When Europur and Euro-Moulders members came together in Berlin in June there four dominant concerns emerged, for flexible foam companies writes James Snodgrass
Ukraine, sustainability, broken supply chains and rising prices dominated this year’s annual Europur conference held by the European association for the flexible foam industry, in Berlin in June.
Newly re-elected president of the Europur board Bart ten Brink opened with a salute to Ukranian Europur and Euro-Moulders members, many of whom were attending virtually from Kyiv, with a call for solidarity with the people of Ukraine bringing applause from the conference hall.
He spoke of the benefits of digitalisation in making the industry more efficient and of the need to become more sustainable through increased use of recyclates and bio-materials, and offered a warning: ‘Polyurethane faces the possibility of being delisted… despite all its incredible properties,’ he said. ‘I’m personally convinced that our industry has a bright future. But we must therefore ride the waves of change.’
Three chaotic years Clint Raine, from Belvedere and Partner, previewed his analysis of the European flexible PU foam market, due for publication in August. Despite the general gloom, he noted there was some growth in 2021, mainly in the UK, Poland and Spain, and largely driven by bed-in-a-box.
He noted the increasing use of springs in furniture manufacturing because of the increasing cost of foam, and this point was also brought up in a controversial presentation by Home Group MD, Lorraine McMahon, see p10).
‘There are many questions we need to consider,’ Raine said. ‘When will feedstock prices finally stabilise? When will the automotive supply chain issues stabilise? Will it be Q4 2022 or later? Which forecasts will be nearest reality? Will inflation be 10% or higher, and for how long? Sorry to be Mr Doom-and-Gloom,’ said Raine, ‘but that’s where we are now. For the foreseeable future, just in time is a dream.’
The multitude of major events in the past few years have been challenging for the industry.
‘A lot has happened in the most chaotic three years of your career,’ said James Elliott, business development manager of analysts Argus Media, in his presentation on volatility in energy and petrochemical markets.
Since the conference at Lisbon in 2019, price volatility has been on an unprecedented scale, and a dig through the figures was sobering: during this period, crude oil hit a low of $10/barrel (April 2020) and a high of $141 (March 2022); natural gas was €4/MWh in June 2020 and €175 in March 2022 ($4, $190); naphtha was $103/tonne in April 2020, $1,173 in March 2022 and ethylene was €620/tonne in May 2020, €1,665 in April 2022 ($682, $1,839).
‘Rahul Gautam, chairman and MD of Sheila Foam, believes the Indian industry is in a good place for growth. ‘[At my first] conference in Europe 13 years ago, I said the Indian industry was underdeveloped. Everything seems to be aligning. The time for India is there. There is an opportunity for the EU and India to get together and make magic in these challenging times,’ said Rahul Gautam, chair and MD of Sheila Foam.
Explaining the peculiarities of the Indian foam market, Gautam said fillers are extensively used for nucleating the reaction, and also for cost-cutting. Local raw materials manufacturers produce about 40kT/year flexible foam, but India lacks a large domestic polyol facility. ‘Somebody, someday, has to come up and develop that,’ Gautam said.
In his view, India is lagging Europe on sustainability and recyclability, but he said the Indian Polyurethane Association is two steps ahead of India as nation and is already talking about sustainability, carbon credits and carbon footprint.
‘We all know how versatile PU is,’ said Gautam, ‘but its goodness has not disseminated to everyone. We need to work a little more on that’. He also explained India’s legacy challenge: ‘In India mattresses have traditionally been cotton or rubberised coir. Some 65-70% of the country still sleeps on old fashioned mattresses.’
The Indian market is hard for importers to crack because India doesn’t share Europe’s standard mattress sizes because, traditionally, people made their own beds according to the size of their bedrooms.
Presenting on the EU’s product policy for purniture, Frederick Lauwaert, MD, the (European Bedding Industries Association (EBIA), explained the evolution of this policy, starting with 2015’s Circular Economy Action Plan.
‘The Eco Design Directive was originally intended for consumer electronics products ‘but the focus started to move to all consumer products,’ he said.
The European Commission (EC) realised the furniture industry had a negative impact on the overall environmental score of products. The industry used low quality materials, poor design and, at end of life-span, most of its products went to landfill or incinerators.
This pushed the EC to propose its Ecodesign Sustainability Products Regulation (ESPR). While ESPR’s objectives – reducing negative lifecycle environmental impact, increasing reusability and reparability, and reducing the presence of substances of concern – will be tough to implement, Lauwaert noted that Article 18 of the Regulation gives the industry scope for self-regulation. ‘It is sometimes better to do this than leave it in the hands of an administration that don’t really know about production processes,’ he said.
