Sitting comfortably?

Sitting comfortably?

This month's management briefing considers that latest developments in automotive interiors. In this second instalment, extracted from just-auto's QUBE seating intelligence servicewe take a look at market trends in seating. Matthew Beecham also talks with engineers at JCI and Bridge of Weir Leather to find out what's changing with seat design and consumer tastes.

Overall market trends

Developments in vehicle seating have been taking place much faster than may be apparent on the surface. OEMs are demanding greater differentiation in their seat designs, customers want more and more luxury such as cooling and heating, and ergonomists are understanding more about what the human frame needs in order to be comfortable.

Back in the 1970s, a car seat was a functional component with few or no added-value features. Nowadays, with drivers spending more time in their car on longer commutes, they expect far more comfort features. Consequently, the seat has become an integral part of the car’s overall design and appeal in the showroom. More power content in the front and, more recently, rear seats is becoming common.  

In summing-up customer demands, Faurecia says: “Automakers today are looking for highly customised seat sets in order to differentiate their vehicles and meet the consumer’s increasing demand for personalised equipment. Car seats now incorporate a wide range of functions, including lower back adjustments, shoulder adjustments, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and electric controls.” 

Meanwhile, seat manufacturers must develop seats that are lighter, offer more space for occupants and incorporate environmentally friendly materials. These market drivers have led manufacturers to use alternative and advanced materials in designing seats. Space creation inside the vehicle interiors has become very critical with the explosion of added content and features. Discerning consumer tastes also means consumers want more flexible living space within their cars. 

Seat makers are also using alternative ‘green’ materials in their vehicle seats. For example, Lear is using bio-based materials for the replacement of petroleum-based products for the Ford Mustang. Magna Seating and the Woodbridge Group are also supplying a bio-based polyurethane foam to Ford for the seats in the Ford Escape.  

Aside from green materials, a great deal of work is being focused on different seat fabrics, creating more breathable or more waterproof surfaces, and even adding built-in fragrances designed to increase feelings of well-being.  

Not only is there the problem of defining comfort levels, but there are also cosmetic questions of colour and trim, the covering materials used, durability, use of child seats, headrests and overall seating arrangements.  

As consumers demand more flexibility from their vehicles, suppliers must find yet more novel ways to reconfigure the rear-seat rows, often using power. 

At an analyst conference at the 2011 Frankfurt motor show, Lear’s CEO, Matt Simoncini was asked about consolidation he expects in the seating business and shape the industry will be in by 2016?

He said: “Well, I believe it's going to be more focused on the more regional smaller suppliers. As car companies more and more implement global platforms and global solutions and regional emerging market auto makers look to export their product, they're going to need auto suppliers that can produce at European and US standard safety. And a seat, at the end of the day, is a safety feature because you're strapped to it.

“So from that standpoint, I would expect to see some consolidation there. You're starting to see some consolidation, as well, in the sub-tiers, in the component manufacturers. I'd expect that to continue. At the top level, it is actually a fairly consolidated segment from the major players, Johnson Controls and Lear, and then you have the regional presence with folks like Magna and Faurecia. And then you have the captives. So it is a fairly consolidated on the top end, but I do believe you're going to see some of the smaller, smaller regional players, mainly in Asia, get consolidated out. I would expect it to happen over five years.”

Company perspectives on seat design and changing customer demands

Developments in vehicle seating have been taking place much faster than may be apparent on the surface. OEMs are demanding greater differentiation in their seat designs, customers want more and more luxury such as cooling and heating, and ergonomists are understanding more about what the human frame needs in order to be comfortable. 

