The industry of automotive textiles has witnessed a number of changes in market environment, consolidation in the industry and product development.
Approaching 165,000 tonnes of fabrics are now employed annually in car production worldwide, and as a result of higher demand for more increased comfort and improved safety, the use of textile materials has also increased from 20 kg in a mid-size car a decade ago, to an average of 26 kg.
In the drive towards lowering weight for reducing both fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, many current developments are including new uses for fabrics, and by 2020, it is predicted that the same-sized car will contain 35 kg of textiles.
This progress, however, is being off-set, in the wider scheme of things, by the related trend towards smaller vehicles.
Wovens and Knits
Woven and knitted fabrics have a predominant share of the global market for automotive textiles, followed by composites (which have the greatest growth potential) and nonwovens.
Circular knitted fabrics are used in car interiors for seat covers, headrests, door panels, headliners, sunroofs, pillars, parcel shelves and boot covers. These fabrics are characterized by high flexibility in design, high-grade visual quality, comfort for seating and a high stretch level, which is critical in complying with the complex shapes of many seats.
Woven fabrics dominate in seat covers and door panels and their areas of application in cars include seat center panels, headrests and door side panelling.
Warp-knitted fabrics are characterized by their wide range of applications and are also employed as door panels, headliners, pillars and boot covers.
Market Changes and Consolidates
Unprecedented changes to the structure of the automotive textiles sector have taken place in the past two years, after global light vehicle production fell for the first time in over 30 years in 2008 and declined even more steeply in 2009.
The global production of cars fell from 67.4 million in 2008 to 58.6 million in 2009, with production in the developed regions of North America, Europe and Japan largely responsible for the decline.
The situation was very different in the large emerging economies, with China’s car production up by 50% and that of India up by 17%.
But as car sales plummeted elsewhere, there was rapid movement all along the automotive supply chain – with no exception for nonwovens and textile manufacturers.
In major European moves over the past 18 months, Austrian-headquartered automotive fabrics giant Eybl International was sold to the Prevent Group and Fezko of the Czech Republic was acquired by the French Michel Thierry Group (MTG).
Prevent Group, now headquartered in Germany, has for some time been the largest car seat cover manufacturer in Europe – delivering roughly three million a year – while around a quarter of all European vehicles are fitted with products from Eybl International.
With an annual output of around 32 million meters of fabric from plants in 12 countries MTG has an international workforce of 2,200 and now generates annual revenues of more than 280 million euros.
Fezko’s annual output of fabric, 95% of which is woven polyester, has grown from 2.5 million meters in 2001 to around seven million meters today.
Another major change in Europe was the acquisition of most of the facilities of insolvent German supplier Stankiewicz by International Automotive Components (IAC).
In little more than two years, IAC – chaired by billionaire tycoon Wilbur L Ross – has emerged as the world’s largest automotive interiors supplier, having transformed both the US and European markets through the acquisitions of Collins & Aikman and the Interiors division of Lear Corporation.
Even prior to the purchase of Stankiewicz, IAC had rapidly grown into an operation with a global workforce of 29,000 in 16 countries, with revenues in a regular year, which means prior to 2008, of US$5.5 billion.
Stankiewicz supplies European car makers with insulation, dampening products, sounds absorbers and floor coverings and has deals with many of the region’s auto giants, including Audi, BMW, Daimler and Renault.
Wilbur L Ross has said that its purchase will strengthen the group’s technical knowledge of interior carpets and acoustic products and that further consolidation of capacity into market leaders is what is required for the overall industry.
Consolidation in Japan
Similar consolidation is currently taking place in Japan’s automotive textile industry, where Toyota Boshoku and two other Japanese automotive fabrics suppliers –Toyota Tsusho and Kawashima Selkon Textiles – have set up a joint venture company for manufacturing automotive seats. The annual combined output of these three companies amounts to approximately 20% of the world automotive seat products market.
Suminoe Textiles and Teijin have also set up a joint venture in Osaka, for the development, manufacture and sale of fabrics for both car seats and headliners.
Suminoe Textile has developed a large share of the automotive fabrics market, while Teijin possesses cutting-edge technologies for developing and processing raw fibres and fabrics, as well as the size and expertise to ensure stable production and quality control.
New Product Developments
With all this going on, it’s surprising there has been any new product development in fabrics for the automotive sector over the past two years, but this is not the case.
One of the most significant introductions is that of the patent-pending inflatable seatbelt introduced by Key Safety Systems (KSS) with Ford.
Bringing together airbag and seatbelt technology seems so obvious it’s really surprising it hasn’t been thought of before now.
KSS, as a leading manufacturer of both seatbelts and airbags, employs its high volume production cold gas inflator (CGI) to swell to approximately five times the width of a standard seatbelt after receiving a deployment signal from a sensing system.
This can significantly reduce injury by distributing crash force energy across more of the car occupant’s body. The new belt also has smooth, round edges to make it more comfortable than standard belts.
It makes its debut in this year’s Ford Explorer.
The new Ford Focus RS, meanwhile, employs interior fabrics made from Dinamica Evolution microfibres, made by Miko of Italy and using an exclusive water-based process, developed in co-operation with Japan]s Asahi Kasei.
Dinamica Evolution is said to be 100% eco-compatible and produced using recycled fibres that comply with strict standards and without using harmful solvents.
In addition, the microfibre is ultralight, intrinsically flameproof without the use of resins on the back of the material, and resistant to abrasion.
The Dinamica Evolution product range has recently been increased, with some materials now similar in appearance to leather, while others have been customised in dyeing and finishing to mimic the brightness and softness of silk.
