Some day materials will change.
“Steel is not your lightest weight material, but continues to be practical in seat structures. Getting away from that will be difficult, but it is going to happen. Composites are going to start making an appearance.” So says Tom Gould, design director, Industrial Design, North America, Automotive Experience, Johnson Controls (jci.com
But there are problems with making the shift. For one thing, composites tend to be more expensive than steel for the seat structural application. So far. But this may be changing, because of the increased interest—and investment—in the strong, lightweight, resin-based materials from several automakers. Consequently, “There may be cases where those costs come down enough so we’re at the point where they are economically viable,” he says.
For another thing, Gould notes, there is potentially a problem with composites vis-à-vis steel if the OEM looks at the issue of environmental lifecycle analysis. It may be that because the steel structure is readily recycled at end-of-life and the composite may not be, the advantage goes to steel. “While steel may weigh more, it is more recyclable than certain composite materials, so the actual energy consumption involved may come out favorable using something that’s heavier.” But, of course, there is the possibility of creating composites that are more recyclable (e.g., the Johnson Controls Gen 3 Synergy Seat, a concept, uses a natural fiber reinforcement for the composite structure) so that may be less of a deal-breaker. (Another thing to keep in mind is that if the OEM looks simply at vehicle-level miles-per-gallon and CO2 emissions factors and not the entire lifecycle, then the whole issue may be a moot point.)
Still, as the transition to composites occurs this will be an incremental thing: “It is going to start with niche vehicles, not because someone is going to decide they’re ‘all-in’ on composites.”
Lightness is only one part of it.
“Clearly, there are opportunities with replacing metal structures with composites—they’re a much lighter-weight solution,” Gould says. He acknowledges, “Consumers are not going to ask for lightweight seats. But they do want cars that get better mileage.” Every bit of mass reduction helps. So while lighter weight may be of direct concern to the OEM customer, it isn’t as immediately perceived by the end customer, who is critically important to JCI, given that seats have a tangible effect on all vehicle occupants in a way that few other things do.
However, it is not just about light weight: “One of the things that frustrates us as designers is having the seat structure inside”—covered up with foam and material—“that just functions as the structure. I can’t do anything with it in terms of showing off its function outside of the seat,” he says. A metal frame isn’t generally attractive.
What he’s interested in is bringing the inside out: letting the structure be a part of the overall seat aesthetic. More like contemporary office furniture. (Hold on to that thought for a moment.) Gould says that the use of composites facilitates doing that. Again, the Gen 3 Synergy Seat incorporates the composite back frame as a visible part of the seat. “There is,” he says, “some opportunity with steel as well, but it is more difficult than with composites because the steel properties needed to cover that space don’t always mesh with being an aesthetic part of the whole system.”
About that office seat.
One of the quintessential items found in a contemporary office is the Herman Miller Aeron chair. A chair that is now familiar. A chair that is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. A chair that was completely revolutionary when it appeared in the early 1990s. A chair that doesn’t have any foam. A chair that is behind the desk in Gould’s office.
So how come car seats still look like …car seats?
“We often look at office furniture,” Gould admits, sitting in another chair in his office, sitting so that his back is at a right angle to the back of the chair. “No one is going to sit in a car seat the way I am sitting in this chair. They’re going to be facing forward, belted in.”
No one is going to be going 70 mph in an office. No one is going to be in a high-velocity collision in an office chair, seat belt or no belt.
The point is, he explains, there are plenty of considerations that have to be taken into account in developing automotive seating that goes beyond the considerations that are essential for creating great office seating.
Still, I ask, why does a car seat circa right now look pretty much like a seat from the turn of the century?
Gould, who can identify what seat designs go with which OEMs based simply on things like the stitching, answers that if one looks closely at seats, they’ll discover that today’s seat has a level of craftsmanship far exceeding the seat of 15 years ago.
And, he goes on, at Johnson Controls they are looking at different types of materials for the cushion, which has a significant effect on the overall appearance and comfort of a seat. For example, he cites the VariTec horizontal layering cushion they’ve developed; it has dual layers of foam with varying hardness. He explains that one of the challenges of automotive seating is that when someone sits in a car in a dealer’s showroom, chances are that person wants to feel something comparatively plush under their posterior. Yet, that softness isn’t necessarily the best for longer road trips, where support is key. Thus the VariTec approach. Soft yet supportive.
Which is still not webbing like that used for the Aeron.
But there are some basic considerations that need to be addressed for automotive seat designs that go well beyond those made for the Aeron. Like the materials used vis-à-vis the environment that the seat must survive. The conditions inside a car during the summer in Phoenix or the winter in Anchorage are different than the conditions inside an office in either of those two locales. “It is all about materials,” Gould observes. And so they are working on developments in that arena, as well.
Still, Gould says of the overall suspen-sion seat concept, “Something is going to get us there.”
Presumably, if the exposed composite back is going to be niche, a suspension seat will be a niche within a niche.
Ways of working according to Gould.
“We are looking at some projects we did 15 years ago in seat innovation. It is old stuff, but the technology back then to achieve it wasn’t even close. But it is happening now; the technology is catching up.”
“Innovation is only going to happen to a certain point with component-level thinking. If I think of a recliner or a trim cover or a head rest, the innovations are only going to go so far. When I think at a systems level—about how everything interacts—new solutions are going to present themselves.”
“We want to get out in front of consumer needs. By the time the consumer tells you what they want, it’s too late. We want to anticipate and understand what a consumer is not able to articulate, to get into what the next generation is going to be, and that’s usually going to the systems level.”
“As a designer, my best friend is the engineer helping me sort things out. It is a two-way street. Our approaches are different but we have a mutual appreciation. I don’t want to work on something for three months and then give it to an engineer. I want to work on it for a few hours, and then pass it on. Sometimes it is just a sketch. But a trim engineer can look at a sketch and say ‘I don’t want to sew it this way’; a costing guy can say he doesn’t want to cut the leather that way because there is too much waste; or they’ll say they don’t know where the airbag will come out. We want to do it quickly and correctly.”
“For every seat there are tradeoffs based on cost or brand image or comfort.”
“The design thinking model is: what does the consumer want and need; how do you make it commercially viable; how do we get the product right so that it is technically feasible? When those things come together, you have good design. If any one of those is out of balance, there will be failures in the marketplace. At the same time, you have to be willing to push the boundaries in those areas.”
The future of materials.
There is no one right answer when it comes to materials.
There is no one singular approach.
Yes, there are general rules of thumb, like leather is more upscale than fabrics. But even that is general, not specific, because Gould points out that if you look at things like contemporary top-end handbags and furniture, there are high-quality fabrics being deployed with no diminution of luxury cred.
“Leather will never be replaced,” he says. And to the extent that it is used one place, it is likely to be used in another: if there is a nice sewn leather instrument panel cover, there is little likelihood that the seating material would be anything but leather for purposes of consistency.
But he goes on to note that there is a drive to go beyond traditional woven and knit fabrics for seating that will drive non-leather materials more upscale.
There is, however, something of a caveat, particularly as it relates to the use of materials in luxury vehicles. It’s simply this: Authenticity. “If it looks like leather, it should be leather. If it looks like carbon fiber, it should be carbon fiber. If it looks like aluminum, it should be aluminum. That’s what the material should be,” Gould says. While there are, he acknowledges, developments in films and other materials that provide high levels of fidelity to the actual materials, when you get to the upper-level vehicles, faux is no-go. This is not to say that there aren’t alternative possibilities, but those alternatives ought not be presented as though they are something that they’re not.
He adds, “People are more willing to put their money into something that’s real. We want to give consumers something they can love, appreciate and feel some pride in.”