12 min read


The Rapid-Rise of Smart Seat Design

For today’s hyper-connected traveler, comfort is measured by how much the experience onboard mirrors life on the ground — with the added expectation that travel should be a pleasure.

This concept drove the design and development of two of the latest award-winning seat concepts that made headlines in the past year: The Economy Jazz™ and premium-class Waterfront™ smart seats, both of which were designed by a team of cross functional experts around the needs of highly connected passengers. Features include new device connections to high-resolution IFE screens, seamless integration of passenger devices, power outlets and new interactive elements like smart-recognition which will help airlines better tailor their services to the individual passenger.

These seats were developed through a unique collaboration between B/E Aerospace and Panasonic Avionics, with partnership support from Formation Design and TEAGUE — a collective of “imagineers” who generated what Panasonic’s R&D lead, Mehdi Izadyar, describes as “magic.”

“There wasn’t any false politeness. People felt free to say when something wasn’t going to work,” Izadyar says. “It was an incredibly constructive collaboration, with people talking through problems back and forth from their different perspectives. We had the right people who put their egos aside and worked jointly. We took credit for it jointly — even when it came to the awards, we submitted together — with a share of the outcome of what we presented.”

The first collaboration of this kind was born out of Panasonic Avionics’ future-vision concept of using OLED (organic light-emitting diode) displays to reduce the weight of seatback screens and improve image resolution. After investigation, however, Panasonic found that OLED technology was not ready to take off. Still, the company didn’t give up that easily.

“Sometimes you have ideas and the technology isn’t there. We did technical evaluations and found it was not the right time for OLED,” Izadyar explains. “But we came up with the integrated seat monitor with superb LCD technology, worked with industrial designers, had it polished up, teamed up with B/E Aerospace and built it.” And the team’s persistence has paid off: The integrated seat monitor (ISM) has become table-stakes now, a design template for literally every IFE monitor build in the industry since.

Fixing a Patchwork Process

Historically, seating and entertainment systems have been selected by airlines independent of each other, with “last-minute” design, engineering and certification changes required to make the two elements work. Stakeholders worked mostly independent from each other, causing immense problems when it came to the integration and certification of technologies. “That’s why some older configurations from a decade ago look like the monitors were ‘velcroed’ to the seat back. We really had to fix this inefficient process,” Izadyar says.

Beating Business-Class Expectations

Introducing the game changing 4K monitor on the Waterfront seat also required specific seat-design changes — in fact, drastic ones. But by collaborating on the design up front, the companies were able to ensure this new design was holistic, wholly compatible and in the end more ideally suited to passenger activities onboard.

While B/E Aerospace’s award winning Super-Diamond™ business class seating platform served as the foundation for this project, Alex Pozzi, VP of B/E’s Corporate Technology department, says the design collaboration on Panasonic’s project gave birth to a wholly new product concept.

“Everything on the Waterfront was rebuilt from the ground up. All of the seat sub systems were considered and reinvented, enhancing not only the full passenger experience but also the service interaction between customer and airline staff. Through our partnership with Panasonic and the elegant integration of their ground breaking system into a revolutionary seat and IFE platform, we truly realized the scope of the change and the new possibilities that were opened up.”

“We thought about maintenance, modularity, we thought about whether it was scalable for the future. We considered seemingly mundane yet critical issues like cable routing, and thermal issues. We developed something far better overall,” he continues.

The business-class Waterfront offers premium passengers the comforts they’ve grown to expect in the class, and also surprises them with carefully considered technological, personalized and ergonomic details.

Francis Xavier Garing, a program manager, senior mechanical engineer and industrial designer at Formation Design, says the collaborative process began by studying how passengers interact with their seats and their surroundings on the plane, as well as observing their flight habits.

“Panasonic and B/E challenged us to take an outsider’s view of the passenger experience in general,” he says. “For example, we considered a more uninterrupted travel process, when and how passenger use the IFE and or their personal devices. We considered how the flight crew might conduct service in different ways, and provided for passenger transitioning from one activity to another, from meal service to work mode. A lot of that integration was based on looking at consumer behaviors, airline processes and knowing what to do differently,” Garing says.

