In the global automotive seating market, suppliers must offer seats that are more comfortable, durable and safer than last year’s designs yet lighter and cheaper.  Matthew Beecham finds out how they achieve it.

NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: Since our last review of seating technology was published in June 2008, the outlook for the automotive industry has significantly changed. Given the current state of the industry, just-auto has completely revised its estimates and forecasts of seating market volumes and values. Our revised forecasts are based on JD Power & Associates‘ forecasts for passenger car vehicle assembly in North America, Western Europe and Japan from 2005 through to 2013.

Given that our in-house component forecasts set out the next seven years, we have extended JD Power’s predictions by a further three years to 2016. In addition, and given the sheer volatility of the global economy at present, we have set out ‘expected’, ‘best case’ and ‘worst case’ scenarios applied to vehicle seating volumes. On balance, we believe this will provide readers with a more realistic framework for our component forecasts.

Are we sitting comfortably?

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 and more about what the human frame needs, in order to be comfortable. “The seat used to be just an object put into a car with nothing special added to it,” said Frédéric Charon, communications manager of Faurecia‘s seating division.  “But nowadays it is being transformed into a main feature.  People are spending more and more time in their car and so expect a lot more in terms of comfort.  The seat is therefore becoming an integral part of the design and appeal of a car.”

Imtiyaz Syed, vice president, engineering, Intier Automotive Seating, believes that there have been a number of influences in seat design over the past decade, including changes in demographics, impact of globalization, fuel prices, raw material prices, environmental issues and ever more stringent vehicle safety regulations. At the same time, consumer tastes have changed significantly over the past decade.   “Consumers want greater comfort and convenience,” said Syed.  “That means, for example, more power content in the front and rear seats.  Weight minimization driven by efficiency has led to use of 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 consumer want more flexible living space within their cars.”

Guido Wolfs, senior product business manager, Johnson Controls agrees that safety, comfort, design and flexibility have become increasingly important over the years. He told us:  “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 personalization: consumers can choose between numerous fabric and colour combinations; the seat covers are embossed with patterns that have the appearance of decorative stitching. Personalization of vehicles via a range of appealing designs is becoming increasingly important.”

Take a seat

It is certainly true that people are spending far longer sat in their cars, often stuck on congested roads. Aside from seating ergonomics, a great deal of work is 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.

It is also clear that interiors must appeal to people of all shapes and sizes. 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 arrangement. Seats are also becoming safer yet lighter and slimmer.  For its part, Johnson Controls has designed a so-called Slim Seat.  Designed for front-seat applications, it features an ultra-thin seatback that provides additional knee room for second-row occupants. Despite the thinner seatback, the Slim Seat is claimed to provide the same level of comfort, convenience and safety as conventional vehicle seats. “The back of the Slim Seat concept is made from tubular steel,” said Wolfs.  “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, centerline cross-section-technology, in which occupant comfort is ensured, even with thin packaging; and a state-of-the-art cushion.”  The innovation is targeted for model year 2011 production vehicles.

While thinner seats will add crucial space inside smaller cars, the ability to transform the cabin to suit different needs remains a hot topic in the sport utility and minivans segments. As consumers demand more flexibility from their vehicles, suppliers must find yet more novel ways to reconfigure the rear seat rows, often using power.  Syed points out that powered seats is not just for front seat passengers but the rear seats, too.  “There is also powered stow systems in the third row whereby just pressing a button, the whole articulation takes places so that the seat folds and stows into the floor automatically.  We have also developed the ability to power removable seats.  With our design, the seat is automatically connected and powered when installed in the vehicle and disconnected when removed without the consumer having to [physically] disconnect the seat before removing it.”

Some of the 2008 model year Chrysler‘s minivans, including the Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan, feature a so-called Swivel ‘n’ Go seating system, designed and developed by Intier.  It replaces the Stow ‘n’ Go seating system which allowed second and third row seats to fold flat into the floor and eliminate the need to remove and store the third row. The Swivel ‘n’ Go has a second row of seats that swivel 180 degrees to face the third row with a removable table that installs between the two rows, covered storage bins in the floor of the second row, third row uncovered storage and fold-in-the-floor third-row seating. Swivel ‘n’ Go also offers an optional industry-first integrated child booster seat in the second-row quad chair and a one-touch power-folding third-row 60/40 bench seat, also optional, that Chrysler says is an exclusive in the US minivan segment.

In explaining the intricacies of Chrysler’s powered Swivel ‘n’ Go, Randy Koenigsknecht, vice president, sales and marketing, Intier Automotive Seating, told us:  “We had to make it very robust and almost invisible to the customer so that they do not even realize that the connection/disconnection is being made and, of course, they do not experience any error in that connection.”

