DETROIT — Soybean-based poly-urethane foam blends have worked well for auto interiors supplier Johnson Controls Inc.
Since their launch two years ago, the company's soy foam seats have been used on 11 vehicle platforms in North America. But a problem occurred in taking the eco-friendly seating global: Soybean oil is less plentiful in other parts of the world.
So the supplier is adapting its plant-based urethane program.
In Asia, Johnson Controls will make urethane foam with about 5 percent content from palm oil, while European foams will use a combination of castor oil and canola oil. The company is calling the foam natural-oil polyols, or NOPs.
"You want to be able to achieve the environmental aspect in other regions," Dan LaFlamme, product development manager at Johnson Controls' automotive interiors unit in suburban Detroit, said during an interview last month at the Detroit auto show.
The palm oil blend will arrive on the market first, with a Johnson Controls' plant in Malaysia set to begin production this year.
The castor and canola oil blends in Europe are being tweaked.
In North America, soybeans are a major crop typically used in animal feed, with soy oil as a byproduct. But the soybean isn't grown or processed in exactly the same way elsewhere, LaFlamme said. Transferring the technology from soy into other plant oil blends makes sense.
In another project, Johnson Controls is reconfiguring the flexible plastic layer used inside its thin-profile Synergy Seat, replacing wire and foam for support along the seat's back and side.
Previously, the plastic shell was attached to a unique metal frame, which raised the price, LaFlamme said. For the Synergy Seat, the company re-engineered the shell to work with the frame it uses on 32 vehicle platforms. That high volume drives down production costs and makes the shell and thin seat competitively priced.
The plastic combined with a lighter-weight steel and aluminum structure and a high-density thin urethane foam allows Johnson Controls to cut up to 40 percent of the seat's weight, says Byron Foster, group vice president of global product centers.
The company is showing the seat to carmakers.
Johnson Controls, of Milwaukee, ranks No. 7 on the Automotive News list of the top 100 global suppliers with parts sales to automakers of $18.50 billion in its 2007 fiscal year.