DETROIT - The wave of products coming through the pipeline at Lear Corp.'s Electrical and Electronics Division - LEED - demonstrates what happens when a corporate merger goes right.
The modules and component systems are a merger of two companies' technologies - interiors from Lear and electronics technology from United Technologies Automotive, the Dearborn, Mich., supplier Lear bought in May 1999.
In the past 18 months, engineers at the interiors giant have developed a product strategy Lear calls Intertronics. It is the marriage of electronics assemblies with trim components. It includes door and interior components manufactured with integrated circuitry, circuit boards that are self-contained controllers and electronics systems that fit with a single architecture.
Displayed in a special viewing wing off the lobby at UT Automotive's former Dearborn, Mich., headquarters, the products are in various stages of commercial development.
'Everything you see here was developed in the past 20 months,' says Mike Maloney, vice president of global product development for LEED. 'Intertronics is our biggest area of growth. It wasn't something that was available to Lear before it bought UTA, and it wasn't available to UTA before Lear bought it.'
Case in point: the integrated seat adjuster. The old Lear built seats. The old UTA built wiring systems. The old Lear supplied high-end heated seats with lumbar supports and loads of wiring and circuits. But thanks to its acquisition of UTA, Lear will supply a seat with a master control system that runs a heating module, memory module, seat adjuster and lumbar adjuster through a single wire assembly. It uses only 39 circuits instead of the previous seat's 65 circuits, and the whole module costs 19 percent less than the one it replaces.
New command center
Lear has spent $13 million renovating the UTA office, which stands in the shadow of Ford Motor Co
In recent months, the building has sometimes mistakenly been referred to as Lear headquarters, but that operation remains in Southfield, Mich.
But Lear continues to enhance the 425,000-square-foot Dearborn, Mich., building as its integrated electronics strategy takes shape.
Later this month, the company will move the 200 engineers that make up Lear's seating engineering operations from Southfield to Dearborn. That represents Lear's traditional core engineering operations.
The reason for the move: still more integration of interiors and electronics, Maloney said. The division expects to be able to design an entire seat, from frame to electrical wiring, in such a way that the electronics will be integrated into the seat manufacturing.
Do you get it?
LEED still is attempting to sell the approach to automakers. One problem, says Mark Ritz, LEED vice president of marketing and business development, is that automakers are not set up to purchase the way Lear intends to manufacture. Electronics purchasing and interiors purchasing still are largely separate.
One of the division's products is a flip pack control device designed into an armrest. Rather than overwhelm the consumer with too many buttons at a single glance, Lear's armrest includes controls for the vehicle's windows, but then flips open to reveal separate controls for the vehicle's seat. The innovation does not have a customer. Any sale will require an automaker to make a simultaneous decision on a door component, a window regulator and a seating adjuster.
Lear revealed that Honda Motor Co. is considering a piece of molded plastic trim that has control circuitry inside it. The piece would knock about 20 percent out of the cost of purchasing separate trim and control circuits.
No more pasta
The company also expects its integration of interiors and electronics to cut down on the pasta bowl of wiring necessary to connect everything. Wiring is a big chunk of Lear's global business. Last year, the $2 billion worth of wiring it sold represented about 15 percent of its business.
But the company realizes the need to cut down. Every additional wire is a potential warranty problem for the customer. Wiring problems are the leading cause of warranty claims.
The challenge for a supplier like Lear is to supply more electronics to the vehicle to satisfy consumers without creating a trap for problems that will sour the consumer on the product.
Said Maloney: 'That is where the advantage of integrated design comes in.'