Breakthrough in spring design could help cut automotive emissions

Written by The Financial Times | Updated: Dec 29 2011, 08:32am hrs
By Peter Marsh

An inventor from Yorkshire in the UK has made a breakthrough in a 500-year-old technology that one of the worlds biggest automotive components makers thinks could lead to greener motoring by significantly cutting the weight and carbon dioxide emissions of cars.

Simon Spinks, managing director and part owner of Harrison Spinks, a Leeds-based mattress maker, has teamed up with US-based Johnson Controls, the worlds biggest producer of car seats, which is evaluating his invention: a new kind of miniature coiled spring.

Johnson Controls, which is also among the top 10 makers of car parts by sales, believes the new spring could revolutionise the production of car seats, construction of which has barely changed for half a century. Not only could the springs cut the weight of cars and lead to lower carbon dioxide emissions by reducing fuel consumption, but they could also make car seats easier to recycle by replacing the large amounts of polyurethane foam currently used in the products. Springs are made from lengths of steel wire, which is relatively easy to recycle.

Paul Elliott, vice-president for global product development at Johnson Controls, said Mr Spinkss new springs were a great innovation that had the potential to change completely the way car seat makers created their active seating surface. We are very excited by what the new springs have to offer, Mr Elliott said.

With expected revenues in 2011 of about $40bn, Mr Elliotts company is about 1,000 times bigger in sales than the family-owned Harrison Spinks.

Coiled springs were devised by European watch- makers in the 15th century to make their timepieces more accurate. Mr Spinkss new springs are as little as 10mm in height but made in such a way that large numbers of them arranged horizontally absorb weight evenly - so providing the possibility of creating comfortable seats and similar structures. Harrison Spinks uses the springs in its own mattresses - to supplement rows of much bigger springs of the type used by many other mattress makers - and has set up a new division to manufacture them in high volumes.

Because the springs could reduce the weight of seats by up to 20 per cent and also make them thinner, the volume and mass of the average car could be reduced by a small but significant amount, according to Johnson Controls. Johnson is expected to make more than one-quarter of the 250m car seats likely to be produced in 2012.

Anthony Joyce, head of the European division of Leggett & Platt, a US company that is the worlds biggest maker of mattress springs, said of Mr Spinks: He is a very creative person whos got a great aptitude for coming up with new ideas.

The Financial Times Limited 2011