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Driving Influences

In a somewhat flat automotive textiles market, textile companies are pulling it off with high-tech performance fabrics and knock-your-socks-off designs.

Automobile designers are a strange breed. True, they get their inspiration from the not-so-surprising places like fashion runways and home furnishings shows. But then, sometimes the muse comes from a rusty manhole cover, Grandmas two-tone antique brooch or childrens playthings. In fact, Nissans top automotive designer, Jerry Hirshberg, admits to harvesting successful automotive design themes from a grasshopper and even the movie, Silence of the Lambs.

Watch for renewed interest in gray interiors, exemplified by this Guilford Mills body cloth currently seen in a domestic production truck (Photo courtesy of Guilford Mills Inc.) Think about the challenge facing automotive textile suppliers who must find ways to translate their auto maker customers design themes into color, texture, pattern and performance.Nevertheless, the opportunity for automotive textiles has never been better than it is right now. The automotive interior has become not only the new design frontier for automotive companies, but also the strongest selling point for consumers. People are spending increasingly more time in their vehicles.Jose de la Vega, interior designer of the award-winning 1999 Volvo S80, puts it best: When I see a beautiful woman, it is her outside appearance that first attracts me and gets my heart racing. Its only after I get to know her on the inside that I can determine whether shes someone I want to commit to and spend a lot of time with.With auto-mobiles, its the same way. People are first drawn onto the dealership lot by a vehicles exterior design. But its only after getting into the car and experiencing its interior environment that the potential buyer knows if thats the car he wants to spend the next several years with.And herein lies the opportunity for textiles. Fabrics play a leading role in so many of our creature comforts from bed linens to sofas to sweatshirts that introducing better designed, top-performing textiles into vehicle interiors is a win-win situation for car maker and consumer alike.Most textile and fiber producers agree that three main factors contributing to success in the automotive market today are cost, design and long-lasting performance. CostLets face it, contributing to the creation and success of a new automobile has a certain dramatic allure, a heart-pumping high simply put, cars are cool. But, getting into the automotive supply chain and remaining a player is no easy task, unless you master costs.Yearly improvements in cost structure are the minimum entry into the automotive industry, said Steven Graves, manager of Freudenberg-Vitechs automotive business, in addressing the INSIDE DESIGN 99 Conference last April in Long Beach, Calif. Not only are cost reductions expected, but the cost gains must be shared, if not given completely, to the automotive manufacturer.The obvious challenge is balancing the demand for more cost-competitive materials with the expectations for more creativity and design flexibility. Such pressures have forced successful material suppliers to look for more radical solutions to meet the needs of the automotive market and still manage an acceptable return, Graves says. And this means developing cost competitive materials that meet stringent requirements for, among other things: processability; UV stability; abrasion resistance; cleanability; aesthetic appeal; and a wide range of colors, patterns and textures.Another challenge is the need to address global supply, says Graves. Due to the tremendous emphasis on cost, suppliers need to be selective about their developments, as well as their capital investments, he says. Essentially, this forces suppliers to develop a single-technology or base material, but this material needs to be easily modified to meet the various trends of the markets around the world.No doubt, a big part of the cost of doing business in this market is being global. The world has become a much smaller playground, says John Pierce, director of design, Guilford Mills Inc. Automotive Business Unit. It helps to be global so you can chart global trends. And, if a customer wants a European flat woven in the U.S., you have to be able to provide it. Its no longer: Whats hot in North America Its: Whats hot globally DesignA broad topic within the automotive spectrum, but one that can be made relevant to textiles quite simply: To win business, you must have on-target designs and be able to translate an idea to product more quickly than your competition, says Pierce.If you want to know whats going to be hot in automotive, Pierce says look no farther than pop culture, fashion and surface finish trends. The metallic look is in right now, he says, as well as the use of matte and gloss sheens in tandem. Other trends at work in automotive include: textiles that take their design cue from brushed metals for mid-size and luxury cars and the incorporation of extreme sports into textiles, techno fabrics the rip-stop look from parachuting, the coarse knitted look from tennis shoes, for example.Our perceptions today are multi-sensing, points out Larry Cole, executive product planning manager, DuPont Automotive, Troy, Mich.
