Automotive interiors manufacturers continue to strive for improved efficiency and flexibility, as they respond to the ever-changing needs of the industry's original equipment manufacturers and, increasingly, the end consumer. by Kathleen DesMarteau and Shawn Meadows, Bobbin

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While the North American automotive market generally is considered to be healthy by its sewn products industry suppliers, auto interiors manufacturers are reevaluating their manufacturing methods in search of ways to cut costs and improve efficiency and flexibility.

Manufacturers and their equipment suppliers report that the world of automotive industry supply continues to be driven by the ever-changing demands of the global original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), including North America's "Big Three" - General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Daimler/Chrysler.

Auto interiors firms, especially tier one suppliers such as Lear Corp., Magna Seating Systems and Johnson Controls, are long accustomed to operating in a "change-on-a-dime" environment - in which style or equipment changes determined by the OEMs must be implemented immediately, lest they risk losing an OEM's business. Today, there also is a strong focus on providing product development services, and there is increased emphasis on how automotive fabrics affect everything from the quality of acoustics to the environment.

In addition, automotive interiors firms are anticipating the need to keep pace with greater expectations from the end consumer. Manufacturers say demand for quality and craftsmanship is at an all-time high, and a strong U.S. economy is boosting the market for "specialty autos," such as expensive luxury cars and sport utility vehicles (SUVs).

Moreover, consumers are looking for more customized features in their cars and trucks, a trend some attribute to the growth of Internet shopping and its promise of instant gratification. As Gerber Technology Inc.'s Dudley Fenn observes, more consumers are jumping on-line to "window shop" for autos before purchasing new vehicles. While most of today's on-line shoppers still must visit their local dealers to place an order, in years to come more of them will be able to custom order a vehicle with a few clicks of the mouse, predicts Fenn, who is Gerber's North American sales and marketing specialist for transportation applications.

Preparing for this possibility - or imminent reality as some perceive it - auto interiors firms are honing their capabilities in the area of mass customization. More manufacturers already are producing their various interiors products, such as seat covers, in modular work cells, in response to requests for shorter runs or different styles from their OEM clients. As Fenn sees it: "There is a tremendous push toward mass customization."

Fueling Profits with Reduced Costs, Improved Efficiency
With so many of their processes, from pattern design to fabric selection, dictated by OEMs, auto interiors manufacturers are challenged to find ways to reduce costs and improve efficiencies in their operations. (For instance, the U.S. OEMs' seat cover pattern pieces tend to be very large, with squared-off edges that make it difficult to achieve an efficient marker.)

As such, auto interiors firms often turn to the sewn products industry's equipment and software suppliers for cost-saving innovations in software and specialized sewing and cutting equipment. Commenting on this role and the trickle-down effect of OEM demands to suppliers, Lectra Systems Inc. director of technical textiles for North America, Roy Shurling, states: "There is constant pressure placed on the tier one suppliers by the OEMs to reduce costs, decrease work in progress and provide more flexibility. This has led many of our clients to reevaluate their traditional manufacturing methods. … We are continually working with them to refine our solutions and ensure that we are planning the right developments."

Lectra Systems provides 3-D design software and a variety of cutting solutions to a client list that includes leading tier one suppliers. Shurling notes that Lectra considers the automotive industry to be one of its top markets, and has created a global business unit, including research, sales, marketing and other services, that is dedicated to the automotive market. "Other sectors of the sewn products industry would be very surprised by the level of sophistication in machinery and processes [in the automotive sector]," he says. "The suppliers are very innovative, and perhaps the most advanced in their use of technology."

Robert Stevenson, president and CEO of Eastman Machine Co., which provides a line of materials handling, cutting machines and software to the auto interiors industry, reports an emphasis on cost cutting among his clients, who range from major tier one suppliers to smaller firms. "They've got to become more efficient and cut costs," he says, adding that more auto interiors manufacturers are looking to single-ply cutting for flexibility and to modular manufacturing as a means of providing just-in-time service.

