Aircraft seats are getting lighter and lighter, but they also have to be comfortable, or an airline’s reputation could be damaged. Bernie Baldwin reports on some recent developments which add value for both the passenger and the airline.
No matter the distance or duration of a flight, an uncomfortable seat will always be remembered. Moreover, the memory is also likely to attach the experience to the airline, so making the right choice is vital.
Equally important, given the fine margin between profit and loss in the airline industry, is the lifecycle cost of the seat. This includes – in addition to the purchase price – how much it costs to maintain and the cost of fuel to carry the seat, which rises as the seat’s weight increases.
Aircraft seat manufacturers have thus been concentrating on ridding their seats of weight, while ensuring that strength, integrity and comfort are maintained, or perhaps even improved. New materials, whether in the frame, in the pan, the seatback or the upholstery, all play a part, as does smarter use of those materials.
Geven is one seat maker which has invested a great deal in developing lightweight aircraft seats, as marketing and sales manager, Rodolfo Baldascino, explains.
“Basically [the weight reduction came from] an increased quantity of composite material that we used especially on the backrest with a new design – one full single piece – in the latest economy class seat we have certified, the Essenza,” he reports.
“Foams are, of course, important, and in this regard, we have used foams with a dual purpose: passenger comfort (which is the traditional use) and structural performance (in our case on the bottom cushion attached to the primary structure of the seat).
In the latter use, the bottom foam avoids the installation of a seat pan (plastic or aluminium), and thus weight saving is achieved,” Baldascino adds. “We could say we save weight by innovation more than changing lots of materials. We use them in a different way or with multiple purpose.”
Mirus Aircraft Seating is another manufacturer gaining significant momentum in the market because of the lightness of its seats. The company’s Hawk seat hit the big time when AirAsia placed an order during Aircraft Interiors Expo 2016 for 312 shipsets.
The first aircraft with Hawk seats went into service in late March 2018. “Mirus uses numerous techniques to ‘add lightness’ to its products,” notes company CEO, Phil Hall. “Above all, we specialise in the application of carbon fibre, and we use this material intelligently in our seat structure.”
Such has been the success of the Hawk that Mirus has announced expansion plans which include the development of its Norfolk, UK, facility into the Mirus Technology Park (MTP). The first stage will include state-of-the-art composite manufacturing cells and 3D printing capability.
In its MTP announcement, the company declared: “Our composite focus is upon the manufacture of high-performance carbon fibre structures – both continuous fibre reinforced and forged chopped fibre. The addition of 3D printing capability will support all core functions at Mirus, from conceptual design studies with RWorks [Mirus’s in-house industrial design team] through to jigs and fixtures.”
Having celebrated its fifth-anniversary last year, Expliseat is yet another seat OEM to have made significant progress in a short time. The company’s Vice President of Sales, Mathieu Marraud des Grottes, emphasises the company’s biggest selling point. “Starting at 4kg, we deliver the lightest seats in the market,” he remarks.
“The lightweight is mostly due to our seat structure made from titanium and carbon fibre. Compared with traditional seats in aluminium, the materials we use offer less weight, more strength, rigidity and resistance to corrosion.”
With all manufacturers using lighter materials, the next step – as noted – is how to tailor the seat design so that it retains all the necessary strength.
“To be 50 per cent lighter, you can’t just improve conventional seats of the past, you need to develop new disruptive solutions,” confirms Marraud des Grottes. “Computer-aided modelling is a great tool to evaluate design changes and to optimise parts, but you also need to have the proper organisation, methodology and people to define and certify innovative solutions.”
According to Baldascino, considerable thought was given to how best use the selected materials for the Essenza and Geven’s other new products. “We had to work a lot on design and optimisation of the primary structure in order to guarantee the same – or higher – seat performances in terms of durability and reliability, as well as increase overall performance and reduce weight,” he states.
This results from many design sessions, software aided simulation and, of course, a lot of real testing on the seat prototype. Afterwards, you have to go into dedicated redesign/optimisation sessions, and then simulate and test again. The final result will be a lighter and stronger seat. “That’s easy to say, but hard to achieve,” Baldascino emphasises.
At Mirus, experience within the company from other industries has played an important part in the design and development of aircraft seats. “Our engineering approach takes inspiration from the world of Formula 1 [motor racing],” remarks Hall. “We use a closed-loop CAE (computer-aided engineering) process to test and optimise in the virtual realm.
