Skinny Automotive Seats: More Space, Less Cost, Still Comfy

It seems like everything these days has a "skinny" option - skinny jeans, skinny popcorn, skinny beverages. This emerging trend has even made its way into the automotive industry with skinny automotive seats.

As automakers grapple to meet the stringent CAFE standards by 2025, they started by lightweighting the frame because it's the largest part of the vehicle. Just last year, that brought about vehicles with fully aluminum or carbon-fiber frames. Now, as engineers begin to look beyond the frame and into the interior, the seat is another obvious element that can withstand losing some weight. Thus, the thinned-out automotive seating trend commences.

"The automaker can shorten the area of the vehicle, and ultimately save millions of dollars over the entire platform."

Engineers are tasked with reducing the space, weight and cost of today's car seats without sacrificing the comfort that customers expect. In an automotive landscape dominated by metals, plastics and composites present an entirely new opportunity and way of thinking. BASF, with decades of experience in plastics engineering, is ready to support its OEM and Tier 1 partners during the transition and has several solutions readily available.

"The goal is to achieve that luxury comfort level while cutting the cross-sectional area," said Cameron Recknagel, automotive interiors market segment specialist.

The thinner, lighter weight seat offers many benefits to OEMs in terms of cost - less material usage, more integrated processes and avoidance of CAFE penalties. For this reason, OEMs are focused on innovative opportunities.

"One of our automotive engineering customers really put the importance of these initiatives into perspective for me," continues Recknagel. "Reducing the size of the seat by just five millimeters can either be used to create additional leg room for passengers, a direct-to-customer value-add, or the automaker can shorten the area of the vehicle, and ultimately save millions of dollars over the entire platform."

Unlike traditional material suppliers, BASF strives to be a fully-integrated partner in the process, with the materials, tools and know-how to ensure the lightweighting project is successful. Most notably, they pioneered a technology, ULTRASIM®, to test the performance of the plastic part in a digital space and accurately predict its real world physical performance. Ultimately, this accelerates the development process and eliminates setbacks - and designing and testing advanced seating systems are no exception.

For one specific customer, BASF was able to condense a seating system that had three parts and six bolts into a singular, integrated part, saving the customer time, material and money. Additionally, BASF engineers ensured that the performance of the part met the OEM's expectations by using ULTRASIM to test it prior to development.

The full spectrum of seating components for the BMW i3. Photo courtesy of A2MAC1 Automotive Benchmarking. The full spectrum of seating components for the BMW i3. Photo courtesy of A2MAC1 Automotive Benchmarking.

Although it may be a few years before fully-scaled thin seat designs hit the market, OEMs are definitely taking measures to reduce weight without losing functional, ergonomic or aesthetic appeal. The BMW i3 is a great example of a vehicle on the market today with a "skinny" seat. BASF achieved the same levels of comfort using polyurethane foam but reduced the weight, thickness and material usage of the seat by using plastic components - all while adding leg room in the back.

"We're material specialists and we don't expect our OEM or Tier 1 suppliers to be deep experts in these areas - that's our job," said Recknagel. "We want to be part of that decision-making process because when we are, we're frequently able to reduce the number of parts, lower the weight, optimize the strength and localize where the materials need to be, creating comfortable yet efficient seating options."