GST Auto Leather (Southfield, MI; www.gstautoleather.com) isn’t the company it used to be. Formerly known as Garden State Tanning and headquartered in Williamsport, MD, the company changed its name—and business model—in 2003 when it closed its U.S. production facilities, moved these labor-intensive operations to Mexico and China, and exited the tanning business so that it could concentrate on finishing, and cutting supplied hides. According to company president and CEO Dennis Hiller, “If we hadn’t transitioned operations from the U.S. to Mexico, and made openings into China, the company would not have survived. The automotive business is service, service, service—and unlike any other industry because you can’t control the pricing. So you do what you have to if you decide that you want to play.”
Despite this, however, development of new processes, techniques, and leather families needed to continue, and the company’s Maryland headquarters were too far from GST’s automotive customers to be effective. Though some thought was given to relocating these offices to its facilities in Leon, Mexico, “to be close to the production expertise,” a decision was made to move them to Michigan, where the R&D and the executive staffs would be just 40 minutes from every one of its North American customers, except Honda. “It was a ‘got to’ decision,” says Hiller.
The R&D center in Livonia, MI, can run a tanned piece through every process from shaving it down to the proper thickness to painting on the final finish to graining. According to Stephen Jeske, senior v.p., Sales, Marketing, and Product Development, “This gives us the capability to develop products like our SPF 950 anti-aging coating, modify current production processes, and test against internal, OEM, and supplier standards.” That testing follows a number of standard procedures for things like fogging, abrasion, color fastness, physical performance, finish adhesion, cracking, and flammability. “We do everything from putting test samples in a freezer or an oven, testing it in both high and low humidity, and abrading it past the requirement to see how we can improve its durability,” says Jeff Miller, GST’s R&D director. An abrasion test, for example places an abrasive wheel over small disc-shaped samples of leather as they revolve on a turntable, and measures damage by sample weight loss and thickness loss at the abrasion site. “The pieces are cut to specific sizes and shapes, depending on the test,” says Miller, “and the materials used are either determined by industry standard, or the requirements of an OEM or supplier.” In addition, the test piece is rubbed against a specified cloth type of a specified weight to test its real-world durability.
Dye rub-off is another area of concern, especially with blue jeans. Says Miller, “The test for blue jean dye rub-off is very specific, and includes having a jeans-clad lower torso mimic sitting down and getting up over thousands of cycles.” Not only does this test wear the surface of the leather and show how the dye is deposited across the surface and within seams, it also is used to assess how easily the surface can be cleaned without further damage. Often, the test is run to determine just how well a new coating stands up.
“A new coating test regimen,” says Miller, “takes about four weeks and includes long-term durability and wear tests, high humidity exposure, and a full 17 days under xenon lamps to replicate 10 years of sun exposure.” This testing was central to development of the SPF 950 coating, as well as its “Cool Leather” coating that reflects infrared rays to keep the surface temperature down. “From the start of development on a new product,” says Jeske, “it’s about six to 18 months before it’s ready to be released for production. Add in the lead time necessary to get it into the program, and it takes about two years before you see it in the showroom.”
With cost central to the bottom line of automakers and suppliers alike, getting the most out of the materials is a key to making a profit. “Typically,” says Miller, “between 55% and 65% of the hide is used, so the expertise of the cutters is paramount.” Those cutters—GST houses them in a climate-controlled building to keep them comfortable as well as to reduce the temperature variations the hides are exposed to—cut only about half the pieces by hand. The others are cut using a two-dimensional die placed atop a number of hides. The level of scrap is not only due to the fact that the leftovers may not be enough to produce a complete covering, but that it is necessary to cut around defects in the skin arising from fence cuts, bug bites, and stains sustained by the cattle while on the range. “We’re constantly working on ways to eliminate the defects from the skin, hide them through new finishing techniques and grains, or—with the help of our design group in California—to make their randomness a design feature,” says Jeske. This work is driven by the variability in hide quality, cost, and the OEMs’ demand that every interior for a vehicle looks and feels the same. As you might expect, this latter item means random surface defects—no matter how benign or well-integrated into the design—are to be avoided, even if it means scrapping up to 45% of a hide.
“All leather suppliers are buying from the same suppliers,” says Jeske, “so differentiation comes down to how you treat, grain, finish, and color the hides, as well as what innovations you can introduce to differentiate your product from that of your competitors.” Proving that you can do all of this at an agreed-to quality level while providing corroborating data from in-house testing, says Miller, “makes that task just a little bit easier.”