirements. And to do a really good job, it may be that the supplier goes beyond anything that had historically been available.

A case in point can be found at Johnson Controls, Inc., Automotive Systems Group (Plymouth, MI), a supplier of seats and interiors for an array of automotive customers. Kuntal Thakurta, manager, Comfort Engineering (yes, that's right: Comfort Engineering—these people take comfort very seriously), recalls that when he started with the company some 6.5 years ago, with a bachelor's in mechanical engineering and a masters in industrial engineering, he was pretty much the entire department. Thakurta and a PC. Now Thakurta heads up a staff of 12 (eight engineers and four technicians) in a 3,200-ft2, $3.5-million Comfort Engineering Center, which was opened July 1998. To say that comfort is being taken to a new level is, perhaps, to understate the situation.

According to Thakurta, when developing the center, Johnson Controls personnel benchmarked everything they could access, both at OEMs and other suppliers. They wanted to make sure that whatever they devised would, indeed, be a state of the art facility.

Setting New Standards.

Thakurta says that circa 1996 the de facto standard for seat comfort testing was static in as much as, generally speaking, a customer for a vehicle would probably not do much more than (a) sit in a car in a showroom or (b) take the car for a short test drive. Chances are, unless there was something clearly wrong with the seat, it was probably considered adequate. But given that the interior environment is becoming more important as regards the actual purchase of a vehicle, Johnson Controls initiated dynamic testing, or an assessment of long-term seating comfort. Now they've pushed still further, with a focus on the total interior (a Johnson Controls capability thanks, in large part, to its acquisitions of Prince Corp. and Becker Group), including human factors, ergonomics, and the like.

The mission statement for the lab is: "To become the recognized leader in automotive interior comfort." This goes beyond the seat alone, to issues including the macroclimate (the total environment, as distinct from the microclimate, which is the interface between the occupant and the seat) and information management (e.g., navigation systems, heads-up display). Consequently, the comfort lab is chock full of computers, sensors, and other design and engineering tools.

"The primary advantage of the lab," Thakurta explains, "is to reduce product development time." The common approach in the industry is for prototype vehicles to be built and the proposed seats to be installed. "After the body-in-white is built," he notes, "it is tough to change anything." In other words, the seat can't be optimized at that point; it is positioned in the vehicle at point X and it is extremely unlikely that there would be the possibility of moving it to point Y, even though that might be more ergonomically or biomechanically correct.

So one of the things that they're doing in the Comfort Lab is collecting data about various attributes of seats through an assortment of devices—ranging from pressure sensor pads that are placed on a seat so that they can literally "map" where a person's pressure points are to a portable coordinate measuring machine that allows them to take measurements of features on the seat. The objective is to create a matrix about information that the Johnson Controls program managers can use to help tailor attributes of seats as they work with their customers.

And they're taking this to the next level, one that will help prove out the appropriateness of a given seat before an actual prototype car is built.

Shake, Rattle & "Drive."

The centerpiece of the Comfort Engineering Center is a driving simulator that Anthony J. Boardman, senior vibration engineer, says is unlike anything that exists at any company, vehicle manufacturer or supplier. Boardman has worked on this simulator project from the start. The key is a combination of the physical and the visual. The simulator includes a six-axis shaker table that's "human rated," which means that the hydraulic device, which can be cranked up to shake at up to 50 Hz, is engineered so that people can ride on it. This is fundamental because fitted on the table is a full model of a proposed vehicle's cabin. This includes everything, from the windshield to the rear seats. The steering wheel and the brake pedal are setup so that there is a realistic feel to them. So researchers or their subjects can be seated within this model (models are created for each of the projects that they're working on; it is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but one specifically tailored), then put through a sequence of bumps and shakes that are modeled after bona fide road surfaces. What's more, the physical behavior of the model is programmed with math data from the vehicle manufacturer that describes how the finished vehicle will behave under the particular driving conditions.

To make this all more realistic, there is a 180o screen in front of the windshield upon which a video image, driven by a Silicon Graphics workstation, is displayed. It shows a variety of road surfaces and driving environments, including stop lights, trees, buildings, intersections, and other vehicles. Additionally, there is a comprehensive audio system (in addition to the working radio within the "vehicle") that provides the "driver" and passenger with the sounds that are common in a driving experience—engine rumble, wind noise, etc.

Not a PlayStation.

 

This is no mere Nintendo system or arcade game. The purpose of the simulation setup is to help validate seats and interiors in the near-"real world" before the vehicle exists. Squeaks, rattles, and sore seats can be assessed. By doing this before an actual prototype vehicle is produced, the optimization that otherwise would be difficult to realize can be performed.

Meanwhile, over in the other work areas of the Comfort Engineering Center, there are engineers working with computer models, manipulating 3D electronic mannequins that Johnson Controls personnel developed with researchers at Michigan State University, creating seat and interior designs based on related parameters. In one of the commercials that Chrysler has run touting its math modeling, there is actually a seat that Johnson Controls developed as part of the ad. So they have the requisite amount of computing going on in the center.

Yet Thakurta maintains that physical simulation will continue to be a useful—even important—part of product development, even as auto companies drive toward more complete digital approaches. "There is a big value in being able to see and feel things," he points out. And while the car companies may make fewer physical models, they are still going to be making them. The Comfort Engineering Center's people and equipment are all aimed at arriving at the right solution more rapidly.

So what's it take to be a supplier at the edge of the 21st century? If what's going on at Johnson Controls is any indication, the answer is: A whole lot more than the ability to make things.

using math data to develop their products.

Because its customers, the OEMs, are using math data to develop their products, so too do the people at Johnson Controls Automotive Systems Group.

 

Driving simulator

The centerpiece of the Comfort Engineering Center is this driving simulator. That's a model of a body on a shaker table. The body includes a full interior. People can "drive" and ride within it, with the shaking programmed to simulate road surfaces. The video images on the screen are driven by a Silicon Graphics workstation. To enhance the fidelity to a real-world experience, there is even an audio component.