ANY COLOUR – as long as it’s green01 May 2012
Eco and green have often been 'dirty' words in the automotive industry. But the shift in attitude over the last five years has been seismic. Not that the car industry has suddenly discovered its inner hippy. Instead, against the backdrop of global recession and skyrocketing fuel prices, the drive to reduce overall vehicle weight comes from the need to squeeze better fuel economy from traditional combustion engines, while meeting ever more stringent carbon emission regulations.
Meanwhile, alternatively fuelled vehicles – especially electric and hybrid cars – are now a vehicle segment in their own right and require a similar approach to weight saving to improve vehicle range between charges and help overcome market inertia.
One area of the car that has a key role to play is the interior. However, the issue is complicated by the fact that any new material, finish or structure has to meet increasingly restrictive weight targets, while also enhancing interior craftsmanship and quality; all the while meeting cost and environmental goals, especially from an end-of-life recycling perspective.
Recently, colour and trim departments have been looking to nature to influence interior design. Known as biomimicry, this is not just a styling initiative. Instead, increasingly lightweight, sustainable and even renewable natural materials are being used in concept and production vehicles, and often in unusual ways:
"Automakers are requesting weight reduction for all interior components, while looking for the potential for greater individualisation of the interior," explains Fritz Schweindl, director advanced engineering, International Automotive Components (IAC). "For example, in the past real aluminium was used. But now thin aluminium foil is bonded over plastic carriers. It feels like real aluminium, but it's much thinner and weighs much less. Even a small reduction in weight is important, because it all makes a contribution. Increasingly, new textiles and trim [pieces] are very thin, and the challenge is to work with thin fabrics and materials that are being used to enhance the interior appearance, while reducing weight and cost, without affecting the quality.
According to Schweindl, visible natural materials and fibres are becoming hugely important, because of their sustainability. The origin of this lies not in environmental concern, but a commercial one. Car makers have emerging eco sub-brands and niche eco products to sell, and buyers of electric or hybrid vehicles want their eco credentials to apply holistically, rather than just from a powertrain or fuel perspective.
OEMs are using such materials primarily for marketing purposes. Potential buyers are impressed with the idea that their vehicles are constructed from renewable materials, including flax, bamboo and wood, and such components are low weight. This is especially the case with electric and hybrid vehicles.
At the moment, such natural fibres are already being used for door casings, but as a carrier. Companies such as IAC are working on developing these 'green' natural materials, including bioplastics – which come from renewable biomass sources and are being developed to replace fossil fuel plastics – for use as major structural components. The same is happening for coverstock materials and include textiles made from recycled polypropylene drinks bottles.
Ultimately, the trend to integrate as much as possible into one component is huge, driven by the desire to reduce weight and cost. "This applies for the visible surface of the interior, as well as the interior structure itself," says Schweindl. "A car with a zero emission engine, but with a renewable or recycled interior, would have a competitive advantage."
Increasingly, the car industry is demanding interior materials and components that perform similarly to those used for the aircraft industry. Some car designs are beginning to benefit from the kind of innovative thinking that has been part of the aircraft business for years. Interior forms are becoming simpler. Not only are they reduced in styling terms, but also their underlying structure. Each component now has more than one role to play, which can result in some quite unnatural material combinations.
Such alliances – a combination of the natural with the technical – are a very contemporary approach.
Audi has recently introduced
a new trim material, called 'aluminium/Beaufort wood', in its S6 and S7 models, that has created a composite material inlay made from aluminium and wood. Wood veneer strips are glued with aluminium, before being piled up atop of one another and sliced vertically. The resulting layered trim material resembles a single piece of wood, with horizontal aluminium strips running through it.
The process took seven years
to develop, according to Johanna Hoch, design manager, colour and trim, Audi, who came up with the idea and likened the production challenges as being akin to trying to "cut a dessert torte with all its delicious layers into extremely thin slices".
Bentley took a similar approach to reinterpret traditional materials for its recent SUV concept, the EX 9 F. Crewe's design and engineering team set out to create a modern interior, but using the traditional natural materials of wood and leather that are so much of Bentley's heritage. They achieved this by keeping the architectural surfaces of the interior, particularly the instrument panel, as clean and simple as possible – a move that ultimately saw the team exploring the idea of using the actual structure of interior components as a feature of the design, reducing complexity and weight.
"Instead of hiding the core construction of the parts, we used them as a design feature," says Peter Cullum-Kenyon, design manager – colour and trim, Bentley Motors. "When designing the architecture for an interior, the focus is to use the materials correctly, and use the best of the materials, leather and wood, in a natural way."
It is an intriguing contradiction that our car interiors are becoming more natural, while the innovation required to produce them is based in technological advancement.
It is technology that is allowing us to splice, shape and bond materials that would otherwise have been too costly or too difficult to use; which,
in our increasingly connected and tech-focused world, seems like a juxtaposition. Of sorts, that is.
But, then again, it seems entirely appropriate to a product that's as technical as the automobile.
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