Elio engineering is a partnership arrangement with the founders being Paul Elio and Hari Sankara. Paul was a student of the General Motors institute. He had come up with various designs and ideas of which he thought would revolutionize the motoring industry. Some of these inventions were a bike he had designed and patented, but did not take off. He also had sketched a new seat design, which was later named the NC seat. The NC stood for “No Compromise” because the new seat design made possible simultaneous progress on cost, weight, and performance. However, all this did not appeal to him because his stay at the benchmarking department of JCI very challenging. Hari Sankara was working in the structural design and analysis department. He was impressed with Paul’s academic achievements and engineering talent. They developed a mutual admiration, which later blossomed into a friendship.
They sat together, discussed the NC seat, and came up with an aluminum prototype for the seat. At this point, they came up with the partnership and founded Elio Engineering. Using a couple of functional prototypes and computer-aided structural analysis to back up their work, Paul and Hari set out to show the concept to the automotive seating industry. While the auto companies greeted the invention with a lot of enthusiasm, Elio Engineering was unable to reach a financial deal, primarily because that a few of the critical items had not yet been patent-protected and hence could not be revealed and because of some internal issues. The seat was a special class of automotive seats in the industry called all-belts-to-seat (ABTS), wherein the shoulder belt and lap belt originate from the seat rather than from an auto body.
The Elio Engineering ABTS seat mechanism is based on cable and drum elements, as opposed to gears. The key benefit of the new technology is that does not permit catastrophic failure. A special new load leveling recliner mechanism with a high strength to weight ratio ensures that the seat does not fracture or buckle at the failure level. The design also uses fewer and lighter parts because it is a single-sided recliner. The Elio technology allows for the seat to be at least as light as a conventional seat. The seat improves user comfort by minimizing buzz, squeak and rattle problems. Finally the seat belt retractor (the component containing the belt spool) in the Elio design is located at the bottom of the back frame, not at the top as is the case for other ABTS technologies.
Elio Engineering faced certain issues such as federal safety requirements. At the prototype stage, the Elio ABS seat mechanism had passed the major structural test by a wide margin. Another potential bottleneck had its roots in material science. The seat required the use of raw materials, such as brake friction materials and some urethanes, and it was to be analyzed how the latter would perform under extreme temperature conditions. If there were major problems with the material, the functionality of the Elio mechanism would be jeopardized. Additional setbacks were large capital requirements if the seat were to be manufactured in house, lack Elio competencies in manufacturing and distribution, and getting access to OEMS. Stringent OEM seat design requirements, certification requirements and supplier preferences and unknowns regarding end user taste with respect to ABTS seats and seat styling could also become challenges. In partnerships with an incumbent supplier, the political turf battles in the partner’s organization could seriously hamper the joint technology development efforts.
Another issue they faced were the large capital requirements if the seat were to be manufactured in house. The major manufacturing issue for Elio Engineering, as an independent entrant, was that manufacturing was not its core competence and the fairly large capital requirements of building a new plant. An additional issue was having to implement a JIT delivery system, which was required of tier one and certain tier two suppliers. Concurrent engineering resulting in quick and efficient implementation readiness for manufacturing would pose an additional challenge in the absence of early input of manufacturing expertise.
Companies need a variety of capabilities to compete successfully in automotive seat systems. The key requirements for a leading tier one supplier are strong relationships with OEMs and a large global presence and scale. The ability to manage the seat system development from concept to production for the OEMs, as well as strong supplier networks, is other critical success factors. On the engineering side, concurrent engineering and in house design and interior systems capabilities are crucial to achieve fast time to market, as well as a low cost and high quality position. Vertical integration is critical in taking a systems approach to product development. On the other hand, systems integration capability is important for external sourcing strategy. The Bostroom alliance agreement for the truck market had been concluded, and the NC design had developed substantially, but the Elio’s strategy for entry into the automotive industry had not been outlined.