TRAVERSE CITY, MICH. — Color-changing panels, 3-D printed doors and redesigned storage solutions are a part of Johnson Controls Inc.'s vision for the future of automotive interiors.
The company is experimenting with swapping static plastic surfaces for “smart” surfaces that can perform additional functions.
“Our vision is that every ‘dumb' plastic surface will become ‘smart' in some form or shape,” Han Hendriks, vice president of advanced product development at JCI, said Aug. 6 at the Center for Automotive Research's Management Briefing Seminars.
Future interior panels may have heating or cooling functions, or be self-cleaning surfaces. The company's research team is also experimenting with car interior surfaces that could change colors to match the motorist's whim.
The concept could prove especially useful for vehicles that are used by ride-sharing services, Hendriks said.
“What you really want is when you enter a car, is that it turns into your environment. So that you are able to create the specifics of the interior that you want to have, even if it's not your car, but you enter it and the colors of the interior start to adapt to what you've programmed,” he said.
Hendriks' product research team conducts its work primarily in three technical centers located in Dusseldorf, Shanghai and Holland, Mich. The team is part of JCI's newly formed $7.5 billion-a-year joint venture with Yanfeng Automotive Trim Systems Co. Johnson Controls will have a 30 percent share in that partnership, which will market instrument panels, door panels and other interior components.
While color-changing interior surfaces could be classified as “what-if” technologies, Hendriks' unit is engaged in more immediate research. For example, Hendriks is sorting out the preferences of China's growing cadre of luxury car owners.
A couple of examples: Chinese motorists prefer to have storage bins designed to hold specific accessories, such as a smart phone or sun glasses — rather than general purpose bins.
Another example: older Chinese luxury car owners prefer to be chauffeured, so automakers cater to them with extended-wheelbase sedans with a lavish rear compartment.
But younger motorists — born in the 1980s or later — prefer to drive themselves, Hendriks noted. So Hendriks expects younger buyers will have preferences more closely aligned with their peers in Europe and North America.
On the manufacturing side, Hendriks sees value in the potential of additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, to reduce waste and streamline production for complex assembled parts.
“What we should do is take a door panel with 11 different materials, 20 different components, produced in different parts of the country, being brought together and assembled in this one plant, with a lot of tools, with a lot of equipment, with a lot of process steps. Now turn this into a situation where you have one printer printing those twelve different materials, those twenty different components, assembled all at once,” he said.
In some cases the constraints placed on parts by traditional manufacturing methods — a part has to be a certain thickness so it won't break coming out of a mold, for example — can be eliminated entirely with 3-D printing.
“You start to design for 3-D printing, and if you then project the cost of the assembled part with the current process today, it starts to become competitive at some point in the future,” Hendriks said. “It's a very exciting technology.”
Plastics News staff reporter Kerri Jansen contributed to this report.