Dinamica Evolution is also employed in the VW Pirelli, VW Passat R36, the Land Rover LRX and the new Audi 4 RS 6.
Weight is becoming a core issue for the automotive industry – not only are lighter cars more economical to run for the consumer while at the same time requiring less fuel consumption, they also allow the car manufacturers to reduce their costs too.
There are few such examples of simple measures which can be taken with immediate benefits for the consumer, the manufacturer and the environment.
In respect of this, the use of natural fibre composites in the automotive industry is expanding rapidly, with Daimler, for example, now using more than 50 bio-based components in Mercedes-Benz cars. Flax, hemp and sisal are used in door liners, seatbacks and backseat shelves, while coconut husk fibre is used in seat cushions and head restraints.
Acrodur, which was officially introduced to the North American market in November 2009 by BASF, is a new class of acrylic binder which the company believes can contribute significantly to making natural fibre composites more competitive. As a one-component system consisting of a modified polyacrylic acid and a polyalcohol crosslinker, solutions of the binder initially behave like a thermoplastic.
On heating at 120°C, the material melts and flows, allowing for impregnation of substrate materials such as natural fibre mats. After impregnation and drying to room temperature, Acrodur forms a ‘film’ that mechanically binds to the substrates.
These materials can then, for example, be compression moulded at temperatures above 120°C, at which point the molecules begin to crosslink to form a thermoset. Crosslinking is fully completed at temperatures above 150°C.
The lower inner door panel of the latest BMW7 Series received a 2009 Automotive Innovation Award from the Automotive Division of the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE), in the materials category.
It consists of a 70% sisal fibre mat – needle
epunched in Germany by J. Dittrich & Söhne and compression moulded with BASF’s Acrodur.
At the Los Angeles Auto Show in December 2009, Faurecia introduced its Clean range of products focused on enabling car makers to take a cleaner and lighter approach to vehicle technology.
Faurecia’s 2008 Light Attitude collection of products enabled vehicle weight savings of 30kg to be achieved, and the company’s goal is to remove a further 60kg in future models through the use of, among other things, more natural fibres and other biomaterials in interior car components.
The company’s new Lignolight technology enables a mixture of 70% wood fibre and 30% plastic resin to be employed in door-panel substrates that are 40% less dense than conventional panels.
Japan’s Toyota, meanwhile, continues to pioneer the use of biofibres and the new 2010 Toyota Lexus HS250h luxury hybrid vehicle includes nonwoven components supplied by both Toyota Boshoku and Toray Industries.
The nonwoven fabrics for the parcel rack and boot liner supplied by Toyota Boshoku for this new model are manufactured from a blend of PLA (polylactic acid) and conventional polypropylene fibres.
The company now plans to go a stage further and supply nonwovens made from a combination of the raw plant material kenaf with PLA for Toyota’s next-generation i-REAL personal mobility concept vehicles.
Toray Industries has supplied nonwovens made from islands-in-the-sea bicomponent fibres containing between 30-50% PLA for the floor carpets of the Lexus HS250h, and their application is likely to be extended to headliners and door trim in the future.
Toray currently has the capacity to produce around 200 tonnes of this new PLA bico fibre annually, but is planning to expand capacity to an annual 5,000 tonnes by 2015, and to extend its use into other areas.
Similarly, Toyota Tsusho Corporationhas developed new environmentally friendly floor mats employing NatureWorks Ingeo PLA fibre for the third-generation Toyota Prius.
Known as the world’s most eco-conscious car, the Prius features world-leading mileage, a solar powered ventilation system, and environmentally friendly plant-derived plastics for its seat cushion foam, cowl side trim, inner and outer scuff plates and deck trim cover.
In its manufacturing process, the use of Ingeo is said to reduce the fossil fuel used by 65% and cut CO2 emissions by 90% when compared to the petroleum-derived nylon resin used in traditional floor mats.
New Oeko-Tex Certification for Vehicle Interiors
Advanced safety systems designed to protect vehicle occupants help minimise health injuries as a result of accidents. At the same time, air in vehicle interiors that is free of harmful substances represents yet another health-related aspect. To this end the Oeko-Tex Association has offered a new certification option for vehicle interiors, according to Oeko-Tex Standard 100.
In addition to the current Oeko-Tex tests for harmful substances, it is now possible to inspect textile products, leather articles, foam, polymer components as well as their fibres and nontextile articles, which are used in the automotive industry, for possible emissions of harmful substances. The ÖTI – Institute for Ecology, Technics and Innovation Ltd in Vienna has developed a simulation process for determining the emission loading in vehicles, and implemented this process into Oeko-Tex Standard 100 as a supplement. The certification can be applied to individual materials as well as complete vehicle interiors, and relates to products of all processing stages. However, the new emissions tests cannot be used for chemicals, dyes and tools, or for assessments of vehicle cargo areas.
Prerequisite for product certification is compliance with the usual Oeko-Tex requirements and specific additional conditions, which result from use in vehicle interiors, the association explains.
The main difference compared to clothing textiles is the emission of volatile organic substances and odours, which depends mainly on the amount of materials used, the air exchange rate as well as the temperature in the vehicle’s interior.
Child seats also should correspond with the specifications of the Oeko-Tex product class I (baby articles), and materials of normal vehicle seats with those of product class II for articles that come into direct contact with the skin. Other materials for vehicle roofs, hat racks or floor coverings must meet the requirements of product class IV (decoration materials). Where complete vehicle interiors are to be certified, the sum of all materials and products processed for use in the interior space may not exceed certain emission values, the association concludes.