Encounters – Women of the Star
Nov 30, 2011
Olfactory Expert Claudia Schempp
Well-Being. Love at First Sniff.
You smell so good! The chemistry that makes us fall in love works the same way in cars. “Just like in human relationships, our sense of smell greatly determines whether we feel at ease in a car,” says Claudia Schempp. To make sure every new Mercedes-Benz has a pleasant odour, the olfactory expert sniffs each individual material used in the interior. She is on the Mercedes-Benz ‘nose team’ together with three other women and two men. They have the final say on what goes in the car.
For 25 years, Claudia Schempp has been hot on the trail of offensive odours, helping to ensure that every Mercedes-Benz vehicle has a pleasant smell. Using her nose as a measuring device, she analyses all the materials which are used to make parts inside the car – from plastics, paints, fabrics and natural fibres to leather, woods, waxes and rubber.
Each material has its own distinctive smell. And Schempp knows them all. She is able to identify materials by their odour, and can even distinguish between different types of plastic. Polyurethane, for example, smells different to polypropylene. “That is a talent, but not a god-given one,” says Sindelfingen-born Schempp, who originally trained as a chemistry lab assistant. “You can train your nose.” Every one of us has the ability to distinguish between up to 10,000 odours. “The difficulty is that we don’t really know how to identify them properly, which means we don’t pick up on them. Because I sniff each individual material again and again, I know exactly what it smells like.”
Smell first – then touch
Schempp had a keen nose even as a child. “My family said I used to always smell everything first before I touched or ate it. I had no idea at all that I was doing this.” Instinctively, she had made her sense of smell her primary instrument for sensory perception. Long before she looks at something, she will already have smelt it.
Her sensitive nose had already come to the attention of material engineers at Mercedes-Benz, where Claudia Schempp temped as a student in the holidays. After completing her apprenticeship as a chemistry laboratory assistant, she joined Mercedes-Benz in 1986 and has worked ever since in production and materials engineering. One of her most important jobs is odour assessment, otherwise known as olfactics.
Evocative and emotive – the power of smell
The odour of a new car should be neither overpowering nor unpleasant. Smells go straight from the nose to the brain and provoke an immediate emotional reaction. Reasoning just doesn’t come into it. “People experience so much through their noses. Our sense of smell more than any other has the power to make us feel happy or at ease,” says the professional sniffer.
The first thing we do when we get into a car is breathe in the odour. It’s an unconscious action and it happens before we have the chance to look around or to see what something feels like. “If an odour is irritating, it takes away from all the other positive sensory impressions, no matter how exclusive these might be. It makes us feel uneasy.” This is scientifically proven. In the hierarchy of comfort, smell is the foundation upon which the subjective sense of wellbeing is based.
A-star for odour
Mercedes-Benz has carried out an odour test since 1992. The test was standardised by the Association of the German Automotive Industry and is continuously being improved. Claudia Schempp and her fellow olfactory experts take a sample of every single material that is to be used inside a new vehicle. They put this sample in a household, odour-free canning jar, which is then sealed and heated for two hours at 80 degrees Celsius. This is the temperature that can be reached inside a car if it is left in the blazing sun. And odours become stronger when it gets hot. The testers then cool the jars down to 60 degrees, ready for the ‘sniffing’ to begin.
Each tester lifts the lid up slightly, smells the air inside the glass and writes down a mark for the strength and quality of the smell. The final result is the mean value of all the marks. Obviously, this is something that cannot be rushed. “Depending on the intensity of the odours, the nose needs an hour or two’s rest after every six to ten jars, otherwise proper assessments are no longer possible.”
The assessment scale corresponds to the German school grades system, i.e. from one to six. A grade-one odour is ‘not noticeable’ (e.g. glass, metals, stones), three indicates an ‘obvious and distinctive, but not unpleasant smell’ and six is ‘unbearable’. Everything in the grade range from one to three passes the test. Materials that fare worse cannot be used in the vehicle. It’s then up to the supplier to make improvements. If the material passes a re-test, that test result becomes mandatory. “From that point forward, the material in question has to always smell the same. The supplier can no longer change the composition of the material or its manufacturing process,” explains Schempp.
Get in and feel at ease
In order to test the odour produced by the interaction of all the various materials, the experts quite literally stick their noses into the finished vehicle before it goes into series production. Four of them jump in, close the doors and have a good sniff. “By gauging the overall impression, we make sure that the various components do not create an unpleasant smell when mixed together. We also check that no one odour is too strong and therefore overpowering.” The only smell that people should be aware of in a Mercedes-Benz is that of leather. If any other odour is too strong, the ‘nose team’ have to find out where it is coming from. The material in question then has to be replaced.
