Johnson Controls is organised into three divisions: building efficiency; automotive experience; and power solutions. Its automotive experience systems and products include complete seating systems and components; cockpit systems, including instrument panels and clusters, information displays and body controllers; overhead systems, including headliners and electronic convenience features; floor consoles; and door systems. Continuing just-auto’s series of Q&As with major component suppliers, Matthew Beecham talked with Guido Wolfs, senior product business manager, JCI about the company’s seating products.

just-auto: In what ways have seating designs changed over the past ten years?

Guido Wolfs: Safety, comfort, design and flexibility have become increasingly important over the years. Whereas in the past our customers wanted us to just supply them with components, demand is now shifting toward pre-assembled units and complete systems with safety features, a high level of comfort and flexibility. At the same time, more and more customers are placing greater emphasis on appealing designs that are both individual and distinctive. The newly developed seats for the Fiat 500, for example, are impressive due to their attractive design and solid construction. The seats have a high degree of personalisation: consumers can choose between numerous fabric and colour combinations; the seat covers are embossed with patterns that have the appearance of decorative stitching. Personalisation of vehicles via a range of appealing designs is becoming increasingly important.

just-auto:  With so many devices and materials stuffed into new-vehicle seats these days, is there competition for real estate in the seat?

Guido Wolfs: Our engineers are faced with the challenge of developing seats which not only offer new functions and are made of innovative materials, but are also competitive. Our innovative solutions are designed to set us apart from our competitors. Our strategy for success is thus geared towards optimisation, value creation and the search for cost-effective solutions for automakers. A uniform component strategy is called for, which enables us to respond flexibly to the individual wishes of our different customers and reduce investment costs, while at the same time offering solutions that can be implemented worldwide. In doing so, the focus is always on an individual product that best meets customer preferences.

just-auto:  To what extent is seating flexibility a driving force of seat design?

Guido Wolfs: A few years ago, flexibility meant removing the seats. This procedure made itself redundant. The seats were heavy, and there was always the problem of where to put them – the garage often being too full. This is why the trend has now shifted to seats that can be stowed away inside the vehicle to create a flat load floor. It must be quick and easy to convert the vehicle from a comfortable passenger car to a furniture mover.
Another important point is simple handling – the seats must be easy to operate, or intuitive. It should be possible to stow away a seat with a single hand movement, without having to consult the instruction manual first. In this respect, our concepts are exemplary and feature in the interior of every passenger car segment, for example the flexible seating system of the Opel Zafira and Meriva, Renault Modus, Ford C-Max and the third row of the VW Touran, etc.

Flexibility is becoming increasingly important. This applies not only to the front seats, but also to the functionality and flexibility of rear seats. Our Open Seating concept offers the comfort and styling of leading front seats in the rear section of vehicles. When stowed away, it has a much smaller footprint – enhancing the vehicle’s cargo capacity. This new seating system features side bolsters that provide comfort similar to the front row when the seat is deployed, and fold completely flat when it is stowed.

Furthermore, the Mechatronic Release facilitates seat operation thanks to springs and actuators integrated into the seat mechanism: at the push of a button the front seats mechanism can be individually released (length and recliner options), allowing the seating position to be easily adjusted. The main benefit here is the simple operation, as there is no longer any need to press or pull a lever to adjust the seat. This is also a cost-effective alternative to fully automated, electric seat adjustment. In the rear, the Mechatronic Release simplifies the process of folding the seats flat. At the push of a button, all of the latch mechanisms on the rear seats are released (upper backrest, floor latch or recliner), making it easy to adjust the seating.

just-auto: As consumers are getting bigger, how has that influenced your seat designs?

Guido Wolfs: It has had some effect, though only marginally. But to ensure seats are also safe and comfortable for heavier passengers, we nearly always use the 95% crash dummy compared to the 50% one.

just-auto: To what extent do environmental trends impact the development of your seating products?

Guido Wolfs: We are focusing on promoting environmentally-friendly technologies in all product segments. In the area of seating, for example, our coconut fibre seat pads meet our economic and ecological objectives and at the same time contribute to sustainability. As with our foam seat pads, the environmentally-friendly substitute offers a high level of seating comfort. We have also introduced many innovations in lightweight materials, such as lightweight structures.

just-auto: We are hearing more and more about the use of soy-based seats these days. What is JCI doing in this respect?

Guido Wolfs: We are already producing soy-based seat pads. Our aim is to increase the amount of soy-polyol constantly in order to replace the usage of petrol-based polyols.

just-auto: Is there a downside to using soy resins for seat cushions?

