By Liz White
After a difficult year in 2009, when production of foam plastics and polyurethanes in Europe fell by up to 30 percent in some areas, the FSK, Germany’s association for foamed plastics and polyurethane, says it expects significantly better results in 2010.
But, at the same time, the association warns that rising prices for raw materials and energy cause concern, and “clearly threatens the tentative economic upturn.” “We expect 2010 to see a sales volume of the industry of around €18 600 million ($11 151 million), and a level of around 1.7 million tonnes of processed plastics and polyurethane foam in Germany,” predicted the association’s managing director Dr Hans-W. Schloz, at the FSK annual meeting in Stade, Germany, 8-9 Sept this year. This is a 13-percent volume rise from the 1.5 million tonnes of foamed plastics produced in 2009.
According to the FSK, in 2009 Germany processed about 30 percent of the Western European market total for foams made of polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene — both expanded and crosslinked types (EPS and XPS) — melamine resin foam, polyvinyl chloride foam, rubber foam, and polyurethane.
Total revenue in the German plastics foam sector for the year 2009 was about €7000 million, and the 1.5 million tonnes was, “well below previous year’s levels,” the FSK noted.
Polyurethane forms some 45 percent of the 1.5 million tonnes of foamed plastics made in Germany in 2009, with EPS forming 28 percent and XPS 5 percent, FSK data showed.
Separately, Schloz noted that Europe’s PU foam production was down by about 20 percent in 2009, at 2.7 million tonnes, while Germany’s polyurethane production fell by about 26 percent, to 700 kilotonnes.
Polyurethane represents by weight one of the most widely processed foam materials, FSK data indicate. Not only is PU foam used in car seats or car parts and insulating materials, but it is also made into tough rigid foam parts for construction, and into paints, coatings and adhesives as well as semi-rigid components.
Discussing whether the crisis hurt everyone equally, Schloz said the greatest decrease was seen in the automotive sector and the least in some consumer areas. Pricing pressure in the automotive sector also meant that substitution by less expensive materials was a distinct trend, he added. This can be seen in the FSK’s breakdown of Europe’s total PU usage, where the automotive share shrank from 18 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2009.
Currently, many sectors, including construction, the automotive sector and the many technical specialities in industrial applications are supporting growth.
For foam plastics and polyurethanes in Germany (without polystyrene foams), construction formed about 29 percent of total use of 780 kt in 2009.
For PU alone, usage in Europe breaks down slightly differently, with building/insulation uses forming a smaller segment at 25 percent, furniture and mattresses higher at 27 percent, and automotive at 15 percent.
In the building sector, 2010 is expected to be a good year in Germany, “not so much in private housing, but in the public sector, for schools and sports halls,” where investment may mean increased uptake of PU insulation for heat insulation, acoustic isolation and of PU coatings, said Schloz.
Industrial construction can go up and down very rapidly, he said, but renovation of housing, where a lot of PU insulation is used, is growing.
Insulation saves energy, cuts emissions
Schloz noted that polyurethanes and foamed plastics insulation are valuable in energy conservation, CO2 reduction, and in cutting weight, aspects Herman Motmans, global business director for energy efficiency with Dow Formulated Systems, discussed in detail in a later presentation.
Upholstered furniture production has been stable in most European countries and the mattress sector has seen a slight decrease, said Schloz, noting that the share of technical applications for PU is very difficult to estimate because they are so diverse. Medical uses are growing, as are sports uses, he added.
At the FSK’s members’ meeting on 8 Sept, a round robin among the delegates produced a consensus that, after a decrease in production/ sales of 10-30 percent in 2009, companies are seeing 10-30 percent rises this year, Schloz said. It seems possible that the foam sector in Germany may recover to 2008’s levels of production in 2010, he added.
Nevertheless, rising commodity and energy prices are causing concern, the FSK warns. After a downwards plunge for PU prices in mid-2009, these are surging up again: higher costs for both energy and raw materials purchasing and production could limit recovery, the FSK said.
