The outlook for automotive leather is looking bright. Demand is soaring worldwide as automakers seek to make the interiors of vehicles from subcompacts to pickup trucks more luxurious. Plus, the availability of hides is improving because fewer shoes are being made of leather due to a global consumer shift to more casual footwear.
According to WardsAuto installation-rate data, 35.7% of ’15 model-year cars and 44.8% of ’15 trucks sold in the U.S. were equipped with leather seats, up substantially from just two years ago when 35.1% of cars and 39.4% of trucks were so equipped. WardsAuto analysts say these numbers reflect the surging popularity of luxury CUVs.
But even though the market for automotive leather is growing, supplying automakers is becoming more challenging. Vehicle product development times are shrinking while the number of interior color and trim combinations is expanding. That puts increasing pressure on the supply chain to move faster and be more flexible and efficient.
Unfortunately, the automotive ecosystem (OEMS, Tier 1, and Tanners) are substantially behind the times in regards to the development and manufacturing of leather components, says Roy Shurling, head of Global Business Development for Lectra, a supplier of automated cutting equipment and software for fabrics, leather and technical textiles such as airbags and car seats.
Lectra is a global supplier based in Bordeaux, France. About 34% of its business is auto-related, with 47% in fashion and apparel and the rest in furniture and other industries. It logged $264 million (€238 million) in revenues last year.
The company is looking to be a major disrupter in the automotive leather supply chain by digitizing the value chain to use advanced computer-aided design programs for 3-dimensional product development that enables Design for Cost and Design for Manufacturing techniques at the development phase, as well as digital cutting in manufacturing.
The design and development of seating and interior components often is still done using draping techniques similar to those used by tailors of high-end men’s suits. Pattern developers drape materials on foam or clay models to develop the patterns needed for the cutting of leather or fabric for seating and other interior components.
New disruptive 3D to 2D CAD programs allow designers and product development to work hand in hand to develop interior components and seating in a concurrent process that eliminates the need to wait for foam or substrate prototypes.
Lectra’s Design Concept 3D program allows product development engineers to find the ultimate seam locations and pattern shapes to optimize the cost and manufacturability of components during the design phase.
Developing in 3D, using Design for Cost and Design for Manufacturing techniques can save weeks in product development, and eliminate costly engineering changes late in the product’s launch phase, Shurling says.
It may surprise most, but even the fashion industry moved away from draping for product development to CAD programs nearly 20 years ago, he says.
Another benefit of this disruptive technology is that it allows extremely accurate renderings of 3D models taking into account the true characteristics of the material during visualization to ensure the right aesthetic is found.
About 80% of fabric car seats are cut using advanced digital processes, Shurling says, but 90% of leather seats still are cut using processes that rely on roller presses and dies. Using dies for manufacturing have drawbacks because the auto industry is creating a wider variety of models and renewing vehicle architectures at a faster pace.
First, dies have to be produced once the geometry of patterns is locked, and this process can take from two weeks up to more than eight weeks, slowing the launch of new programs. Dies also are only good for the life of a platform, so their life span can be rather short, and the space required to save them for service work after production can be substantial.
Dies also present a challenge in the fact that the floor space they require alone around the cutting tables often limit cutting of components to a particular row, or limited number of parts, which does not allow a mix of shapes that could provide for better yields.
The most limiting factor to be considered regarding dies is that they are not flexible or agile, as once they are created any change requires making new die cavities, and the changeover from one program to another is also time consuming.
Lectra’s Versalis digital leather cutting solution offers an answer to many of the issues of die cutting, Shurling says. The Versalis machine is capable of scanning premarked hides as they are loaded to determine the quality zones and defects on each hide. The system then automatically nests the required order over a sequence of hides to determine the best utilization for each hide while maintaining the part balance for the complete order.
This digitalization of defect detection and nesting eliminates a great deal of variability in the cutting room, and human error. The machine then cuts the hides with extreme accuracy taking into account the layout made by the automatic nesting program. The entire solution is a conveyor system that promotes a machine-driven versus operator-driven process to ensure maximum throughput.
Chopping Development, Launch Times
This combination of the 3D CAD and digital cutting technology allows the automotive leather ecosystem to eliminate 12 to 16 weeks from development and launch cycles and reduce a great amount of waste in resources, time, and materials.
If digitalization is used to create an all-new design from product development through manufacturing it can result in material savings up to 16% Shurling tells attendees at a technical conference it hosted at its headquarters in Bordeaux in April.
Most of the savings come at the front end of the design and development cycle where using Design for Cost concepts can have a huge impact, as it is much harder to affect savings later in manufacturing once a product is already locked. Shurling is expected to make similar points during his presentation at the WardsAuto Interiors Conference in Detroit on May 11.
The percentage of textile car-seat upholstery cut digitally went from 10% in 2000 to 80% in 2015 and it is time for the leather industry to follow a similar path, Shurling says.
In a recent white paper report, Lectra acknowledges automated cutting technology has been available for 20 years and older-generation machines frequently did not live up to expectations, but the company argues the latest technology is much more reliable and many issues now can be solved through internet connectivity and online monitoring.
And the timing for change is right, Lectra says. Industry analysts predict the global automotive share of the cowhides that leather tanners process will rise from 15% to 18% today to at least 25% by the end of the decade.
This is due not only to declines in the footwear industry but continuing growth in auto sales and leather demand. Leather industry sources say one Rolls-Royce can contain 10 to 15 whole cattle hides, and a growing number of high-volume budget brands also offer leather as an option. The major luxury brands are moving farther down market while mainstream brands are moving upmarket. Both these trends mean more leather in the cabin.
“Leather today is a strategic lever to enhance premium value in products. It is a long-standing hallmark of upmarket cars, says Gerard Payen, director-New Espace Program, Renault at Lectra’s recent conference in France.
The time is right to make the move to digital cutting technology, Shurling says, but he does warn prospective customers the change will not be easy. “This will be disruptive to your business.”