People come in all shapes and sizes, of course.  Yet seat designers must take their disparate concerns for comfort and somehow integrate them into the vehicle seat whether it is for a high-end or small car. In designing a seat for every new model, Johan Vissers, Design Manager, Johnson Controls Inc says his team takes four key information blocks into consideration, namely:

  • Consumers: Which target groups will be the buyers of the new car? What are their characteristics and specific needs and expectations?
  • Competition: What is the competition offering today in terms of features, comfort, materials and craftsmanship / perceived quality?
  • The OEM client: What does the OEM client intend to achieve with the seat to differentiate themselves, in terms of features, comfort, materials, craftsmanship and of course design identity? And what is the accepted cost level?
  • Technology: Which technologies (structures, foam, trim, decoration and feature elements) should be used to achieve the expectations?

"The resulting seat design is a balanced harmony of the above four aspects," says Vissers.  "In every target group, be it small car or high-end, there are people with all shapes and sizes. Therefore, in general, every seat is ergonomically a compromise between the comfort dimensions suited for small women and those suited for large men. For the economical small car, one can take the 'take rate' into consideration, e.g. what percentage of the buyers of this car are women within a certain age group? That will give the development team some indication which dimensions spectrum should have the highest priority. In higher-end vehicles there is usually more possible in terms of adjustability of the seat, e.g. seat cushion length or backrest side bolster width. These adjustments make it possible to better tailor the dimensions of the seat to the dimensions of different drivers.

While the focus has, for some time, been on improving the front seats, attention has turned on the second and third row seats. "More and more attention is being given to second and third row seats, and we see evidence that OEMs are willing to invest in flexible, innovative seating systems," said Jeffrey Lindberg, Senior Product and Business Development Manager, Johnson Controls Inc.  "Fold-and-dive flat seating is also gaining popularity, where we deliver full-flat load floors for carrying cargo without the difficulty to remove and store seats.  A recent example of a new European programme is the Opel Zafira Tourer where the second row is comprised of three individual seats.  When the centre seat is not being used, occupants can easily transform the three middle row seats into two captain's chairs and a generous armrest, offering unprecedented levels of shoulder and legroom."

In terms of the appearance of vehicle seating, we are seeing that trendy fabric for a seat insert in certain vehicles is more acceptable than it was, say, a few years ago.  But while trendy fabric has its place on some vehicles, it doesn't suit all.  "'Trendy' is defined by its time and is always specific to a particular vehicle brand or model," added Lindberg.  "Today, vehicle seats from the 1970's may be perceived as old fashioned, yet they were trendy for their time.  We offer OEM's numerous options to distinguish their seat fabrics in ways that fit their brands.  Generally we respond to the vehicle manufacturer's direction for what type of fabric they would like to have for a particular vehicle - available options include: colour, embossing, embroidery, laser etching, stitching, and high frequency welding to name a few.  To address the situation where a trendy fabric "doesn't suit all," we conducted consumer research in Germany and USA to understand what features matter most for individual styles taking into consideration gender, age, and families.  We will utilise the results of this consumer research to feed future innovation projects including the potential to offer end consumers more seat personalisation options when ordering a new vehicle."

Meanwhile leather interiors are permeating down the car segments.  Scotland's Bridge of Weir Leather has been pushing back the automotive design boundaries for years.  Its products are used not just in cars but a number of other products including seats in the House of Commons.  So, to what extent is the use of leather spreading from seats to doors and instrument panels? "There is a shift in some areas toward 'full leather' interiors but it is expensive (the specifications for instrument panels differ slightly from seating leathers)," said Jamie Davidson, sales director of Bridge of Weir Leather about leather trends in vehicle interiors. "We are working with some OEMs to develop cost effective solutions to increasing the amount of leather in the vehicle. Better utilisation can be achieved by including leather in smaller and less visible parts."

In terms of the BRIC countries, there some notable differences in terms of consumer tastes for leather interiors compared to more developed nations. "The European markets tend to be a little more sophisticated, demanding more technically complex leathers but with natural aesthetic and aromatic appeal," concludes Davidson. "Less developed nations don't yet appreciate leather that exhibits much evidence of its natural origin and neither do they like a noticeable 'leathery' aroma. That said, many of the European manufacturers are setting up plants in China to meet the demands of the Chinese market where European product demand is developing at an almost alarming rate."