INTERVIEW: Q&A with Magna Seating

By Matthew Beecham | 4 March 2010

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 too. Matthew Beecham talked with Imtiyaz Syed, vice president, engineering, Magna Seating, about the company’s third generation stowing system, its most efficient means of ‘going green’ and the challenges of packaging safety content into seats.

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 Magna introduced?

Imtiyaz Syed: Progressively increasing safety standards, not only from government, but also from non-governmental agencies such as IIHS [Insurance Institute for Highway Safety], continue to impact seating. Our seat structure and mechanism designs continue to evolve to meet the ever rising structural requirements for seat systems.

Typically, these are vehicle level requirements, e.g. rear or side impact. The impact on the seat is usually vehicle dependant, i.e. the vehicle level safety engineering team determines what, if anything, may be required of the seat to achieve their target performance at a vehicle level.

Beyond the normal requirements for strength, the seat may need to accommodate a variety of features such as side airbags, seat track position sensors, occupant classification systems, seatbelt pre-tensioners and so on. The biggest challenge is integrating and packaging the increasing safety content.

just-auto: Could you talk us through your injection-molded magnesium seat structure? i.e. the materials and molding technology used, the benefits and the ways in which this system meets your customer needs.

Imtiyaz Syed: Molded magnesium starts out as the same raw material as for die casting. The difference is in the molding process which is essentially like plastic injection molding of semi-solid magnesium. The results are much higher ductility, higher strength, better dimensional stability and fewer post-forming operations like machining and assembly. It’s a process that is in automotive production on components like convertible roof mechanisms, mirror mounts and power liftgate transmission housings; seating is a great application due to the mass-save potential. We’re seeing the industry becoming gun-shy with magnesium though, due to the volatility in global raw material pricing.

just-auto: People come in all shapes and sizes. Yet I guess seat designers must take their disparate concerns for comfort and somehow integrate them into the vehicle seat whether it be for a high-end or small car. How do you approach designing a seat for a certain new model? What are the considerations?

Imtiyaz Syed: Although it’s true that people come in all shapes and sizes, there are some basic tenets of comfort engineering that apply to all people, and all vehicle models.

Through research and benchmarking, we have developed CAE tools and design guidelines which help us create a seat design tailored to each vehicle model. These tools and guidelines take into consideration such criteria as human anthropometry, human biomechanics, geographic regional preferences, seat structures, seat features and adjustability, foam, and trim.

For example, Magna uses a pelvic support philosophy designed to minimise lower-back fatigue. We have created a CAE design tool that uses specific seat geometry to achieve this philosophy, which applies to all vehicle segments, and accommodates various sizes and shapes of people.

We can also tailor the seat design for regional markets, using tools like PeopleSize, which give us human measurement data from various geographic regions around the world.
Along with designing seated comfort into our vehicle seats, we must also design-in user-friendly ergonomics to features such as fold, tumble, recline, and stow, using Jack ergonomics software and our ergonomics design guidelines.

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. To what extent do they design in the preferences of target demographics?

Imtiyaz Syed: Brand characteristics are developed for target demographics, and comfort is one of the areas that is tailored to those demographics. For example, luxury brands will often include more comfort features such as additional soft foam, heated and cooled seats, vertically and horizontally adjustable lumbar, massage systems, adjustable cushion length, and adjustable bolsters. Sporty or performance brands will often use firmer seat foam, and more aggressive bolsters.

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?

Imtiyaz Syed: Second and third row comfort has become increasingly important over the past decade. Examples include seatback recline features, fore/aft adjusters, entertainment systems and deploying bolsters.

We’re starting to see more features trickle into the rear rows that are traditionally front seat territory. Examples include seat heat, ventilation and power articulation features.

just-auto: For some time, we have seen seats which elegantly collapse and fold into novel packages without hurting anyone. The Holy Grail for rear seat rows is to find areas of the vehicle that is otherwise unused. I guess Magna’s Stow ‘n’ Go broke ground in seating system stowage?

