A high proportion of the best-quality cattle hides make their way into the automotive sector, where makers of cars – especially in the premium and luxury segments, but increasingly in all types of vehicle – are driving the rapid rise in global demand. The car industry already uses over 15% of all processed cattle hides and in a few short years it could account for as much as 25% (see ‘Automotive market’s share of available cattle hides’, page 33).

This increase is driven by rising car production across the world, but the biggest growth is seen in China and other developing countries. Automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) want more leather for their car interiors, but providing the right quantity of leather is not the only challenge tanners face. They must also adapt quicker to changing designs, and meet very specific requirements in terms of quality and colour.

"Demand is growing rapidly and in China, for instance, there is a call for high-tech specifications and greater comfort, and not as a luxury item but in models of all ranges," says Roy Shurling, head of global business development for automotive leather at Lectra. "There has been an effort by tanners to make leather composites from remnants but so far this has only got traction in steering wheels, so they need to produce more leather. Our mission is to get companies to automate.

"The difficulty is that the industry has been working in the same way for 50 years, so my job of selling digitalisation is a hard one. We have seen it done in the market for automotive fabric, but in leather the challenges are different. The irregularity of hides is only one part of it. You have to consider the mindset in the industry. To take advantage of all the time and cost savings digital technology offers, the whole supply chain must adapt."

Formerly president of Lectra North America, Shurling took on his new role because he believes that the potential for a digital revolution in the supply chain makes the automotive sector a key market for the future. He has spent the past year preparing for his new role by learning about the many challenges the automotive sector poses for tanners – such as the push to improve quality and lower the humidity of hides so that leather does not shrink if the interior of the car heats up.

Lectra has established itself as a leader in the market for integrated cutting-room solutions for the automotive industry, and it uses its expertise in car seat and automotive interior design and manufacturing to help suppliers of car-seat covers, automotive interiors and airbags to achieve their operational excellence and cost-efficiency. Shurling has made it his mission to convince all players in the automotive ecosystem that the future of development and production will be the digitalisation of the supply chain in order to become more adaptable, responsive and efficient.

"For instance, with 3D design programmes, you can develop patterns for a seat from a 3D model, and design all elements of the seat and the cover in tandem from the start rather than sequentially. You can tell if the seams will form correctly. The patterns come immediately so you can quickly see the cost to cut it and get a yield estimate. Small changes can lead to big savings and the programmes allow you to try these, then the automated cutting machines can use the plans," explains Shurling.

Using Lectra’s 3D design software, there is no limit to the number of virtual prototypes that can be produced and these can be used to develop a final product much faster.

Time is money

Digital technologies are the key to enabling tanners to adapt much more quickly to changes that OEMs make as they tailor their products to the needs of different markets. These OEMs spent a lot of time trying to simplify their supply chains, but have now realised that they need an increasingly global production footprint and sourcing network to stay competitive in local markets in order to cater to different consumer tastes around the world.

For tanners, computerised cutting machines can help them achieve higher yield and reduce waste, which would enable some to use higher-quality hides. The technology also produces valuable data that not only gives OEMs in-depth insight into leather-producing operations, but also provides tanners with a clear track record of their operations that they can use when negotiating with their tier-one seating suppliers. OEMs will want not only more efficiency, but also more accurate information surrounding the leather production process. There is, therefore, a growing number of reasons for tanners to become full players in the digital economy.

Using Lectra’s 3D design software, there is no limit to the number of virtual prototypes that can be produced and these can be used to develop a final product much faster.

"Savings can be made on material, but time is the main enemy. Digitalisation saves time and give designers more hours to work on their designs because the manufacturing process is greatly reduced," notes Shurling. "We are seeing this with the smaller tanners that are buying into digital technology as a way of deriving a competitive advantage over the biggest tanners at the top of the market. We can show proof of concept of the time-savings in product development, and our programme can show an engineer that digital design can impact material usage and save costs at the design stage. Ultimately, clients must decide what time is worth, but even by reducing the number of prototypes – each of which might cost up to $15,000 – 3D rendering can create a lot of savings."

Lectra has seen the advantages of automation in action. It recently helped Italian tannery and automotive leather interiors supplier Mario Levi to make the move to automated cutting. Productivity from the company’s existing die-press system was not sufficient to keep pace with growing demand, so Lectra helped it to integrate Versalis into the production system to work more efficiently and quickly manage a diverse array of product types. Productivity quickly rose 20% and hide yield increased by up to 4%.

Lectra has also helped companies like Tachi-S Mexico eliminate manual processes – specifically die-cutting – and automated systems are now widely used by other companies in the fabric industry. However, in the leather sector, 90% of cutting is still done with die presses.

"For tanners and tier-one suppliers, we can easily show the cost savings of automated cutting machines and the higher yield compared with having hundreds of people laying out hides. For the tanner, the advantage is in the yield – on average, there is a 7% saving on the amount of leather needed. For the OEMs, the advantage comes from the compression of the design cycle and in the transparency that comes with having the data to calculate the yield of their suppliers," Shurling adds.

One step at a time

The process of digitalisation encompasses every part of the supply chain from product development through to production. Lectra looks at virtual prototyping, design to cost, and design for manufacturing through its Design Concept 3D solution, from which all data can be transferred to the manufacturing stage where automated cutting solutions can take over. The company’s research has led it to conclude that digitalisation of the entire process can save between up to 20 weeks in the product development and production start-up process.

The potential advantages of digitalisation are, therefore, clear. The real challenge, however, is that maximum gains only come when the entire supply chain embraces the technological revolution.

"The digitalisation of the supply chain is too massive an undertaking to happen all at once and there is a lack of experts in the field. So, we must position it in terms of new platforms that come online to target smaller projects and move the industry gradually away from manual processes," says Shurling.

The industry had a bad experience around 30 years ago when efforts were made to introduce automated cutting even though the technology was not robust enough. Back then, no one had any idea about digitalisation and the transformation consisted of putting in a machine to replace manual die-cutting without any process analysis. Now, the industry should be ready to move from the 1980s into the 21st century.

"Implementing a digital supply chain now needs a lot of risk analysis because it is not about simply swapping one machine for another. You have to realign all processes and workflow. That is why we are investing a lot of time with specific partners to overcome the scepticism, to prove the value of digital transformation and get the recognition that the approach is valuable," Shurling continues.

"I have been at Lectra for 30 years and can see that digital solutions are now ready for the leather sector. We can overcome the scepticism about whether the technology works. What we need now is a real collaborative effort because it requires a huge transformation of the business model. So, we have to work to convince all players in the ecosystem."