DETROIT – Representatives of three companies producing fundamentally different materials for automotive interiors agree that versatility is one of the qualities their products have in common.
Sustainability, lightweighting and consumer preference are other OEM priorities suppliers are trying to address, the officials say during a panel discussion at the recent WardsAuto Interiors Conference here.
“The days of materials doing one thing are over,” says Richard Vaughan, creative director for CGT, a Cambridge, ON, Canada-based manufacturer of automotive plastics, thermoplastics, foam/synthetic composites, coatings and polymeric fibers – “everything that’s not the leather inside your car.”
CGT is finding automotive applications for its other products, Vaughan says, citing the company’s theater-screen material that is “acoustically transparent” and able to faithfully transmit sound from speakers behind screens in IMAX theaters.
Materials also must accommodate consumer tastes. Vaughan says Chinese OEMs have asked for trims infused with the smells of lemon and green tea because customers “don’t like ‘our’ new-car smell.”
Other CGT products include Vehreo 2.0, described by Vaughan as “vegan leather;” Repel, a coating that resists denim stains on seats; and CoolTec, an advanced leatherette that can reduce interior surface temperatures up to 55° F (13° C).
Such man-made materials reflect consumer demand, Vaughan says, noting Tesla interiors are 100% synthetic and Bentley has indicated interest in synthetic materials as well.
Countering Vaughan was Ted Bott (pictured, below), director-global product marketing and branding for Southfield, MI-based seating manufacturer Lear, who said natural leather is increasingly popular among Millennials and Generation Z.
Imitation leather is “missing that certain something,” while natural leather offers durability, cleanability and overall comfort, Bott said, noting each of Wards 10 Best Interiors-winning vehicles for 2018 had leather seating.
Leather also connotes “luxury and brand promise,” Bott says, adding, “If you’re going to make a promise for a brand, you have to keep it all the way through.”
Leather’s sustainability resonates with consumers, Bott says. With 4.5 million cattle consumed globally every day, he says, “Nothing could be more responsible than taking a hide, the last product from the animal, and turning it into something beautiful that will last 40, 50, 60 years.”
The third panelist, Kylee Guenther, CEO of Sterling Heights, MI-based Spectalite Americas, also emphasizes sustainability and says her company’s products are finding their way into the auto industry: plastics and composites reinforced with bamboo fiber.
An auto part that Spectalite will begin producing in July for a customer Guenther declines to name is 30% bamboo, she says. The company already is using other natural fibers in plastics production, she says, adding Spectalite also makes bamboo-reinforced plastics for products such as kitchenware and toys.
Other natural fibers can be pelletized and thermoformed, Guenther says, but bamboo is truly sustainable in that it absorbs large amounts of carbon dioxide, is biodegradable and is an underutilized crop grown mainly in regions with underdeveloped economies.
Materials suppliers must be responsive as the automotive landscape changes, the panelists say.
The natural markings in leather can offer the differentiation between seats that some OEMs are looking for, Bott says. Vaughan notes plastics are preferred over leather in leased cars to keep prices down, and automakers will look to control those costs further as they build more cars for ride sharing and ride hailing. And Guenther says automakers’ use of bamboo composites meets public demand for greater corporate responsibility.