Bordeaux vineyards are all but dormant in early April, but cutting equipment leaders Lectra, based here, hosted a two-day automotive leather event, entitled ‘Go digital: Increased flexibility in the automotive leather value chain’, to invigorate discussion on the future of leather in the automotive sector.

Over a series of presentations from Renault, Gruppo Dani, JBS Couros and others, as well as workshops and leather-cutting demonstrations of Lectra’s automated cutting equipment, an international audience learned a variety of insight on trends and technological innovations that are, and will, affect leather in the automotive sector. The second of its kind, which took place at Lectra’s Advanced Technology & Conference Centre in Cestas, outside Bordeaux on 5 and 6 April, the event is establishing itself as an indicator for the thriving automotive market.

Opening the event, Javier Garcia, global sales director for automotive at Lectra, declared that the future has to be digital in order to keep up with demand across the supply chain, and considering the continuous growth of the premium share in the European automotive market, which naturally translates into leather sales. The trend has been on an upward trajectory for years and represents a resilient sector in an otherwise volatile industry.

Renault Espace programme director Gerard Payen, for example, spoke about leveraging the value of leather from a car manufacturer’s perspective. To most car manufacturers today, leather is a strategic lever to create or enhance premium product value and bring rewarding profit, which is especially true for seats, he said. But success conditions regarding product quality, customer performance, time-to-market, value-to-cost are challenging, especially in a highly competitive environment. But leather is a must in today’s premium cars.

While today’s creativity in premium automotive design focuses on things like interior trim, exterior lighting, wheel rims and dash instruments, leather is an integral component that evokes luxury and traditional craftsmanship, and technologies are key to keep boosting leather value creation, Payen added.

Every vital link

Supply chains remain complex but targets are just as demanding in terms of just-in-time delivery to car plants, optimised costs and production flexibility. And optimisation in lead time is key to leather market share increase on build-to-order markets. “To most car manufacturers today, leather is, more than ever, a strategic lever to create or enhance premium product value and bring rewarding profit,” Payen continued.

Guilherme Motta, director of automotive leather at JBS Couros, emphasised that although India has the largest cattle population, with approximately 301 million head, Brazil has the largest usable cattle herd in the world with over 212 million due to India’s strict laws forbidding the slaughter of a sacred animal. Motta spoke of the overall importance of leather in the automotive industry and Brazil’s place within it. The main trends Brazil is experiencing now outside of politics are higher production with less land; genetic improvement; more meat per carcass and more animals per hectare; better pasture management; higher percentage of feedlots; and a reduction of the animal age for slaughtering, from five years in 1994 to three years in 2009.

With these factors in mind, growth in automotive is not only in luxury, but also other car categories. Automotive leather types, from full aniline to splits, are contributing to the steady overall growth of the sector among others like footwear and garments, which are declining or have remained flat since 2009.

The beef cattle herd in Brazil is also projected to grow at 3% through 2025, increasing by six million head, while beef production is estimated to grow at 15% due to heavier animals and higher slaughter rates.

Digital drive

Roy Shurling, head of global business development for automotive at Lectra, also spoke about the need for the automotive leather sector to evolve towards digital, as the percentage of fabric car seats cut digitally has grown from 10% in 2000 to 80% in 2015. Die-cast cutting still accounts for nearly all leather production, around 90%, but with the trends as they are, the question at the heart of the matter is whether current processes can keep up with demand and what the advantages of going digital to cut leather are.

Shurling cited the fact that there’s no waiting for foam or frames, thus creating a concurrent process saving time, optimising costs and minimising waste, which all enable an agile, flexible and fast digital-cutting value chain.

The term ‘disruptive’ gets thrown around a lot; often seen as a euphemism for ‘costs’ or ‘expense’. But to a company like Lectra, it’s seen as an investment for itself and its customers. And in the privileged position it’s in regarding the automotive leather sector, the path of cutting digitally is the future in order to keep up with the pace of progress.

In it together

Through an interpreter, Giancarlo Dani, CEO of Gruppo Dani, summed up his company’s journey, from its beginnings in Arzignano in 1950, to today with nearly 1,000 employees, new showrooms in New York and Hong Kong, and a dedicated automotive division. Lectra and Dani have been partners for many years and this was an opportunity for him to extol the many benefits of this partnership to those in attendance still shopping around, and learning about ways to streamline their businesses.

Closing the series of presentations was Lectra CEO Daniel Harari, who went into detail about the decision made following the global financial crisis in 2009 to invest rather than scale back and make severe cuts, as most of its competitors did. It was a bold decision, but spoke of a long-term strategy that is now universally seen as the right choice, in spite of the debt taken on. And if the facilities are anything to go by, including a brand-new, and top secret, R&D building for machine prototypes, Lectra is doing very well with revolutionary cutting machines, customers in more than 100 countries and 2015 revenues of $264 million. 