DETROIT – Composites already are seeing use in vehicle interiors, but usually are applied clandestinely beneath the surface, most often as structural components.
For instance, the doors of the Jeep Renegade, winner of a 2015 Wards 10 Best Interiors trophy, have a composite with an embedded net for structural safety reasons. “But why not emphasize (that) as a design feature?” asks FCA U.S.’s Megan McConnell.
McConnell, speaking here today at the 2016 WardsAuto Interiors Conference, is longtime fan of composites and would like to see their application in interiors in a decorative, sustainable way.
“I personally owe composites a shout-out. (They’re) what led me to the automotive industry,” says McConnell, a color and interiors designer for FCA just two years out of college.
After working with an air-dried cotton clay in school that mimicked the attributes of porcelain, McConnell has taken a keen interest in composites that could work in automotive interiors.
She points out the innovative work of London-based jewelry designer Rosalie McMillan, who uses recycled coffee grounds plus oil, heat and pressure to form her pieces, as being transferrable to interior hard spaces.
McConnell also likes the decorative potential of a bio-material called Denimite, a product of Iris Industries that combines denim reportedly processed into a pulp with a solvent-free, VOC-free thermoset epoxy resin.
The fiber composite could replace painted bezels inside a vehicle and be texturized and colorized, as well.
“Because it’s sustainable you could work hand-in-hand with the supplier and create a customized option…that wouldn’t be considered wasteful because you can bring it back in the cycle,” she tells WardsAuto following her presentation on a materials innovation panel, noting a part swapped out for the sustainable composite part can be ground down and made it into another piece.
Graphene, 3-D Printing Rearing Heads
Besides the reuse of common materials, Bob Eller of consulting firm Robert Eller Associates, also speaking on the materials innovation panel, sees graphene and 3-D printing as opportunities to be explored in producing interior materials.
Eller is a big fan of graphene, a thin carbon layer that is flexible and conductive and can enable smart-touch surfaces in vehicle interiors such as steering wheels and seats.
Graphene also could be used in high-damping foams in car doors to create a quieter interior, an important focal point for many suppliers and OEMs as voice-activated features proliferate.
Eller also likes the innovative possibilities of 3-D printing in interior spaces, although he dislikes the term as he feels it minimizes the process’s groundbreaking potential.
“When you combine (manufacturing and the use of composites in 3-D printing) it’s a very powerful equation,” Eller says of how quickly interior parts could be produced.
He also sees the possibility of skins having a second decorative purpose, noting ContiTech/Benecke Kaliko’s Decojet thin foil can showcase, window-like, a company logo.
Besides emissions, interior suppliers also must be cognizant of the weight of their components as U.S. corporate average fuel economy for fleets must average roughly 54.5 mpg (4.3L/100 km) by 2025.
Benecke Kaliko’s Dominik Beckman, global director-marketing and innovation management, says his company’s Xpreshn and Xpreshn HD thermoplastic olefin compact foils and foil laminates can be a solution to both emissions and weight concerns.
Xpreshn is promised to be 60% lighter in weight than standard decorative materials and with a 48% better carbon-dioxide balance than PVC foam foils.
Gradient shading also can be used in one sheet of Xpreshn, with Beckman noting Alfa Romeo’s MiTO model is a customer.
As the market grows more complex, with China developing a ravenous taste for luxury vehicles while the U.S. is embracing car sharing, IAC’s Rose Ryntz, vice president-advanced development and materials engineering, says suppliers and automakers will be kept on their toes, needing flexible materials that can be both beautiful in the backseat, where many Chinese luxury-vehicle buyers spend most of their time, and durable for multiple customers of car-sharing services.
“You’re not going to take out an instrument panel and put it back in…(but) who says you can’t make a different applique that goes across the vehicle you can replace?” she asks.