Benchmarking specialists with petrol in their blood

Delivering world-class seat systems to our customers requires not only in-depth knowledge of our own seats, we also need to be aware of the external trends affecting automotive seating – and, of course, we are interested in what our competition is doing as well. Known as “benchmarking,” the act of comparing our seats with the competition isn’t just an interesting exercise for technology enthusiasts; it's an important and revealing science. Seat benchmarking processes have been developed to perfection within Adient’s Technology Center in Trenčín, Slovakia, where various car seats are scrutinized and carefully compared to one another on an on-going basis. Read on to find out what you need to know to work as a benchmarking specialist in this interview with Frank Toenniges, Director, Adient Technology Center in Trenčín, and Arndt Ronge, Chief Engineer, Adient.

Q. What does benchmarking in the automotive industry actually involve?

FT: First of all, it’s about what we call product benchmarking, which involves investigating state-of-the-art seats whenever we get a chance to do so – at exhibitions, when innovations and concepts are being introduced, and so on. In addition to individual products, we also scrutinize all current trends – in terms of safety, materials, functionality, and comfort. We don’t just put our competitors’ products to the test, though – we pay a lot of attention to Adient’s products as well. Based on our observations, we update our global benchmarking database so that it can be used by all Adient business units around the globe. The outcome of our work is subsequently reflected in our strategic outlook and product and technology roadmaps.

Q. What types of seats do you benchmark?

FT: Besides standard automotive seats, our seating-oriented benchmarking also focuses on high performance car seats. We also do benchmarking in the sphere of truck and commercial vehicle seating, and most recently also in the segment of aircraft seating.

Q. What kind of parameters are you interested in?

AR: There are three stages to our benchmarking. On Level 1, we collect all kinds of data provided by various producers in their marketing materials – the functional features and other technical specifications they were willing to disclose in them. This gives us an idea about what the current market demand focuses on and how our competitors respond to their customers’ needs. On Level 2, we literally take a complete seat to pieces, disassembling all of its parts, mechanisms, joints, and materials to determine their individual properties (such as weight), how the individual parts are fitted, and how they all hold together. This allows us to learn a lot of information about the “architecture” of the seat and the physics behind the individual parts. The final stage, Level 3, is what we call reverse engineering. Our team of internal product experts have a meeting to analyze all the data we have obtained and gather deep-dive information on why this or that kind of design would have been chosen for this or that product. What they look for in particular are concepts behind the design, methods of thinking and production procedures – in other words, how the seat was manufactured in the first place.

Q. How long does it take to disassemble a seat?

AR: That depends on the complexity of the product we want to disassemble. A small car seat is obviously different from a luxury car seat. The whole process takes one to two weeks, but it goes well beyond disassembly as it is a much more complex activity than that: everything has to be documented and parameters such as weight and structure have to be recorded. Our next step involves analysis and making tear-down conclusions, all of which has to be entered in our database. Level 2 generates tons of documents, but they all help us understand the significance of all the individual parts used. Such observations are extremely valuable for our designers and engineers. When it comes to aircraft seating, the process is slightly longer. You can imagine that taking a business class seat is not exactly the simplest thing to do. Still, the procedure is always the same no matter what type of seat you are looking at.

Q. How many people do you have in your Adient benchmarking team?

FT: We have several teams around the world. There’s a team of 7 specialists based in Europe, four of them located in Trenčín, Slovakia and there are additional teams that cover other regions, including China, India, North America, and a few other locations. In some of the regions, our colleagues do benchmarking full time, but in other locations they do it on a part time basis. For example, product engineers do half a day of product engineering and another half a day of benchmarking. As for our team in Trenčín, the benchmarking department has a team of four specialists – three of them are Slovaks and one team member is from Great Britain.

Q. Do they also go to motor shows?

AR: Of course! We send Benchmarking people from any region to motor shows, depending on the location of the event. We write a comprehensive report about every motor show we go to, each being at least 150 pages long, although it’s usually around 200 pages on average.

Q. It sounds like there’s no room for boredom then. What are they expected to do while they’re there?

AR: Before they go to a motor show, our colleagues need to know what will be shown there first. Once they’re at the exhibition, they take a lot of pictures – of cars or car seats, depending on the kind of exhibition they go to. They take pictures of the interior and exterior – all sorts of details. Naturally, instead of acting like spies and taking pictures secretly, they always ask the staff at the booths and on stage for permission first. They need to be communicative, friendly, and open-minded. Benchmarking is not a job for lonely wolves, and complex skills are required.

Q. What else do your specialists need to know? Do they need any special skills or training?

AR: First and foremost, they have to have petrol in blood, figuratively speaking – to love cars, enjoy watching car races, and be generally interested in the automotive industry. They need to be interested in the current trends in automotive technology and scientific innovation – that is how we select people. It’s very important for them to be naturally curious. The benchmarking specialists simply cannot fall asleep before they figure out how things work. They also have to be open-minded and skillful when it comes to manual work as most of our disassembly jobs are done by hand. It takes a bit of sensitivity to take seats apart without destroying them.

Q. Let’s get back to motor shows one more time. How would you rate them from the point of view of a benchmarking specialist? Which of them is the greatest source of information for you?

FT: It depends on what you are looking for. If you want to see the greatest number of cars that are being launched on the market, you go to Frankfurt. If you’re more into new concepts, design trends, and visions, Geneva is a better place to go. Every motor show is designed to attract people using different things. Take CES in Las Vegas, which is also very interesting in terms of digital innovation in transport and travel.

AR: Exhibitions evolve as well. In the past few years, we have seen more and more new players who are not car manufacturers in the traditional sense but rather companies that focus on autonomous driving, electric vehicles, and new transport concepts, such as car sharing services.

Q. What innovations developed at Adient are actually based on knowledge your benchmarking team managed to gain?

AR: Well, it’s rather difficult to choose one particular innovation. For instance, we have managed to develop an ink-jet printing technology that allows us to produce special car seat fabrics that feature different colors and customized prints.

FT: Having our own benchmarking team means we have the advantage of learning from other people’s mistakes. At the same time, benchmarking is vital for our engineers if they are to develop new technologies, seats, and products that are better than those that already exist. All this has a huge impact on the time we need to develop and manufacture new, original products. To put it simply, knowing what doesn’t work allows us to reduce the time we need.

Q. Suppose I want to take a long-distance journey by car, which means I’ll be spending a lot of time in my car. What sort of car would you recommend I should go for if you wanted to make sure that I’ll be comfortable in my seat?

AR: I wouldn’t recommend any specific car make. Car seats are a very subjective matter. Some people prefer softer and more comfortable seats, such as those you can find in French cars. Others prefer more sporty seats… Of course, premium models come with various extras, such as ventilation systems, massage zones, or integrated loud speakers to ensure the perfect audio experience.
At the Trenčín Technology Center, there are actually a number of employees who are not part of the benchmarking team. What kind of people does your Technology Center need the most? What types of people are likely to find jobs there?

FT: We have employees with a wide range of skills and abilities, from product designers through technicians to engineering specialists. Apart from experienced employees for senior positions, our team also needs young talents, so the jobs we offer are also suitable for those who have recently completed their university studies in the sphere of technology. Those who have yet to complete their studies can experience the atmosphere at our technology center thanks to a variety of internships, which are very popular with students – and many students later come to work with us full time.

Another qualification that is important in our company is a desire to learn new things. Such people know exactly what they need here – to help us develop our visions for the future of mobility.

Of course, Adient also offers positions that go beyond engineering. We have an important business center in Bratislava and 5 other manufacturing plants, so anyone who works in our company can take part in shaping the future of mobility, even specialists in financial operations or accountant.

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