Auto makers are turning to companies such as DuPont for "residential-like" carpets for high-end luxury vehicles. DuPont fiber technology helps auto makers achieve the durability and aesthetics needed for this market. (Photo courtesy of DuPont.) One of the senses getting a lot of attention in automotive interiors is touch. An increasing emphasis is being placed on softness of hand, and this is most critical on the surfaces we contact the most seating fabrics and floor coverings, Cole said.In fact, Cole thinks there could be an untapped market for micro-denier technology in automotive fabrics, especially high-end luxury vehicles. Although there are no microfiber fabrics currently used in production vehicles, its a new development area for DuPont.The challenge, of course, is in wear-resistance it would take a creative fabric construction to make it work, but the resulting fabric would answer consumer demands for softness and comfort.Another important part of design is color (see Color Trends 2000, sidebar). Over the years, auto makers have been forced to decrease coloration choices for economic reasons, said Carol Byrne, head of TransporTex, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based textile color and design trend consulting company. But the way accent colors are used and what they are thats what provides newness on textiles.Byrne says the use of color, texture and pattern in automotive fabrics can be a cost-effective way to provide the foundation for a vehicles brand image. For example, in luxury vehicles, the trend is a textile with depth, layering and veiled illumination. Mid-size vehicles are using accent colorations to marry the exterior and the interiors. In SUVs, theres a cooling trend, she says, away from warmer greens. Sports cars are dipping into high-intensity colors, defined by the textiles themselves (i.e., a yellow spot instead of blending).Pierce sees patterned fabrics gaining ground in headliners. Designers are looking to expand brand imaging into headliners, he says, and they are doing that with patterned fabrics.More than ever, cars are being styled with their own design statement inside, she says, and textiles play an important role. This places a greater demand on the textile designer. In fact, I wouldnt be surprised if custom-ordered automotive interiors were the norm soon after 2005.Pierce agrees. Dealerships will offer different types of materials in a variety of colors, and consumers will be able to mix and match, he predicts.  Long-Lasting PerformancePerformance demands placed on todays automotive textiles include crush, wear and mark-off resistance, stretch and recovery, and moldability. Auto makers dont just expect fabrics to perform theyve got to last a long time too. We use the 10-year car concept as the basis of nearly all our fibers, says Cole. Developing fabric applications with interesting tactile surfaces combined with long life is a priority.Its a strategy thats working. Currently, more than 80 percent of North American automotive fabrics and carpets contain fibers of DuPont nylon and polyester.
Delphi Automotive Systems' 3-D knitting process  While trilobal cross-section polyester for fabric and bulk continuous filament T66 nylon for carpet are DuPonts workhorse products, Cole says the company has three new technologies that answer carmakers demands for aesthetically pleasing durability.These technologies are: Corrugated Ribbon Cross-section: Slated for commercial application in 2000, this technology uses a Dacron® polyester fiber cross-section to improve crush and wear resistance while retaining softness. Quatra-Channel Cross-section: A product that optimizes aesthetics, providing a good balance of hand, softness, wear resistance and mark-off. 3GT polyester: This technology is under development and features the benefits of both polyester and nylon. It imparts significantly more stretch and recovery to fabrics, which helps molding and tailoring in seating. Additional benefits include more enhanced pile resilience and resistance to crush and finger mark-off. The most exciting part, Cole says, is that this material can be derived using biotechnology from renewable sources such as cornstarch, rather than oil.Pierce agrees that other than UV resistance, one of the greatest performance demands being placed on automotive textiles is elongation and flexibility requirements.In efforts to create a distinct brand image for their vehicles, automotive designers are incorporating more extreme, high-contour shapes and undulating surfaces, which present a real challenge to textiles and inherently make some fabrics more naturally suited for these new designs than other constructions, he said.If your fabric cant trim around nicely on a high-contour seat, you might have a problem meeting the needs of todays automotive designer, he added. These days, most seat designers want to make wrinkle-free seats. A Nod To NonwovensAlthough new applications for nonwoven materials in automobiles have evolved rather slowly, nonwovens should begin making more headway, because they can often meet the car makers battle cry of more for less.For sure, nonwoven producers would like to see the same market share in the United States that nonwovens enjoy in Europe and Japan, where about 60 percent of all headliners use nonwoven fabric. But the efforts of a handful of nonwoven companies to gain U.S. marketshare in automotive so far have met with limited success.Enter a new generation of nonwoven producers who are automotive market savvy and determined to tell their story again and again until auto makers buy into it.For example, one company attempting to make strides in nonwovens for the automotive market is Tietex International, Spartanburg, S.C. Tietex is targeting opportunities in headliners perhaps the one fabric in the automobile that has had no real change in over 20 years (primarily tricot knit and PU foam laminates), even though it is the largest, single uninterrupted expanse of surface area in the car interior.Tietex is offering a new headliner fiber technology that overcomes the traditional nonwoven fabric pitfalls of coarseness, difficult conform- and mold-ability, failure to meet auto makers abrasion standards, higher scrap rate due to undesirable glossing/polishing of the fabric in tool pressure points, UV stability, etc. The answer, says Tietex, was starting from scratch.We didnt build on an existing product, or even knowledge of automotive textiles, says Mike Hardegree, vice president of business development. We didnt even build on existing fiber technology, but developed a new fiber with different properties than any that were available.Hardegree describes the new technology by what it is not. It is not a nonwoven, nor is it a knit, he says. The process is really a hybrid technology that combines certain nonwoven formation principles with knitting.The material, called Deepdraw Fleeceknit, is made with staple fibers which have the pigmentation already in the fiber. This fiber is carded and cross-lapped into a web structure similar to the web in a nonwoven fabric prior to needling.At this point, the web is knitted needles penetrate the web structure, gathering bundles of fiber in the throat of the needle. The fiber bundles are then knitted together, a process similar to tricot knitting, except it knits fiber bundles instead of yarns. The result, says Hardegree, is a fabric face which has parallel rows of knitted fiber bundles, creating the appearance of a knitted fabric.Advantages this fabric offers for headliners include: Appearance: the knitted loops enhance the visual character of the fabric. Moldability and formability: good performance even in severe headliner tool conditions. Abrasion resistance: better than nonwovens without chemical binders. The knitted loops tie down the fiber ends, reducing the likelihood that they will be disengaged from abrasion. Another aggressive player, Freudenberg Nonwoven, recently reviewed the automotive interior market and saw an opportunity for nonwovens. The result, says the company, is a nonwoven technology that meets the need for a cost-competitive material with high performance and design flexibility. This new product is highly suitable for interior facing in headliners, door panels and package trays and is marketed by Freudenberg-Vitech the joint venture between Freudenberg Nonwovens and Japan Vilene Company.
