Seats That Fly

Recaro Aircraft Seating GmbH & Co. KG at Schwäbisch Hall, Germany, 5 Feb 2016.

Inside Recaro’s headquarters in Schwäbisch Hall, Germany. Photo by Wolfram Scheible

“Seats That Fly” was originally published in March/April issue of APEX Experience magazine.

Aircraft seating manufacturers, more than anything, are problem solvers. Everything, from major problems to things most people would just accept as facts of life, is an issue that can be solved, chair or no chair. “We had a long queue in front of the canteen,” says Mark Hiller, CEO and shareholder of Recaro Aircraft Seating, “so a team had the task to really analyze and really improve it.” The canteen task force discovered that 50 percent of the employees at the company’s Schwäbisch Hall location visit the restaurant in the same 15 minutes and spend too much time deciding what to order, so they resolved to stretch out lunchtime and present the food options in advance. “They’ve really done the analysis and defined several actions to reduce the queue,” Hiller says.

Recaro Aircraft Seating GmbH & Co. KG at Schwäbisch Hall, Germany, 5 Feb 2016.

Recaro Aircraft Seating GmbH & Co. KG at Schwäbisch Hall, Germany. Image via Wolfram Scheible

The storied history of the company, which has long specialized in mobile seating, greets visitors as they enter the showroom at headquarters in the small, industrial German city. An oversize book, open on a pedestal, outlines its inception in 1906 as Stuttgarter Carosserie- u. Radfabrik, an automotive body and wheel producer, its evolution into a luxury and sports car and the launching of its aircraft seating arm in 1971.

Relics from the swinging ’70s, photos of mustachioed men posing beside seats or the burnt-orange, economy- to business-class 7410 CVS Convertible seat, decorate the perimeter of the showroom as tributes to early ingenuity. The manufacturer’s focus on short-range economy – Recaro owns over 30 percent share in this sector, is well represented with displays of BL3530 and CL3710 models, but the company’s bold step into business class in 2013, where competitors Zodiac Aerospace and B/E Aerospace currently dominate, is evident as well.

Hiller predicts the economy- and business-class long-range market will be a key area of growth, with business class especially contributing to what he expects to be a $3.71-billion industry by 2018. With the CL6510, supplied for Lufthansa; mid-range CL5510, which flies on Cathay Pacific; and the more recent CL6710 – the ink still wet on a soon-to-be-announced launch customer, Recaro clearly means business.

Before guests can get to the nuts and bolts of the factory’s assembly lines, Recaro’s legacy makes another appearance, this time in the form of a dusty-teal-colored 1950s Porsche Speedster, made at the original Reutter plant. Through the factory doors, pillars of excellence line the outer perimeter and a series of boards on wheels reveals a month’s planning of the factory’s output in ink, numbers and green and red magnets: Green means go, red indicates a problem that needs solving. The “cockpit” breaks down the executive team’s numbers – from reasons for bonuses to absentee rates – for all to see, and another board reports a healthy 81 percent satisfaction rate among employees based on the last survey. “We try to be very open and honest,” says Zsolt Kulcsar, director of operations.

The cacophonous music involved in producing these chairs is a tornado of mechanical sound, with clanking, scarping and welding rising and falling in an endless fugue as you move through the space. Eight production lines and generally two shifts work to produce up to around 64 seats a day, contributing to the factory’s annual target of 30,000 pax per year – the same number of units low-cost carrier easyJet ordered from the manufacturer last October. “We’re very flexible,” says Kulcsar. “If we need to improve our production capabilities, I can put more lines in the morning or afternoon shift.” The factory’s deliverability and performance has earned top ranks from Airbus and Boeing.

“You bring the innovation, and then you ask yourself, why did it take so long.” – Mark Hiller, Recaro

From pre- to final assembly, a seat gets made in about six hours. In pre-production, a metal line and plastic line both cut and form basic seat parts, such as the floor strut, seat pan or reinforcement insert. The upcoming addition of a thermofolding machine and the recently added $2.1-million laser-cutting machine will help Kulcsar boost production, which has already nearly doubled in the past four years. But according to Kulcsar, in the airline business, a lot of manual work simply can’t be replaced by machines.

