Even better than the real thing...
As is very evident at European motor shows, microfibre-based artificial leather is now actually a preferred option to natural leather for many of the leading car manufacturers and their customers.
Benefits such as breathability, softness and scuff-resistance – as well as the flexibility it allows in seat and component assembly and its ability to take bold colours – means the high class nonwoven can command a very high price premium. It is certainly the most expensive nonwoven to be sold in substantial square metre runs.
Representing a winning combination of Italian design flair and Japanese fibre technology, the undisputed leader in this field is Alcantara SpA, based in Terni, Italy.
Premium luxury car customers for the company’s artificial leather include Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, BMW, Bugatti, Ferrari, Jaguar, Lamborghini, Maserati, McLaren and Porsche.
While now established in Europe and North America, Alcantara has also recently been taking the Chinese market by storm, with sales by the Italian company to China having rocketed between 2012 and 2016 – and with no sign of demand abating.
The material Alcantara – or Ultrasuede as it is known when supplied worldwide by Toray Industries, and as Ecsaine in Japan itself – was invented by the Japanese scientist Miyoshi Okamato for the Toray Group in 1970. It is based on ‘islands in the sea’ bi-component fibres of around 60% polyester and 40% polyurethane which are then cut into staple fibres and have the ‘sea’ components dissolved out, before being needlepunched and dyed.
Despite being 40 years old, the Ultrasuede process is covered by some 250 patents worldwide and Alcantara SpA was founded in Italy in the early 1970s to take advantage of them in Europe. So successfully was this achieved that Toray later bought the company.
Today, Alcantara SpA stresses the sustainable nature of the manufacturing processat its Terni plant, which has been carbon neutral (from cradle to gate) since 2009.
The company’s chairman and CEO Andrea Boragno has stated that in the near future, efforts to reduce emissions, in particular those associated with importing raw materials, will be intensified by selecting mainly Italian and/or European suppliers. Alcantara also takes its electricity from a hydroelectric power plant situated near the production plant and research centre and an ever-increasing number of products will be made from recycled raw materials.
In an almost identical set-up marrying Japanese microfibre technology for artificial leather with Italian finishing and design prowess, Miko, founded in 1997 and based in Gorizia, Italy, is experiencing great success in the automotive sector with its Dinamica Evolution fabric for the upholstery of premium vehicles.
In April 2015, Miko was acquired by Sage Automotive Interiors, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of automotive fabrics headquartered in Greenville, South Carolina.
Dinamica Evolution employs the microfibre of Japan’s Asahi Kasei, which are manufactured into Lamous nonwoven fabrics and then finished in Italy by a special water-based process developed by the two companies. This avoids the damage to the fibres associated with conventional carding and needlepunching. The use of water-based dyeing agents and the latest manufacturing is also said to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to a minimum, and the three-layer fabric is soft and breathable.
In 2016, Mercedes introduced a number of its latest premium cars featuring Dinamica Evolution interiors.
A third Japanese synthetic fibres specialist, Kuraray, can claim to have beaten Toray to the punch in the development of a synthetic leather, having commenced production of its Clarino-branded product in 1964. By the turn of the century, Kuraray was manufacturing over 15 million square metres of the fine leather-look nonwoven fabric annually.
It is made of polyamide microfibres impregnated with polyurethane resin and can be processed to provide a variety of surface structures by stamping, perforation, embossing, printing and laminating.
Kuraray has introduced many variants of Clarino over the years, and in addition to automotive interiors, they are employed in a range of other areas, including both ladies’ and men’s fashions, bags and upholstery. The fabrics are lightweight, easy-care and can be dyed almost any colour. In addition, they have good crease-resistance, breathability, water-resistance and durability.
In recent years, Kuraray has worked on making its production process cleaner, and the latest non-solvent Clarino is based on an advanced technology system which reduces Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) by 99% compared to previous products. It also has a shorter production process overall, resulting in a 35% reduction of CO2 and 70% reduction in water usage.
The material is employed to great effect as the seating fabrics in the Kintetsu Vista series of double decker Japanese trains, which feature sofa seats more like those to be found on a luxury yacht than a regular bus.For the US automotive industry, the Clarino material is branded Amaretta.
Meanwhile, although hardly achieving the price per square metre of Alcantara, the E-Leather Group, based in Peterborough, UK, is also achieving success with its material, primarily for public transport and aviation surfaces.
The company was recognised as one of Britain’s Top 100 fastest-growing private technology companies in the 2015 Sunday Times Tech Track Top 100 league table for the third year running.
E-Leather is not an artificial leather made from microfibres, but instead is composed of a recycled fibre which is made from chopped up waste leather shavings that are normally sent to landfill.
It is 40% lighter than conventional leather and manufactured by a process adapted from conventional airlaid and hydroentangled nonwovens production routes, in a process that is already covered by patents in Europe, the USA, China, Taiwan and India.
This involves altering and grinding the waste leather trimmings and split hides diverted from landfill to produce individual leather fibres. A dual layer nonwoven is then formed from a top layer of fibres from shavings and a base of those from trimmings and hides.
These are bonded by hydroentanglement which eliminates the need for adhesives and simulates the structure of natural leather. The resulting substrate material is dyed and then dried before PU colour coating.
Once bonding has been achieved, the finished material is softened by air jets to achieve a more supple handle – a process similar to the ‘staking’ of natural leather.
The closed loop manufacturing at E-Leather recycles 95% of the process water, and converts its own waste streams into energy which is fed back into the process.
London’s famous ‘Black Cab’ taxis are now being fitted with E-Leather, as are the UK buses of Arriva, Michael DeCourcey and Stagecoach, the train seats of Rail Canada and the aircraft interiors of Transavia, Southwest and North American Airlines.
In what is one of the company’s biggest contracts to date, in 2015 Delta Airlines completed the installation of new E-Leather seat covers in Delta One, First Class and Delta Comfort+ cabins across the entire fleet – a large-scale modification involving more than 700 planes.
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