Green is Good

Ford is taking the lead in specifying the use of a newly developed soy-based polyurethane flexible foam for use in the seat cushions and backs of the 2008 model year Ford Mustang.  Ford has been touting the concept of using soy, instead of oil-based polymols, for making flexible foams but the concept didn’t come without its challenges.  “Our technical team had to overcome several significant hurdles to bring this environmentally responsible technology to production,” said Gerhard Schmidt, vice president of research and advanced engineering at Ford.  Ford developed the soy-based polyol with Lear Corp.  The two formed a partnership in 2004 to proceed with the development of the technology and the commercialization of soy-foam applications, with initial work concentrating on the molding of headrest and armrest components. Soy, of course, is a renewable material and both Ford and Lear are working with the United Soybean Board – New Uses Committee, comprised of a group of 64 farmers and agricultural industry leaders along with Urethane Soy Systems Co., Bayer Corp and Renosol Corp.

Meanwhile, Intier Automotive Seating and The Woodbridge Group are set to supply a bio-based polyurethane foam to Ford for the seats in the 2009 model year Ford Escape.  The bio-based flexible polyurethane foam, known simply as BioFoam, was developed by Woodbridge and validated for manufacturing early last year. It is derived from the oils of various plant seeds, such as soy beans.  Woodbridge will supply the foam cushions with final seat assembly being performed by Intier. “There are a variety of reasons we developed BioFoam,” said David Miller, senior vice president of The Woodbridge Group.  “One important reason is the fact that eventually we are all going to face a dwindling supply of conventional petro-chemicals because they will become unacceptably expensive or simply not available.”  Currently, BioFoam can include up to 40% bio-polyol in various applications including seat cushions, head restraints, arm rests, headliners and occupant protection products.

Faurecia is also busy developing green seats.  “We are using soy-based foams,” said Charon.  “In fact, we are now offering higher amount of soy-polyols into the system than first generation bio-foams.  It is, however, more expensive than to use standard materials for seat cushions.”

Active head restraints

Although rear-end collisions are rarely fatal, they result in one-quarter of all personal injuries. They also account for more than 50% of all insurance claims for personal injury sustained by car occupants in Europe. Damage to the neck arising from a sharp backwards rotation of the head is known as the ‘whiplash effect’.

According to the US-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IHHS), neck strains and sprains (whiplash) are the most serious injuries reported in 30% – 40% of vehicle insurance claims.

While US motor vehicle regulations pertaining to occupant head restraints have gone unchanged for about two decades, a new mandate (FMVS 202A) has been introduced which is designed to improve head restraints to minimize potential whiplash injuries in low speed (10-15 mph) rear end collisions.  As a result, all the main seating makers are busy developing their own solutions to meet the mandate.  Manufacturers may choose the static or dynamic option in order to comply with FMVS 202A. The static option involves positioning the restraint closer to the driver’s head.  This type of restraint must also incorporate some type of internal structure, such as a plastic core, for better support.  Although most head restraints in North American cars are indeed ‘static’, they must be re-designed accordingly.  On the flipside, the dynamic head restraint involves designing a mechanism in the seat that, in the event of a rear-end collision, activates the head restraint, moving it closer to the seat occupant’s head as its thrusts rearward.  The rule applies to front seats of all vehicles produces from 1 September 2008.  Manufacturers must also ensure that rear seats comply with the ruling from 1 September 2010.

Syed points out that Intier has its own, cost-effective active head restraint design.  However, he believes that active head restraints are not necessary to create a seat that meets FMVS 202A or to achieve the good results for the IIHS testing.  “Fundamentally, seat structures can be designed in a manner that has controlled deformation.  In other words, you can achieve the FMVS 202A as well as IIHS good rating without having to put in active head restraints.”  Syed reckons that one of the issues for the industry is that both regulations require the head rest to be placed closer to the occupant.  But when you do that, there may be a real or perceived problem of discomfort for the occupant.  “This is really an issue for small occupants such as 5th percentile females,” says Syed.  “That is because a typical small occupant tries to keep the seat back in the erect position so that they adjust the seatback to a full forward position or as far forward as possible.  But when you do that, for every degree of recliner moment forward, they are losing about 5 – 6mm in terms of the distance between their head and the surface of the head rest.  So this is a real issue. However, we have developed a way to avoid that discomfort and meet the government regulation. We should be able to share with you our solutions for that next time.”

Not only are seats becoming safer but more supportive, versatile and pleasant to sit in with a multitude of hidden creature comforts such as adjustable lumbar supports, massage systems, climate control systems, memory mechanisms, height and rake adjustments, self-positioning headrests, built-in seatbelts and, of course, airbags. Sit back and relax.  You’ve never had it so good.

Global market review of vehicle seating – NEW UPDATED forecasts to 2016 (download)

Matthew Beecham