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Bedtime story

It is a big jump from the bedroom to an aircraft cabin, but Octaspring technology promises increased comfort for passengers. Ian Harbison reports
 

In 2011, serial entrepreneur and innovator Sandi Češko acquired the rights to Octaspring from Willy Poppe, its Belgian inventor. At the time, he wanted to apply the technology to his Dormeo mattress business. A little later, however, he saw automotive applications and started working with a subsidiary of the Austrian-based BOXMARK Leather in his native Slovenia. He had already teamed up with corporate advisory firm Spitzberg Partners in New York to develop a strategy for introducing Octaspring to key new industries, and Spitzberg’s outreach to the aviation industry led to a successful introduction to Airbus in early 2016.


Češko says he was really impressed by the Airbus spirit of innovation, its open-mindedness and speed of response, as the idea was welcomed and he was pointed at STELIA Aerospace, the aircraft seating specialist, with an informal agreement being reached between all four companies. Češko’s Studio Moderna company is funding the work through a subsidiary called Vanema, which was established in 2016 and has the exclusive rights to develop the Octaspring technology for the aviation industry. He says there is close cooperation with the other partners, with Airbus and STELIA Aerospace both challenging and directing the development work.


This culminated in the display of a prototype business class seat, based on the STELIA Aerospace SOLSTYS III, at the Aircraft Interiors Expo this year, where the team walked away with a Crystal Cabin Award in the materials and components category.


So what is the secret of Octaspring?


In a conventional aircraft seat, passenger comfort depends on the correct level of support for different parts of the body. This is achieved by using pads with different foam densities that are firmer or softer as required (firmer, for example, to support the base of the spine and thighs). Over time, the constant pressure will compress the foam so it has less of a cushioning effect and must be replaced. It will also gain weight through absorption.


With Octaspring, the same densities are used but a series of precision cuts are made around and through a rectangular block of foam. When the two ends are joined together, the foam opens up to form an eight-sided spring structure. Unlike foam pads, the springs move in three dimensions to evenly distribute body weight across the entire seat surface, improving comfort, while the gaps provide up to eight times more ventilation, keeping the passenger cooler. In fact, the eventual structure is almost circular, which means the foam springs can be more closely packed together into the seat structure, producing clearly defined support areas.


Each individual spring uses roughly half of the weight of an equivalent foam block, resulting in a weight saving of up to 30% in a finished seat cushion (up to 150g in economy and 800g in business class seats). Newly designed seat cushions can achieve higher returns when the technology is integrated during initial seat design. Older model seat cushions are often less optimised, resulting in even higher weight savings  when refurbished with Octaspring technology.

 

Češko notes that any foam can be used, which means  an airline with an established supplier relationship can continue to use the same foam, just that it is produced in a different way.


Of course, those foams would be approved to aviation safety standards, and prototypes have already passed 14 CFR/CS 25.853(c) oil burner tests. One requirement that came from the automotive side, from a German manufacturer of truck seats, was an endurance test of one million cycles of pulsating load (250 Newtons and 750 Newtons, frequency: 2.5Hz), as the seat has a design life of 10 years – although this is way beyond aviation standards. The result was a loss in height of 7-9%. Another very severe durability test of 80,000 cycles (with 750 Newtons force) showed only 2.3% height loss, and in both cases, the foam returned to its initial height during a 24 hour recovery time.


Jacques Debouchaud, Cabin Interior Research & Innovation Manager at STELIA Aerospace, confirms that the seat manufacturer is committed to Octaspring technology, but adds that there are three main challenges that have to be satisfied: comfort, durability and certification.


He says it is easy to get the comfort level right on economy class seats, as there is typically only a single foam layer. For premium seats, especially when they convert to a lie-flat bed, the variety of foam density needed is much more complex, and this is the focus of STELIA Aerospace’s research at the moment. However, he agrees with Češko that the ability to simply swap out Octasprings speeds up the process of modifying the seat.


While the endurance test results for the truck seat were impressive, he points out that airline passengers move around much more than a driver and so the wear patterns are likely to differ significantly. A complication is that there are no established aviation test procedures for the technology and this is another research area for the company. While there is a possibility of an extended service life, he asserts that an Octaspring cushion will probably last the average of two to four years for a foam cushion.


He is more confident when it comes to weight savings, and can see a particular application being seats onboard the Airbus A321LR, a variant of the A321neo, which will have a 4,000nm range, making it ideally suited to transatlantic routes and new long-haul markets that were not previously accessible with current single-aisle aircraft. Less weight means less fuel burn, and more range.


Material certification is continuing and should be completed in the next few months. Once this is achieved, the new technology can be incorporated into the design of new seat programmes from 2018.


Returning to the bedroom, the company is also proposing Octaspring mattresses for crew rest areas, with potential savings of up to 2.5kg per bed. Softer zones are positioned under the shoulders and hips, with firmer zones placed underneath the torso and thighs. This is one of the project areas that is the responsibility of Airbus.


Vanema has also received funding to help its breakthrough into the aerospace industry from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme. This is a wide-ranging Research and Innovation programme that helps breakthroughs, discoveries and world-firsts to take their ideas from the lab to the market. The Grant Agreement (No 757130) with the European Commission has already been signed and project implementation is ongoing.


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