Material utilization also is a key focus for auto interiors firms, observes Stevenson, alluding to the high cost per yard of automotive seating upholstery. (By some estimates, auto upholstery accounts for 70 percent of a seat cover's cost.) As a result, manufacturers are turning to improved nesting and cutting techniques as ways to lessen fabric waste. "These are significant numbers," Stevenson says, referring to the financial repercussions of ignoring material utilization problems, and on the other hand, the savings that can be achieved by addressing such problems.

Thomas Kish, general manager of Magna Seating Systems' automotive trim manufacturing facility in Acuña, Mexico, emphasizes that Magna is constantly searching for ways to improve its manufacturing efficiencies, especially in the area of fabric utilization. A major supplier of automotive seating for OEMs globally, Magna Seating Systems had sales of approximately $1.2 billion in '98, and expects to exceed $2 billion in revenue by 2003. The firm's global automotive trim operations employ approximately 2,500, and include five manufacturing facilities - two in Mexico, two in the United States and one in the Czech Republic.

In what Kish describes as an obsession to obtain the most cost effective markers, he says Magna employs engineers who are experts in nesting pattern pieces. Moreover, Magna is using Nester Technologies' Nester automatic marker making program to evaluate the human-generated nests. While the engineers' markers are very efficient, he notes, Nester often can improve material utilization by up to 15 percent.

Still, much work remains to improve material utilization. Kish, for one, would like to see a reduction in the level of fabric flaws. He argues that fewer flaws would make it easier to obtain efficient markers because Magna would not have to nest around the defects.

Magna hasn't stopped there in its quest to improve efficiency. During a time when much of the sewn products industry seems centered on outsourcing, Magna Seating Systems has been on an "in-sourcing" trend of vertical integration, bringing more critical operations in-house to reduce lead times and improve flexibility. Most recently, the firm has opened a new facility in Del Rio, TX, specializing in lamination of seating materials and laser cutting of air bag intensifier fabrics.

When lamination was outsourced, it added to lead times considerably, Kish says. Laminated upholstery had to undergo a lengthy curing period at the contractor's facility, and then be trucked to Magna's facilities. All in all, the company is saving about four days in its production cycle by doing its own laminating. This has helped Magna Seating Systems meet ever-increasing production and cost-reduction pressures demanded by its customers, the company emphasizes.

To cut costs, North American auto interiors firms also are shifting more production to low-labor-cost regions, especially Mexico, report industry suppliers who specialize in the automotive sector. For the near term, this shift has slowed some demand for automated sewing machinery geared to the sector, notes Charlie Zimmerman, manager of Juki Union Special Corp.'s AMS Design Group, which develops the firm's computerized stitching lines. Still, he says he foresees the low-labor-cost markets gradually evolving toward the use of more automation.

Meeting OEM Demands at Top Speeds
Auto interiors firms that manufacture products for the OEMs, and equipment firms that supply tier one manufacturers, must be agile and quick to respond to "engineering changes" from the OEMs.

The addition of air bags into automotive seating systems is an example of a relatively recent OEM engineering change that has caused auto interiors makers to study their manufacturing processes, and turn to their equipment suppliers for solutions. In response to such changes, automotive equipment suppliers typically begin developing new machinery approximately two years before the consumer will see the results in the form of a new automotive feature on the selling lot, explains Greg Sanford, general manager, Juki Union Special's leather and heavy-duty (LHD) division, Western Hemisphere.

Terry Tahnoose, manager of Lear's color and trims studio, notes that speed and responsiveness in the product development cycle are crucial, and require collaboration among a variety of Lear's internal divisions as well as increased communication between the company, its clients and the end consumer.

Lear is one of the world's largest suppliers of automotive interiors, with more than 300 facilities located in 33 countries and major clients including North America's Big Three as well as Nissan, Audi, BMW, Honda and Jaguar, to name a few. Tahnoose estimates that Lear supplies about 47 percent of the North American market's seating, and approximately 27 percent of the global auto industry's seating. Because it operates on a global scale, Lear must work with materials that meet global platforms, i.e. international OEM specifications and regulations outside of those employed by the U.S. industry, Tahnoose says.

