BORDEAUX, France – Leather use in automotive interiors is on a steady growth curve as automakers seek ever more inventive ways to employ the luxury material in everything from inexpensive sedans to premium SUVs.

Integrating more leather into more interiors means automotive designers, engineers and manufacturers need to work closer than ever with suppliers of seats and other interior trim elements to make sure use of leather is appropriate, pleasing and cost effective.

Lectra, a supplier of digital razor- and laser-cutting equipment used in the fashion, furniture and automotive industries, is building tools and offering systems designed to revolutionize leather cutting for automakers and their suppliers.

Today, 90% of leather cutting is done by die presses, but change is coming and nowhere is that more evident than at Lectra’s sprawling industrial and office campus here 367 miles (590 km) south of Paris in an area best known for its fine wines.

Lectra introduced its Versalis digital laser-cutter in 2012, aimed squarely at leather cutting business done with die presses, and growth followed. The supplier closed out a 3-year plan with a strong 2016 as revenues climbed 9.2% to €260 million ($288 million) over the previous year. The increase was fueled in large part by a 60% leap since 2012 in Lectra’s automotive business, overtaking its fashion industry work for the first time, says Javier Garcia, senior vice president-automotive sales.

The automotive segment now accounts for 44% of Lectra’s business, followed by fashion (40%), furniture (10%) and other uses in industries such as aerospace and aeronautics (6%).

The company’s toehold in the automotive sector began more than a decade ago with the manufacture of Focus machines that cut the technical fabric used in airbag pillows. Lectra machines now cut that fabric for use in 78% of all new vehicles worldwide.

New for 2016 is Lectra’s all-new Focus Quantum laser-cutting machine for airbags. Focus Quantum encompasses an entire suite of available services including maintenance, software and support to help engineers and designers optimize use of the equipment and data tracking. Lectra is delivering 10 new Focus machines annually to keep up with growing demand for airbags.

But it’s the automotive seating and trim business – and especially the leather-cutting aspect – that holds the greatest growth potential for the supplier. According to WardsAuto installation-rate data, in 2016 leather was the interior material of choice in 43.9% of light vehicles sold in the U.S. – including 38.7% of cars and 47.3% of light trucks – up from 35.4% four years earlier.

WardsAuto analysts and Lectra executives agree the rise of premium-trimmed CUVs, SUVs and pickups is fueling demand for leather interiors, which buyers associate with luxury goods such as leather furniture and clothing.

“The production of vehicles in the world, especially premium cars, is growing, so we’re on a growing trend in automotive,” notes Celine Choussy, chief marketing and communications officer.

“Whether in fabric or in leather, we benefit from the industry growth,” Choussy adds. “No matter what happens, if you build new cars there are going to be seats inside, and there will be airbags inside.”

The company can’t be specific on models, but notes Lectra machines were used in cutting interior materials for seven of the 2017 Wards 10 Best Interiors winners.

Garcia predicts digital leather cutting will follow a rapid growth curve similar to woven and knit fabrics the company’s machines have been cutting for years. The new technology offers quicker processes that are flexible for designers, reduce time to market and cut costs.

“The challenges that they (suppliers and automakers) are facing with new trends in the market are more customization, more specialization, more variety and more complexity,” Garcia notes. “For this they need a flexible and agile process, which is not what they have with die presses. That’s where we can contribute.”

Specifically, Lectra plans to offer Cutting Room 4.0, now in pilot testing and scheduled for a 2018 rollout. Cutting Room 4.0 and its “Software as a Service” system closely integrate the design and production processes to allow for maximum customization, transparency and efficiency through digitalization and use of data. Lectra estimates the system can save up to $350 per vehicle by optimizing leather use.

Cutting Room 4.0 is patterned after “Industry 4.0,” a manufacturing trend toward digitalization and use of data to create interconnected smart factories of the future. The term “4.0” refers to digitalization as a so-called fourth industrial revolution, following mechanization, mass production and automation.

“What we see with this fourth industrial revolution is a major switch,” Choussy explains. “It’s a change in technology, it’s a change in people and it’s a change in methodologies. It’s a change in business models, moving from mass production to mass customization, with a lot more personalization.”

Lectra, with 3,000 of its machines in use at 2,000 production sites worldwide all providing data on production, is uniquely positioned to support Industry 4.0 plans, including the “Made in China 2025” government initiative to move Chinese manufacturing to Industry 4.0 processes.

“We want to be seen as a visionary leader for Industry 4.0 in our industry, for automotive, but also for fashion and furniture,” Choussy says. “We want to be seen as the partner for Industry 4.0.” @bobgritzinger