Grammer Automotive AG, one of Europe's leading manufacturers of head restraints and other interior components, is attracting interest from U.S. auto makers with an emphasis on safety as well as interior quality, its top North American executive says.
“My primary objective is to get more business from the American OEs, and it's progressing well,” Dimitri Moustakeas, vice president-sales and engineering, Grammer Automotive North America, tells Ward's during a tour of the supplier's facility in Amberg, Germany.
Moustakeas, who has been at his current post since January after stints at Intier Automotive Seating and Lear Corp., says he's also focusing on attracting U.S. transplants, such as Toyota Motor Mfg. North America Inc.
While North American auto makers once were more concerned with comfort than safety, things are changing, he says.
U.S. motor vehicle regulations pertaining to occupant head restraints soon will undergo a massive overhaul. Seat suppliers currently are looking to meet the new code, FMVSS 202A, and U.S. auto makers are in the throes of deciding the best way to satisfy the new mandate.
The code applies to front seats for all vehicles produced on or after Sept. 1, 2008. Rear seats for all new vehicles must be in compliance by Sept. 1, 2010.
In a rear-end collision, the occupant's head rotates rearward, then thrusts forward (as much as 30 degrees), damaging the soft tissue in the neck. The new federal code restricts head-to-chest rotation to 12 degrees.
Active headrests help reduce these risks by pivoting forward to support the head at the exact moment when it's most needed.
Grammer, which says its active head restraint system protects the head while maintaining styling objectives, produces two types of active headrests. One is mechanically based and can be reset after an accident. The other uses pyrotechnics and cannot be reset.
So far, most of Grammer's active headrest business is directed at European luxury makers, such as BMW AG, which uses Grammer's system across its lineup, and Mercedes-Benz, which uses the active headrests in its C- and E-Class lineups.
But Moustakeas and his team of 30 employees based in Troy, MI, know what is acceptable to European motorists may not pass muster with North American consumers, and they are working to customize Grammer's technology.
“There's a segment of the (North American) population that does not want to have a headrest anywhere near their head, and that's where the active head restraint system comes into play,” he says.
Grammer has been methodically spreading across the globe since it was founded 50 years ago as a manufacturer of seats for forklifts and tractors.
Over the years, the company has evolved into producing a variety of automotive niche products. Many are sold to larger suppliers, such as Johnson Controls Inc., which uses Grammer components in its seats and consoles.
At a Grammer plant in Amberg, some 85 employees work three shifts per day to produce 22,000 headrest components.
Many parts are shipped to Grammer's 17 manufacturing facilities scattered throughout the globe, where they are used to create products for sale to Tier 1 customers, or to be integrated into the supplier's products.
Not all Grammer's production takes place within Germany, where wages are high. Cost pressures in the auto industry have forced the company to shift some operations to low-cost countries, says Walter Schopf-international director-marketing.
“It costs the same to hire one German worker as it does to hire three workers in some low-cost countries,” Schopf tells Ward's.
“Grammer was one of the first to open a plant in Czech Republic, and we have a plant in Poland,” he says. “We have to use this (strategy), otherwise we see no possibility to survive.
“At the moment, I can't give an answer as to whether we'll shift all manufacturing to other countries. It's a strategic thing. In the automotive industry, things change so fast. Let's see what happens.”
With annual sales of $1.16 billion and 8,700 employees worldwide, Grammer is by no means a small company. But due to its unique niche in the industry, officials say the company cannot plan for rapid growth.
‘Ergomechanics’ Leads to Perfect Seating Position
Grammer Automotive has determined after extensive research that the “perfect seating position doesn't exist,” and the “next seating position is the best one.”
Adhering to this theory, the German supplier has developed a new concept in seating based on the study of “ergomechanics,” a symbiosis of ergonomics and biomechanics. The company is so dedicated to this effort that it has a copyright on the term.
To this end, Grammer is focused on how the spinal cord is affected by different positions when a person is seated in an automobile. “The body isn't designed for sitting,” says Manfred Schlierf, manager-Advanced engineering.
Based on research conducted by Grammer engineers and scientists from nearby universities, the supplier displays for journalists a prototype seat that essentially is on rollers, allowing the driver to move forward and backward while driving by shifting his weight.
The movement only is a few inches either way, allowing the driver to maintain clear sight lines with the vehicle's side-view mirrors. “Ergomechanics tries to combine sitting and moving,” Schlierf tells Ward's. Thus, the seat's movement makes a driver more relaxed and decreases fatigue.
In its research, Grammer studied biomechanics theories developed during the 1960s that said the pressure inside spinal discs was greater when sitting than standing upright by a 2:1 margin.
But the 1990s brought new thought as to how pressure was distributed throughout the spinal system when sitting vs. standing. In fact, it turned earlier theories on their ear.
The new studies showed the pressure was not greater when sitting if a person assumed a relaxed position, reducing pressure on spinal discs. Indeed, contrary to popular belief, sitting up straight increased pressure.
Furthermore, it was determined that spinal discs, which contain no blood vessels, received nourishment by alternating between two spinal positions, called kyphosis and lordosis.
Lordosis refers to the inward curvature of the lower back, while kyphosis is a shape formed by the spine when the shoulders are rounded and relaxed.
Moving between these two positions nourishes the spinal discs by compressing and decompressing fluids. Like a sponge, when a seated person is in a stress-free state, the discs soak up fresh nutrients. When stressed, they squeeze out used fluid, causing dehydration.
As such, Grammer's prototype “Ergomechanics Seat” provides greater comfort by nourishing the spinal column while satisfying a person's need to move when seated, the supplier says.
Grammer has been testing the seat in passenger and commercial vehicles, although it has no plans to manufacture and sell the seats itself.
“We first want to market (the technology) to the OEMs,” says Walter Schopf, director-international marketing. “We don't want to produce seats.”
Grammer's prototype seat already has passed internal safety tests. The next step is testing by OEMs, Schlierf says. “We need a lot of input from the OEMs on a lot of important issues, like crash tests,” he says.
— Byron Pope