Craftsmanship, Autonomy and a Transformed Industry

Dr. Rose Ann Ryntz, vice president, Advanced Development and Material Engineering, IAC, thinks that the autonomous transformation isn’t going to happen quite as soon as some think (and probably in Europe before the U.S.), but when it does, there will be non-trivial changes to the structure of the auto industry.

International Automotive Components (iacgroup.com) is a supplier of instrument panels and consoles, door systems, headliner and overhead systems and flooring and acoustic systems. IAC products are used in more than 300 vehicle nameplates, and the company claims to be the largest automotive interiors components and systems supplier in the world.

So when we meet with Dr. Rose Ann Ryntz, vice president, Advanced Development and Material Engineering, a woman whose Ph.D. is in polymer/organic chemistry, who numbers among her many awards the 2014 Society of Plastics Engineers Detroit Section Outstanding Member Award, we figure that we're going to talk about interiors, materials and engineering, perhaps not in that order.

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And yes, she starts out talking about interior craftsmanship, about how this is now, and will continue to be, an essential differentiator for OEMs. Ryntz observes: “The biggest challenge for large companies is the capability to mass produce a crafted interior in a very controlled fashion.”

Which brings her to a material, one that has taken off in vehicles large and small, and even vehicles that might seem to be at a price point where such a thing would be unthought-of: leather.

“Leather has been a really big play,” she says, adding, “But trying to control a natural material like leather, certainly from an adhesion standpoint and overall long-term durability is very difficult.”

Consequently, she thinks that the hides are going to give way to a polymer: “It will be leather-like but not leather, polyurethane-type materials that behave similarly, but are easier to consistently produce.”

(Consider this: If you go to your local Mercedes-Benz dealer and have your eye on an AMG E43 sedan, you’ll discover that the standard upholstery is not leather, but “AMG Black MB-Tex/DINAMICA with Red Stitching.” Looks like leather. It isn’t. Or, if you have your eye on a Lexus GS Turbo, the seating surfaces are produced with a material called “NuLuxe,” which didn’t come from a cow.)

But then Ryntz starts talking about autonomy. She thinks that as there is an increasing number of non-traditional entrants into the automotive space via autonomous vehicles and autonomous vehicle services (you may own the former and use the latter as needed), “craftsmanship is going to be a necessity as a differentiator.” She also thinks that the materials of the autonomous and connected car interior are going to be something different than that which is currently used. “Typical mass producers of plastic components—like IAC, Magna, Yangfeng—know very well how to make injection-molded, mass-produced products.

When you look at materials that won’t necessarily provide safety but connectivity—because when you have the connectivity you have the safety—how do you provide then that are thin with all of the built-in electronics.”
 

Ryntz suggests that there is going to be a transformation in the supply base because while IAC and the other companies have the competencies that allow them to produce parts for today’s vehicles, having the wherewithal to produce parts that have the characteristics necessary for the autonomous, connected vehicle is going to necessitate a whole different suite of skills. She thinks that there will be significant partnering and collaborating between traditional suppliers and nontraditional companies: “It will be cooperation and joint development in the future rather than trying to bring everything in-house as we’ve done in the past.”

But she also suggests that there are going to be some rather significant changes, as in not only a reduced size of the supply base as there is this partnering as well as mergers and acquisitions, but one that will shrink because the volumes of autonomous vehicles will be significantly smaller than those that are common today: “If you’re talking mass scale of autonomous, its tens of thousands of vehicles.”

This is not going to happen by the proverbial overnight: she’s talking about from 2030 to 2050.
 

“How many autonomous vehicles do you need when you’re sharing them?” she asks, rhetorically. Obviously not as many.

That said, Ryntz believes that the companies that organize the right people and the right resources, that employ people who are either specialists in some engineering function (electrical, chemical, mechanical . . .) or who have the breadth of knowledge that allows them to manage and integrate those specific functions, are going to be the ones that will be successful.