Guido Wolfs: No, there is no downside because the comfort and durability are the same.

just-auto: Aside from the environmental benefits, is there a cost benefit to the vehiclemakers from using such materials?

Guido Wolfs: There is no cost benefit. The cost of soy has risen considerably over the last year.

just-auto:  Where (or when) could we see JCI’s soy-based seats?

Guido Wolfs: We showcased soy-based foam seat systems at the 2007 North American International Auto Show. Soy-based seats are already in production. In 2008, 1.6m North American vehicles have so far been fitted with our back and cushion foam produced with soy oil-based polyol.

just-auto: Do your customers ever ask you to develop their ideas or designs for seating?

Guido Wolfs: We not only develop ideas or designs at the request of automakers; we also devise our own concepts and solutions to meet the increasing needs of drivers. We are working on numerous innovations, in order to be able to offer our customers proactive solutions for the future. The findings of our consumer and market research are a crucial element of any future developments. The main points to consider are always: What will drivers of the future be like and what are their needs? What expectations do they have of their vehicle interior? We regularly conduct surveys of these questions in our car clinics. The answers to these questions will also influence the next generation of vehicles. Ultimately, however, these new developments must always be tailored to the respective automaker – with the advantage being that we offer them something the consumer actually wants. This approach throws up a new challenge for us: to put the findings into practice and complete the work on schedule. It means the demands made on system suppliers will continue to increase. With our portfolio we are well placed for the future. Statutory provisions, automaker requirements and trends are incorporated in equal measure and the concepts then presented to our customers.

just-auto: What is new in seating materials and fabrics?

Guido Wolfs: The main innovations are in the area of seat padding. We offer our customers seat pads made out of conventional PU foam and also latex-reinforced natural materials – and for good reason. FaserTec seat pads made out of coconut fibres and latex are very comfortable: the highly permeable, moisture-absorbing properties of the material ensure an ideal seating climate. The further development of the product, with the name Dual FaserTec, allows for different rigidity zones to be incorporated within a single seat pad, which not only enhances the ergonomic stability of the seat, but also increases the degree of lateral hold – making it similar to sports car seating. Compared to conventional production, fewer process steps and tools are required to manufacture Dual FaserTec, which makes it more economic.

just-auto:  These days, I guess consumers want their rear seats to feel just as comfortable as the front seats, too. What advances have you made in rear seats for these vehicles?

Guido Wolfs: We have developed, for instance, a new foam for rear seats. The Vibratech (VT) Foam is used in rear seats, ensuring better vibration dampening, long-term durability and optimal long-term comfort.

Furthermore, our Open Seating concept offers the comfort and styling of industry-leading front seats in the rear section of vehicles. When stowed away, it has a much smaller footprint – enhancing the vehicle’s cargo capacity. This new seating system features side bolsters that provide comfort similar to that of the front seats when the seat is deployed, and fold completely flat when it is stowed.

The Slim Seat provides additional legroom for passengers in the second row. It features a cutting-edge, modern design with a premium look and feel, and an ultra-thin seatback that delivers the extra knee room.

just-auto: Which of these rear seat innovations were triggered by environmental concerns, new regulations or simply to improve the ride for back seat passengers?

Guido Wolfs: All three factors influence our developments. We adapt our product portfolio to new regulations and at the same time address the demand for comfort and sustainability. In doing so, greater emphasis is placed on designing seat structures that increase crash safety and offer more protection for occupants. Besides safety, cost-effectiveness remains a top priority. One of the ways we achieve this is by taking a modular approach to our seating.

just-auto:  Could you talk us through JCI’s Slim Seat concept, i.e. how you recombined existing materials and manufacturing in a new way, how you eliminated the need for polyurethane foam padding in the seatback, and to what extent this Slim Seat follows trends in home furniture and office chairs?

Guido Wolfs: The Slim Seat features a cutting-edge, modern design with a premium look and feel, and an ultra-thin seatback that provides additional knee room for second-row occupants. Even with its thinner seatback, the Slim Seat provides the same level of comfort, convenience and safety as conventional automotive seats.

The back of the Slim Seat concept is made from tubular steel. Using this approach, our engineers and designers relied on conventional materials, but at the same time ensured that the seat has a robust, modern and upscale appearance with strong consumer appeal. It also features a thin, centreline cross-section-technology, in which occupant comfort is ensured – even with thin packaging; and a state-of-the-art cushion.

