Philippe Aumont

Philippe Aumont

With so many devices and materials stuffed into auto seats these days, is there competition for real estate in the seat? Continuing just-auto's series of interviews with leading seat makers, Matthew Beecham talked with Philippe Aumont, CTO of Faurecia Automotive Seating about packaging issues as well as making seats lighter with no compromise on safety and comfort.

The CAFÉ standards require automakers to nearly double fuel economy to 54.5 mpg by 2025, starting in 2017. This leads to pressure on the need to reduce weight of car seats.  Could you tell us how your business is developing seats that help achieve this goal?

Our strategy is to make auto seats lighter with no compromise on safety and comfort. We are finding solutions on all seats for weight reduction. Let us start with metal components: We have a development roadmap for global and modular structures allowing OEMs to obtain the necessary structure weight while keeping the highest crash safety standards. Our average structure weight is currently 11.5 kg. We aim at reaching less than 10 kg by 2017 with no impact on safety. We leverage our new generation of mechanisms with dramatically reduced weight and packaging. We use high grade and high strength steels to reduce the mass at constant functional performances. We are deploying laser welding across all of our 100 seat structure production lines. Laser welding allows assembling thinner parts together.

We are revisiting the weight / function trade-off also for foams and trims. For example, we are launching in the market the Sculpted Light Panel, which is a high perceived quality back panel using our Cover Carving Technology and reduces the weight to 1.3kg per car.  We are also proposing the Rear Light Cushion made of rigid polyurethane which can reduce weight up to 3 kg.

Although weight reduction is crucial if the auto industry is to meet the CAFÉ standards, is there a negative perception of thin seats amongst consumers?  How can you make seats thinner yet maintain seat integrity?

OEMs have traditionally emphasised perceived quality, while striving at keeping high standards of comfort and safety. We have to split between end users who stick to the iconic traditional car, and the postmodern targets such as the young urban end users, open to new seating experiences. Our Urban Rhythm seating concept is a seat that targets this trend. It includes a compliant plastics shell that allows us to decrease packaging while providing outstanding perceived value.  We are working with some car makers to make the look of traditional car seats to become obsolete and to break the paradigm.

In terms of the seat structure, to what extent is there a greater use of aluminum (or steel and aluminum combined) in manufacturing either the front or rear seats?

Steel still has a solid roadmap for improvement. We are working on adding some aluminium parts, when it makes sense. We are working as well on alternative metals, such as magnesium and composites. The challenge is on the one hand to develop with material suppliers to adapt the material to the seat's specific constraints and on the other hand to master the interfaces within a multi-material assembly. On the very long term, we think we could reach a front seat weight under 8 kg.

As we understand it, a key trend that within five years is that more than 60 percent of cars will have lighter coloured interiors, which presents more of a challenge for keeping the seats clean.  How is Faurecia addressing that challenge?

Actually, we observe different trends across continents. For instance, Germany keeps to rather traditional tastes. The key trend for us is the mass customisation. The car trim and seat are going to become more and more personalised. Look at how many variants are possible inside the new Audi A4. What we want is to provide car makers with more design freedom. We have adapted our industrial and supply chain organisation in order to manage a stronger diversity of trims and seat functionalities. We design our seat structure in order to offer OEMs the advantage of standardisation while enabling them to propose customization with features such as cushion length adjustments, headrests with two way adjustments or four way lumbar support.

I guess leather and leather-look fabrics have always been classical materials used in cars and they are still very much a status symbol reflecting luxury and hence always favoured by customers. As some people down-size their vehicles, do they still want some genuine materials such as leather in their cars available as optional?

Yes, all car segments now have premium variants. Leather will remain, in the long run, a status symbol whatever the car size. We help OEMs to sub-segment their offer while leveraging the economies of scale of their platforms. This is why we offer Sculpted Covers with unique 3D renderings, and new catalogues of trim ranging from the entry to the most premium level.

With so many devices and materials stuffed into new vehicles seats these days, is there competition for real estate in the seat?

This is indeed a growing challenge. Our holistic approach of the car seat allows us to offer to automakers the best packaging. We are working on packaging reduction. Seat electronics is an integrated activity that we want to further develop as it enables the integration of more functions. We have developed the Epump powered seat adjustment and cushion tilt that replaces the linear actuator. The Epump is 300g lighter than the linear actuator.

Designing seats to meet the needs of all occupants is a tough challenge.  Could you explain how you set about understanding the many needs of drivers and passengers and how those needs vary between, say, China and North America?

Car makers and end user market proximity is paramount. We have developed a network of local think tanks, known as xWorks, established in the USA, Germany & China, which analyse in-depth local usages, attitudes and scout emerging trends. Thanks to their innovation toolbox, they are recognised by our customers as a powerhouse to help them imagine new auto seating experience. We obtain an overview of regional specifics through multi-country market research. We measure with common metrics end user involvement, price sensitivity, car purchasing process, seating behaviours and preferences.

Recent research concludes that drowsy driving causes 20 percent of all accidents.  We have heard that through technology advancements seats can now monitor the driver for physical signs of stress and drowsiness.  In your view, what further ways could front and rear seats be advanced in this respect?

The remainder of this interview is available on just-auto's QUBE research service