This is the first installment in a three-part series examining how digitalization is transforming two of the oldest, most traditional elements of car manufacturing – vehicle seating development and design, particularly leather seating.
Consumer demand for greater personalization has created the need in most industries to develop and launch more products with shorter lead times and lower series volumes than ever before. Digital transformation is driving change in all industries to cope with the growing array of choices, colors and variants, and the automotive industry is no exception. In particular, the automotive supply ecosystem is accelerating time to market by digitalizing product development and manufacturing processes for vehicle seating and interiors.
Conventional manual design process
In the fast-moving world of vehicle manufacturing, it may come as a surprise to learn that suppliers still produce components as essential as vehicle seating using manual processes. Seat frames and foam are typically developed using sophisticated computer-aided design (CAD) software, but often the seat trim cover or other interior components are created from “mannequins” of the physical frame and foam prototypes by draping fabric or other materials over the physical seat prototype to find the perfect fit. Developing the seat trim cover manually can be a time-consuming process that takes days or weeks depending on the complexity of the seats and interior. Often, this also leads to the production of several physical prototypes, with each one costing as much as €10,000 and accounting for up to 10% of the cost of a vehicle.
Now it’s no longer necessary to wait days or weeks for the physical prototype of the foam or frame to arrive before beginning to develop the seat trim cover or other interior components. Commercial software programs can be used to develop the flat patterns for cutting directly from 3D models of the frames and foam that form the backbone of the seat. This saves a tremendous amount of time by turning a sequential process into a concurrent one.
Die cutting is a relic of the assembly line processes that were introduced during the Second Industrial Revolution by the likes of Henry Ford. Although it is an extremely dependable mechanical and manual process, it relies on physical tooling in the form of dies. Die cavities can be expensive to produce, costly to change, and not at all flexible given the quick turnaround now desired by consumers.
In the past decade, most Tier-1 and Tier-2 automotive suppliers have moved from die cutting to digital cutting to manufacture fabric interiors. Fluctuating demand and quickly changing consumer tastes created the need for a more flexible and agile cutting value chain to stay competitive.
Digitalization of the leather cutting process comes with many benefits, chiefly enhanced manufacturing flexibility and the elimination of retooling. By changing some of the most time-honored practices in the automotive industry, digitalization is accelerating the development of new models as well as creating an endless range of choice. Never before has mass production felt so individual.
In part two of our series, we’ll see how digitalization of the manufacturing process is enabling carmakers to offer consumers more choice than ever. Moreover, we’ll see how automotive interiors developed using design to cost, design for manufacturing, and virtual prototyping processes offer a very significant competitive advantage over traditional techniques.