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Material world

Colour, material and finish plays a crucial role in making an aircraft cabin attractive, sophisticated and comfortable. Ian Harbison spoke to both a leading design agency and material suppliers

Acumen Design

Associates Acumen Design Associates has been involved in cabin design for 20 years, dating back to the first lie-flat bed created for British Airways in 1996. Since then, it has worked with United Airlines, American Airlines, Air France, Cathay Pacific, Air Canada, China Southern, Jet Airways, Delta, Korean Air, Thai Airways, Air China, China Eastern and Saudia. Aside from airlines, it has also worked extensively with both Zodiac and Recaro.


Anthony Harcup, Associate, says the company’s USP is innovation from a long-established team, each with an understanding of certification requirements. He adds that many projects have involved patents and as such there is also some expertise in intellectual property rights. The result is a track record of producing new concepts that are well designed, well engineered and, importantly, practical.


Perhaps the most outstanding recent example was the new Etihad interiors launched in 2014 for the Airbus A380 and Boeing 787, for which Acumen was part of the Etihad Design Council, alongside Factorydesign and Honour Branding (see Aircraft Cabin Management, July 2014).


Catherine Barber, CMF Consultant, says the choice of materials is an integral part of any new cabin design. New seats and technology tend to grab the headlines, but finish has a much more direct interface with the passenger. For the Residence, and first and business class on Etihad, the emphasis was on luxurious materials normally associated with business jets. These included handmade carpets from Lantal and leather from Poltrana Frau, as well as marquetry, wood and metal fittings.


Harcup explains why Poltrana Frau was selected by Etihad as the supplier. Well known for its automotive work with marques such as Ferrari, he was impressed by both the skill of the workers and the attention to detail in the stitching, especially the precision of corner terminations and curves, which produced an immaculate finish.


Barber adds that Etihad used three colour ways in their designs, which made meeting fire, smoke and toxicity (FST) requirements very complicated due to the number of material combinations involved in testing. A first time FST pass is ‘the Holy Grail’, she says. Another FST issue is the combination of leather, foam and adhesives, which the seat OEMs do no always understand, as well as leather glued to hard surfaces in the 16G part of the seat.


There is a clear trend towards the use of leather, Barber explains, although Acumen recommends the use of fabric for longhaul operations, as it is breathable and therefore more comfortable for passengers. Leather can also present a flat surface which makes for an unexciting cabin environment. One solution is to use embroidery or style lines copied from business jets, but care must be taken to factor in Velcro attachment points or the lines will be pulled out of shape. She adds that leather suppliers can sometimes be inconsistent when it comes to thickness, again making precision difficult.


For synthetic leathers, FST clearance is easier as more retardant can be added to the material. However, some treatments can make the material less flexible, meaning that creasing becomes a problem on 3D surfaces.


Fabric is much lighter and easier to obtain, as there are a huge number of mills available. A wool rich mixture is usually preferred as synthetic material can look flat. Barber notes that premium cabins are now using less decorative effects and are moving away from airline logos woven into the pattern. She also comments that synthetic fabrics are more usual in Asian countries, partly for cultural reasons surrounding the use of leather. For the future, fabrics could include anti-microbial properties, perhaps with silver thread woven in, or they could include sensors, perhaps for body temperature, and could even be conductive.


Elsewhere, curtains are not an area of great innovation, Barber says. Generally speaking, they do not add much to the cabin ambience by simply hanging in plain view when drawn back, although laser pattern cutting does help bring some variety. However, for Etihad, Acumen came up with idea of ‘garages’, allowing the curtains to be completely concealed when drawn back. This required very tight tolerances to exploit gaps between specific monuments.


Finally, Barber says IFE manufacturers didn’t seem to want to talk to design agencies. Given the powerful benefits of working with other suppliers, she suggests this would be a good step forward.


Andrew Muirhead

Archie Browning, Sales Director at Andrew Muirhead, says his company’s particular strength is that it is vertically integrated, from the abattoir to the finished hide. This gives it control over the entire production process, from the raw hide to the finished product, and an understanding of how the material can be treated at the various stages of production.


The company has recently completed a two year research and development programme to apply digital printing to its leather. The process, which has a patent pending, is permanent and encased in the usual Muirhead protection system.


The first application has been the airline logo on the headrests of premium economy and economy cabins on KLM. Some 30,000 headrests have been supplied and have been successfully flying for over a year, with no durability problems. He points out that the white logo has a crisp appearance and shows no trace of the blue leather underneath.  >>

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