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In the July/August print and digital App edition of ILM we published an interview with Ebba Maria Thunberg, Design Director Colour and Material for Volvo’s car interior business.
When we asked her if she would like to add anything else in the article she simply said: “I think automotive leather interiors are generally too perfect.”
I knew exactly the point she was getting at. Thunberg understands that each piece of leather is a natural and unique item and is not a uniform roll of material like plastic or textiles. Yet, due to the ever increasing and demanding physical and chemical standards that leather in applications such as automotive, marine and aviation may be subjected to by the user, then the OEM in this case, specifies leather that is heavily finished. The end result is that each hide has a uniform and often embossed artificial or corrected grain pattern that is free of scratches, tick marks, growth lines, draw etc, etc. The result is often a PU coated material that on lower spec cars in particular, is no better than plastic and your skin sticks to it like sitting on a piece of vinyl.
In applying the heavy finish to meet the physical standards and make it “perfect” for its end-use it then loses much of its character and becomes basically a plastic coated leather. Is that what we want?
In the current September/October edition of ILM, the guest columnist, Andreas Kindermann, CEO of Austrian automotive leather maker, Wollsdorf Leder makes a valid point: “Two distinctive trends are evolving in the automobile leather market. One of them points to the rise of high-quality leather with a natural appearance. In order to achieve this, each leathers treatment process from raw material to end product must be executed with a correspondingly high level of knowledge to maintain an ambitious quality chain. This type of leather exactly conforms with the customers' image of what ‘real’ leather should be like. When asking customers to choose between natural and highly treated leather, they will always opt for the "natural" product”, he said.
If Kindermann is correct, and I believe he is, and the consumer wants a more natural material, then the OEM’s and Tier-1’s need to work more closely with their leather suppliers and the leather chemical industry to bring about a range of products that meet the specifications but also provide a leather that feels like it should as it does in a glove, garment, most shoe uppers and well made natural feeling leather goods.
By turning leather into another inferior material i.e plastic, we are not doing ourselves or our customers any good and ultimately the consumer may choose another material for their car interior.
Dr Marc Stang of Bentley Motors will outline at the ILM Automotive Leather Supply chain conference in Shanghai on September 2 that the company has developed a range of more natural leathers for its cars. Clearly, the very top-end of the market is keen to preserve leathers’ natural qualities, sadly it is not going to happen for the wider auto leather industry until a new range of high performing leathers are available that also maintain the naturalness.
Until then leather in this segment at least, will remain “too perfect”.
Martin Ricker, Content Director, International Leather Maker
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