Automotive seat optimisation for Futuris Automotive

When you sit in your car and adjust your seat, the last thing you think about is how efficient the sliding rails are that it moves on.

You are much more likely to be thinking about the day ahead, but these rails and how well your seat moves on them are an important part of how happy you are with your car.

RMIT's Dr Martin Leary has worked with industry partner Futuris Automotive on automotive seat optimisation.

Futuris designs and manufactures automotive interior components including seat systems and seat hardware.

Leary says that although car seats have been made for more than 100 years, there is still plenty of opportunity for innovation.

"Once a design has been rolled out, it will stay in use for as long as possible to keep manufacturing costs economically viable, so it is imperative that the design process is supported by smart engineering."

RMIT's Applied Optimisation Group, which Leary leads, worked with Futuris on a variety of research projects related to automotive products and processes.

Engineering Manager, Seating Structures, at Futuris, Tony Baxter, says working with RMIT has been extremely beneficial to both parties.

"It has enabled us to pursue novel, difficult and time-consuming developments that we would not have otherwise had the resources, including the intellectual resources, to deliver."

But back to the seat, which is a very stylish car seat for the American Tesla Model S high-performance electric vehicle.

Baxter says: "Within the Tesla Model S seat system, which we have designed and are now supplying, mass optimisation is critical - but this has to be without compromise to the very high level of comfort, safety and functionality required by the American consumer.

"The seating system will be fully articulated and electronically powered. The motors and gearboxes that drive the seat kinematics (movement between points) are heavy and this weight poses a considerable problem."

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Leary, together with his team of researchers and product engineers from Futuris, developed a computer model that did a lot more than find an acceptable solution to this problem.

Leary says: "We developed an extremely efficient model to allow over 250,000 simulations.

"Normally this would be done by manual calculation, prototyping and iteration until an acceptable solution is found - all of which takes time and money."

However, the new model delivered a comprehensive list of solution sets optimised for different combinations of parameters.

From this, Futuris were able to build a physical model and confirm the result, with the entire project completed within a few weeks.

Baxter again: "This new model is now the basis for the kinematic layout for the Tesla front seat system and, in performance terms, this system is around 15 per cent more efficient than previous designs.

"It's difficult to quantify the mass saving, since the previous designs were never developed, but this in itself avoided months of development work and significant prototyping costs.

"This research not only contributes materially to Futuris' product portfolio but also gives us a competitive advantage."

The new model can be applied widely to various mechanisms and is not restricted to seating systems.

Other joint projects in progress include work on shape memory alloy actuators, high strain rate fracture, and integrated actuators - potentially more ground-breaking research and products to keep Futuris ahead in the global automotive market.

This story was first published in RMIT's Making Connections magazine.

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