As the association points out, in the “boom years” of 2007 and early 2008, strong sales at high prices — but with low profit or even small losses — were a decisive factor. It was this situation that forced many suppliers, especially in the automotive sector, to their knees and into bankruptcy immediately the economic downturn struck, cautioned Schloz.
Some member companies of the FSK and the foam industry have fallen victim to this trend, the FSK commented.
Capital needs are also very important, with lack of credit availability and high interest rates forming hurdles for manufacturing enterprises, said Schloz. Companies are not able to get credit when they need it, making capital expenditure difficult.
These difficulties add to those caused by “commodity price speculation and the increasing cost of energy,” and by current tax burdens, and put a lot of pressure on prices and on competitiveness, the FSK concluded.
Protective lightweight shoe gains prize
The Uvex motion carbon work shoe, which also won an innovation award, was made using an intermediate layer of Bayflex lightweight foam from Bayer MaterialScience, as described by Joachim Flemming of Uvex Arbeitsschutz GmbH.
The shoe has a seamless construction, with no pressure points, so it is comfortable. It also has good climate control and is light with good damping.
Flemming noted that light weight and damping are especially important, since in any sort of protective work wear, the protection only works if the person uses the products. Light shoes are much more likely to be used as they cause less fatigue.
The intermediate layer is invisible but important for comfort, noted Flemming, who won the award with Henrik Oelschläger of Baysystems GmbH.
Damping is also a big advantage, since energy can be better absorbed, preventing injury and fatigue.
The goal was to make the shoe as lightweight as possible.
In the western European market, the usual route is to make these parts out of water-blown foams, said Flemming.
But this can make for poor elastomeric properties. For more CO2, but without more water, Uvex and BMS developed technology to add CO2 gas to the foams. The result is the density reduction shown:
• Previous intermediate foams 420 g/l
• Reduced weight initially 350-380 g/l
• Reduced by Uvex 280 g/l
Sustainability is also better, said Flemming, because less material is needed, and CO2 is environmentally acceptable as a blowing agent.
Another advantage is that it has low viscosity, so material flowability is good.
Flemming said Uvex wants to make the soles even lighter with the ultimate aim of a material to push traditionally used EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) and PVC (polyvinyl chloride) out of this market. Also, he said, the soles can be used in new markets: trekking shoes for example.
Simple tapes used in solar panels
Solar power is a renewable energy source which is developing rapidly across the world, and the humble foam-backed tape still has uses in such a technologically advanced field, as described by Ralf Heiligtag, managing director of Vito Irmen GmbH &Co. KG of Remagen, Germany. His company’s foam-backed adhesive tapes are used in mounting and cushioning both photovoltaic and solar heating modules.
Heiligtag pointed out that the automotive industry has used adhesives for a long time to replace bolts and rivets, welding or soldering, with engineering adhesives also now being used in the aircraft and aerospace sectors.
Adhesives and tapes are also being exploited in the production of photovoltaic modules and solar thermal collectors, where high productivity and safe manufacturing are a priority, Heiligtag pointed out.
This application sets a high performance challenge and Heiligtag said the tape industry has responded with innovation in bonding technology to meet demands of self-adhesive technology in solar module manufacturing.
Solar modules suffer intense weathering by sunlight, rain and hail, snow and ice. Despite this, manufacturers must guarantee 20 to 25 years lifetime. Panels and parts are subject to accelerated ageing tests, including: damp-heat test; temperature cycling; humidity freeze; UV exposure test; insulation test; wet leakage current and mechanical load test.
Adhesive tapes for solar modules must have excellent weather and age-resistance and must also withstand high physical loads, and be compatible with sealants, Heiligtag said.
Vito Irmen can supply tape in various forms: as a roll for manual processing, as a cross-coil (like a multi-layer wound bobbin) and as cut or ready-to-install contoured stamped parts.
When mounting and sealing the cover slips to solar thermal collectors, Heiligtag said it is important to position the glass precisely and also to create a defined gap. This gap is then filled with a paste-like two-component structural adhesive based on silicone. To make the gap, manufacturers use a high-performance tape with an extremely pressure-resistant highdensity polyurethane foam.
