Opening Pandora’s cabinet

posted on 22nd March 2022
Opening Pandora’s cabinet

Mélanie Prince is Head of Innovation at F/LIST, where she helps fuel the creativity of already innovative people, and explores the future of materials technology and sustainability

After more than a decade with the company, in June 2021 Mélanie Prince became Head of Innovation at
F/LIST. Renowned for the luxurious quality of its products and the excellence of its engineering, the Austrian-headquartered cabin interiors specialist is also noted for its innovative solutions, sometimes designed to satisfy requirements its customers didn’t know they had until F/LIST’s experts showed them.
Leading innovation in so overtly creative an organisation is a tall order. The job is, Prince explains, about providing her team with the tools, time and framework upon which to hang their imagination, identifying products that add value for the customer and look good in the cabin, and then working backwards to investigate how to make them. “We look at the full spectrum of innovation. We do a lot of organic brainstorming, sometimes looking at problems from a new perspective. I go out to see the latest technologies from other industries and we watch developments in research papers and at universities. And then we also go back to our roots, looking at traditional processes and craftsmanship.”
Prince’s team has the space to innovate freely, and she acknowledges that not all ideas turn out to be good ones. “Failure is part of the process. My background is in aircraft certification, where failure is rarely a good thing, but here we embrace it because it’s part of the iterative process. Quite often the process we begin with is barely related to the product we finish up with. It’s how we create things that are interesting, beautiful and unique.”
Prince says much of F/LIST’s success in innovation is thanks to the core competency of its multidisciplinary research team. “They are from many backgrounds, including automotive, some with expertise in carbon fibre gained in Formula 1; architecture; jewellery and more. They’re brilliant. They come up with ideas so ‘wild’ that I often think, ‘this will never work in an aircraft’, but I have to quiet that little voice in my head and say, ‘prove me wrong, show me’.
“So they run with it, make a prototype and create a concept you wouldn’t believe. More often than not, our innovation wows our customers and much of our upcoming catalogue, [many of] our new product lines, are generated through this process.”

Lightweight luxury
Business and VIP aviation is an F/LIST core market, alongside yachts and luxury residences. While there are commonalities, aviation demands particular attention to safety and certification standards, as well as weight. Low weight helps reduce fuel burn, saving money and lowering carbon emissions. The challenge for F/LIST is to make cabin monuments with the solid feel and quality finish expected of a luxury, bespoke piece, yet low in weight, fully compliant and recyclable at the end of their useful life.
Prince explains: “A hollow structure will always sound thin and ‘cheap’, but if you apply a thin material over a more solid structure, it can be very thin, light and sustainable without feeling cheap. The bigger questions are about finding new methods and materials – do we want to build very thin cabinets and apply thin finishing materials to them, or would we rather use a very strong ‘monocoque’ construction and apply the finish; we are even seeing some designs for very light, small passenger aircraft where decorative materials are applied directly to the aircraft structure.”
Meanwhile, “Sustainability accounts for a large proportion of my work at the moment,” Prince says. “It’s hugely important to the market. Weight saving provides perhaps the biggest ‘bang for the buck’ in terms of tangible sustainability impact at the aircraft level. We push the limits for low-weight interiors every day, using carbon fibre, innovative finish build-ups and minimalist, purpose-designed and exactingly engineered components.
“Right now we’re doing a lot of research into sustainable next-generation materials that are light and offer high performance. It’s true the cabin interior has a relatively minor impact on sustainability compared to overall aircraft weight, aerodynamics and engine performance, but we want to ensure the materials we use reinforce the message of sustainability. Placing new materials in front of the owner, making sure they understand the message, is important and maybe it will affect their subsequent choices.”
The bigger sustainability picture goes beyond the aircraft to the processes and attitudes of every company involved in its manufacture, including those supplying cabin components. It’s about how factories and workshops are lit, efficient heating and air conditioning, manufacturing responsibly to reduce waste and dealing correctly with hazardous materials.
“We’ve been improving our infrastructure at F/LIST for many years,” Prince confirms. “It includes a huge photovoltaic installation on the roof of our main Thomasberg facility and we use a river that flows through the site to provide cooling. Overall, we satisfy up to 20% of our energy needs with renewable resources and we reuse as much material as possible from our crates and packaging.”
F/LIST’s products inevitably rely on topcoats and varnishes which, Prince agrees, “are not the most sustainable products”. Even here though, the company is employing alternatives. “The beauty for us is that as the industry looks at sustainable alternatives, so it is also willing to look at new finishes. We therefore have entirely natural alternatives to traditional finishes and while they may not resist staining or damage as effectively, they are easier to repair.”

Pandora’s cabinet
Considering structural components, especially those that are functional and hidden, additive manufacturing – 3D printing – has obvious benefits in its ability to increase material density where a component comes under greater stress, perfectly matching component design and performance, while reducing waste compared to traditional milling techniques.
Prince confirms it is an area of great interest for F/LIST and alludes to a forthcoming product application, but says so far the company has only scratched the surface of its possibilities. The ideas for ‘fusing’ one material with another, or ‘transitioning’ between materials, are particularly interesting, while she also mentions creating parts with ‘impossible geometries’. Meanwhile, 3D printing is already playing an important role in rapid prototyping and production tool-up.
She also muses on the future. “We opened Pandora’s box – Pandora’s cabinet maybe – to see if a future machine could create a cabinet adhering to all the regulatory requirements, and additive manufacturing clearly has a role in that. We realised it’s a long way off and decided to close the lid on it for now; the human element in design is always so present in any case.”
A great cabin – and there is no doubt
F/LIST helps create great cabins – will always seem at one with the aircraft, which means it is easy to forget that it was created separately, rather than by the aircraft manufacturer. How then does F/LIST create and maintain a meaningful relationship with its customers?
Prince says: “We’ve gained the trust of our customers over many years, bringing them to Austria and showing them how we build cabinets, explaining how everything works and demonstrating our craftsmanship. It creates a lasting impression and helps us build solid, long-term relationships.”
There is also an extensive network of international locations offering product support and service, advice and repair.
In the end, F/LIST is a family business and Prince says it operates to family values. “When we say ‘yes’ to a customer, look them in the eye and shake their hand, that’s a commitment to innovate and satisfy their requirement.”