Automakers are putting a new emphasis on interior design.
They are trying to make car and truck interiors more functional and user-friendly, and they're looking to acknowledge the little touches that bring car buyers back to their brands.
Why then, industry followers ask, do some vehicle interiors feel like they are awash in what some car designers call ``cheap black plastic''?
While cost plays a part in separating an attractive from an unattractive interior system, it is also a matter of selecting which resins to use and where to put processing dollars to their best use, said interior specialists from four North American auto manufacturers.
``We all use the same plastic,'' said Jeff Godshall, senior design manager for DaimlerChrysler AG of Auburn Hills, Mich., who spoke during a news briefing at the Auto Interiors Show, held May 15-16 in Detroit. ``It's up to us to use that material creatively, especially when it comes to color and graining and texture to make it palatable.''
Just consider the center console in nearly every vehicle on the road, added Terry Duncan, a Ford Motor Co. design manager. They all have roughly the same combination of materials - ABS or a polycarbonate/ABS blend. But while some consoles stand out for compliments, others rack up complaints.
Careful design and engineering, combined with teamwork from every element of the production chain, can make a difference, said Michael Sweers, general manager of engineering design for Toyota Motor Corp.'s Toyota Technical Center USA Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Carmakers must have a clear vision of what they want and pass those standards to everyone, Sweers said.
``Just look at the tooling,'' he said. ``If the tooling is taken care of, then it can look like something other than a piece of black plastic. Grain can make a world of difference between something looking like a piece of plastic or a resin that looks warm and inviting.''
For years, car companies have focused on exterior styling to draw customers' attention. The interior was more of an afterthought, even though consumers interact more with their vehicles from the inside.
``The exterior is the bait,'' Godshall said. ``The interior is the hook.''
Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford is recruiting designers from a consumer-product background who are familiar with how people use the electronic items that cover dashboards. The company also is sponsoring challenges for design schools that require at least some of the research go into interiors, Duncan said.
``The aptitudes for designing good interiors are very different from the aptitudes that we look for in exteriors,'' he said.
The passenger compartment has elements of functionality with switches, knobs and dials. There is climate control, packaging capabilities and safety systems to consider along with federal regulations regarding air bags and head-impact criteria.
And all of that comes into play in a resin-based environment - one that consumed 1.6 billion pounds of plastics last year in North America.
``You pretty much have to have a Ph.D. in plastics anymore to really understand how to do an interior, and how to win those battles when someone says that you can't put a cup holder here or there, or that you can't have that angle. You've got to know how to work your way around those things,'' Duncan said.
That means relying more heavily on suppliers that have the knowledge to make a designer's concepts into reality.
``What we're hearing from the [automakers] is, not only do they want us to be their supplier, they want you to be their nutritionist, their physical therapist, their fitness trainer,'' said John Phillips, director of design for Southfield, Mich.-based interior specialist Lear Corp.
The drive to make the basic components not only look good, but also look different from those in competitors' cars could provide more business for specialists. Clariant Masterbatches of Charlotte, N.C., is working hard to catch automakers' attention and focus on how it can help balance and harmonize the colors in the interior.
Even a basic black can differ widely in tone and tint if the underlying resin is a polyolefin blend or PVC, said Kevin Gargano, Clariant director of cross-divisional sales. In addition, a pattern that may look good under showroom lights could shift or clash in natural light.
``We can eliminate the problems before the [vehicle] launch,'' he said.
But even putting that information before designers does not guarantee a concept will make it into production. Cost cutters at nearly every automaker still can push for cheaper alternatives, regardless of the overall flow, said Denny Ferrell, automotive sales manager for Americhem Inc. of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, a color additives supplier.
``The current tier structure is failing,'' added Larry Denton, president of Dow Automotive, an Auburn Hills division of Dow Chemical Co.
``People aren't buying cars from Detroit manufacturers. They're buying trucks. The thing that's missing is innovation. We aren't seeing true innovation in the interior. That's more than deciding where an [entertainment system] will go or how many cup holders to put in.''
The supply base must come together, Sweers agreed. Toolmakers, resin suppliers and processors can make a real difference in defining the fit and finish of a vehicle. Toyota also is consulting with its own line workers to ensure that the modules now being conceived actually can be installed in the assembly plant.
The concerns Duncan said he now sees at Ford are the same ones raised when he was a designer for supplier United Technologies Automotive.
``One of the things I found there that was so frustrating is that most of my time was spent trying to figure out what the [original equipment manufacturers] wanted,'' he said.
``For me to put together anything as to what we could do, I had to know what the OEM wanted, and that information was not forthcoming. I told them that I'll spend money to solve your problems, but you've got to tell me what your problems are.
``Now that I'm at Ford, one of the things I've been working on is communicating clear strategies to the suppliers so that they know what to work on, that they'll know what we want. The OEMs have not been really good at that."