What do Navy pilots who fly F-18s have in common with flight crews on the Boeing 787 and 747-8? Both come into regular contact with a special lightweight ‘Stimulite’ honeycomb material from Supracor that has found its way into seat cushions and sleep surfaces, and is poised to break into – and potentially revolutionise – the commercial airline seating market, which currently relies on conventional foam cushioning.
A flexible form of aerospace honeycomb that is fusion bonded without the need for adhesives or solvents, Stimulite’s cellular matrix is over 90 per cent air, depending on cell size. Perforations in the cell walls circulate air both horizontally and vertically to control heat and moisture while the “footprint” of the cells and their flexing action stimulates blood flow to promote circulation. This helps to prevent the numbness that can occur when people sit for a long period of time.
The geometry of Stimulite also means that the honeycomb matrix is able to contour and self-adjust to any shape.
“We do a lot of seating for the military, including all of the F-18s. That was a result of a study that the Navy did to find a better seat cushion for their pilots because they are flying longer missions now and actually encountering some of the similar problems that people in wheelchairs do (pressure sores and numbness), says Susan Wilson, executive VP of R&D and developer of technology for aircraft seating at Supracor, which has a track record in the medical community for providing wheel chair cushions and support surfaces for pressure sore prevention.
When Boeing launched a comfort study into crew rest mattresses for the 787, it included Stimulite in its assessment. “That was how we became the specified supplier; they thought ours was the most comfortable,” says Wilson. Boeing then adopted the product for crew rest mattresses on the 747-8.
Now San Jose, California-based Supracor is exploring opportunities with several aircraft seat suppliers. “The conflicting needs to reduce aircraft weight and increase passenger comfort present a real challenge for aircraft interior suppliers, especially seat manufacturers. After all, the seat is where the passenger spends the majority of his time during the flight. While changes have evolved in seat frames and constructions, there has been little choice when it comes to seat cushions. Foam has been the predominant cushioning material for passenger seating since the beginning of commercial aviation,” says Supracor.
A low-profile seat and back cushion targeted for the economy-class market and weighing only two pounds (both seat and back) is currently being presented to various airlines and seating OEMs by Supracor. One undisclosed manufacturer in Europe has opted to put the Stimulite honeycomb in an economy-class seat product, and have it flight-tested.
“Our Stimulite honeycomb technology is completely different than what [the aircraft seat industry is] used to. But ironically it’s an evolution of structural aerospace honeycomb; we use the same geometry. It’s a technology that the market understands but in a completely different form,” says Wilson.
The company has encountered some resistance in the commercial aviation market because “people are very familiar with foam and are naturally resistant to change or have a discomfort with change, particularly with something completely different. I have to realize that foam is what people have known for all these years,” says Wilson.
Whilst she intends “to gradually replace a lot of the foam cushions that are out there” with Stimulite, she also sees opportunities to partner with foam suppliers. Aircraft seat thickness is often perceived – from an aesthetic or visual point of view – as being more comfortable. “We can combine the honeycomb with the foam because we can go very thin and build up the height factor of the seat with foam,” says Wilson. “This ensures comfort and a massaging effect, but gives the same thickness that airlines are used to.”
But for airlines that want to simply go thinner, she says, “they can give more living space back to the passenger” by using Stimulite alone.
The initial cost of the product “could be twice or a little more than foam”. But when compared to foam cushions, “cushions made from Stimulite have a lower lifetime cost due to their thermoplastic composition”, says the company.
Stimulite’s durability and resistance to aging “provides a longer cushion life requiring less frequent replacement”. The material is also fully washable “so there is a tremendous hygienic advantage. If you were to pull a foam cushion out of its seat cover, the ability to wash it is virtually nonexistent.”
Additionally, Supracor “absolutely would consider a programme that would allow an airline to recycle the product (send it back for a discount on new product, for instance),” says Wilson. “It’s 100% recyclable. We could essentially take a cushion, grind it up and repurpose it into another product. We have several divisions, a medical division, equestrian and lifestyle division, and in lifestyle we make spa and skincare products and one of the spa products is a facial sponge to clean your face for men and women.”
Supracor is also working on Stimulite applications for commercial airline cockpit seats “because I think the pilots need to have the comfort as much as the passengers”, says Wilson. And obvious applications exist to provide additional “luxury and comfort” to business- and first-class cabins, “but the real market is the economy market; that’s where I really think the material should be as well”, she concludes.