In 2005, Ford decided to bring seat engineering back in-house. Prior to that, Ford bought seats engineered by their suppliers. “That was a pretty monumental shift," said Mike Kolich, Seating Engineer for Ford.
Why bother? With seats engineered by suppliers, Ford presented a disjointed show room, according to Kolich. “You could walk into a show room and sit in different cars and know there was something different about each seat,” he explained.
Ford wanted consistent brand “DNA.” That meant defining a set of quantifiable measurements providing a consistent feel across all Ford vehicles worldwide. Kolich was part of a team that established that DNA, using data from thousands of tests. A surprise in their research was how common customers’ tastes for seating comfort were, even from different parts of the world. Good news for developing a worldwide seating DNA.
“These measurements are in addition to industry standards, such as SAE standards,” said Kolich. “We still have to deliver, say, H-point.” With objective criteria in hand, the Ford team engineered an architecture for a family of seats, including the 2013 Escape.
The new Escape seats feature a V-shape contour. “Whatever the size or shape of the driver in the 2013 Escape, that person will find themselves centered in front of the steering wheel and instrument panel,” explained Kolich. It also positions them properly to the airbags.
This front seat architecture is not only comfortable, it is also 10% lighter. Ford downsized by using high-strength steels, laser welding, intelligent part integration, targeted use of engineered plastics, and detailed structural-section analyses.
Ford is also using a newer mannequin that features a three-segment articulated back. The current OSCAR dummy was originally developed in the 1950s with a one-piece back. The new dummy more closely replicates the human body, collecting better data on back pressure points. Ford is among the first automakers to use this new mannequin, according to the company.
Objective evaluation of every seat design is conducted in a dedicated lab at Ford’s Product Development Center (PDC). The OSCAR dummy is used along with a Romer Infinite portable CMM equipped with a laser line scanner. It measures the space around the seat with bodies of various sizes. The 3-D scan data is analyzed and fed back to the computer models as part of the vehicle development process, including crash simulation. Ford is also beginning to use its Augmented Reality technology to enhance the speed and quality of its seat engineering, enhancing craftsmanship as well as ensuring proper visibility and packaging.
Why so much effort in mere seats? One reason is that comfort is more important to purchase decisions. “Because automakers are getting so good at attributes that used to be differentiators, like vehicle dynamics or noise, now the differentiators are things like seat comfort. The latest top attributes based on research are fuel efficiency, aesthetics, and comfort—of which seats play a big part,” explained Kolich.
How does Kolich see the future? He reported Ford working on a common backseat architecture that may be ready for specific designs as early as 2012. He also pointed out that slimmer seats are in the future. Slim seats provide both better aesthetics and more comfort in the form of increased foot and knee room for rear-seat passengers. “For example, office chairs have evolved from large cushy chairs in 1960 to slim, thin, stylish chairs today,” he said.