Design capability is becoming a key competitive factor for seating suppliers as carmakers try to attract consumers with more distinctive vehicle interiors.

Faurecia late last year decided to follow the lead of Johnson Controls and establish an industrial design centre.

Recent show cars have been driven more by consumer forces and by desire to generate ambience than simply by improving things that are already there.

Andreas Wlasak was lured from Johnson Controls’ European design studio in Burscheid, Germany, to lead Faurecia’s foray into organised industrial design.

Wlasak has organised what was a loose collection of designers and modellers in different locations and hired a few people to fill in gaps in the organisation.

Faurecia has strengthened a link with design students at Strate College in Issy-les-Moulineaux, France, to bring fresh ideas into company studios.

“Interiors represent 70% of our turnover,” says Laurent Hebenstreit, the director of Faurecia’s interior business, which includes seats, instrument panels and door panels.

“Design is of strategic importance to manufacturers, which is why we made the strategic decision that design is important to us. The opinion of end consumers is important to our success.”

All majors have studios

Johnson Controls pioneered the idea of a design department for interiors 20 years ago, and it now has over 200 people in its design departments, organised into Asian, North American and European studios. The European operation began 12 years ago and now includes 50 staff in Europe.

“Changing how we work with our customers drives the opportunity to turn our customer’s design and innovation visions into manufacturing reality, create synergies, deliver value to the end consumer and reduce overall programme product cost,” says Han Hendriks, vice-president of Johnson Controls’ European design operations.

Among the benefits he sees in having a design operation: early involvement with customers, understanding the brand, interior integration, consumer-focused innovation and what Johnson Controls calls craftsmanship excellence.

Lear, the third large global supplier of seating and interiors, has designers in its different divisions, but they are not organised into their own group.

The 40 people in Faurecia’s design department are located at R&D centres in France, Germany and the United States. Understanding the end customer’s preference is one thing; dealing with the carmaker is another.

Consumer-oriented research

Having a design department is another way that suppliers can link with their customers. Designers have a different relationship with each other than buyers and sellers do.

Additionally, although the suppliers emphasise that they don’t compete with their customers, they are able to propose ideas to the automakers by better understanding both the automaker’s brand and the market.

At Faurecia and Johnson Controls, the designers also direct consumer research. At Faurecia, Isabelle Duchaine of the Hagenbach, Germany, design department is in charge of human-machine interfaces.

By monitoring what people do when they get into cars at auto shows, she was able to prepare “tools” to measure consumer likes and dislikes as well as translate them into measurable parameters.

After customer clinics with 400 people in Germany and France she determined 60 key questions to ask about interiors and trained in-house “experts” to evaluate various characteristics.

For example, for the sense of touch, the experts quantify a material for seven characteristics: grip, greasiness, dustiness, warmth, stickiness, grain and hardness. Because Renault and PSA Peugeot-Citroën use the same categories, Faurecia can propose new materials that will fit a French maker’s criteria.

Early involvement

The suppliers also work with automakers far upstream.

“A most recent example of early involvement in an advanced customer programme is the Fiat Trepiuno,” says Hendriks at Johnson Controls. “Our team worked closely with the Fiat team under Umberto Rodriquez.”

Johnson Controls was responsible for the “design, development and model build of the floor console, centre console and infotainment system, including the touch sensitive surface material and graphical user interface.”

Hebenstreit said Faurecia is involved with 95% of global car projects at the RFQ stage or earlier.

“We don’t win them all, but we know where the market is going,” he says. “Based on our knowledge of where the market is going and where they want to position their marques, we can say what features should be in the seat.”

Faurecia showed two of its development projects that clearly show where it thinks the market is heading: a slim seat prototype, and a car using ambient lighting much like that Citroën showed in its Air Lounge concept car at the 2003 Frankfurt auto show.

Faurecia did not work on that Citroën concept, but is involved with the underlying project that will lead to a production car.

And when Citroën asked for RFQs for the next Picasso, they asked for ideas to put functionality into the instrument panel skin.

Faurecia proposed a digital clock that can be read through the IP fabric.

The slim seats, made with moulded high performance foam, would add 4cm of rear passenger knee room and 3cm of foot room, as well as allowing more under-seat drawers.

The project is “in development” with a customer, says Jean-Claude Cousin, director of product and market analysis.

The lighting, shown in a made-over Toyota Yaris, was both useful, as in storage pockets that light up when you put your hand in, and playful, as in the show car, where fibre optics in the floor light up.

Design capability also lets automakers leverage their own design departments by asking suppliers to come up with ideas today, and perhaps with entire projects in the future.

“Today there is not the same diversification in interiors as we see with exteriors,” says Wlasak. “In the next one to three generations we will see bigger differences.”

And at Johnson Controls, says Hendriks, “We see increasing expectations from our customers to support them in their global platform strategies. In Industrial Design, our global reach enables us to tailor solutions to local and regional markets – from early concept creation through development and production.”