Even better than the real thing
Three major exhibitors at INDEX™20, which takes place at Palexpo in Switzerland, from March 31 to April 3 next year, are behind a quiet revolution in automotive interior fabrics which only promises to escalate alongside the rise of electric vehicles over the next decade.
Based on advanced Japanese microfibre technologies, Asahi Kasei, Teijin and Toray Industries have all developed variants of sophisticated nonwovens as artificial leathers and suedes for automotive interiors.
Arguably the most well-known of these fabrics is Alcantara, which is manufactured by the company of the same name, a subsidiary of Toray, in Nera Montoro (Terni), in Italy.
Alcantara was invented by the Japanese scientist Miyoshi Okamato for Toray back in 1970. It is based on “islands in the sea” bicomponent fibres of around 60% polyester and 40% polyurethane, which are then cut into staple fibres and have the “sea” components dissolved out, before being needled and dyed.
The material is now a preferred option to natural leather for many leading car manufacturers and their customers – and commands a similar price premium. Its benefits include breathability, softness and scuff resistance, as well as the flexibility it allows in seat and component assembly and its ability to take bold colours.
Alcantara’s sustainable credentials are equally impressive. Since 2009, its production has been carbon neutral from cradle to gate and since 2011, from cradle to grave. Variants of the fabric are also available with up to 25% raw materials from post-consumer recycling by weight and its production process is exclusively based on raw materials authorised by the REACH standards.
Now established in Europe and North America, Alcantara has recently been taking the Chinese market by storm too, and Toray is currently making a €300 million expansion at the Nera Montoro plant.
Toray also manufactures artificial suede in Japan under the Ultrasuede brand, where it is employed in the interiors of many vehicles, such as the latest Lexus models.
In November 2018 the company announced a new product called Ultrasuede BX made from 30% plant-based polyurethane and polyester.
The new polyester has been polymerized with ethylene glycol made from the waste molasses of sugarcane and the polyurethane is composed of polyol made of castor oil from the inedible parts of the castor-oil plant.
Toray reports that it has overcome the technical issues surrounding these materials via a new product structure and advanced polyurethane coagulation to maintain the superior texture, high durability, air-permeability and easy maintenance of its regular Ultrasuede material.
Following its acquisition in July 2018 of Sage Automotive – one of the world’s largest manufacturers of car seating fabrics –Asahi Kasei is looking to triple its current annual sales of around €1 billion to the automotive industry to by 2025 and with the acquisition came the Italian company Miko.
Miko was already well-known to its new Japanese owner, since its Dinamica articficial suede is based on the Asahi Kasei Lamous nonwovens which are finished in Italy by a special water-based process jointly developed by the two companies. This process avoids the damage to fibres associated with conventional carding and needlepunching, while the use of water-based dyeing agents keeps CO2 emissions to a minimum. As a three-layer fabric, Dinamica is soft and breathable, but is also characterised by an excellent abrasion resistance – even at critical points, such as the seat side and seam points – as well as high light-fastness, an absence of pilling and easy clean properties, In addition, as a result of its intrinsically flame-proof polyester backing, the fabric has self-extinguishing properties without the application of external resins.
In direct response to the success of Dinamica, Asahi Kasei announced in July 2019 that it is expanding the production of Lamous nonwovens at its plant in Nobeoka, Miyazaki, Japan, by an annual four million square metres to achieve a total 14 million square metres of annual capacity by 2014.
In addition, Sage is is now able to use Asahi’s global network to expand the adoption of Dinamica globally. Miko’s fabrics are now being dyed and finished for North America, signalling a move by Sage into the luxury car market, and they are also being dyed and finished for Asia at the Sage plant in Wuhan, China.
Cordley is Teijin’s established artificial leather brand that rather than automotive interiors, is primarily used for footwear and sports balls.
Three years ago, however, the company introduced Maestley, a new product based on densified and laminated nonwovens which is said to have the equivalent texture and richness of natural leather.
Significantly, Maestley can be used in the current processes for finishing natural leather and in Japan is being adopted by tanneries, as the prices for high-grade natural leathers like calf and kip continue to increase in parallel to rising demand.
In addition to comfort and durability Maestley is highly breathable, with enhanced moisture permeability.
According to Mark Dohmen, head of the Global Automotive Centre for leading dyestuffs and chemicals producer Archroma, the demand for synthetic leathers and suedes will only increase with the growth of vehicles without engines.
“With no engine noise in a vehicle, surface noises within the interior become much more apparent and scratchy plastics between fabric surfaces can become particularly irritating,” he explains. “This is one reason why there will be further growth in artificial leathers and suedes, in addition to all of the other benefits they bring.”