Sustainability in Strong Supply

Design innovation and an exclusive new tool for measuring carbon footprint have made Adient a sustainability leader among Tier-1s.

Sustainability no longer is a vague aspiration for OEMs and suppliers looking for a ‘green’ veil. It’s rapidly become a guiding tenet of product innovation, and ESG progress, as the industry pushes toward net-zero carbon goals in most major markets.

“Currently, it’s coming mainly from the European OEMs and the European legislature,” explained Mike Maddelein, VP engineering, Americas, at seating systems Tier 1 Adient. “They’re driving carbon-footprint reduction and the industry is getting very, very serious about it. The European OEMs are starting to specify sustainability targets in their RFQs.” North America is probably two years behind, he believes, but will follow Europe’s sustainability plan – if not through direct legislation, then by the OEMs themselves. By comparison, Asian OEMs as a group currently trail the Detroit-based automakers in this area.

Maddelein, a 30-year seating-systems veteran, said sustainability in product development is now determined by what he calls “specification and regulation” set by the OEMs. The Scope 1, 2, and 3 guidelines, though not mandates, are being cascaded down through the vehicle makers’ supply chains. [Scope 1 relates to direct greenhouse-gas emissions from sources owned or controlled by a company, such as manufacturing plants; Scope 2 are emissions from energy a company purchases and consumes in its operations; Scope 3 emissions are those associated with a company’s activities including the emissions of its supply chain.]

Adient’s engineering team tracks the Scope guidelines and incorporates them in its sourcing and product strategies. He said Scope 1 and 2 account for only about 10% of the company’s sustainability footprint. “The rest is all in materials,” he said.

Adient’s 2022 Sustainability Report is a benchmark in terms of clarity and message and provides a useful roadmap for suppliers just entering a sustainability regimen . The company’s initiatives have positioned it as a sustainability leader among interior suppliers, according to an OEM customer who spoke with SAE Media. Adient's commitment to sustainability starts at the top, with CEO Doug DelGrosso and Adient VP Global Sustainability Tammi Dukes. Engineering champions sustainability integration into product design as “one of the pillars we look at to satisfy customer requirements,” Maddelein said.

That pillar plays a key role in driving innovation at the bill-of-material level, where roughly 70% of Adient’s seating cost resides.

The Carbon-Footprint Tool

As the focus on sustainability expands, the industry still is without a common way of measuring and reporting carbon footprint at the component level. Adient also realized it needed a way to provide options for its customers to reduce the carbon footprint in the company’s seats. Thus was born the Carbon Footprint Tool, data-based software that shows a proprietary link between product engineering, manufacturing footprint and CO2 intensity. Developed by Adient in-house, the tool takes the full bill of materials and identifies the carbon footprint of every single part in it. This gives designers, engineers and customers a view of the true carbon footprint of a seat.

“The tool helps us make the right decisions to reduce the carbon footprint of our product portfolio,” Maddelein told SAE Media. It identifies CO2 drivers (and carbon-reduction opportunities) for each stage of the product’s lifecycle: raw materials, transportation, manufacturing and assembly, packaging, and waste and delivers specific results by commodity (seat structure, foam, trim, plastics, etc.). The tool also conforms with ISO 14040/14044 standards.

Currently, the CFT is Adient intellectual property, but Maddelein said other users, including some suppliers, are interested in it. “Right now, the industry is all over the map for how sustainability and recyclability are being interpreted,” he observed. “Different companies are interpreting sustainability, recycled, and renewable in their products differently. So, we’re trying to push the industry toward the common denominator of kg CO2e with the tool – and we’ve been successful doing this in Europe.”

Breakdown of a seat as shown on Adient’s Carbon Footprint Tool dashboard. (Adient, from 2022 Deutsche Bank report)

Maddelein showed a CFT-generated carbon-footprint analysis of a lower-midrange vehicle seat set with fabric seating surface. An on-screen dashboard displayed a detailed manifest of each component and raw material in the unit, drilling far down to the Tier 4 supply level and listing the carbon content of each. The seat set weighed 70.5 kg (155.4 lb) and contained 214 kg of carbon (214 kg CO2e). According to Maddelein, 91% of the 214 kg of carbon is in the bill of raw material.

