Riding light and in style: the future of interiors production

The pressure on the auto industry to lose weight extends right into the vehicle. Interiors suppliers need to accommodate lightweighting, functionality and new business models - but the cars still need to look great. By Xavier Boucherat

Safe, lightweight materials don’t sell cars by themselves. Attractive though these qualities are to OEMs, the average car-buyer with flexibility on price will also want to personalise things – and premium interiors provide one of the biggest opportunities. This means suppliers have to come up with solutions that not only help OEMs meet tightening regulations, but satisfy a wide range of personal tastes.

This is precisely where the IAC Group finds itself. Compared with other major diversified Tier 1s, such as Bosch, the interiors supplier’s product mix remains relatively tight, and it’s likely to stay that way. Over the course of ten years, which has included 15 acquisitions and the formation of two joint ventures, International Automotive Components (IAC) has become “a leader in consolidating the interior space.”

That’s according to Maurice Sessel, Senior Vice President, Global Engineering, at IAC. Speaking to Megatrends, he says that whilst the company will continue to evaluate its portfolio, the focus will remain with core products. The trick, he adds, is to remain relevant to customers – but as the industry continues to develop at faster a pace than ever before, what might this involve?

Lightweight luxury for the masses

“We see a demand for more luxury, but this is no longer limited to traditional luxury models,” says Sessel. “The trend toward premium, upscale interiors with increased customisation options is proliferating across high volume models, including many global platforms.” Features such as high quality A surfaces, those surfaces visible to the occupant, and materials such as leather are becoming increasingly important to a consumer’s purchasing decision. IAC serves a wide range of vehicle segments, from premium models manufactured by JLR and BMW to mass market models from Opel.

“IAC focuses on enhancing the driving experience with personalised interiors,” he says. “These are beautiful, safe and lightweighted to improve carbon footprint for our customers.” By integrating development and production of processes, IAC is aiming to enable mass customisation for consumers whilst helping OEMs to meet lightweighting targets without compromising on safety. Meeting these targets will be essential in the run up to heightened CO2 emissions regulations – in Europe, all new models will be required to achieve a fleet average of 95g/km by 2021, whilst corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards in the US will require OEMs to achieve a light vehicle fleet average of 54.5mpg by 2025.

“When looking at lightweighting strategies, we consider the entire interior space, including both hard and soft trim components,” says Sessel. “Discounting seats, we believe we can take away about 15kg (33lbs) by substituting heavy injection moulded parts with light weight components, which might involve use of natural fibre technologies, new sandwich materials, weight reduced décor materials and foam injection moulding.” Natural fibre reinforcement for plastics is of particular interest to manufacturers. The process can offer up to 50% weight reduction along with high-crash absorbing properties, and IAC expects to see industry wide efforts to standardise and model natural fibre materials so they can be specified for a number of interior applications.

In addition, the company seeks to strategically integrate acoustic and insulating properties into soft trim components such as flooring, dash insulator, wheel arch liner and headliner applications. Functional integration, explains Sessel, continues to be a trend in interior materials. The company envisages increased demand for what Sessel refers to as “comfort and delight” features, such as heated surfaces, or ambient light features. Luminescent surfaces are also expected to become more widespread, as well as absorbing and damping features, such as can be found on the new BMW 7 Series headliner.

With a global presence that operates over 1,000 injection moulding machines, a large supplier like IAC also has the ability to innovate the injection moulding process itself, allowing it to make lightweight components whilst retaining standard equipment.

Kitting out the autonomous car

Sessel says the evolution towards autonomous driving will only increase the demand for luxury lightweighting, as the driver’s eyes and hands become free to experience more of the vehicle’s interior. IAC’s Advanced Engineering team will be keeping a close eye on the emergence of autonomous tech, to better understand how it will change the consumer’s behaviour in a car, and in turn how they interact with the interiors.

“As a major supplier of instrument panels, complete cockpits and consoles, we’re expecting developments in black panel and integrated electronics into trim products”,” says Sessel. “We also see features like animated lighting and ‘active’ surface and décor materials that can be backlit with either ambient or functional lighting, and also have the possibility to display monitoring information, or have integrated controlling such as touchless switching.” Once again, says Sessel, the crucial thing will be to stay relevant to the needs of OEMs.

Other developments suppliers will need to be aware of include new automotive business models, such as car sharing. For an interiors supplier, this means developing resilient materials for vehicles used by a number of different people with different expectations and requirements.

But whilst Sessel admits that alternative mobility solutions are variables that will shape the future of the automotive business, “particularly with the emergence of megacities where decreasing private ownership is expected,” IAC is just as concerned with the emerging middle class in markets such as China and India.

“Just look at China. In 2012, there were 200,000 households earning over €100,000 (US$110,350),” he says. “By 2030, there will be 13 million. Compare that to today’s vehicle penetration rate in China, with 75 car owners per 1,000 people, and just imagine the potential for increased vehicle production and sales. We will need to respond to new needs of individual markets, and the trends uniquely impacting them.”

The challenge for IAC is daunting. Lead times and logistics, says Sessel, will remain tense, with delivery of some components expected mere hours from an OEM build order. “We will see a rise in quality checking, such as poka-yoke devices, flexible assembly line set-ups able to accommodate more than one model or variant, and collaborative man-machine work-stations.”

Confidence remains high, however, and developments in the industry continue at breakneck speed. “Quality, mass customisation and craftsmanship will continue to be at the heart of the manufacturing process,” concludes Sessel.

This article appeared in the Q1 2016 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue.