The process of making seat covers hasn’t changed significantly for decades, according to Ford. The Blue Oval hopes to pelt its upholstery department into the 21st century thanks to 3D knitting technology that opens up a world of opportunities.
Regardless of what you drive, and whether your seats are upholstered with cloth, leather, or a blend of both, you sit on numerous small pieces of upholstery that machines stitch together into a cover. The 3D knitting technology Ford is experimenting with creates one big, seamless cover that fits neatly over the frame, the foam, and the other parts that make up the rest of the seat. It works a lot like 3D printing, as its name implies, and it is already used in a variety of other sectors.
Ford’s interior engineers start by taking a long list of measurements. The 3D knitting machine needs to know the height, the width, and the length of the seat bottom, among other parameters. They feed these data points into a software, load the machine with the required thread, push a button, and wait for the final product to come out. Diana Kovacheva, one of Ford’s color and material designers, explained making a seat cover by hand can take up to a day; the 3D knitter does it in an hour.
Saving time is a boon, but 3D knitting technology also reduces waste, because the machine knows the exact amount of thread required to make a cover. It never needs to cut fabric. The end result is a cleaner-looking, seamless seat cover that requires less effort and fewer materials to make. Why stop there, though? Ford explained this technology will let it experiment with new shapes and materials not commonly found in a car; its video shows a front seat with storage pouches on its sides.
Looking further ahead, Ford believes 3D knitting will allow it to offer customers more customization options than ever before. An enthusiast might be able to pay extra for a Mustang-shaped insert in the seatback, for example, or get racing stripes that match the ones applied to the body. While this sounds cool, Ford hasn’t announced what’s next for the technology, and it hasn’t revealed the cost of 3D-knitting a seat cover.