“Everything on the Waterfront was rebuilt from the ground up. All of the seat sub systems were considered and reinvented, enhancing not only the full passenger experience but also the service interaction between customer and airline staff,” says Alex Pozzi, VP of B/E’s Corporate Technology department.

Interconnected Interiors

While designed for different cabin classes, with their respective restrictions on room and cost, both the Jazz and Waterfront connect the seating environment to the passenger, the passenger’s devices, as well as the airline, on a personal, experiential and digital level throughout the journey.

The economy-class Jazz seat includes specially-designed device holders, USB and wireless chargers and the option to pair passengers’ personal devices to the embedded IFE screen. The Waterfront also has these features, and includes subtle enhances like back-lighting that improves the cinematic experience of the larger seat-screen, themed lighting and the option of a wireless inductive-charging tray for passenger devices. These thoughtful touches help the airline deliver their brand with a curated passenger experience.

On board connected aircraft, both the Jazz and the Waterfront create new opportunities for airlines to expand their service and ancillary offerings. These “smart seat environments” are personalized by using passengers’ devices as a token of identification: Passengers can cue up movies at home and play them on board, store seat settings for the next flight, and use device data and the onboard internet connection to send personalized flight updates. Airlines can make customized ancillary offers like ground transport arrangements or hotel bookings.

These new layers of experience and services add value to airlines and passengers, including the future-proofing of these cabin interiors’ components, arguably extending service life.

TEAGUE’s principal brand strategist, Devin Liddell, says connecting aircraft interiors, making them “smart” and responsive, has become more important than ever to airline brand relevance.

“There are rising expectations because of the Internet of Things. If you really boil it down, IoT is about being connected. It’s a functional concern, but what it delivers is smart context for people. Then you get into interesting territory: what happens when the seat is connected? What if the seat knows my name?” he says.

If Liddell sounds like he’s getting ready to sing the theme song of the 1980s–’90s TV sitcom Cheers, there’s something to that. Sometimes you really do want to fly where everybody knows your name.

“Travel has all sorts of joys embedded into it, but the fundamental default state is alienation, isolation,” Liddell says. “You feel alone. You feel that you have to move through this world on your own wits. The opposite of that isolation is being connected. There are lots of experiential possibilities which open up, ensuring that the passenger doesn’t feel isolated in a strange environment but embedded in a personal space – almost like at home.”

Collaboration is Essential as Trends Shift

The rapid pace of technology on the ground is urging increased collaboration between designers and manufacturers in a greater effort to keep up with evolving consumer expectations. Keeping pace with the future requires a meeting of minds, dedicated to a common purpose: Make flying better.

“We tend to underestimate how quickly things happen. We tend to underestimate what will change in the next five years,” Liddell says.

Panasonic’s Izadyar says that kind of collaboration — rather than the seat design itself — is really the ultimate goal as airlines work to meet comfort and connectivity demands as well as to surprise customers with unexpected inflight bonuses.

“It’s not about just building an IFE system, or about creating a seat that is stunning,” Izadyar says. “It’s about coming together to create a space and an experience.”

The most important part of this collaborative approach is to ensure that airlines can offer their customers the product features they want most, stay ahead of competition, and deliver new experiences quickly. These goals are realized by working with partners who have already thought these issues through and developed solutions in advance.

Izadyar says that getting customer feedback helped the partners offer cutting-edge design with practices that match the standards of the world’s leading technology disruptors. This also generates added value for airlines.

“To some extent, those projects that we do are idea incubators. Aside from the product, that’s a big component,” he says. “People see us working together, all of us as thought-leaders. Customers can see we’re thinking on their behalf, we’re working together to drive the experience forward.” Seat concepts like these go through many changes before hitting the market because they are used to inspire dialogue with airlines.

Izadyar refers to this as “innovation with purpose” — working with “your head in the clouds and feet on the ground.”

“There are many cool ideas you can read about in future travel magazines,” he says (while the other stakeholders on the phone call chuckle in agreement). “But the character of these projects was something that would be able to fly and still be visionary.”

Panasonic Avionics
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