Mike Kolich spends a lot of time thinking about seats. For example, how your seat feels when it’s been in a Ford seat for more than an hour. In fact, his nickname inside Ford is Dr. Derriere, and he leads a team of not-so-mad scientists in the quest for seats that combine lighter weight for better vehicle fuel economy, increased comfort and good support. And some of the tools they use may surprise you, with a high-tech mannequin with an articulated back and a seat carousel.
The all-new 2013 Escape, which is scheduled to be debuted next week at the LA Auto Show, is the first Ford vehicle with a global seat architecture specifically designed to conform to the Ford seat DNA. The DNA is a set of quantifiable measurements for each system in a new vehicle designed to provide a consistent feel across all Ford vehicles worldwide.
“People are spending more time in their vehicles and continually touch the seats, which is why it has become increasingly important to ensure their seat is both comfortable and supportive,” said seat comfort engineer Mike Kolich, better known inside the company as “Dr. Derriere.” “We are designing our seats so when drivers and passengers arrive at their destinations, they are relaxed and ready to go.”
According to Mayo Clinic researchers, back pain ranks second only to headaches as the most frequent cause of pain. Some of this discomfort is caused by Americans spending more time than ever in vehicles, with 50 percent of drivers reporting they experience lower back pain. According to a University of California study, the average driver spends 101 minutes per day on the road.
Mike is a member of the global seating team that was established in 2005 to bring the development of industry-leading seats in-house at Ford. The team creates seats that meet the safety, quality, functionality, design and packaging requirements of the Ford global vehicles while ensuring drivers and passengers are comfortable whether they are in Detroit, Paris, Rio de Janeiro or Beijing.
When the team of engineers (three each in Europe and Brazil, seven in North America and one in Asia) studied customer data in each region, they learned that many of their old assumptions about seats were wrong. “We used to think Europeans liked aggressively shaped seats with firm cushions while Americans preferred flat, cushy seats,” said Mike. “The reality is that regardless of the size and shape of a driver’s backside, they tend to value roughly the same characteristics when it comes to comfort. European drivers actually wanted somewhat more cushioning than previously thought while Americans wanted better support.”
After running thousands of tests with drivers and passengers around the world in the lab and in vehicles, the team was able to quantify a set of common standards that would provide more comfort no matter where people drive a Ford vehicle.
With the comfort requirements established, the challenge was to build seats that hold occupants in place, increase interior roominess and contribute to the goal of reducing vehicle weight.
While working on the seats for the new Escape, Mike studied dozens of chairs used outside of the automotive industry for ideas about what makes a comfortable throne.
“The office chair industry is one of the major industries we’re looking at in terms of construction, materials and durability,” he said. “If you look at the advancements in office chairs from the 1960s – when luxury meant big, puffy cushions – to where they are now, with thin, ergonomic chairs that still feel luxurious, it’s definitely a major change in the way seats are designed.”
The Escape hasn’t been fitted with anything like those modern, high-end office chairs yet – future vehicles will get even slimmer seats – but slimmer seat backs and optimized cushions contribute to increased foot and knee room for rear seat passengers.
By using the same computer simulation tools available to crash safety engineers, the team has developed an award-winning, world-class front seat structure architecture that is 10 percent lighter while meeting global requirements and providing enhanced functionality. These achievements are enabled by use of high-strength steels, laser welding, intelligent part integration, targeted use of engineered plastics and detailed structural-section analyses. This work has resulted in seven Ford-exclusive patent applications to date. The driver’s seat of the 2013 Escape is now available with 10-way power adjustment, and rear seat passengers will benefit from an available reclining seat back.
Even with all of the quantitative data being collected, eventually the engineers have to put butts in seats. Blind comfort evaluations are conducted using a turntable with five different seats mounted on it. Testers sit down on the seat, give a subjective rating, and then the turntable rotates to bring the next seat around. All of these efforts are paying off, as the number of consumers surveyed by the Global Quality Research System giving a “high satisfaction” rating to Ford seats steadily rose from 78 percent to 83 percent between 2005 and 2010.