Report by Liz White, UTI editor
The German and Italian polyurethanes sectors are the two largest in Europe, accounting together for 40 percent of Europe’s PU production, according to the FSK, the German association for foamed plastics and polyurethanes.
The FSK also has strong ties with Italian companies, and has both direct and indirect Italian members.
These two factors were behind the FSK’s decision to hold a meeting in Milan, with various factory visits part of the two-day programme, 14-15 March, said an FSK panel, during a 14 March press conference at Cannon Afros SpA’s Milan offices.
The two countries have a strong relationship in PU and good cooperation: Italy is a key trading partner for Germany, which took 13 percent of Italian exports in 2011, while 16 percent of German exports went to Italy, said Dr Albrecht Manderscheidt of Cannon, FSK chairman.
Of FSK’s 150 members, seven are Italian companies. About a quarter of FSK members are from outside Germany, the FSK managing director Dr Hans-W. Schloz said, and the association is keen to raise this figure.
Schloz gave figures showing that Germany has about 2060 PU processors, and forms about 30 percent of the European market.
In the Italian market there are up to 1000 processors, and the sector’s traditional strengths were in flexible foam for furniture and bedding, and in footwear and ski boots, added Luigi Olmo, managing director of flexible foam producer Olmo Guiseppe SpA. Olmo is also president of AIPEF, the Italian flexible foamers’ association, and vice president of Europur, the European association of flexible slabstock producers.
Italy remains an important upholstery and furniture producer, but in flexible foam where it used to be the major European producer, production has fallen and is now close to that of Germany. High labour costs are one factor in this decline, Olmo said, with lower-labour-cost Eastern European countries, including Poland, now producing a lot of foam.
AIPEF now has only eight members out of an Italian total of 14 foamers — three have closed down in the last year, Olmo pointed out.
Total PU use in Italy is now 420 ktpa, with flexible foam production at 110 ktpa, down from 140 ktpa ten years ago, Olmo said.
In upholstered uses especially, foam quantities are down, he added. Foam sales are only rising in mattress uses, and this is because Italy still has a high proportion of spring mattresses.
AIPEF is working on raising PU’s market share versus latex foam and spring mattresses, Olmo said.
Automotive production in Italy has dropped from 661 000 in 2009 to 485 000 units in 2011. And only one domestic producer is left.
Germany, in contrast, has raised production to 3 million vehicles — and many of these are top-end models using a high raw material content and a good proprtion of PU, Olmo said wryly.
Italy’s footwear sector also used to be much more important, but much shoe manufacture has now moved to China and further afield, to exploit low-cost labour — although the Italian raw materials business, for example Coim, still supplies materials to countries where shoe soles are now made, Olmo commented.
Looking at Italy’s part in the EU’s polyurethanes sector, Schloz gave the value of the total PU market for the EU as €18.5 billion, 28 percent of which is flexible foam, a figure matched by the construction and insulation segment.
Germany’s total PU sales in 2011 were €5.3 billion with Italy’s at €2.15 billion.
Schloz pointed out that a big difference within the figures is for technical uses, where the German sector has many speciality products, totalling 15 percent, with Italy’s PU specialities contribution at 7 percent. Dr Alexander Strietholt of Dow Chemical, who heads the FSK’s polyurethane division, noted that in uses such as appliances, as with flexible foam, some of the business has moved from Germany into Eastern Europe, to Hungary, for example.
But he added that the good news is that “the high tech areas stay in Germany.” Rigid foam use is likely to rise everywhere, including Italy, as regulations tighten, and energy saving comes to the fore. Energy costs and fuel costs are also surging, especially in Italy, where a lot of energy is used in air conditioning in the summer, so better insulation would cut costs here also.
Generally in the European economies, Germany is still booming, while Italy, Spain and Greece are suffering, with construction in Spain at a standstill and the new build sector is in real difficulty in Italy, said Olmo.
Discussing how raw materials price rises affect processors, Olmo said that, for slabstock flexible foam, some 70-75 percent of the cost of making it lies in raw materials costs. If these change, Olmo said, for example by 35c/kg, a 20-percent rise, then this means, “we must change prices, because there is very little flexibility.” Pricing developments are the next big problem, Olmo said. Italy is seeing diesel and petrol prices 20 percent above last year’s, the panel noted.
Olmo agreed that as prices for raw materials spiral upwards, users will cut their purchases, and “postpone stocking their storage tanks.” Looking at use of bio-polyols in foam, Olmo said “We are studying soya polyols,” but he feels that since the world burns 95 percent of oil – a valuable commodity – it is rather perverse to want the petrochemicals sector to substitute the 5 percent that is made into chemicals with bio-based materials, instead of altering the amount used as fuel.
He also noted that bio-polyols are not energy neutral. Their production requires fuel, and the cost of food will rise if agricultural land is used for chemical production, Olmo feels.
Strietholt of Dow Chemical Co.pointed out that all raw materials suppliers are investing in biomaterials.
“We have to be prepared for the day when oil runs out … so we must do both, cut oil/fuel use and assess natural sources of chemicals as well.”
