The cutting of leather for upholstery in cars was traditionally a manual process, and, therefore, prone to the vagaries of human error and great variance in productivity. Until two years ago, there was a gap in the market for an automated solution that brought together sophisticated technology with in-depth domain expertise to drive significant cost savings and efficiency gains.

Back in 2011, the Versalis solution was introduced to the automotive sector by integrated technology solutions developer Lectra, which has a strong reputation for designing systems that accelerate and streamline product design and manufacturing processes.

It already had a track record in marketing advanced software and cutting systems for industry sectors such as fashion and furniture manufacturing, and the experience gained from those endeavours shaped the development path of Versalis Auto.

"Versalis is more than just a technology; it is the synergy of our long-standing expertise and our breakthrough technology. The technology alone does not make us a leader in the market, but the company’s experience over 30 years does. Our offering is based on an in-depth understanding of customers’ needs, and in the automotive sector that means improving productivity and maximising the use of leather material without any compromise on the quality of cutting," says CĂ©line Choussy-Bedouet, Manufacturing Marketing Director at Lectra.

"Cost savings and efficiency gains are what drive our customers, and we help them achieve those goals in a number of ways. Firstly, the Versalis solution requires less space on the factory floor. It can produce as much as a gantry press but in half the space. Then there is the matter of lower labour costs. The solution needs fewer skilled operators, as the technology is easy to use," she adds.

Thanks to the complex algorithms in the Versalis software and the inclusion of a very precise scanner, customers can use on average 7% less leather to meet their requirements. Given the high cost of leather, this could equate to savings of many millions of euros every year, depending on the scale of the manufacturing operation. Considering that leather prices have increased by up to 100% over the last 18 months, the scale of those cost savings could rise even further in the years ahead.

A solution with support

Having gained their experience in other industry sectors, Lectra did extensive preparation before adapting their cutting solution for the automotive sector. They not only understood the dynamics of the processes involved in cutting leather for car interiors, but also came to know just how vital this process is in terms of cost and quality.
"In the automotive industry, leather cutting is one of the most critical processes. It is one of the areas in which our customers add the most value to their end product. Most leather is still cut manually, which is paradoxical given its high value. The level of quality in manual operations can vary. The quality of the cut may depend as much on the mood of the person doing it as anything else," explains Javier Garcia, Lectra’s Strategic Account Director.

"As leather prices have been rising significantly in the last few years, the focus has turned to improving usage of leather. At the same time, the trend has been for car interiors to have more variation, and it is hard to address this with traditional die-cutting methods.

"We knew that our technology had transformed the fabric side of the industry, so we thought that we could achieve the same in leather cutting," he adds.

On the technical side, the Versalis Auto line comprises three cutters with one, two or three cutting heads. It also includes an automated hide-analysis solution, and state-of-the-art operation management and optimisation software.

"In the past, it was hard to match the quality of die-cutting, but the combination of hardware and software in Versalis makes it possible to match the cut quality that automotive customers require. The thickness and resistance of hides varies over the surface, but Versalis can adapt the behaviour of the blades by mapping the flatness of the cutting table to modify the penetration of the blade into the leather. As a result, the system maximises both quality and productivity," says Choussy-Bedouet.

"Cut quality will also improve de facto because of our constant investment in R&D to improve every aspect of Versalis. Every year, 9% of the company’s revenue goes into R&D to develop new technology and new methodologies," she adds.

The sophistication of the technology behind Versalis is certainly one of the differentiators that Lectra can justifiably claim for their solution, but it is by no means the only factor that sets them apart from their competitors. Another key factor is the servicing capability and technical support that comes with the solution.

"One thing that is unique to us is our predictive maintenance capability. There are 250 captors on Versalis that can alert customers to any malfunction indicated by the monitoring system. This helps them to avoid the worst case scenario, which is the stopping of the machine," notes Choussy-Bedouet.

"As part of our service agreement, we give customers upgrades to the software as soon as they are available, and they are delivered automatically. The captors on Versalis also allow us to monitor and control what is going on with the equipment, so we are in a position to call up our customers and advise them on how to further improve efficiency," she adds.

In November, a new version of the Versalis software was launched, and it affected 11 separate elements of software and included 40 new functions, which is testament to the rigour of Lectra’s technical support processes.

In order to provide the right level of support for their customers in the automotive sector, Lectra knew that they would have to be where they are. As leather-cutting processes have followed the manufacture of cars to developing nations such as China, Mexico and states in Eastern Europe, so Lectra have followed their customers.

"Customers need the right level of support where they are, and we have a wide support network with call centres around the world that can address that need. With the preventative and predictive maintenance that we do, we can significantly reduce potential downtime," says Garcia.

The road to success

In the two years since its launch, Versalis has had to overcome the reticence of an industry that is risk-averse and prone to sticking to tried and tested methods, even if it misses opportunities to create cost savings by doing so. As cost pressures increase, however, the industry is awakening to the potential of Versalis, and customers that deploy the system soon see payback.

"They see a high return on investment, with payback in just a few months. They need less leather, and they achieve higher throughput. Our solution really is a revolution for the industry. The customers that have bought it continue to use it, and it has now been tried and tested in practical applications," remarks Choussy-Bedouet.

"We are still in the process of transforming the industry, and there is still some resistance to overcome, but once they see the big, big cost savings and the quick ROI, companies don’t want to be left behind," adds Garcia.

The future development of the system will be informed by Lectra’s on-going discussions with many players in the highly concentrated automotive sector, which include frequent visits to manufacturing sites.

The company is intent on listening to the needs of customers and responding to feedback from the sites where Versalis is deployed. In addition, the company is constantly honing the functionality of the system from insight gained in other industry sectors.

"What we develop for the automotive industry we also develop for companies in fashion and furniture production. We can leverage best practice in those industries, and everyone can benefit from the cross-fertilisation of ideas," says Choussy-Bedouet.

By leveraging their expertise in technology and their extensive industry know-how, Lectra is set to transform leather-cutting processes in the automotive sector, and the momentum behind Versalis is growing rapidly. It won’t be long before every major car manufacturer will start to keep a close eye on what the solution can do.