The odour experts also carry out an olfactometric test. For this, the interior of the vehicle – with all its doors and windows closed – is warmed up by large heaters. Using a bag, the specialists take an odour sample of the ambient air. This bag is then attached to an olfactometer, a special device for measuring smells, and diluted with pure, odourless air before being smelt by a group of test subjects. As soon as they smell something, they have to press a button. During the test cycle, the air in the bag is diluted to an increasing extent. “Testing in this way gives us a measurement of when the smell inside the vehicle becomes noticeable and how strong it is perceived to be,” says Schempp.
The aim is to create a pleasant smell that is as neutral as possible. “We want our customers to be able to get in and feel immediately at ease.” There cannot be an odour-free interior. Just as there cannot be a standardised odour, because the interior fittings and therefore also the composition of the materials is different in every Mercedes-Benz model.
No perfume, no deodorant and definitely no garlic!
When the ‘nose team’ has a day of smelling ahead of them, certain sacrifices do have to be made. Strong-smelling foods such as garlic and onions are no-nos, as are perfumes, aftershaves, deodorants and scented shower gels. “These kinds of smells can distract the other team members and can also affect your own perception,” explains Schempp. Smokers automatically rule themselves out as odour testers because the smoke they inhale dulls the olfactory nerves.
Claudia Schempp carries out other ‘material tests’ privately and also engages in her passion at home, where she is the mother of a 14-year-old daughter: “Cooking is a big part of my life, and I love herbs and spices, especially all the different exotic spices.” Schempp never stops training her sense of smell. The goal is to be able to tell one scent from another and recognise it again – and to learn which ‘aromatic notes’ go particularly well together to make a delicious dish. It seems the way to her heart is through her nose rather than her stomach!
Interview with Claudia Schempp
Always follow your nose.
Claudia Schempp has made her talent her profession – a talent which even the most advanced piece of technology cannot replace. Her highly tuned sense of smell ensures that customers can fully enjoy the exclusive look and feel of a Mercedes-Benz.
Do women have a more sensitive nose?
There’s nothing to say that women should have a better sense of smell than men. But from my experience, women have a greater interest in scents and respond negatively to unpleasant smells more quickly than men.
Why is that?
Maybe it’s because women have always had more to do with preparing food. For example, women once had to use smell to establish whether something was safe for their children to eat. And women generally feel more comfortable when they have a pleasant smell around them. Which is why it tends to be women rather than men who use a scent.
Given your sensitive nose and your expertise, could you work as a perfumer?
Not straight away. I would have to completely retrain my nose to distinguish between the many hundreds of different scents and to recognise each one again.
Have there ever been times you have wanted to just turn off your nose and not
be able to smell any more?
Well, now and then maybe. But I really love to use my smell of smell, and having a sensitive nose is something that gives me a lot of pleasure. There are unpleasant smells, of course. But in my private life, I generally try to steer clear of these by holding my breath and escaping as fast as I can. If, say, my daughter is going crazy with deodorant and hairspray in the morning, I beat a hasty retreat from the bathroom. It all smells far too strong.
Do you sometimes take an instant dislike to people because of their smell?
That has definitely happened before. There are people whose overall body smell I find extremely unpleasant. It doesn’t matter how nice that person is, there’s nothing I can do. On the other hand, I can meet someone with no dress sense at all, but if they smell good, they’re okay with me.
What scents do you like the most?
I’m a big fan of woody scents, but also like things like cinnamon and vanilla. They remind me of my younger days, of the smell of baking. By the way, smells are much better at bringing back memories than pictures or sounds. That’s been scientifically proven. I also take great pleasure in smells that have a hint of leather, which conveys a sense of exclusivity in a very subtle way. The downside is that I can’t walk past an Italian shoe shop without going inside!
Do you have a particular scent in your car?
No. I drive an A-Class and I am perfectly happy with its rather neutral smell. So far, I haven’t thought about having a special fragrance. But what I would never do to my nose is have those tree-shaped air fresheners that you find in the shops. The smell is far too strong and overpowering.
Could an electronic measuring device ever replace the human nose?
No. I can’t imagine there ever being a device that could even come close to matching the quality and sensitivity of the human nose. Sure, for quality control purposes it’s a good idea to monitor whether odour standards are being complied with in products such as cosmetics, spices and food. But no electronic nose is capable of grading an odour or judging its quality from the signal it has detected. And that’s exactly where we come in.
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