Aviation and automotive are the primary areas in which leather is used in the upholstery sector. These sectors have very high performance needs that the tanner has to adhere to. Both sectors expect hard wearing leather that is also as light weight as possible. More and more polymer based technology is coming into play for light weight leathers. The lighter the vehicle the less fuel consumption equating to less emissions and a lower carbon footprint. This helps with CSR (corporate social responsibility) as all industries have to be seen as pro-active in this area.
Wet-white bought along a massive change in the industry. Metal-free leather with the light weight feature, became the go to for upholstery across the world. Nevertheless this did not come with its issues. Wet-white is problematic in its COD (chemical oxygen demand) value and it was an increase in expenses to produce. Currently within the market, more and more companies are converting back to chrome tanned leather due to cost. There will always be a market for wet-white but it will have to evolve quickly as REACH (registration, evaluation, authentication and restriction of chemicals list) starts to expand, before there is time for a replacement to be created.
Fogging and the release of VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) is always going to be an issue for the automotive industry. The leathers have to be able to cope with temperatures reaching up to 90-120°c. The ever changing climate leads to evaporation of the volatile substances within the leather, which condenses on the windscreen and reduces the driver’s visibility which brings its own dangers and problems.
Some subject matters that have come to light in the last couple of years and is becoming the future, is the susceptible odour of the leather and anti-squeak. Smell has become the next big thing that automotive cars are moving their focus to. There was a time when the smell of leather is what concreted its authenticity. “Luxury accessories have urged shoppers to use their sense of smell when trying to tell if a handbag is fake” (Hersan, 2009). Odour is subject to consumer perception, and not everyone has the same sense of smell. Anti-squeak can also be subject to consumer perception as some people enjoy the ‘squeak’ of leathers. This is tested via the stick-slip test, which causes friction between two pieces of leather and records the sound.
The majority of upholstery is embossed. The structure of vegtan (vegetable tannage) allows for excellent embossing properties. This can be added to the retan to enhance the leathers and sometimes give the leather a ‘fuller’ feel. However, it is rare for upholstery to be purely vegtan due to the bad light fastness. Laminated leathers is another trend that is becoming increasingly popular and techniques are improving fast.
The leather content within automotive will continue to grow. Automotive has the opportunity to propagate and succeed. Designers will be able to push suppliers into more imaginative and attractive uses of leather finishes. With customers becoming increasing more specific about their wants and needs custom cars will become an increase occurrence. The traditional stucco-buffed, pigmented finishes will be challenged by more semi-aniline finishes. The future of leather finishes can go one way or the other; more natural looking to completely unrecognisable.
“With the introduction of digital printing, this ability to almost camouflage the leather has many possibilities.”