As more electrical and electronic systems are squeezed into the already over-crowded cockpit area, so the wholesale unit value rises. A 'fully loaded' cockpit typically brings together a number of important systems, including heating, ventilation and air conditioning, airbags and safety systems, steering columns and systems, instrumentation and instrument panels, navigation and entertainment systems.

The fascia (or dashboard) and the instrument cluster together form the instrument panel. The instrument panel is a complex system of coverings, foams, plastics and metals designed to house various components and act as a safety device for the vehicle occupants. It consists of the substrate, skin, foam/padding, knee bolster, glove box, HVAC ducting and vents, trim, instrument cluster and console.

The area directly in front of the driver and front seat passenger is commonly referred to as the cockpit. It is an area that continues to expand. Despite the smooth lines and simple appearance, the cockpit is one of the most complicated and tightly packaged assemblies in a vehicle. It is also one of the most inaccessible. The cockpit may contain 50% of the total vehicle wiring system and most of the vehicle functions are controlled from this area. With several hundred individual components, it is also one of the most common sources of quality problems. The standard of design and manufacture is therefore critical.

The general appearance of fascias is a complete series of curves continuing the design shape from the cockpit through to the doors. The increase of sophisticated on- and off-board navigation systems, collision warning systems and safety and security items that need to be accommodated, together with ever more advanced in-car entertainment systems, all suggest that this part of the interior is still in its infancy in terms of development. The challenge is to find more space in the cockpit to fit yet more features such as Internet, e-mail and fax equipment. Although there can be no doubt that drivers of the future will be better informed with a raft of new instrumentation, there is some concern as to whether their instrument panels will be a safe place to deliver the information.

Spurred on by the fact that between 1985 and 2005 the number of drivers over 65 on both sides of the Atlantic is likely to increase significantly, the major interior designers are working on projects to make the cockpit easier to use for the older motorist.

Figure 1 A cockpit design by Visteon
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Visteon defines a cockpit system as the physical and functional interfaces of plastics, vehicle structure, electronics, electrical architecture, steering and climate systems, designed and engineered with a customer focus to deliver style, safety and security, comfort, craftsmanship and convenience.
Source: Visteon

Design Trends
The way in which instrument panels are designed and manufactured has changed considerably over the past decade. Recent trends such as increased size and complexity, as well as seamless airbag designs have put pressure on suppliers of thermoplastics to provide new formulations that offer:

  • Improved mechanical properties for higher performance or thinner wall designs;
  • Opportunities to lower costs through components integration and reduced materials usage; and
  • The potential for higher manufacturing productivity via faster cycle times.

Materials suppliers have responded with a variety of new products, in many cases designed specifically for instrument panel applications. Johnson Controls claim that uniform patterns on the surfaces of instrument panels are a thing of the past. The US interior parts maker has developed a technique to emboss different grain patterns onto the surface next to each other in one working step. The so-called In-Mould Graining technology was developed as an alternative to the traditional laminating technologies used for dashboards in mid-range cars. The process will start to be used in 2004.

Figure 2 Cutting a dash: new dashboard
    textures from Johnson Controls

Source: Johnson Controls

Another trend in the instrument panel segment relates to safety issues in airbag technologies. Manufacturers are introducing integrated, seamless airbag covers, which increase occupant safety. Lear points out that future trends in the instrument panel segment will continue to focus on safety with the introduction of innovations such as knee restraints and energy-absorbing substructures.

Car interior designers are also gradually moving away from the traditional dashboard mounted fresh- and warm-air grilles towards a more indirect climate control.

A typical solution is the 'soft air diffusion' concept by Valeo. This runs a ventilation screen the length of the dashboard near the windscreen, liberating 30% of the instrument panel surface and giving faster warming and cooling but without draughts. Valeo's device aims to eliminate sharp cold blasts of air from the air conditioner for front seat passengers while providing more thermal comfort for those in the back.

By rethinking the design of a conventional air conditioner unit, Valeo's engineers have come up with a so-called soft air diffusion system that sends out a blanket of cool air evenly and silently throughout the cabin, effectively eliminating cold drafts.

