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Seat suppliers look for fresh ideas

By Wim Oude Weernink Automotive News Europe Want to know what tomorrow’s car seats will look like? Then visit a few furniture stores. Johnson Controls Inc., one of the auto industry’s top interior suppliers, is working with non-automotive specialists — such as furniture designers — to develop the next generation of vehicle seats. “That enables us to exchange fresh ideas,” says Han Hendriks, JCI executive director of marketing and industrial design. For example, JCI has teamed up with US-based office furniture maker Steelcase to develop seats that conform to an individual’s body shape and sitting position. JCI introduced the seats during the 2003 Detroit auto show and showed them at last year’s IAA in Frankfurt. JCI, which has an estimated 29 percent share of the global market, says more and more new ideas will end up in production cars. “By 2010, we expect the value creation for new car developments to increase to 80 to 90 percent for the specialist suppliers,” Hendriks says. The global market for seating is worth an estimated Euro38 billion and 85 percent of Europe’s seating market is outsourced to independent suppliers, according to research company SupplierBusiness.com of the UK. Other auto companies such as Stile Bertone, an Italian vehicle design company, also are looking at how to incorporate home design innovations into vehicle seat solutions. Roberto Piatti, Stile Bertone managing director, says seat systems should be more like a modern home environment. Some automakers such as General Motors and Honda are also developing seating innovations, while Volvo prides itself on the passive safety features in its seats, such as the whiplash protection system it introduced in 1999. Those automakers consider seat system development a core competence. Although it works with JCI on its interiors, Opel invented the space-saving, multifunctional seating systems that have made the Zafira and Meriva minivans top sellers in Europe. Seating flexibility is now part of Opel’s brand image, says Frank Leopold, Opel assistant staff engineer for vehicle integration and packaging. He says interior packaging drove the creative process that led to the Opel Trixx concept car. The 3000mm-long car, which was shown at the Geneva auto show, has three seats, while possible competitors-such as the 2500mm-long Smart ForTwo-only have room for two. While Hendriks thinks flexibility will remain crucial in interiors for the next 10 years, an upcoming seating innovation is the so-called slim seat, which JCI says will arrive on the market within the next two years. The idea behind the slim seats is to save space but still offer the same comfort as thick-wall seats. Many automakers fear that car buyers will reject slim seats because they won’t look comfortable enough. Bertone’s Piatti disagrees. “Today’s public may be more willing to understand and accept innovations than traditional-thinking automakers realise.” Piatti believes that the look of the seat is not nearly as important as its comfort. “Many of today’s seats do not have the ideal H point, which is essential to maximum comfort,” he says. The H point on humans is the center of the hip joint. If a seat’s H point is wrong, a passenger will never be comfortable in the seat regardless of how many adjustment options are available. Piatti says seat design should be more focused on the occupant’s well-being. “Developing the ideal H point for a seat must be a priority,” Piatti says. Another potential seating breakthrough is “intelligent” seats. “With the help of integrated electronics, seats should be reconfigurable so that they automatically adapt to driving conditions and driver requirements,” Hendriks says. Then there is talk of moving traditional seat rails from the car floor to the side rails and central console. This would increase interior space. “But that could be expensive as it requires structural changes to seat system sub-platforms and car body structures,” Piatti says. JCI’s Hendriks adds: “Such solutions, together with fully integrated electronic intelligent seat systems, can still be two model generations away.”Estimated global market share of leading seating suppliers; major customers/models:Johnson Controls 29%Fiat Panda; Ford Focus, Fiesta; Lancia Thesis; Mazda2; Porsche Cayenne; Opel Zafira, Meriva; Skoda Superb; VW Beetle, Golf V, PhaetonLear 26.10%Audi A8; BMW 3 series, Z4, X3; Citroen C2, C3; Chrysler Crossfire; Lancia Ypsilon; Opel Astra, Agila, Signum; Saab 9-3 Faurecia 14.50%Audi A3, A4, A8; BMW 5 series; Citroen C5, C8; Peugeot 206, 307, 807; Renault Espace, Laguna, MeganeIntier 11%GM, D/C in US; no car business in EuropeSource: SupplierBusiness.com/AutoBusiness”

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