A major foam plant
Olmo Guiseppe SpA started making polyurethane products 53 years ago, and now has four foam plants, three for polyether and one for polyester foam for technical uses, as well as plants making moulded foam for auto seating.
The Comun Nuovo, Bergamo site that the FSK group visited was set up in 1969, and has covered space of 70 000 m².
It has two lines, one with a Hennecke laydown machine, which is only three years old. Olmo’s other 20-year-old line is due to have its foaming set up replaced by a new one in the near future, he added. This older line is, according to Hennecke’s Stephan Wester, the biggest one he knows.
The older line makes 7.5 m/min, while the newer line can produce 6.0-6.5 m/min.
“We sell in a day more or less the amount we can make in a day,” Olmo said. Every day, the plant makes 1.6 km of foam, or 100 tonnes, adding up to 3500 m3 a day,
The two lines are run alternately, for up to five hours a day in total. The limiting factor for any foamer is always the amount of space available for storing the foam while the exothermic curing reaction takes place. Olmo can only make in a day what it has room to store to cool.
On site, it also has three loopers, and could do with more capacity for slitting. These loopers cut blocks of foam into thin continuous sheets, to roll up, for the automotive and other sectors to use in laminated applications.
Olmo makes foam in densities running from the highest — 110 kg/m3, to 80 kg/m3 for ski boots and shoe uses, down to 21 kg/m3 for technical uses. The latter includes foam used in processes such as flame lamination with textiles, for the automotive sector, shoe production and some furniture uses.
Depending on the thickness of the sheeting, a looper can take 10h to slit a block into 1-mm thick sheet, or 3 h to cut a foam block into 2-mm thick sheet.
The converters that Olmo serves want foam delivered every day, as they work on a ‘just-intime’ basis. They order in the morning for same day delivery, and Olmo’s bar code system allows it to find the right foam density and quality to deliver.
Olmo does some very basic cutting itself, into blocks for foam mattresses, but it steers clear of any other converting, in order not to compete with its customers, Luigi Olmo said, adding that it makes 120 different foam types, of different densities and hardnesses and fire resistance ratings.
As a rule, it is uneconomic to transport flexible foam further than 500 to 600 km. But Olmo said in Italy the distance foam moves is much less, as customers are usually within a very short range.
Technical foam products are transported further, usually in compressed form.
Trucks are constantly in and out of the plant, delivering raw materials and picking up foam, with a turnaround time of 30-35 minutes. A truck can take up to six blocks, compressed for transport, and Olmo has 35-40 truck loads a day going out of the plant, he said.
Olmo keeps a sizeable raw materials stock and a fair amount of foam in its three massive warehouses.
The amount of diisocyanate and polyols in stock at any time depends on the market price and availability. When prices are due to rise, it is normal for stocks to be bought in, said Dr Francesco Spotorno Olmo, quality control manager at the plant.
The three PU companies visited during the event, Coim, Cannon Afros and Olmo, may typify the best of the Italian PU sector. All are leaders in their respective fields, and represent separate aspects of the industry — Coim for raw materials supply, Cannon for processing equipment and Olmo as a flexible foam producer.
As Cannon’s managing director Marco Volpato put it, welcoming the group to Cannon’s headquarters, the company is focussed on being “innovative, independent and international.”
SPECIALITIES FROM COIM
Italian speciality chemicals producer Coim is celebrating 50 years of business this year, as is the FSK, said Dr Francesco Buzzella, managing director, pointing out the substantial size of the Coim operation worldwide.
Coim group had turnover of €670 million ($900 million) in 2011, with 800 employees worldwide.
Buzzella said Coim makes more than 1000 speciality chemicals, in five main business areas:
• Polyurethane raw materials;
• PU CASE specialities and ready-to-use PU systems;
• Composite specialities;
• Coatings specialities; and
• Glass-reinforced panels (GRP).
Coim has six production sites, including its headquarters site in Offanengo, Italy, where it has a 100 ktpa polyester polyol plant, as well as a new €5 million R&D centre.
It also has sites in Vinhedo, Brazil, in Singapore, at West Deptford and Paulsboro, New Jersey.
Buzzella revealed that a new systems house in Delhi, India, is due to start operating in July this year.
Each plant is forward integrated from the company’s core polyester technology. Coim sells these directly to the market as well as using them to make downstream value-added specialties/systems.
All the sites use the same technology platform.
As a result, “every plant can be considered a back-up of any other,” Buzzella said, in a 15 Mar presentation to the FSK group at Offanengo.
As well as aliphatic and aromatic polyester polyols and polyether polyols (PO based) for polyurethanes, Coim makes prepolymers for CASE (coatings, adhesives, sealants and elastomers), PU systems, thermoplastic PU, PU solutions for synthetic leathers; PU dispersions and hot-cast prepolymers.
Coim also has a range of adhesives and coatings for flexible packaging materials.
It offers PU systems for rigid foams, as well as prepolymers and polyols for microcellular PU systems.
“Coim sells on performance,” Buzzells commented.
By business area, the company’s sales breakdown is two thirds in CASE specialities and PU systems; a quarter in PU raw materials; and 10 percent in composite/coatings specialities and GRP.
