French auto supplier Faurecia SA thinks the next generation of automotive seating could eliminate polyurethane foam.
With its concept Sustainable Comfort Seat, the company replaces foam inside the seat with two sheets of injection molded thermoplastic polyurethane. The design echoes the visible structure in some athletic shoes and the molded seats of office chairs.
The twin-sheet structure is part of a seat system that is 17 percent lighter than standard seats and 30 millimeters thinner, which allows more leg room for rear-seat passengers.
The entire seat also uses an injection molded nylon and long-glass-fiber structural frame that replaces steel, and an injection molded head restraint in place of foam and steel.
There are multiple innovations in here, product planning manager Jay Hutchins said in a March 20 interview at Faurecia's North American technical center in Auburn Hills.
Faurecia first introduced the seat as part of its Light Attitude concept interior during the Los Angeles auto show in November. Since then, the company has been showing it to individual carmakers.
Lighter and thinner seats have been a target for automakers and suppliers for the past few years, with most research studies focusing on reducing the bulk through improved urethane foam that will provide the needed support in a smaller package.
Faurecia's seat eliminates the foam in favor of the injection molded core. Two sheets of TPU are designed with cavities and raised areas to provide both support and flexibility where it is needed, said Olivier Boinais, industrial design manager.
The two sheets are then vibrationwelded and joined with an injection molded outer shell at the rear of the seat, and a textile cover.
The model that Faurecia is showing to potential customers makes that inner structure visible just as shoe maker Nike made its molded structure visible in the heel of its Air tennis shoes though it also can be completely covered, Boinais said.
This is really, really a game changer, he said.
Hutchins said it may be more economically viable for Faurecia to use injection molding rather than foam. The firm is still building its regional manufacturing base and doesn't already have the foam manufacturing footprint in place that its competitors have, making it easier to put the money into different technology.
The seat is not the only manufacturing shift in the Light Attitude concept. Faurecia envisions stripping away the cover material on instrument panels and door panels, instead showcasing a compression molded panel that would use a natural material filler, such as hemp, flax or wood.
The whole idea is celebrating the substrate and getting down to the essential material, Hutchins said. The process can use either a thermoset or thermoplastic resin, which can be left exposed or covered with cloth or leather.
Faurecia already makes a compression molded substrate with natural-material filler for Daimler's European Smart car, though that panel is completely covered with cloth.
Light Attitude intentionally exposes the natural substrate in large swaths of the interior but covers other portions in bright yellow textiles decorated with a laser-scored pattern that provides a distinct aesthetic pattern and also vents hot and cool air through holes in the cloth.
Traditional hard plastic trim is still used around the steering wheel and to house the instrument cluster and heating and cooling controls.
In the door panel, laser scoring creates the speaker opening, replacing a standard speaker grille.
The instrument panel on the Light Attitude is 30 percent lighter than a standard injection molded part, and cuts another 11 pounds of weight by replacing a structural steel beam across the entire car with a system relying on a tripod structure around the steering column, and structural plastics on the passenger side.
Other potential plastics uses include injection molded acoustic chambers within the door's structural substrate. The open area within the door provides room for sounds to resonate, boosting the sound performance.
Faurecia also replaces the rigid injection molded center console between the front seats with a smaller cantilevered console. The rest of storage area is made out of fabric that can mimic the flexible style of a backpack.
The firm is not making predictions about when its new seat or re-imagined instrument panel will go into production, but current turmoil in the auto industry could provide an opening for new ideas, Hutchins said.