Copycats don’t cut it when it comes to design for car interiors

Lauren Hilgers

Published: April 27, 2012 6:00 am ET

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Topics Materials, Automotive, Design

SHANGHAI (April 27, 12:10 p.m. ET) — After years of arriving in China with exact copies of the cars sold in the West, international automakers are getting wise to the different design expectations of Chinese customers. For designers of car interiors, that could mean making small adjustments to instrument panels — or gutting the car’s entire interior and starting fresh.

Two auto suppliers talked about the challenges of tailoring car interiors for the China market at the China Plastics in Automotive conference, held April 17 in Shanghai and sponsored by Plastics News.

CAIP Group President Todd Fortner said that, in general, customers often don’t know what makes them like a car when they sit in it. “The first rule in design is safety, safety, safety,” Fortner insisted. But, a car needs to feel safe and exciting at the same time, he said.

Changshu-based CAIP — Changshu Automotive Trim Co. — designs and manufactures interiors for carmakers including VW and Mercedes Benz. In fact, the firm is opening two new factories in Beijing to serve Mercedes Benz exclusively.

Carmakers, said Fortner, bring their models to the Chinese market with one of three attitudes. Some carmakers won’t change their car interiors at all — but they want manufacturing capabilities in China; some will adjust already existing designs; and some will do a complete overhaul, he said.

 “When I first started working, I joked with my owner that [CAIP] stood for “Copying Automotive Interior Parts,” Fortner said. Today, that has completely changed, he said: “Now we’re moving into the space-age.”

Makers of many luxury cars, for example, feel their interiors are designed to meet expectations of global customers, he said. Others make slight adjustments, such as Nissan Motor Co. did for its midsize luxury Nissan Teana. “In China, the interior is a light color, there is lots of wood — there is a high-tech feel for China,” Fortner said. In Japan, the interior for the car is grayer, more utilitarian.

Fortner said he has worked on a number of complete overhauls as well. “The Cadillac SLS changed the complete interior for the Chinese customer,” he said. “This is a customer that would be chauffeured, so we put a lot more features in the rear seat of the car — a lot more wood and a lot more leather.” 

Plastics, which offer certain freedoms in design, can help achieve a balance between safety and comfort, said Qiong Wang, engineering director for seat maker Faurecia (China) Holding Co. Ltd. and general manager of the firm’s Shanghai technical center,

Engineering plastics and plastic cushions are giving designers more freedom in designing automotive seating, while also reducing the overall weight of the car.

The problem with traditional seat cushioning, Wang said, is that to make seating comfortable, the cushion must be thick and the metal skeleton very large. “With plastic cushioning you can come up with different shapes without undermining the safety,” he said. “You can make them increasingly thin.” Also, plastic composites can be used to replace some of the metal in the seating framework.

That kind of cushioning, however, is used mainly in high-end vehicles, Wang said, but he hopes to expand its use to other cars. Increasing the amount of plastics, will help reduce carbon emissions and free up designers, he said.

“The cost may be slightly higher. But we can make it safe and fulfill our customers’ highest comfort requirements.


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Copycats don’t cut it when it comes to design for car interiors

Lauren Hilgers

Published: April 27, 2012 6:00 am ET

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