Configured Comfort: Designing a Seat to Fit the Person
Automotive IQ spoke with Dr. Susanne Frohriep, Manager New Technologies at Johnson Controls. Dr. Frohriep presented at the 8th International Conference: Innovative Seating 2013 in Bonn, Germany.
"Let’s divest ourselves of the classical thinking. But if we do that, and say,
okay we want to move the seat as a whole, how do we make it easy to
Automotive IQ: Could you give us your background and how you got started in automotive seating?
Susanne Frohriep: I couldn’t really decide on what to study so I started out studying languages and linguistics but wanted to go into the sciences and then picked up anthropology which is, of course, a part of biology, at Kiel University in Northern Germany. The specialization was on ergonomics concerning the product and human interface. That’s what I studied and I also stayed there as a scientific researcher for a couple of years. But then I thought, I need to see other worlds and decided to go in to automotive suppliers. At that time I started at Leggett & Platt working on the seat comfort elements there.
Automotive IQ: And now you’re with involved with the full seat design?
S.F.: Right. I stayed with Leggett & Platt for seven years and was responsible for building up the ergonomic lab in Germany, there was another one in Windsor, Canada, but there wasn’t one in Europe at the time, so I built that up together with other colleagues. We worked on defining the comfort process and really getting comfort into product engineering, seeing configurable comfort on the part of seat contour changing elements. A good year ago, I transferred to Johnson Controls who were building up their advanced development department for configuring seats and vehicle interiors.
Automotive IQ: For the benefit of the folks that didn’t get to see your wonderful presentation, why the title ‘Ergonomic seating, fact or fiction’?
S.F.: The term "ergonomic" is often misunderstood as a feature that can be added or subtracted at will. Instead, it is a method of designing seats in such a way that they are tailored to fit the range of users. In the technical environment that automotive seating represents, it is key to include the human occupant from step one, and this is also what the terms "configured comfort" or "seat systems" mean.
Automotive IQ: In your view, what are the three most challenging aspects of seat design?
S.F.: I think making a seat to fit the human is the basic thing that we have to do. But it also has to be safe, so we are in the comfort safety paradigm to really satisfy both the individual using the seat and the safety regulations. Take headrests, there are new regulations about the head to headrest distance, so what can we do there? If you bring the headrest too close to an individual it’s really a comfort issue. You can’t turn your head without being inhibited by the headrest but it’s supposed to be close in order to be safe. So what can you do to solve this? There are active headrests, for instance, or you could think about a different headrest geometry which maybe takes into account small persons and tall persons or people with short torsos and long torsos. In addition to this comfort and safety paradigm, we have the operation again. So maybe we shouldn’t think in terms of front-back adjustment, up-down adjustment but rather, what position does an individual really want to be in? And then how do we get there? Thinking you can move your support structure in space, somehow, but then you have the challenge of operation. How do we visualize this for a person to say, ok I don’t really care whether I’m going up or to the front, my body needs to be in a certain position. But how do we make this operational?
Automotive IQ: A bit less focus on the axes then?
S.F.: Yes. Let’s divest ourselves of the classical thinking. But if we do that, and say, we want to move the seat as a whole, how do we make it easy to understand? I’m trying to avoid the word ‘intuitive’ because that’s another one of these terms like ‘ergonomic.’ Everyone says it.
Automotive IQ: That’s fair. It’s interesting. So what would your idea automotive seat look like? What features would it include? Even just from a person who’s an end user yourself?
S.F.: Right. I’m fairly short but for my height I’ve have long legs. I’ve rather a short torso so my issue is always getting up there and being able to see and what I’d really like to have is complete tilt control so that you can also have the cushion tilt. Also my lumbar spine seems to be very high so I’d like an adjustable lumbar support so you can really adjust it to the proper height, if possible with a massage function. That’s really nice because if you go on long drives as I often have to do, you don’t want to remain static over long hours but be able to change the position, and a motile system inside the seat is something that allows you to do that.
Automotive IQ: Two more questions. How will the need to reduce weight affect seating looking ahead in the next few years?
S.F.: Reducing weight while retaining functionality is a big challenge. But intelligent solutions are possible, maybe, we can make foam lighter or use other materials that make the seat thinner. In this, you would be keeping the same functionality at a lower weight. But there is also the trend to ever increasing functionality with rising consumer expectations, and in this case, it would be possible to increase functionality and, due to lighter components, stay at the same weight level instead of increasing the weight.
Automotive IQ: How does environment get factored in to seat design?
S.F.: The environment is very important, of course, so there are lots of different influences and, for the human factors side, we always have to take into account, on the one hand, what does the test subject bring with them? What are their traits? What are their body measures? What are their sweat rates? All these things, and on the other hand, what’s the state? What happened to them today? Are they stressed out? Are they actually quite happy? Are they tired? So, you really also have to look at these configurations of your test subjects, the environment of your test subjects, and then of course, the environment of your seat. Where is it? For me, I often think it’s interesting that driver and passenger seats are equipped so differently. I think that’s also a question whether that should be like that. Maybe you and your spouse are driving the same car and then in the passenger seat, you remember, this is the seat with the two-way lock and the driver has four-way. That’s somehow strange in many vehicles.
Automotive IQ: Or maybe there will be some sensors that will be able to gather mood for the driver and passenger and react accordingly?
S.F.: Yes. In the future, as I mentioned in my talk, I think we will actually try to take this into account by seat sensing, so the seat will be able to get some information about the occupant. Not only about body measures and then recommending a posture, but also about the state, the personal state again referring to stress or tiredness and give recommendations of what to do.
Automotive IQ: Thank you very much for your thoughts and for your great presentation.
S.F.: You’re very welcome.