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JCI taps next-generation interiors

By: Rhoda Miel

January 25, 2013

DETROIT — Johnson Controls Inc. is looking across a variety of plastics production capabilities and new ways to combine them for the next generation of auto interiors.

With its Compression Hybrid Molding process technology — or CHyM, pronounced "chime" — the auto supplier would combine the best of compression molding of natural-filled composites with injection molding. The resulting part could reduce a door panel's weight by 40 percent, the company said in its Jan. 14 debut of the technology and other concepts at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

JCI also is looking at ways to use plastics for structural seat components and seeking to use in-mold film technology to provide a lightweight alternative to interior electronic displays.

"What used to be simple plastic surfaces now can become electronic carrying areas," said Han Hendricks, vice president of advanced product development for JCI's automotive electronics and interiors group.

Hendricks and his team are at the heart of a move within Johnson Controls to push forward new technology and products in its global automotive group. The firm — with automotive headquarters in Plymouth, Mich., and design and development centers in Holland, Mich.; Burscheid, Germany; and Shanghai — sees the group as a way to get new products on the market faster, said William Jackson, corporate vice president and president of the electronics, interiors, operations and innovations unit.

"We have 66 projects going on right now in different levels of maturity," Jackson said. "It takes everything in product development, from creating new technology to what we call commercialization to phase zero, when we start to sell it to the [automaker]."

Many parts of that development phase were on display for JCI in its Bespoke interior concept introduced at the show, held Jan. 14-27.

Electronics are integrated into the instrument panel. Compression molding and injection molding are combined in a center console in a process that also allows the company to place a removable, U-shaped "catch bin" around the console for pens, sunglasses, keys and other small items that might otherwise slip between the seat and console.

The CHyM process and use of a suspended fabric cover allow the door panel to fit flush against the instrument panel when the door is closed, rather than requiring a 6- to 8- millimeter gap between the parts.

"Currently the way we [make natural-fiber door panel substrates] is that we make a fiber mat, then we compression mold it, then trim it and then back-injection mold it," Jackson said. "[With CHyM] technology, we roll form the mat, then heat it up. The injection molding machine does the compression molding for us.

"It's a very cool technology, and furthermore we've eliminated a lot of the trimming, and it reduces a lot of weight. Seven pounds is a lot of weight."

The system takes advantage of the weight savings of natural-fiber composites, but also has the rigidity of injection molding where that is needed.

The panel can also be wrapped in traditional cover skins and undergo the same post-processing techniques as a traditionally produced door, he said.

Natural fiber composites — either thermoplastic or thermoset — could also be used in a plastic seat frame JCI is developing to replace current steel systems. The company has used plastic composites on rear seats, but now is looking at opportunities for front seats, said Jeff Lindberg, senior manager of the global product center-complete seats.