“On an A380, you can have up to 50 different seat models. You have very high variation: the front-row seat, back-row seat, bathroom seat, left-hand seat, right-hand seat, exit seat…” he says. “It’s not mass production; we’re not producing 200 of the same seat for one customer.” One of the most important tasks that’s done manually is the removal of sharp edges. “In this business, you are not allowed to have sharp edges.”

After pre-production, the component production area, filled with workbenches, manually produces multi-part pieces such as backrest inserts, armrests and seat pans. Ultrasonic molding, a newer technology, enables plastic and metal parts to be fused together – a difficult task that was either forgone or produced by a more complicated means. Now, instead of a single material seat pan, the fusion of metal and plastic gives the pan a more flexible front lip. “It provides more comfort for the passenger, because it’s not a sharp edge and you have a little bend,” Kulcsar explains.

Set up in 12 modules with one worker on each, the final assembly line brings together the parts produced in-house with outsourced electronic parts, actuators and seatbelts. “You get all of your raw materials on the line, you start with the seat legs, and at the end of the day, it’s the final seat,” Kulcsar says. Certifying staff spend about 20 minutes auditing the final product, checking boxes and attaching papers to the approved chairs – their seals of approval.

Recaro Aircraft Seating GmbH & Co. KG at Schwäbisch Hall, Germany, 5 Feb 2016.

Photo by Wolfram Scheible

The key to being a good problem solver is believing anything is possible. Throughout the factory is an implicit challenge to continually find improvements for its processes. “We ask people to actively share if they have ideas for how to improve the line, and if we implement their ideas, they get an incentive for it,” says Kulcsar. “It’s really important for us to not stop on a level.”

Ingenuity stems all the way through the company. The Idea Challenge encourages friendly competition between the China, US, Schwäbisch Hall and Stuttgart offices. Each team is given a duty book with high-level parameters and asked to produce an original seat. “We’re using all the best knowledge that we have,” says Hiller. “We take the best concepts and solutions of the four results and agree upon the best concepts all together.”

But the sky is not the limit, so to speak. “Everything is possible, but it has to be economically viable,” says Christian Keck, manager, Global Marketing. The weight of economy-class seats has dropped by more than 50 percent in the last 20 years, but in the razor-thin-margined airline business, new ways to reduce weight are constantly being explored. For seat manufactures, lightweight comes at heavy material costs. “With lighter projects, the material costs are higher,” says Hiller.

To manage the challenge, designers adhere to a defined ratio. “We use 150 euros per kilogram, so the design team knows, if they can drive down the weight by one more kilogram, it’s okay that the product cost is 150 euros higher.” Determining total cost of ownership, so airline customers don’t gawk at the initial cost of investment, is also crucial.

As chief problem solver, Hiller takes these challenges in stride. “If you don’t have a hurdle or a target, then you won’t stretch the ambition,” he says. “If you’re a runner and you don’t have a target, you will not improve.” Since taking the helm as CEO in 2012, Hiller’s made a point of investing upfront in innovation, and it’s been paying off. “Ten percent of revenues is used for research and development,” he says, adding, “This year, more than 30 percent of our revenue is generated with new products.”

Another proactive approach that’s proven effective is anticipating customization. “What we have shown with the CL3710 is that we have already pre-developed several options,” says Hiller. “So, if you want to go with basic power, we can already offer four different options. The airline can really select and choose what it wants without going for additional risk.”

Pushing the envelope only leads to new challenges. Recaro inventions like the high literature pocket that adds living space or the well-designed hinge for the neck support on the CL3710 may be groundbreaking, but for Hiller, they’re just another problem to be solved. “You bring the innovation, and then you ask yourself, why did it take so long.”

Katie is a writer for APEX Media, based in Toronto, Ontario.