Suppliers target greener interiors

  • 28-Aug-2009 08:48 EDT
Johnson Controls is developing "natural finish" door panels that use sustainable materials and reduce weight.

While efficient drivetrains and lightweight body shells grab green headlines, interior supplier companies are working hard to reduce the environmental impact of their products, by making them lighter and using more sustainable materials.

“We are seeking to identify new designs that would be appropriate for a new generation of consumers who value sustainability but who don’t necessarily want to compromise their lifestyle,” explained Michael Warsaw, Vice President of Industrial Design for Johnson Controls Inc. 

Trouble is, no one wants to pay more for these green components. “That is the obvious challenge to creating something that is lower cost, lighter weight, very attractive, but is responsible for all the metrics on sustainability,” he said.

Trimming weight is a key goal for today’s car manufacturers, and they look hard even at already relatively lightweight interior materials. “The biggest factor for us is lower mass,” said Warsaw. “That by far for us is number one.”

“It all adds up,” remarked Richard Vaughan, Manager of Advanced Design and Innovation at Visteon Corp. “OEMs look for weight savings anywhere they can find it. We don’t want to dismiss it because it’s a small amount compared to [the weight of ] a tire.”

Lear Corp. has slashed the weight of the steel tracks used to mount its seats in cars by one-third by substituting thinner high-strength steel for the mild steel normally used. Steel thickness was reduced from 2.4 mm (0.094 in) to 1.6 mm (0.063 in), said Jeff Frelich, Director of Research and Development for Lear.

The new lightweight track is used in the company’s Eco Base seat system, contributing to a total system mass of 7.8 kg (17.2 lb), he said. “We believe it is the lowest-mass seat structure out there that meets safety requirements,” said Frelich.

Visteon is investigating potential automotive interior applications for 3M Corp.’s Thinsulate, a nonwoven polyurethane material well known to winter sports enthusiasts and all-season motorcyclists as insulation in their attire. It turns out that when produced differently, Thinsulate can be a surface material that would replace typical TPO (thermoplastic olefin), PVC (polyvinyl chloride), and spray polyurethane plastics, according to Vaughan.

Its soft surface attributes should make it appealing to consumers, but it is also 40% to 70% lighter than those materials, making it appealing to OEMs looking to reduce mass. Additionally, Thinsulate has sound-deadening characteristics, which means automakers could eliminate some of the cotton sound insulation normally used behind door panels and instrument panels, Vaughan said.

Johnson Controls hopes to entirely eliminate surface materials by developing materials with exposed fibers that retain the necessary resistance to soiling and fading from ultraviolet light exposure, reported Warsaw.

The Exposed Natural Fiber products highlighted in the company’s re3 technology demonstration vehicle are 40% lighter than traditional materials and are composed of 70% sustainable materials.

The challenge will be to spark an interest in exposed fiber’s appearance. “We think there is an eco aesthetic that people will find attractive,” he said.

Certainly if it weighs less and costs the same as current products, OEMs should think it looks interesting.

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