NOVI, Mich.—Auto makers and suppliers can pursue an array of advanced materials, processes and technologies to answer the automotive industry's challenges. But at Ford Motor Co., widespread implementation ultimately comes down to customer experience.
"We really want to focus on the customer," Cynthia Flanigan, Ford's chief engineer of vehicle research and technology, said during a morning keynote address at the Automotive Composites Conference & Exhibition, an event jointly sponsored by the Society of Plastics Engineers' automotive and composites divisions, Sept. 4-6 in Novi.
Flanigan said it's about starting with the fundamentals in relation to customer needs and wants, but material choice and applications are also dependent on the type of vehicle—an F-150 pickup truck vs. a Bronco SUV, for example—as well as the use case.
Ford has been focusing on emerging materials such as the use of graphene with polyurethane foam, and aerogel, which is "the epitome of lightweight," Flanigan said. The auto maker also is looking to nature for inspiration—mussel shells boast rigid surfaces that naturally repel bacteria and inhibit its growth, for example—as well as the opportunity for composites to improve noise, vibration and harshness in vehicle cabins.
"And what does the customer want?" Flanigan asked. "The customer probably doesn't care if it's aerogel. …What they care about is the experience that they're getting. They care that they can be in an environment that's seamless, that is potentially calming."
In terms of health and wellness, for example, Flanigan said the customer probably won't care about the technical story behind an antimicrobial solution. But they will care about having a clean, durable and germ-free vehicle interior.
"It's an opportunity to have increased performance and an opportunity that's more seamless in their total journey," she said. "And so, for each of these cases, we need to look at what do we need to do to deliver that?"