As Johnson Controls Inc. prepares to spin off its automotive seating and interiors business this year into a new company called Adient, rival Lear Corp. is going full speed ahead setting up a design and engineering operation to create the seat of the future.
Lear plans to unveil its Crafted by Lear studio this month at the supplier's Southfield, Mich., headquarters. Lear has named a management team for the studio, which has begun hosting some automaker customers.
Lear reasons that automakers increasingly look to interiors to set themselves apart from competitors. So Crafted by Lear will strive to create customized designs using the company's expertise in leather, textiles, cutting and sewing, and combine those designs with the company's capabilities in seat structures.
"What's happening with interiors is the craftsmanship and differentiation are becoming more and more important," said Lear CEO Matthew Simoncini. "What makes us unique is we're capable of getting in the design studio sooner and having a highly crafted seat and differentiated designs at the lowest possible cost."
Crafted by Lear offers the capabilities of automotive textile specialist Guilford Mills, acquired in 2012 for $257 million, and automotive leather specialist Eagle Ottawa, acquired last year for $850 million.
Ray Scott, president of Lear's global seating business, said seat design, engineering and construction are changing. In the past, automakers "would quote a seat that's been designed and you'd take over from that point on."
With Crafted by Lear, the company aims to participate in "upfront design work and project engineering" as early as possible, he said.
Heading Crafted by Lear is Mandy Rice, vice president of global trim cover engineering. Rice joined Lear in 1997 after five years as a manufacturing engineer at Ford Motor Co. Another Lear veteran, Paul Severinski is chief engineer for craftsmanship.
Lear recruited Lea Thomas Smith from Mercedes-Benz's MBtech Group to be director of design. Smith also has worked in Italy as a designer of luxury yacht interiors and has worked on luxury van conversions.
Lear is pushing for a convergence of its two major business areas -- seats and electrical power management -- to create an intuitive seat of the future, one that can sense a particular occupant and adjust automatically.
Simoncini said Lear is shopping "for software firms to help us with connectivity and moving data from outside the vehicle to within the vehicle."
In August, Lear bought technology from Autonet Mobile in Santa Rosa, Calif., which develops automotive communications hardware and software. As part of the acquisition, Lear hired several members of Autonet Mobile's team. In November Lear bought Arada Systems in Troy, Mich. The company develops vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications.
Lear ranks No. 10 on the Automotive News list of the top 100 global suppliers with worldwide parts sales to automakers of $17.73 billion in 2014.
Last week, Lear reported 2015 sales of $18.21 billion, up 2.7% from 2014, with 77 percent of sales in seating and 23 percent in electrical.