“Our commitment is to optimise parts to reduce weight whilst retaining strength,” he continues. “The use of such approaches enables the development of slimline, yet ergonomic structures that redefine living space [on the aircraft] in the shortest amount of time and commercial effort.”
With the decisions for the structural materials and ergonomic designs made, the seat covering then needs to be chosen, with the criteria again including light materials, but this time also requiring a comfortable feel, ease-of-cleaning and durability. There is another variable in this selection though.
“Upholstery materials and comfort systems are sometimes specified by operators,” Hall confirms. “We find artificial leather, in particular, to be a popular choice at present, due to the lighter weight and reduced maintenance requirement.”
“Our overall design strategy is to minimise dirt traps and strategically design our products to reduce ‘high wear’ areas. Lightweight ergonomic structural foams also ensure that our comfort systems are built to last, with minimal degradation and inspection requirements,” the Mirus CEO adds.
Expliseat, which has picked up a number of awards for its initiatives, also acts in an advisory capacity to its customers when it comes to seat cover choices.
“There are numerous different lightweight materials available, offering a tremendous range for airlines to choose from, in regards to comfort, customisation or durability of the covers,” Marraud des Grottes observes.
“Expliseat works with the airline to define the most appropriate seat covering considering flight duration, branding or maintenance constraints. In addition – and due to the fact that the seat is already light and durable – we provide more flexibility to the airlines to offer the best comfort to passengers without having to compromise on weight gain and durability,” he claims.
Upholstery for Geven’s seats has taken a slightly different path as a result of its design work, according to Baldascino.
“Here again we benefit from our main innovation – the full composite backrest. Thanks to this development, we have been able to design a highly ergonomic shape for the backrest which provides a very high level of comfort to passengers. As a consequence, fewer layers of foam are necessary on the backrest to make passengers happy,” he elaborates.
“The backrest of our Essenza seat can also be delivered with a padded cover and without any backrest foam. It means we can again save weight, not by changing the materials, but by changing the way we use them, or by finding a solution to keep the same level of performance without using some of them at all,” Baldascino adds. Again, the airline is brought into the discussion for the final product definition, including the seat cover materials.
Differentiation from the competition is always a challenge, so innovations are constantly being worked on, which provide that characteristic. Every one of these manufacturers – Mirus, Expliseat and Geven – has come up with more than one product in the past few years, and there are likely to be further additions in 2019.
“We launched the Essenza seat in 2017 and deliveries have been taking place since June 2018. Also, our new seats for ATR started to be delivered during the second quarter of 2018. They have been developed on the same technical platform as the Essenza, with extensive use of composite materials in the seat backrest,” Baldascino notes.
The Essenza gained further traction in the market at Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) 2018 with Interjet ordering the seat for 35 A320neos, Lufthansa Group ordering 50 shipsets for either A320neo or A321neo aircraft, plus the seat OEM’s largest-ever single order in which Wizz Air signed up for the Essenza to be fitted on all of its 110 new A321neos.
Now we are turning our thinking to a new economy class seat for long haul services, and also to the extension of the full composite backrest to other aircraft platforms, such as the Boeing single-aisle and regional jets like the Embraer 190,” Baldascino advises.
At Expliseat, the company has recently delivered its new lightweight seat model, the TiSeat E2 weighing just 5kg, to SpiceJet for the carrier’s Boeing 737NG and Bombardier Q400 fleets. Marraud des Grottes is bullish about the new product’s prospects.
“With a large choice of comfort features, a new ingenious recline and individual backrest, the TiSeat E2 is offering the best performance in terms of comfort, aesthetics and ergonomics, while keeping a very light and long-lasting seat, which is the key to Expliseat’s success,” he proclaims.
While Phil Hall and his team may have the creation of the MirusTechnology Park occupying a fair proportion of their time, that task is not preventing the company from also expanding the product line. “We have a new lightweight seating platform in development that offers some truly unique and novel features. This will be unveiled at AIX Hamburg 2019, so watch this space!” the CEO declares.
As for what attributes the new product will have, Hall states: “This seat features an even greater proportion of carbon fibre in its structure, as well as a complete redesign of the comfort system to greatly improve total passenger space.”
With developments like these, the manufacturers of lightweight seats are giving airlines plenty of opportunities to prevent an uncomfortable seat experience for their passengers. What’s more, those OEMs are actually making it more cost-efficient to do so.
Visit expliseat.com for more information.