The system consists of a specially designed HVAC unit with integrated air ducts located beneath the windscreen, integrating both ventilation and defrosting functions, together with an air diffusion grille located in front of the defrosting vent. Valeo claim that manufacturers are interested in the idea because it makes the interior more comfortable, the packaging allows new fascia styling possibilities and it is cheaper to design than a system which has so many separate vents. Valeo hopes to see the soft diffusion system enter car production in 2006.

Visteon has developed 'breathable' door panels that allow an even distribution of air throughout the car. A conventional HVAC unit is used but instead of channelling air through vents in the fascia, it is piped through perforated plastic inner door structures and out through the breathable door panels. This results in a gentle, laminar flow of air rather than the more vigorous blown air of a conventional system. In addition to being more efficient and requiring a small HVAC system, the panels can be located virtually anywhere in the cockpit. The system is undergoing final development and validation prior to its launch for the 2004 model year.

Market overview
As more electrical and electronic systems are squeezed into the already over-crowded cockpit area, so the wholesale unit value rises. A 'fully loaded' cockpit typically brings together a number of important systems, including heating, ventilation and air conditioning, airbags and safety systems, steering columns and systems, instrumentation and instrument panels, navigation and entertainment systems.

Expert Analysis

The global market for automotive instrument panels and clusters - forecasts to 2007

This exclusive report reviews these key market drivers for vehicle instrumentation and fascias, and will provide you with forward-looking analysis. Chapter two identifies the market trends in this sector, determining some market positions and shares of the OE instrument panel and cluster segments in each major car-producing region. Chapter three sets out recent innovations and analyses the forces driving them, observing some key design, styling and material trends. Chapters four to thirteen provide brief profiles of the major manufacturers: Collins & Aikman, Delphi Automotive Systems, Denso, Faurecia, Johnson Controls, Lear, Magna, Peguform, Siemens VDO & Visteon


Faurecia's cockpit for the VW Touareg, for example, includes the dials, electric wiring, pedal assembly and instrument panel. Industry sources suggest that a cockpit for the VW Golf would be around $500-$750, loaded with instrumentation, wiring and air conditioning, of which the air conditioner would account for around $150 and the instrument panel shell $125. But precise values vary from one model to another.

Despite the extent to which instrument clusters have improved over the last decade, the wholesale cost to the vehicle maker has fallen due to the year-on-year downward pressure. The consensus is that the average cost of a printed circuit board (PCB) instrument cluster has fallen by 60% - 70% since 1990. Manufacturers talk of a standard instrument cluster at wholesale worth $50 - $80. The cost of a reconfigurable instrument display, however, is estimated to be at least four times as much as a standard instrument cluster.

In addition to these trends, like most other component sectors, the instrument panel industry is consolidating. In the mid-1990s, there were about 20 tier one suppliers of instrument panels. Today, there are about 15. In 1999, Lear gained instrument capability through its acquisition of United Technologies division. In the same year, Visteon achieved a double coup when it bought Plastic Omnium's vehicle interiors business for FFr 3 billion.

Following regulatory approval in July 1999, Visteon became the European market leader in automotive cockpits and reduced the share of its turnover realised with Ford from 92% to 89% in 2000. In 2001, Visteon's sales to Ford accounted for 82% of its total turnover.

One of the most recent consolidations occurred between Collins and Aikman and Textron's automotive trim business. In 2002, Collins & Aikman Corp became one of the world's largest makers of automotive interior components following its $1.3 billion purchase of Textron Inc's automotive trim business (TAC-Trim). The deal nearly doubled Collins & Aikman's annual sales to $3.9 billion, lifted employment to more than 25,000 people at 123 locations in Europe and North and South America, and boosted the firm's range of polyurethane-based products.

Today, the main suppliers include: Faurecia, Johnson Controls, Collins & Aikman, Lear, Siemens VDO, Peguform, Visteon, Delphi, Toyota, Calsonic Kansai, Suzuki and Mitsubishi Belt Ltd.

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