By region in 2011, Coim’s sales were: Italy, 21%; EMEA 33%, Asia Pacific 21%; South America 14% and NAFTA 11%.
Uses for Coim’s materials cover: shoes/ski boots (25%); building/insulation (10%); industrial/wood coatings (5%); technical articles (20%); automotive (20%); and food and pharma packaging (20%).
Raw material Downstream Italy 135 ktpa* 150 ktpa US 60 ktpa 70 ktpa Singapore 50 ktpa 35 ktpa Brazil 25 ktpa 30 ktpa India 15 ktpa Total 270 ktpa 300 ktpa
“Everybody knows the big raw materials suppliers in the business ...[but] nobody knows the suppliers of release agents and pigment pastes,” such as Repi SpA, commented Michael Rath, managing director for the company’s polyurethane division.
“Sometimes this is a little disappointing,” Rath observed.
But colours are important to the PU sector: in 2011, Repi made 4000 tonnes of pigment pastes, an amount that can “colour 600 000 tonnes of systems.” Giorgio Rolla, commercial director, pointed out.
Repi, based in Lonnate Ceppino, close to Milan, has a US operation in Charlotte, North Carolina, and aims to be a leading supplier to the PU sector in the developed world, Rath said.
Last year Repi spent €1million on a new lab in Italy, and invested $6 million in a new US plant in Gastonia, North Carolina, with 3000 tonnes/year capacity, which will employ 15 people.
Repi has also recently set up a sales/service unit in Moscow, with 6 staff, and has offices in South America, South Africa, and Asia.
Sales by region are: Asia 11 %, Americas 15 %, Italy 21 %; rest of EMEA 53 %, with sales to Germany a large portion of that, and Russia forming a growing segment. Rolla said Repi expects growth of greater than 12 % annually, from a sales level in 2012 of €28 million.
In Italy, the group can make up to 5000 tpa and it keeps some 20 000 samples for colour matching, in a coded automated storage bank.
Its PU business forms 80 % of its sales, and with a third each going into slabstock, automotive, and footwear/elastomers, Rolla said.
The company must be able to replicate all its customers’ processes, to evaluate how its colours will work in a specific product. For example, its lab can make PU ski boots, to test colours in this fashion driven outlet, Rath said.
Repi uses an advanced system of programming/management to give maximum dosage precision In urethanes, especially in Italy, footwear was one of the highest growth, most popular sectors a few years ago. Now elastomer uses are high on the agenda for colours, Rolla said. Repi has 35 different shades of black, handled in a separate section to avoid contamination. And it has 2000 different colour shades.
Repi blends colours in an automated colour kitchen. A pigment paste can contain up to 48 ingredients, with a precision of 1g each. Batch sizes can range from 5kg up to 1000 l, and in 2011, Repi made 3000 batches, with a rework rate of only 4 percent, Rolla commented.
The next stage for Repi is to work with nano-scale ingredients, said Rolla.
CANNON CAN HELP
At Cannon’s site in Pertusella, two customers described projects where equipment expertise from Cannon enabled them to successfully manufacture novel products.
One of these is a composite manhole cover — a good solution to a current problem in Italy and further afield: high scrap metal prices have led to the stealing of the original cast-iron manhole covers, causing all sorts of hazards, especially for pedestrians on dark nights.
Industri Polieco MPB Srl of Cazzago San Martino, Brescia, has developed lightweight composite covers, with the help of equipment developed by Cannon, said Polieco’s technical manager Marco Battisti.
As well as theft protection, the composite materials reduce noise issues, and the production process uses less energy, Battista said.
The weight is 70 percent less than that of cast-iron types, and the material is also an electrical insulator which prevents pedestrians from getting accidental electrical shocks.
Ceramic building product specialist System Group of Modena started a project a decade ago to develop very specialised building components – huge ceramic tiles for facades, walls, floors, which are both lighter than the previous materials and less fragile, said Andrea Gozzi, director of the company’s Lamina group, which now produces these tiles.
Gozzi drew comparisons between System Group and Cannon Afros, saying “the main point in common with Cannon is innovation – it is a very strong driver.
“To invent something new is our mission,” Gozzi commented.
Gozzi described how Cannon helped develop a route to produce monolithic ‘porcelain gres’ panels 3.6 x 1.2 m and 3-mm thick, backed for strength with a 0.5-mm layer of glass fibre. This glass-fibre layer is glued in place with a PU adhesive.
This construction replaces 10-mm thick ceramic panels, and gives strong lightweight but less breakable panels.
This year, the FSK is celebrating its 50th anniversary at the same time as the sector celebrates Otto Bayer’s discovery of PU 75 years ago.
Schloz feels an important goal for the industry and for PU associations in Europe is to boost networking and work more closely together. The FSK wants to enhance its networking activities with customer industries, aiming for close dialogue with them.
Another focus for the FSK is on political work, especially on energy and environmental matters, and promotion of young professionals.
These aspects will be the association’s focus for its anniversary event in autumn 2012, “focusing on the past as well as the future 50 years of association work and on 75 years of polyurethane,” Schloz said.