DETROIT When a designer shows a new material on a concept car, he or she likely has production in mind.
It wasnt always that way. But designers and engineers cannot afford to ignore sharing data on materials as vehicle production times decrease and competition between automakers intensifies.
Were moving toward a very enlightened time, said Imre Molnar, dean of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, whose automotive studio supplies the industry with many of its leading designers. The dialogue and relationship between the designer and engineer is more cooperative than combative.
A College for Creative Studies program sponsored by the American Iron and Steel Institute, for example, focused on design for modularity and flexible manufacturing or, colloquially, how to get the most bang for the buck. One student created a roadster that subtly used the same stamping for hood and trunk lids. Design students are always pushing, trying to get ideas to cross-fertilize. Often in a naive way, but its thought-provoking in an automotive setting, Molnar said.
Toyota designers and engineers cooperated to put new materials in the Lexus LS 430, including a molded plastic instrument panel and a lightweight front bumper.
When were talking about vehicle concept and design concept, we are already thinking about the material, said Jeff Makarewicz, general manager of the Materials Engineering Department at the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Koichi Kurono, materials engineering group manager, said Toyota used urethane plastic to create sharp-looking edges that old-style manufacturing could not have achieved.
Johnson Controls Inc. design manager Thelma Sibley said suppliers work to bring new materials to automakers through design.
We want to give them stuff they're not already doing, she said. We want to give them new technology.
Examples include things like thin-profile seats based on new elastomeric yarns, such as those that make up the Aeron chair by Herman Miller.
Customers want smarter materials that will light up, cool off, heat up or give off an aroma to your body that will almost give you a good sensual feel to calm you down at the end of the day or perk you up in the morning, Sibley said.
She thinks so-called smart fabrics that heat, cool or wick away moisture will appear in cars before 2010.
New materials also will blur the exterior/interior separation line, with paints that apply to both areas of the car or durable plastics shared between both environments. The Toyota TSOP 6 olefin plastic material that makes up today's Lexus bumper fascia is usable for hard-surface parts of an instrument panel, for example.
And in the bold world of design, not all new materials go into the car itself. Drivers can share them as wearable technology.
Mini owners, for example, can wear their seat material in the form of a jacket that incorporates some of the knobby plastic seat, says communications manager Michael McHale. Mini marketing also offers a chamois-sleeved garment for those who want to coddle their car with a polishing hug.
Tim Moran is a free-lance writer in the Detroit area