Not so long ago, seats were seats. But with intense competition in the marketplace and technology advancing, the focus on car seat design has heightened. For more than a decade, Matthew Beecham has monitored events at Lear Corp, one of the world’s largest seat makers.  Here, he asks Jeff Frelich, Lear Corp’s director of research and design, seating systems, about the role of Lear’s ComforTec Consumer Comfort Systems, consumer clinics and its so-called Flexible Seat Architecture which can be found today in some 20 million cars across 13 different vehicle lines.

just-auto: Over the years, new materials and techniques have improved vehicle occupant comfort and wear resistance while reducing weight and cost.  Yet what recent safety related developments has Lear introduced?

Jeff Frelich: Lear launched ProTec Plus, the latest version of our active head restraint products that help reduce whiplash injuries in rear impacts, in the 2009 Honda Accord Coupe.  ProTec PLuS utilises the occupant’s penetration into the seat to move the head restraint forward thus minimising head rotation in turn minimising whiplash.  Lear was first-to-market with its family of active head restraints in 1998 and continues its technical leadership position today.

just-auto: Could you talk us through Lear’s ComforTec, i.e. what does it involve and how does it help Lear’s designers?

Jeff Frelich: ComforTec Consumer Comfort Systems is Lear Corp’s proprietary comfort engineering process for establishing and meeting comfort goals.  ComforTec emphasises repeatable measures of direct consumer psychological and performance data input at critical design gates.

Key ComforTec principles involve early establishment of measurable comfort goals derived from a collaborative agreement on the OE targeted competitive vehicle set followed by analysis of these and proposed designs using consumer feedback and proper test methods that measure dynamic comfort response.  We then use these established parameters as a constant guide throughout the development process to more clearly understand the impact of trade-offs to accommodate other objectives such as safety, cost efficiency and durability impact comfort compliance.

This helps Lear Corp design and engineering staff stay on target, delivering comfort performance that meets or exceeds both customer and consumer expectations by integrating the ‘voice of the consumer’ and clear, measurable performance data into the overall seating system development process.  In turn, this helps reduce costly design iterations and promotes positive coordination among different disciplines.  

just-auto: How do you approach designing seats for a certain new model?  What are the considerations?

Jeff Frelich: Each programme has unique targeted consumer demographics that Lear evaluates early in the design process which then is evaluated using dynamic measurement techniques intended to discern specific performance attributes comparable to specific consumer feedback.  During our consumer clinics we use unique survey techniques that draw valuable opinions and feelings about the benchmarks, apply this same scrutiny to evaluating early prototypes and modify designs accordingly.  In this manner, we are able to customise the best design for each particular new model and maintain compliance throughout the development process.

There are dimensional considerations but primarily we focus on a design’s response to the unique static and dynamic pressures a consumer experiences riding in the vehicle.  The wa

y comfort materials such as foam and trim respond when packaged into certain frame structures and containing the system within the styling limits are also key considerations for which ComforTec gives Lear Corp a clear advantage.

just-auto: I guess these days there is far more collaboration between seat engineers and vehicle designers in order to better match comfort and brand characteristics with certain new vehicle models.  Is that correct?  To what extent do they design in the preferences of target demographics?

Jeff Frelich: Yes we would agree with this observation. The recognition of the vehicle interior environment impact on consumer comfort perception is common knowledge and limits of compliance to consumer comfort expectations due to space restrictions can be compliance limiting.  We have seen an improvement in this understanding within the OE design and engineering community and have frequent instances where we are asked for our input in early design stages where additional occupant room, foot clearance, etc. are possible.  At a minimum, there is a new respect for these issues as comfort performance continues to grow as a competitive differentiator and means of improving the necessary interior environment are openly discussed and considered in vehicle interior package design.

just-auto: While I guess the focus has, for some time, been on improving the front seats, to what extent are your customers turning their attention on the second and third row seats?  What are the considerations there in seat design?

Jeff Frelich: Rear seat design is getting more attention specifically in the areas of safety, mass, and flexibility.  Lear just recently launched our DECS [Dynamic Environmental Comfort System] technology on the Ford Fusion Hybrid that significantly lowered mass of the seat system while aiding in the cooling of the battery system.  In the area of safety, FMVSS 202a will impact rear seat head restraint systems in September 2010 and Lear has several patented technologies to aid in this mandated law. 

just-auto: Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen a number of low-volume models all scrambling for market share by adding content and complexity of options to their interiors, especially seating.  In this scenario, I guess standardisation of seat parts such as seat mechanisms becomes critical? How have you addressed that?

Jeff Frelich: Back in 2004, Lear was first-to-market to introduce a standard architecture system that we call Lear Flexible Seat Architecture [LFSA].  It can be found today on over 20 million cars across 13 different vehicle lines.  The benefit of LFSA is lower engineering investment, low capital, and quicker time to market.  Lear was able to launch this product in 10 months in Russia for GAZ with no open issues.  Today Lear is developing and preparing to launch its next round of common architectures that we dub ECO and EVO.  These frame systems offer better performance at a much lower mass.  They target all market segments and will be produced around the globe.

Also, Lear Corp was the first seating company to use power tracks back in 1954 and that technical leadership continues today.  Due in part to Lear Corp vertical integration strategy, we also design and manufacture our own family of seat tracks and recliners. 

just-auto: We are hearing more and more about the use of soy-based seats these days. What is Lear doing in this respect and how do you manage the supply of soy beans in seat manufacturer worldwide?

Jeff Frelich: Lear was first-to-market utilizing bio-based materials for replacement of petroleum based products for the 2008 Ford Mustang.  Utilising soy-based product posed its unique set of challenges, but Lear and Ford worked together at root causing and solving all the technical hurdles we had to overcome. Today we are developing higher concentrations of soy based foams while looking at introduction into other regions of the world.

just-auto: In terms of the appearance of vehicle seating, it appears that these days trendy fabric for a seat insert in certain vehicles is more acceptable than it was, say, a few years ago.  But I guess while trendy fabric has its place on some vehicles, it doesn’t suit all.  Would you agree?

Jeff Frelich: We are seeing trends to move to more colour contrast materials to differentiate interior design.  Today seats are going to more two-tone with accent colour design sews.  Also the trend is moving to more exotic stitching that moves away from the standard deck and French seams that have been used in the industry for years.  Also softer hand materials are more in demand than ever.

just-auto: Not so long ago, seats were seats. But with intense competition in the marketplace and technology advancing, the focus on seat design has heightened. What will tomorrow’s seats look and feel like? 

Jeff Frelich: Seat appearance has historically been driven by the limitations of existing structural and material products and processes.  With the incorporation of new, non-ferrous structural materials and improved mechanisms, seat design and packaging possibilities will be greatly enhanced.  Seat design will become much more organic and integrated with the rest of the vehicle interior, and will also conform to the occupant in a more pleasing manner.  The creative elements and themes seen in many concept vehicles will begin to appear in productions vehicles.  Thin, sculpted seats with ‘floating’ attachment schemes will become more common and more dramatic.  Incorporation of new ‘green’ products and materials will soften the feel of occupant interface materials and provide and more comfortable interior atmosphere, while still delivering high performance and stability.  The structural elements within the design will be less obvious and will not dictate the theme as they currently do.