Designing to PU’s strengths
Marco Pelucchi, president of AIPEF (Italian Flexible PU Foam Producers Association) offered respite from the prevailing doom, highlighting imaginative products made from flexible foam. His Association’s initiative, Poliuretanoe, presents PU as a ‘trendy and increasingly widely used material’ to the public on its YouTube and social media channels.
To demonstrate PU’s enormous design potential, Pelucchi handed over to a pre-recorded video address from architect Riccardo Giovanetti, who gave examples of exciting design trends in PU. These include Marshmallow, a stool with a seat of exposed PU from German designer Paul Ketz that has featured in a photoshoot with Victoria and David Beckham; Charlotte Kidger, a UK artist who uses CNC milling to make multicoloured pieces of furniture from PU waste; US-based Snarkitecture, who use PU foam blocks to make mirrors and coffee tables; a modular sofa with myriad configurations from British designer Ron Arad; and Inside My Terra, a 3D playground using protruding PU shapes to play with light and shadow, from Italy’s RGDS.
Chain Waibel, public affairs manager for Plastic Recyclers Europe offered insight into the legal definitions of recycling and recycled content, particularly as they apply to the review of the EC’s End-of-life Legislation for Vehicles (ELV).
The report was expected by Q4 2020 but was delayed, and then delayed again by the pandemic. The commission is now working towards Q1 2023 for the review. But why does the directive need revision? Waibel pointed to the increasing market share of lightweight and electric vehicles compared to when the legislation was first proposed.
But it is chemical recycling, Waibel argued, that will be the real game-changer. ‘It is the technology that might in the future help us meet recycling targets for vehicles, he said. ‘But today’s ELV assessments are still based on the idea that PU is not recyclable.’
Philippe Aumont, general editor of automotive newsletter DVN-Interior, discussed how EVs are changing the way we think of car interiors, giving the example of the Geely Icon SUV concept. ‘The living space is becoming the new area of differentiation for EVs. Old metrics like acceleration and top speed are no longer so important,’ he said.
Virus-free environments have become a feature for exploration in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But, in Aumont’s view, the big change in interiors is that material and lighting are becoming one integrated system,’ he said. ‘You cannot separate material and lighting. The way we perceive materials depends upon the light. There’s no second chance to make a first impression.’
But this integration, and the increasing use of composite materials, brings new challenges to recyclability for the entire industry. ‘There are two divergent directions between [increased] recyclability and having a touch surface [with embedded electronics] everywhere. Composites are not making recycling easier. The trend should be to make it as easy as possible to disassemble. The future is not always one way.’
Continuing the interiors theme, Adient executive Michel Berthelin, VP, EMEA, looked to advances in sustainable automotive seating design as one potential contributor to the sustainability puzzle.
Berthelin said: ‘Sustainability has to be authentic. It can’t be greenwashing. Customers are very choosy about the ultimate outcome and they require full transparency about where the materials come from and traceability.
‘The vast majority of the total embodied CO₂ in vehicle seats comes from the materials not the production, 95%.’
One novel idea to remove weight from vehicles is to integrate the sound system into the seating, bringing the speakers closer to the occupants’ ears. And this has an additional benefit of energy saving because speakers that are closer to the ears require less power.
Despite the challenges ahead, Berthelin predicts a future for PU foam in automotive seating: ‘You’re not going to spend three or four hours sitting in a car that doesn’t have foam, I might be wrong.’
The first day’s keynote presentation came from Yochai Gafni, commercial director, Europe, at Dow Polyurethanes, the sponsors of the conference. Gafni, a former Israeli Air Force pilot, warned of dangerous times ahead. ‘We are facing four additional waves coming at us, and they are much larger waves than coronavirus,’ he said. ‘We live in a VUCA world, a world with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.’
Challenges for the industry include climate change and the adoption of digital asset management for greater efficiency, and an imminent wave of retirements means the chemical industry must address the talent gap. ‘The market is tight, so we might have to recruit below our usual threshold.’
Networking and currywurst
Dow also sponsored the evening biergarten BBQ at Fischerhuette am Schlachtensee, where beer, wine, bar sports and a boating lake aided conversation as colleagues and competitors, suppliers and customers, reunited after the three-year pandemic hiatus.
While the first day comprised of big hall presentations, the second day was split into breakout sessions across three different rooms, with themed sessions on chemicals, machinery, health and safety, adhesives and sustainability.
The conference concluded with an address from Eric Van Lancker, president of Euro-Moulders, who thanked all participants of the 2022 conference and announced that next year’s conference will be held in Budapest on 14-15 June, sponsored by Mol Group.