What an Auto Designer Thinks of Nonwovens

By Sandra Levy , Associate Editor | December 7, 2010

In this interview, François Farion, design strategy and color design manager at Nissan Design America, provides his expert opinion on nonwovens in the automotive sector. Mr. Farion made a video presentation at INDA’s RISE (Research, Innovation, Science for Engineered Fabrics) conference in Baltimore, MD in September. His remarks appear in the Expert’s Opinion column on nonwovens-industry.com. In this exclusive interview, Mr. Farion expands on his ideas, providing eye-opening insights about the use of nonwovens in the automotive industry.

Nonwovens Industry: What can nonwovens producers do to improve nonwovens to better serve the automotive sector?

Mr. Farion: Nonwovens have been and will continue to be seen as commodities that are extremely cost effective and which have a couple of functional advantages such as noise insulation. Nonwovens are already in trunk liners. Because nonwovens are so good cost-wise, they are being used in other places, such as headliners and carpet, where they are much more visible. This means that we have to pay a little more attention to that. Because they are being used in more visible areas, nonwovens need to go from a “mouse fur” reputation, which is not a very pleasant term, to something that is a little more premium, while keeping their cost advantage. (But) If makers move to embellishments that cost as much as tricot headliners or if you are going to go against a cost that is close to tufted carpets for the floor, then you are going to end up with no advantage at all and people will go for what is considered “the real thing.” There’s a narrow, but not so narrow, margin where there are things that could be made in terms of improving the look of nonwovens rather than chasing the last cent, which every purchasing department is going to push.

Nonwovens Industry: How can nonwovens be improved in their appearance?

Mr. Farion: I’d like to make a comparison with vinyl. Vinyl was regarded as fake leather—it didn’t look good. That’s not the case anymore. The reason vinyl has made so much progress is that it matched some of the best aspects of leather, but it went beyond that and offered aspects that are not possible in leather. In some respects, the leather industry has benefited from that creativity and from proposing aspects that were not considered as suitable for leather before: metallics, pearlescence and prints.

    In the handbag industry, you have a vinyl bag next to a leather bag and design is the differentiator, not the material. Sometimes, when the brand is a little bit more creative or well considered, the bag can be more expensive than a genuine leather one. The same is true with nonwovens. There are very few variations now. There’s a little bit of velour and a ribbed aspect, which is mostly for carpet applications and trunk liners. It gives a little bit of structure to the nonwovens. It’s a little bit more interesting.

What makes flannel or felt so interesting is that it has a natural feeling of compressed fibers, but at the same time it has irregular colors that give richness and depth that is sometimes completely absent from the nonwovens we are presented with. Rather than trying to look the most industrial, exactly-the-same-consistency is important for automotive, but it doesn’t mean that consistency means a totally plain look.

Real wool felt usually has a mix of various colors. For example, gray felt has a mix of dark gray and white fibers and a couple that are completely black. That uneven aspect gives richness to the material.

 There have been various trials for embossing and printing and these are all valid. The only thing is, the cost ceiling is always a difficult problem unless you end up with something that is so convincing that people will start choosing nonwovens over other solutions like tufted for carpet or tricot for headliner, which might happen one day. Right now the playing field is within the price gap of the tricot headliner in one case and the tufted carpet in the other. But in that gap there probably is still some room to improve the aspect of nonwoven by giving it a little more structure, more thickness and more depth.

Nonwovens Industry: What can nonwovens producers do to improve color?

Mr. Farion: When we get leather presentations from leather manufacturers, they present bright oranges and lime green leathers that we know will have a 0-5% chance of ending up in a car if we are lucky. But leather manufacturers understand they need to show them to demonstrate there is variation. They are trying things. It shows the know-how of that maker, his understanding of color and his understanding of trends. For now, all we are presented with from nonwovens producers are beige, gray and black. All we will end up with is mostly that. We all know that having a lime green headliner will be reserved for one special series if someone ever dares to do that. (But) It doesn’t mean lime green shouldn’t be in the collection that is presented. With a very rich fiber aspect, people could think of using it differently. Just showing that will give a company an edge with the design studios that no other supplier of nonwovens would have.