The color and trims group is responsible for what Tahnoose describes as "total interior harmony," including research, development and coordination of all interior materials for vehicles. The group analyzes interiors products, gathers feedback from consumer focus groups and benchmarks interiors materials, in addition to working with Lear's advanced materials group to ensure all materials pass OEM specifications.

One of the studio's most recent projects involves testing different interiors materials used in automotive acoustic systems. "We're looking at things like woven vinyls and leathers," Tahnoose says. "These tend to reflect noise, whereas [other] woven products absorb it."

Looking at overall trends in the automotive industry and among Lear's OEM clients, Tahnoose says she sees a renewed emphasis on craftsmanship in North America. "A lot of companies are putting money back into interiors, and materials play a big factor in beautifully executed seating," she notes. "The sew lines, the actual sew styles, are becoming really important. I think we are seeing a lot of influence from Audi and some of the German manufacturers."

The Key Is Flexibility
Looking at the industry from an after-market perspective, Saddleman Inc. marketing director Scott Jones says he sees the trend toward mass customization as a major challenge. Saddleman manufactures after-market accessories for cars, trucks, vans and SUVs, including seat covers, seat cushions, hood protectors and other truck/travel accessories.

Although the company might not feel the same degree of pressure from the OEMs as a first-tier interiors supplier, Jones relates that the industry's general trend toward smaller runs of more individualized vehicles is having an impact. "The custom styling of both interior and exterior products makes it very difficult to stock accessories that fit a wide range of vehicles," he says. "We are now offering many more made-to-order products. We have become experts in the design, manufacturing and distribution of special order products."

Even as the automotive industry moves toward more customization, equipment suppliers report that their interiors customers will continue to need equipment and software that can accommodate both long, mass production orders and short, customized runs.

In response to both sets of demands, Gerber offers the automotive market "end-to-end" mass customization solutions, as well as equipment geared to mass production, Fenn explains. The firm's Taurus Total Leather Cutting Solution, for example, can be used to find flaws, nest patterns and cut individual leather hides for automotive seating. Likewise, its Cutting Edge Systems division also offers digital single-ply cutters geared to cutting automotive upholstery. On the other hand, Gerber's model S91 and 7200 series of numerically controlled cutters are equipped to cut three inches of compressed heavy-duty material. Cut parts from any of the cutting systems can be sent through a Gerber unit production system for assembly, whether one seat cover style cover at a time, or multiple styles simultaneously.

Other equipment suppliers also are targeting the automotive market with machinery that can flex between different operations, styles, fabrics and types of production runs.

TrimMaster's product line manager Bonnie Knutsen, for instance, points to the firm's new TrimMaster Controller 3 (TMC-3) as a product with strong automotive industry potential. The compact-sized electronic controller can be used for three different functions, including: monitoring machinery for thread breaks, material run-out, etc.; actuating a knife in cut-apart operations; or starting and stopping a conveyor, sewing machine or other continuous piece-fed machine.

Likewise, Rimoldi of America Inc. offers its automotive clients lockstitch and overlock sewing machines that can accommodate a variety of materials and thicknesses, from the plush fabrics of luxury vehicles to the rugged materials found in off-road vehicles, notes vice president of technical services and sales John Longo. The firm also supplies sewing and turning equipment designed for manufacturing different types of air bags, which can vary greatly in size and shape, depending on their location in the vehicle. As Longo reiterates: "Automotive manufacturers need to have flexibility in their manufacturing equipment."

Also citing flexibility as a key factor in supplying machinery to the automotive industry, Camatron Sewing Machine Inc. offers a variety of both cam-controlled automatic bartack machines and computer-controlled pattern sewers to clients including TRW and American Safety Equipment.

"Computer-controlled machines allow for flexibility in patterns, but at a reduced speed," Camatron's Robert Ross Jr.concludes. "Therefore, we are providing a mix of cam-controlled as well as computer-controlled machinery, because it is very important that they get the best of both worlds."

Kathleen DesMarteau is senior editor and Shawn Meadows is assistant editor of Bobbin.