The CFT incorporates estimates of material suppliers’ carbon content using GaBi, a lifecycle analysis (LCA) database tool. “We know all the materials from an engineering standpoint, but what we don’t get out of that from suppliers is Scope 1 and 2 – what manufacturing energy they’re using to create their product,” Maddelein said. “That’s what we’ll have to drive down into the supply base for, but it’s a low percentage of the whole GHG story for us.”

Green materials

“Metal, plastics, trim and foam are what make up most of our carbon footprint in seats, besides other things like wiring harnesses and switches,” Maddelein explained. Reducing steel’s carbon footprint in steel is all in its processing. Steel suppliers who use renewable energy offer so-called ‘green steel.’ And to use less of it requires new designs while maintaining occupant safety, he noted.

Lightweighting and sustainability go hand-in-hand, but there are cost, mass and emissions tradeoffs in the equation. Switching from a steel seat frame to magnesium, for example, can reduces weight by 40% but cost and emissions go up considerably, Maddelein said. Innovation by design is a big factor in sustainability. As an example, Adient’s ‘sound in seat’ product puts small audio speakers in the seat headrests, which gives better more personalized sound while reducing the total number of speakers and wiring in a vehicle, saving about 8 kg (18 lb) on average and cost. Likewise, designing climate control into the seat reduces HVAC power demand by cooling the occupant using convection, not conduction.

Epitomizing the importance of product design to sustainability, Adient’s new UltraThin seat features a 100% recyclable thermoplastic that serves multiple duties. It replaces the suspension in the seat, incorporates all attachment points for the trim and integrates the vent and lumbar systems. “The Ultrathin design uses the product itself as the seat ‘basket’ and integrates as many components as we can to eliminate parts for sustainability,” Maddelein explained. “That reduces cost and time to manufacture, which is my Scope 2. And I can recycle Ultrathin and put it back into the exact same product at about 40% cost.” It also reduces the amount of foam in the seat, and reduces the block height while maintaining comfort, which creates space under the seats to increase battery capacity by 3-10%. Adient’s Ultrathin seat has not yet entered production and has attracted four OEMs, Maddelein said.

Polyurethane-based foams as used in seat cushions have long been an R&D focus of seat suppliers, as it is difficult to recycle and typically ends up as shredder residue after a vehicle is scrapped. Adient and its suppliers are studying new chemistries, including industrializing polyols with recycled CO2 content. In 2019 Adient and Dow jointly developed Specflex, a new seating foam product featuring lower carbon footprint than previous materials.

“Each OEM has a different focus on sustainability for seats,” Maddelein noted. Ford, for example, believes it can meet its interiors targets by specifically focusing on foam and plastics, he noted. Ford is targeting 15-25% recycled and renewable plastics, and 20-25% recycled and renewable foam by 2025 but has not yet provided details.

Sustainable plastics is another area of development at Adient, whose innovations include new ‘soft’ materials such as polyethelenes (PET) replacing hard polypropylenes (PP) for seatback panels and side valences. “The plastics industry is stepping up with new blends and fillers, hemp being a new idea,” Maddelein said. And new vinyl blends and BIO-Polymer rolled goods that give “premium appearance, more sustainability, and lower cost” are replacing cowhide as OEMs are moving away from leather seats, particularly for their EVs.

Getting the sub-tiers on board

In general, the march to sustainability has been inconsistent for many Tier 2, 3 and 4 suppliers. “Some of them are ready for Scope 1, 2 and 3; some are not,” Maddelein said. “But to be truly effective, it has to permeate through the supply base. As the OEMs start driving requirements down into component supply, we’re going to have to do the same with our supply base. We realized early on that we had to get to this point,” he asserted.

Maddelein cited the IMDS requirement as an example of how the entire supply chain previously came together for a common goal. The International Material Data System is an online database used by the auto industry to manage information on materials and substances used in vehicles. It was developed in 2000 to comply with environmental regulations such as the EU's End-of-Life Vehicles directive and the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive. To comply with the regs, OEMs needed detailed information about the composition of materials used in their products.

IMDS currently includes at least 62 global OEMs and now is standard practice. “We all just do it,” Maddelein stated. “Sustainability will eventually follow a similar scenario.”