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JCI tech chief predicts 5kg weight cut for front seats

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Johnson Controls Inc. is trying to help automakers meet tougher CO2 regulations by making one of its core products – seats – as light as possible. Andreas Eppinger, JCI’s group vice president for technology management, believes that a 5kg weight reduction per front seat is “realistic” in the next five years. He spoke with Automotive News Europe Managing Editor Douglas A. Bolduc.

Can the average weight in front seats be cut by 5kg in the next five years?

It depends on how the seat is equipped but for the standard components I see a weight reduction of 30 percent to 50 percent over the next few years. There are significant weight reductions coming. I would say the 5kg reduction is realistic.

This is per seat, right?

Yes, per front seat. It would be 5kg each.

Will the reduction come from the foam or the metal or elsewhere?

It’s mainly on the metal side. We use aluminum and high-strength steel as well as thinner materials. We also have improved certain component designs like our new recliner generation, which is significantly lighter. So each and every component is lighter.

What about the material mix? Is there more aluminum or more high-strength steel?

Seats face certain issues regarding crash tests. If we are in a heavy-load situation, typically on the seating side high-strength steel plays an important role, particularly thinner-walled steel. It’s thinner and lighter but with the same strength as previous generations.

What about carbon fiber in seats?

Today a lot of people are working on it but we do not see a big breakthrough in cost.

Why?

To achieve the CO2 goals automakers have to come up with new hybrid powertrain concepts, which are expensive. There is only a limited budget and that budget cannot all be spent on carbon fiber in seats.

Fast facts
NAME: Andreas Eppinger
TITLE: Group VP Technology Management, JCI
AGE: 55
MAIN CHALLENGE: Reducing the weight of seats without compromising safety and comfort.

Automotive accounted for 51 percent of JCI’s total global sales of $42 billion last year. What percentage of that was for seating?

The majority is seating.

Over the last 10 years automakers have increased their reliance on mega-suppliers. Is JCI benefiting?

It gives us an edge. There are not many companies that can provide this capability. There are only a few big ones. That’s why the acquisitions of mid-sized suppliers such as [seat metal structure makers] Keiper and C. Rob. Hammerstein Group made a lot of sense. We could leverage this capability globally.

You also acquired specialist seat maker Recaro. How have these deals worked out?

These companies saw that in the long term they would either have to go global or form a partnership or sell to somebody that is global. We created an environment where we provided a vision and a strategy. The second key success factor was that we did not tell them, ‘Now you have to do it the Johnson Controls way.’ These companies have pride in their capabilities, their culture and their technology. We acknowledged this and created a real fusion. We can learn from them and they can learn from us.

How had your r&d spending changed as a result of these acquisitions?

When we talk r&d we have to define what we mean. One side is linked to automaker programs and the other side is what we invest to create our own products and technologies. The r&d for automaker programs changes based on the number of projects we have. In terms of r&d pre-invest in our own technology and products, it has significantly increased over the last few years because we are striving to become a more technology-oriented company.

What has changed?

Through vertical integration we are now a full-spectrum supplier that can provide all the components. To compete you need to differentiate; to create your own products and technologies. And that requires a pre-investment. There are key technologies in which we want to have as much detail as possible.

Eppinger doesn't see a big breakthrough in the cost of carbon fiber.

Could you give an example?

We have been working with psychologists and with ergonomics specialist to really understand what people need – and why they need it – when it comes to seating mechanics, seating thermal comfort and so on.

What have you learned?

It’s pretty tricky because what feels comfortable in the first 10 seconds may not be good after two hours. Here we have developed a two-layer foam that feels soft on the top and is hard in the lower level so that it feels comfortable when you get in the car and still feels comfortable after two hours.

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You can reach Douglas A. Bolduc at dbolduc@crain.com.

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