With its latest version of the Taurus sedan, Ford Motor Co. is out to combine clean design with new technology to help polish its image in the marketplace. And that image extends inside the car, where one piece of the interior trim highlights a marriage of hand-made design with newer materials and production, and opens the window for more decorative flourishes in the future.
The 2010 Taurus' door panels use a spray urethane skin that mimics the look of a hand-wrapped leather trim, right down to the stitches and wrinkles from the original leather model replicated in a soft and pliant thermoplastic.
Urethane skin has been used in the auto industry for about 10 years, but by choosing the material and process early, designing for that material from the start and having the carmaker and its parts supplier work closely together, the Taurus door panels are able to take the material to another level.
We're delivering something that you wouldn't find except on a $160,000 Aston Martin, and we're delivering the same quality at a $26,000 price, said Lon Zaback, interior design manager for Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford. It's making good design accessible.
For decades PVC was the material of choice for auto interior skins, but problems with its performance in both heat and cold and concerns about the process of making PVC has brought other material options to the forefront in the past decade. Urethane has been gaining attention because of its ability to imitate the feel of far more expensive leather, but being less expensive and easier to process than leather.
While some inexpensive cars bypass the skin and rely only on the structural substrate, automakers increasingly have focused on boosting the look and feel of cars' interiors with a trim made of a structural substrate and flexible skin, with soft foam sprayed between the two layers for a soft touch.
Ford designers who gathered to create the next-generation Taurus in February 2007 made an early decision to use urethane as early as March or April of 2007, Matt Quam, design and release engineer for Ford, said in a Sept. 14 telephone interview.
Skin made through a spray process gave Ford an ability to design in tighter radius curves and corners, which means smaller gaps between interior parts, Zaback said.
With the material and process locked in early, Ford and its molder, Automotive Components Holdings LLC which is owned by Ford were able look at how they might use that material in new ways.
With spray urethane, a mold can be produced using a real-world model wood or tree bark or stone for a natural look, or a piece of actual leather rather than trying to reproduce a leatherlike grain on a mold that is replicated on a plastic skin.
The 'aha' moment came when ACH brought us a sample of spray urethane where they had taken things like change purses and made castings of them that were reproduced, he said. There were zippers and folds of materials that looked so realistic that you would try to move the zipper.
That opened the envelope for designers to begin imagining new looks for the door panel. Rather than a relatively plain panel, they created a sculptured look with raised parallel seams that looked almost like high-end, hand-stitched upholstery that ACH could capture in the mold.
But bringing that design to life was not as easy as replicating a change purse. Ford and ACH had to create a model for that panel from scratch, sculpting a version that could then serve as the template for the door, Quam said.
Designers and engineers who had been using computer-assisted-design/engineering software had to create a physical sculpture to stand in for the panel including spots where the soft foam could be injected later.
Ford turned to its in-house trim shop, which normally makes limited-production pieces for auto show cars, and had it hand wrap the structural form. The result was a unique, hand-stitched, leather-wrapped door panel template then used to create the nickel tools for the skin. Because the right- and left-hand panels are individual, unique models, there are small differences between the right and left panels inside the car.
That hand stitching does not exist in CAD, Quam said.
The digital duplicate of a stitch lacks the real look made with a needle point and the pull of a thread on the material. The team also wanted to use two different kinds of stitches, said Mike Lee, product design supervisor for ACH.
You've got to hand-craft it, Zaback said.
But while those unique models provided the intricate details of hand-made panels, those same details could also be interpreted as flaws, such as a wrinkle in the leather, the fold of the material under the surface. Normally, the team would have erased those flaws on a computer-designed trim. In this case, they wanted a final product that would show the hand work.
They're not the typical perfection that we normally expect, Zaback said.
The designers and engineers had to convince everyone that what normally would be eliminated in a computer-aided design was actually desired for this project.
We had to sell them on it, he said.
With everyone on board, though, Ford has been able to replicate hand-made parts on a large-scale manufacturing line, and while the companies are not discussing the future, the Taurus has provided lessons for future products.
In the past as designers, we didn't get that involved with technologies, Zaback said. In today's environment, where the competition is so high and quality levels are high across the board, you've got to have a great product with exceptional attention to details.
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