The new concept delivers on consumer appeal, thin packaging, occupant comfort and interior spaciousness at a time when automakers are seeking to add interior space and features without making vehicles larger. The innovation is targeted for model year 2011 production vehicles. It can be produced using currently available materials, processes and components.

just-auto: Electric DC motors have long since raised the comfort levels for premium-class cars, but is that permeating down the car segments at all?

Guido Wolfs:  We are not a manufacturer of DC electric motors, only a user of them. In our products, we use electric motors produced by various international manufacturers. In the case of customer orders, the motor chosen depends on the actual specifications of the automaker concerned. In the case of new product developments that are independent of any OEM, a decision is reached based on the required performance and cost-effectiveness of the motor for the individual project.

just-auto:  Climate control seats have been talked about for some time – some feature special equipment, while others use a special type of material. What is JCI doing in this respect?

Guido Wolfs: Our portfolio co mprises solutions for passive and active humidity control. We have developed a passive climate seat, which is available as an optional extra in the VW Passat. The special material of the front seats ensures the surface of the seat remains pleasantly dry even in hot weather. The seating climate remains at a comfortable level, particularly on long journeys, and enhances passive safety as a result. The combination of breathable and moisture-absorbing materials in the seat cushion and backrest means that any moisture or heat generated by the occupants is transferred into the seat’s interior and then gradually released again into the surrounding air.

We have also developed a special active concept for the volume market. Following numerous active ventilation systems for the executive vehicle segment, we have now extended our portfolio to include a prototype for active seat ventilation for vehicles in the medium segment. The basic system of this new, patent-pending technology is equipped with only one fan and offers climate-control performance comparable to the best systems currently on the market. This new solution is also quieter and more economical than previous ventilation systems.

just-auto: Let’s turn now to ‘reconfigurability’. What does reconfigurability actually mean in terms of seating design?

Guido Wolfs: It means being able to easily change the position of seats within the interior or to fold them flat to make a flat load floor. This means that the seats must have very ingenious mechanisms and be designed in such a way that they can be easily folded away, such as our Open Seating or Mechatronics Release solutions.

just-auto: What are car buyers looking for in terms of reconfigurability?

Guido Wolfs: For car buyers, it is important that seats are easy to use and operate. They want to be able to adjust the seating positions more quickly and easily or create a flat load floor (increased luggage space) as quickly as possible without having to remove the seats from the car.

just-auto: I guess the question is: How many ways can seating manufacturers help the consumer reconfigure their vehicle interior to meet the consumer’s needs?

Guido Wolfs: We can support consumers in several ways: by moving seats inside the interior, by creating more space through making the seats thinner, and by folding them away in an ingenious way.

just-auto: How much further can seating reconfigurability go? I mean, can we expect to see seats with more mechanisms and very thin, low-profile seats?

Guido Wolfs: At the last IAA we showcased an advanced level of our thin seat called Slim Seat and reconfigurability using Mechatronic Release. There is great potential and demand for making seating increasingly reconfigurable.

just-auto:  As I understand it, US motor vehicle regulations governing occupant head restraints have gone unchanged for about two decades, but a new mandate (FMVSS 202A) is designed to improve head restraints to minimise potential whiplash injuries. What is JCI doing to comply with the new code?

Guido Wolfs: The riACT (rear impact ACTive head restraint) technology fulfils the new US criteria as well as European regulations.

just-auto: Could you talk us through your riACT system?

Guido Wolfs: We created the riACT technology to improve the anti-whiplash protection offered by vehicle head restraints, and to enable automakers to meet current and future safety requirements, targeting a reduction in the prevalence and severity of neck injuries in low-speed rear-impact collisions. This new technology is designed to keep the vehicle occupant’s head aligned with the torso in a low-speed, rear-impact collision. When a collision occurs, the front part of the head restraint moves forward automatically to support the occupant’s head, thereby reducing neck tension and shear forces. Furthermore, vehicle manufacturers using this technology are able to offer consumers more comfort by allowing a greater distance between the occupant’s head and head restraint during normal driving conditions, without compromising safety.

Two versions of the technology have been created: one in which the head restraint movement is mechanical, and which activates a trigger in the lower seatback during a crash; and a second version in which the head restraint mechanism is triggered via an electrical signal from a vehicle crash sensor. This riACT technology is a mechanical, body-driven solution that was launched on the European market for the 2007 model year in the Kia cee’d. Both variants will be integrated into approximately 20 new-vehicle programs within the next few years on a global basis.

See also: RESEARCH ANALYSIS: Review of seating technology