Imtiyaz Syed: Yes, our stow-in-floor seating was a significant achievement and we believe helped to reverse a downward trend in sales volume.

But we’re not resting on our laurels; we have a third-generation stowing system which achieves lower mass, simpler function and enables increased feature content & passenger capacity.

We’ve also developed a range of stowing seats we call Free2StowTM which, at a vehicle level, provide best-in-class cargo volume and cargo length capability for a typical SUV or CUV.

just-auto: Electric vehicles are becoming increasingly popular. But the large battery packs take up massive amounts of space under the vehicle thereby limiting the room for in-floor seat storage solutions. I guess your swing-up rear seating system is a neat way of getting round that problem. Could you talk us through that design and the stage of development you are now at?

Imtiyaz Syed: Yes, our swing-up seat concept was first demonstrated on the third row of a large SUV about eight years ago. Since then, we’ve adapted the concept to accommodate split seat configurations, seat integrated shoulder belts and a version for the second row of SUVs. We’ve had significant interest from several OEMs. Like stow-in-floor, it’s a highly vehicle body integrated seating solution and requires very early involvement from vehicle architecture groups.

just-auto: When we last talked in April 2008, we discussed the technologies that Magna Seating had introduced and were developing to address the occupant head restraint (FMVS 202A) requirement. Could you update us on what Magna Seating currently offers to meet the requirements for front seat occupants? Also, as we understand it, expanded compliance to encompass rear seat occupants has to be completed by September next year. What is Magna doing in respect of rear seat head restraints?

Imtiyaz Syed: Although active head restraints appeared to be the wave of the future a few years ago, we’re seeing fewer and fewer new vehicle applications. Optimising the standard seat design (e.g. foam, structure, head restraint) can yield equivalent and often better performance relative to active systems. Magna has many seats in production which meet the 202A requirement as well as IIHS “Good” rating without an active head restraint system. Some OEMs do find benefit in marketing active systems, which some consumers may perceive as providing additional safety and we do provide active head restraints on some vehicle lines.

The rear seat requirement entails, among other things, taller head restraints. This is relatively easy to achieve, but the challenge becomes the impact these taller head restraints have on rearward visibility. Magna has implemented folding head restraints on some vehicle lines to improve visibility when a rear seating position is unoccupied. We also have a unique see-through mesh head restraint which we’re getting more and more interest in as the OEMs try to balance the regulation with customer satisfaction.

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?

Imtiyaz Syed: Yes, the drive toward communisation and leveraging components is ever-present. The industry has been somewhat successful in cross-platform communisation of front-seat structures and some components, like seat heat modules. But that’s where the trend ends. Though there has been a big effort to standardise rear seat structures, it’s very difficult due to the complexity of functional and feature content as well as vehicle packages. We have a rear seat core structure design that is modular and scalable and can be adapted to virtually any rear seat environment, leveraging common component tooling.

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

Imtiyaz Syed: We have been in production with soy-based seat foam for a couple of years now. However, we believe that seating foam competing for resources in the food supply chain is not the most efficient means of “going green.” That’s why we’ve developed a polyurethane formulation which can accept renewable polyol from a number of non-food natural oil sources. Ultimately, the more sustainable solution is to develop seating foam based on recycled product, which has the potential to reduce or eliminate PU foam ending up in a landfill at the end of life. We think this would contribute far more to true sustainability than having a fraction of the virgin foam come from a renewable resource.

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?

Imtiyaz Syed: OEMs ultimately are responsible for selection and styling of fabrics. History has shown that any time they stray too far from the mainstream with a colour or pattern, it can have a detrimental effect on resale values, because these are time sensitive trends.

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?

Imtiyaz Syed: Regardless of vehicle segment, upscale look, feel and additional functionality will become the norm for seats. Tomorrows’ seats will have more feature content, but be as much as 30% lighter. As vehicles become smaller, we’ll also see a trend towards thinner seats, the kind you see in concept cars at auto shows. Not just because they look sleeker, but because they add interior space to the cabin.

See also: RESEARCH ANALYSIS: Review of vehicle seating