Nonwovens Industry: What advice do you have for the nonwovens industry when it comes to creativity?

Mr. Farion: Nonwovens manufacturers need to learn the basics of working with design studios where the rule is to show a lot of things to finally go back to classics because that’s the way the market is, and not a lot of people like to take risks. But not showing beyond this “bread and butter” means you don’t show your creative capabilities. Now it still has to make sense.  You need to go a little bit over what you are currently proposing in order to come back to a refined classic.  
It’s important to show a challenging structure in order to say, “For this project it doesn't make sense, but that makes me think of something that we can do in the future. “

(Nonwovens manufacturers) shouldn’t be disappointed by this. They should not be surprised to end up with black or a dark gray nonwoven. It’s paving the way to go slowly into something more creative. And when the occasion occurs, both the designer and the maker will be happy because he will be chosen over people who are only concentrating on cost and just satisfying the purchasing department.

Nonwovens Industry: How will taking this approach help the nonwovens industry?

Mr. Farion: This is not unique to this industry. There are industries that come from industrial backgrounds and they were not super creative. Chrome makers can show chrome. But chrome makers can also show satin chrome, dark chrome or brushed chrome. We know it is going to be difficult and more expensive. We know we won’t get it in every car, but the day we have an opportunity and money to put it in a car to differentiate it, we know whom we can turn to. That’s exactly the same story if someone comes up with solutions on nonwovens we have never seen before. That will open some new possibilities for us and it will change the image of nonwovens.

Nonwovens Industry: Are there any areas you are working on with nonwovens that you never thought you’d be working on?

Mr. Farion: Nonwovens used to be mostly in partially hidden areas, which was the parcel shelf in the rear or trunk liner. In smaller cars or in trucks, it was also in headliners. Sometimes they were also used for main floor carpets. With the constant pressure on costs, nonwovens will end up in more places and in higher end vehicles. The problem is, should we apply exactly the same quality of nonwoven that we have in a Versa in a more expensive sedan or crossover? From a designer’s perspective, no. We would like to have in the range of nonwovens something that is a little bit more premium so even if we do not go to a tufted carpet or tricot headliner, we can go there and still be satisfied with the result.

Nonwovens Industry: Are you doing any work now or in the future with Electric Vehicles (EV) that incorporates nonwovens?

Mr. Farion: Nonwovens have a tendency of being efficient from a weight to structure ratio so they are usually lightweight. And for an EV, lightness is very important. We are speaking about functional advantage here again. For an EV, where every gram is very important to get maximum range, it’s part of the strategy to use light materials. Now we know and have announced there will be some premium EV’s coming. The early adopters will be wealthy people, which means we should not think of nonwovens as a poor parent of any other material but for its own qualities, which is to be very light so it makes a lot of sense to use that. Are you going to use the same nonwoven in a $50,000-plus premium that you are using in a $12,000 economy box? Probably not. There needs to be a range of products offered with that.

Nonwovens Industry: Can you give an example of how a nonwoven is used creatively in an auto?

Mr. Farion: In the Cube, created by Nissan Japan, the headliner is a nonwoven. They used the shape of the headliner to make a concentric wave that is coming from the central light on the headliner. This shows that even with a nonwoven headliner, you can play with the manufacturing of it to change its image. The advantage is that nonwovens have a very natural, soft feeling. In that case it serves a purpose, which is that the lateral lighting gives a very nice shadow. That’s a creative way to use a nonwoven. The creative idea was to take advantage of the natural softness of the material and design the shape of the molded part to echo some of the other shapes present in the vehicle, and give a relaxed feel, as if you had thrown a pebble in a quiet pond.