As the automotive industry adopts new technologies like autonomous driving, suppliers need to find opportunities to add value. For Yanfeng Automotive Interiors, that opportunity comes from flexible seating, smart surfaces and other technology, said Bryan Nyeholt, vice president of global product and process. Yanfeng, which formed in 2014 after Johnson Controls Inc. spun off the majority of its automotive interiors business to Shanghai-based Yanfeng Automotive Trim Systems Co. Ltd., manufactures a variety of interior components including instrument panels, door panels and consoles. Nyeholt is the keynote speaker for the annual Automotive Supplier Symposium, hosted by Grand Valley State University’s Van Andel Global Trade Center on March 9 at the Richard M. DeVos Center in Grand Rapids. Nyeholt spoke to MiBiz prior to the event about the benefits of the joint venture and how disruptive trends in the automotive industry are driving interior design.
What are some lessons Yanfeng learned in the joint venture with JCI, which is now Adient?
Part of the Yanfeng experience here is to take the best of what we learned both in the original roots in the Prince Corporation and then through the years with Johnson Controls. We came and aligned that with the Yanfeng folks to create a similar package. Now that we’ve consolidated the product lines and the clarity of what we’re in, as well as focused on how the people come together on that, it’s really been the best of both Johnson Controls and the best of Yanfeng and a unique opportunity.
Why does the partnership work from a global perspective?
(Yanfeng) was very strong in China, and (JCI Interiors) was very strong in the Europe and North American footprint. Really to bring those two together complemented both companies’ global footprints to fill out in a global market in a way that we didn’t have the opportunity to before.
How about on the design side?
Quickly, we aligned under one global leader and three main region leaders that are all working closely together to make sure the designs are common and the standards are common so that as we take it to any plant in the world, we can have common product that people recognize.
As a global company, how do you design for different regions?
We’ve continued to see the interior move up in importance in surveys and assessments on what gets (consumers) to buy a vehicle. Some of our global programs, you can have 80 percent of the design and structure common, but then move some of the final surfaces and finishes to fit regional taste and preference. We work with our customers to keep common what they want to keep common, but also to differentiate what they’d like to be specific to a region.
What are some specific examples of how interior preferences vary between cultures?
If you go to the China market, many of the affluent are a passenger in the rear seat with a driver, so that changes what their expectation of a backseat is and that actually becomes the most luxurious section of the vehicle because they’re going to be doing work, calls or whatever they want. You take that same vehicle to Germany, (and) it’s how fast is this car and can I beat my colleague on the way into work on the Autobahn. It’s more driver-centered with minimal distraction. Then you take the same vehicle when it comes to the U.S. and it’s how comfortable is this with the cruise control set at 65 going down the interstate. So how do I have fun with it and like the styling, but also have the comfort and safety of all of it?
How do flexible interiors set the stage for the cars of the future?
For us in our product lines, the door panels are going to stay where the door panels are, but maybe we’ll have to look at featuring content in the rear versus the front. In our floor console in our show car (that debuted at this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit), we showed it moving on a rail so that it comes from the front to the back so that it could go with the passengers.
How does that play into Yanfeng’s concept for autonomous vehicle interiors?
We look at it in four different sections: drive mode, meeting mode, lounge mode and family mode. We really looked at how can the interior reconfigure itself with drive mode being the traditional mode that we’d recognize today, then in the future how it would convert to the other three so that it creates a collaborative environment where people can accomplish what they want in the car.
What other technology are you working to integrate into the vehicle?
We’re working through the smart surface side of it. How do you work that into some of the displays or even areas that haven’t typically been displays? How do you take something that maybe has been traditional for years and integrate that right into the surfaces so that in the future, you’re getting technology or displays right in surfaces that used to be separate products?
With all the history in Prince Corp. and Johnson Controls, how do you view your West Michigan operations?
We have this footprint here in Holland. It’s extremely important. We continue to have a very large presence with our tech center here. We have a site on the other side of the state, but that’s really been to help us work with customers. Right now, a majority of the products being worked through the development cycle are in this campus and it is really the one that has, start-to-finish, all the capabilities. Michigan continues to be critically important to Yanfeng and we’ve had good growth here with new programs coming in and are excited as we continue to add people.