An automotive display at BASF's corporate headquarters in Mt. Olive, N.J., showcases the dozens of critical car components that BASF produces. (Photo courtesy of BASF.) Freudenberg-Vitech produces needlepunched fabrics that can be supplied in mono color and color blends, and can be printed and/or embossed for texturing. The nonwoven facings are moldable, process very well and are easy to handle. The fabrics are also 100-percent PET and fully recyclable, the company says. Key To New GrowthThe steady erosion in price coupled by a request for increasing quality is no news to automotive fabric suppliers, but it still remains a challenge. You cant meet the auto makers cost and quality demands as easily with a known technology, says Byrne. You have to think outside the box. That way, your customers demand becomes a challenge not something to moan about.Are there no applications for textiles inside vehicles that might bring about some growth, at least Not really, says Pierce. In recent years, weve seen a regression of fabric in automobiles due to cost pressures, he says. Thats why needled nonwoven carpet and vinyl have made such headway.
Recaro North America's proprietary technology provides a combination of knitting and weaving to help auto makers customize interiors. However, weve sacrificed about as much fabric from inside the vehicle as the consumer will allow, he says. I think well see fabric start to gain back some of those applications in the near future.Pierce says the key to growth in automotive fabrics is design and development. When business is open for bidding, if you have the best, on-target design youll win, he says. In the customers eyes, engineering and cost are a given its a level playing field for everyone there. Design is what wins the business.Safety Opens Doors For High-Performance Textiles
AlliedSignal Inc. has developed a new automotive seatbelt fiber called Securus that increases automobile occupant safety and reduces safety belt system costs.AlliedSignal says seatbelt fabric (or webbing) made with Securus fiber slows and lessens a passengers impact with an airbag during a collision. The fiber works in conjunction with the airbag. Woven as a seatbelt strap, it limits the movement of an occupants upper body so that it moves more slowly into the airbag. It works this way for a broad range of body types.Securus is the first in a new family of synthetic fibers called PELCO, based on a patented polyester-caprolactone block copolymer. The product is the outcome of a decade-long search for seatbelts that would better correspond to the deceleration action of airbags in a vehicle crash, says Fred Festa, vice president and general manager of AlliedSignal Performance Fibers.One big attraction: Festa projects seatbelts made with Securus fiber will lower a cars safety-belt system cost by 25 percent for each seating position.So, how does it work Seatbelts made with Securus fiber deliver a three-step restraint reaction during a crash. First, they hold occupants in position at impact. Then, the fibers relax or stretch as needed to limit the force imposed on the occupant, complementing the deflating action of the airbag and allowing the occupants bodies to decelerate. Finally, their high-strength comes back into play, helping to prevent impact with dashboard, steering wheel or windshield.Commercial shipping of Securus fiber began in July. The company projects sales of $10 million next year, rising to $100 million annually in five years.Festa said the company is exploring the use of Securus fiber technology for other applications requiring high-load strength and excellent energy absorption.Color Trends 2000: The Social Context for ColorAutomotive textile designers spend a great deal of time tracking color trends and predicting which might have an impact on future fabrics. This is no easy trick these days, as exposure to color is globally instantaneous via TV, magazines and the Internet. Still, distinct market segments for color are identified based on cultural, economical, geographic, historical and other identifiers, says Christine D. Dickey, color and trim manager, Toyota Motor Sales USA.Key social trends that will influence product and color design include: more balanced lives; making things simple, down-shifting the pace of life; merging opposites; blending cultures; and more reflecting, e.g., finding a sacred balance between outer stimulation and inner peace.Now, how will these trends specifically impact automotive interiors and therefore, automotive fabrics Dickey predicts: Pattern: Europeans will lead a trend in new grain patterns, particularly distinct pebble grains in BMW, Volvo and Audi. Two-tone interiors: Black or Dark Gray plastics combined with other fabric colors on seats and door panels red, blue, green, teal. Increasing importance on texture: There will be an increased use of metal in vehicle interiors, and consequently, metal-look materials with pearlized or metallic painted finishes. Mix n match: Grains and textures in plastics, textiles and vinyl. Colors: Silver and blue are the colors of the new millenium. Beige continues to lead over white - still, watch for renewed interest in gray interiors (consumers are tired of too much beige and ivory). Blue interiors will be revived.

September 1999