Nearly 90 percent of the material in the seat covers in the new Audi A3 is made using recycled plastic bottles.

16 March, 2020

Since its first appearance back in 1996, the Audi A3 has built a reputation as a pioneer, literally creating the compact premium segment. Along the way, the Audi A3 models have taken technologies and luxury appointment usually the province of the larger luxury classes and made them a staple in this compact class, and with the fourth generation A3, more cutting edge technology is employed, including firsts in recyclable materials and sustainability.

One of the more innovative technologies employed in selected Audi A3s is new seating covers which use recycled plastic bottles.

“We wanted to produce a durable seat cover with outstanding quality that passes all of our product tests — and we want to produce it sustainably,” explains Ute Grönheim from the materials development department at Audi. Ute, who has a degree in textile design, is one of the people in the materials development department who is responsible for the seat covers in the new Audi A3.

Using Audi’s new system, 45 1.5L PET bottles can be turned into the seat covering for one seat in the new A3, and still meet the exacting standards that make Audi interiors amongst the very best in the business.

The process is as fascinating as the end product is compelling. When plastic bottles are returned, the recycling companies reuse only the clear ones because they’re easier to dye. The lids come off, a bottle washing system cleans them and then a shredder shreds the bottles into little flakes. These flakes are used to make a granulate, which is used by the yarn manufacturer to produce the polyester threads that will later become yarn. 

“This granulate is essentially the same as that used for other seat covers, except this is made of recycled PET,” explains Grönheim. Another difference is that the granulate is not as evenly milled and pure as the industrially produced granulate. 

“That can clog up the nozzles in the yarn production. Besides that, the opacity is irregular, so it is less absorbent and needs more dye,” says Grönheim. That’s why it is somewhat more difficult and more expensive to produce recycled polyester threads. 

The yarn arrives on two kilogram spools at the Willy Schmitz cloth factory in Mönchengladbach, Germany. Here the yarn for the Audi seat covers is processed and made into a fabric. 50 large weaving looms are in the production hall. “The design is transferred onto the loom machine from a USB stick and then everything runs automatically,” explains Britta Gebhardt, the head of design. Two of the machines are weaving the ‘Torsion’ fabric, which will be used in the seat covers of the Audi A3 design selection.

For plant manager Markus Bartsch, it makes no difference whether the yarn they are working with is made of artificially created PET or recycled PET. After it’s been woven, the fabric looks finished, has a pattern and already feels like a seat cover. But it’s far from finished. 

The fabric first has to pass many different quality controls. Yvonne Peschmann carries out the most important one. The experienced fabric mender knows what to look for, running her hands over the fabric to feel for any knots or hard areas. She repairs any small defects immediately with needle, thread and scissors; she marks the larger ones, checking around 200 metres of cloth per hour in this way.

After the quality controls, the fabric is rolled up onto a core and cleaned on a 20-metre long washing system at 60 degrees Celsius. With its multiple washing chambers, the machine manages around 30 metres of fabric per minute. The core holds around 600 meters of cloth so a washing cycle takes roughly an hour. After it is washed, the fabric is smoothed and dried.

In the next step, a machine glues fleece to the cloth in a process known as laminating which is important for the seat’s comfort. “Right now we use flame lamination. In this process, an open flame is used to melt a thin layer of foam, which is then glued onto the fabric along with the fleece,” explains Gebhardt. 

After the fleece is accounted for, the car seat cover is made up of up to 89 percent recycled plastic bottles. 

“Our goal for the future is to not only use fleece but also glue that is made of recycled materials,” says Gebhardt. 

After a final quality inspection and a stress test, the work at the Schmitz cloth fabric is finished. The cloth for the seat covers in the new A3 hits the road on its way to the next factory. The sewing studio forms the fabric, the upholstery workshop stretches it over the seats. And there it is – the finished, sustainable seat made of recycled PET bottles for the new Audi A3. A premium product with recycling at its core – without compromise. A win, win situation and a very comfortable place to be.