Heiligtag pointed out that such tape has given good performance in the construction of all-glass facades in structural glazing processes for many years — and therefore has the appropriate building permits. The good adhesion of the acrylate adhesives allow for uninterrupted processing: modules and panels have to be transported immediately after bonding and sealing, which speeds up the process considerably. The excellent temperature resistance of the adhesive tape systems also contributes to the longevity of the solar collectors, Heiligtag concluded.
Setting the pace of development
BASF Polyurethanes takes innovation seriously: Fritz Steinmann, innovation manager, stressed that it is a “front-runner in setting the pace of development.” Steinmann said that innovation requires harmonisation of PU formulations, equipment and processes, with parts tailored to end users’ needs.
As a result, companies cannot easily push innovations single-handedly, but must cooperate with other groups — PU processors, teaching institutions, machinery and raw material suppliers.
Within BASF, an open process exploits three routes to innovation: from the bottom up, via employees, from the top down, and externally.
In this process, Steinmann said, BASF collects a huge number of ideas: “some crazy ones which have to be filtered out.” Some can be turned into products rapidly, others take a longer time, he said.
Steinmann said in evaluating the suggestions, his team sets up round-table discussions where flexible foam workers can mix ideas with those from rigid foam, develop synergies and evaluate the possibilities. Then a decision on further work can be made. Systematic evaluation of the ideas should cover what is available already, innovation worthiness, an evaluation of technical realisation, relevant regulatory factors and market attractiveness.
A couple of other considerations are, “Is it cost-effective,” and “Is it a strategic fit?” said the BASF innovations chief.
BASF’s design-engineering group can develop customised prototypes for customers, which can catalyse the creative process: “So, if the customer has an idea, they can look in more detail at, for example, ergonomics, Steinmann commented.
‘The Mercedes of PU foams’
In a breakthrough that has taken almost a decade of persistent development, Otto Bock Schaumstoffwerke GmbH has produced what it describes as, “the Mercedes of PU foams.” It has met German auto-maker Daimler’s strict DBL 5450 specification for automotive polyether foams with its new formulations for making foam/fibre laminates by flame lamination, said Dr Stephan Jauer, of the firm’s production and development group.
Daimler likes headliner and other automotive foams to be based on ether foam because of its good hydrolysis resistance, Jauer explained. But about 80 percent of headliners are made by flame lamination, a process not best suited to conventional ether foams, he said. Jauer also pointed out that cars need flame-resistant foam, and ether foams can only fulfil this demand with flame retardants added.
Foam-backed laminates used for the headliners in interior car roofs cover up ‘lumpy’ irregular surfaces with improved contours, as well as providing a soft feel and offering protection against minor head injury injuries. Such laminates are also used for door panel and seat coverings, Jauer said.
Flame lamination — where a flame melts the foam lightly allowing it to bond to the fibre under pressure — is an automated process. It is “fast easy technology,” has good economics and has been around a long time, Jauer commented.
Adhesive laminating uses two layers of liquid adhesives on rollers, which pass over the foam. The process is carried out at lower temperatures and has lower emissions than flame lamination. It is also more expensive, and has the disadvantage is that if too much adhesive is added, it can harden the foam, Jauer pointed out.
Most headliner manufacturers – 80 percent – use flame lamination, said Jauer, and as a result ester foams are generally chosen for laminates, for example by German car companies Audi and BMW.
To try to meet Daimler’s demands, Otto Bock started development of flame-lamination formulations using polyether foam in 2000, going through many stages.
Then in 2009, Otto Bock came up with a medium-density foam which used new polyols and additives, and was very stable to hydrolysis, with a good burn rate, said Jauer.
This foam had the right density, fine cell structure, and very low emissions —”much below Daimler’s limits,” he added. In May this foam gained authorisation from Daimler, Jauer said.
Currently Otto Bock has completed a new dosing line for these formulations and some of this 4548 DFK-L foam has been received by the first customers. The company now aims to develop this further into a whole family of foams, with densities from 35-50 kg/m³, Jauer said.