Foam’s great versatility, as displayed to good effect at lnterzum, sees it grabbing a bigger share of the mattress market. Report by Liz White, UTI editor
Intricate constructions in complex intercut, multi layers and rainbow colours - that's what polyurethane foamers are offering mattress makers at present.
Flexible foam companies may be struggling with rising raw materials prices and slowing sales, but there is certainly no shortage of innovation and ingenuity in producing foam with added value, as demonstrated by exhibitors at lnterzum, the major furniture show held in Cologne, Germany, 25-27 May.
Foam mattresses have gained market share versus spring and latex types, according to data from Ward Dupont of Recticel, Europur president (Europur is the European association for manufacturers of flexible block foam).
"If we gain market share with PU it is based on the fact that design aspects with PU foam are much more flexible than for other types," said Dupont, speaking at the Europur meeting, held 9-10 June in Paris.
Dupont said polyurethane foam had a 55.8 % share of the European mattress market in the first half of 2010, versus 52.6 % in H1 2009 (see UTI June/July 2011 p6).
"With latex or spring types, there's nothing new you can do," Dupont commented: "People like foam because you can be creative and make anything you like - and they do."
Zones, balls and layers
At lnterzum, Massimo Baserga, owner of Italian latex and PU foam producer GommaGomma, made a similar point, based on his experience of both materials. Latex is a good, well established product, he said - but with "no new developments really. ... PU's attraction is that it is much easier to make new foam products."
"When latex is moulded, it's finished, but foam blocks "must be cut ... so it starts to be a complex product," Baserga said.
With foam, manufacturers are mass producing something that is turned into a speciality. And the increasing complexity of foam mattresses means that, while latex can be expensive, with PU the price 'depends on where you want to go," Baserga said.
GommaGomma was forced to decide in recent years: did it want to be a latex company, or "did we want to be in sleeping products? We decided we wanted to be in sleeping products… so we follow what the market wants," he said.
People want "something different, various colours, different density foam," Baserga said. "So you have to cut, shape, convert it, and then you have to have a lot of equipment to do 1is."
This puts a lot of focus on the cutting machinery, and foamers now have a much closer relationship with the machinery suppliers, Baserga agreed.
Discussing the role of cutting equipment in mattress making, Nina Patisson, new marketing manager for Albrecht Baumer KG, said it is, "the customer [the foamer] who dictates the direction," of technology. "We have ideas and talk to the customers to see what they find interesting," so new cutting technology is a mix of Baumer's suggestions and customers' wishes.
For example if "customers tell us they need foam balls in the foam," Baumer will supply the necessary equipment, she added.
Looking at the multi-coloured array of foam mattresses being shown at lnterzum, Patisson said that such designs are, "for comfort, and firmness, and good for the body, so you wake up in the morning thinking: 'Wow, that's comfortable'."
Designers use different foam zones for different parts of the body, because some parts need more support than others. Patisson added.
"We manufacture ... the equipment to make different profiles and layers," and this can be customised with patterns, brand names and logos, she said. "They tell us they need stripes or something with the logo in," and Baumer produces the means to do so, she said.
While the sophistication of mattresses adds to their consumer appeal, Recticel's Dupont also stressed that it makes them less recyclable.
Dupont said it was difficult for him to comment on whether complex designs offer specific technical advantages.
But all foamers and mattress makers "want to differentiate themselves in some way with a unique selling point… Everybody would like to have higher quality," said Marco Pelucchi, marketing director for Italian foamer Pelma.
This is what Pelucchi sees as driving demand presently for foam in "many layers, with cut outs and different densities other side."
First this is a marketing aspect, a fashion, "but, for example, different densities also "give you more comfort," he said.
Also, Pelucchi pointed out, "If you blend viscoelastic with foam of different density, then you can make a winter foam on one side and a summer foam on the other side.
A typical foam combination currently is an HR (high resilience) foam base, with a layer of viscoelastic foam on top, to give different levels of comfort, commented Otto Bock marketing expert Daniel Frohlich.
Regional preferences are also significant: foamers say that there is "a big difference from Germany to Austria to Poland in the answer to the question: 'What do you want from mattresses?" said Baumer's Patisson. "So in Germany they want to know everything that's in the foam, all the ingredients, all emissions and so on. In the Netherlands, that comes later," she said.
In this context, Pelucchi said, "My feeling," is that in the Italian domestic market the labelling for low emissions and material content "is not the most important aspect."
But he feels this is different for export: "We have a lot of customers that ask for labelling, in Germany the UK, northern Europe generally."
But while there is the perception that German consumers want to know about emissions, Frohlich saw this differently. His view is that, "Our customers in Germany are not focussed on these criteria: there are no price advantages for this." Otto Bock's formulations do, however, give low-emission, low-VOC foams, he stressed.
Cocooning effect over in bedding
"What we feel at the moment is a small decrease in consumption, following the cocooning effect observed during the heights of the economic crisis," said Jerzy Jazwierski, area manager with Austrian foam group Eurofoam GmbH.
Jazwierski explained that cocooning is what happens when people focus on home comforts, to make domestic life safe and cosy, in the face of what seems to be an unmanageable crisis in the outside world.
When people see great turmoil in things they cannot control, in the financial world, they look inwards and buy very basic comfort items — carpets, beds, furniture, he said.
Now the acute phase of the global crisis is past, things have changed. Jazwierski said, and people are perhaps buying cars instead.
"In fact at the moment in Austria if you try to buy a car you have to wait six months - but that doesn't mean people are buying beds and furniture instead," he said ruefully, in a 25 May conversation adding that, "What we are doing is trying to develop the export market to developing countries ... Global business is starting to pick up for us."
At Spanish foamer lnterplasp. Patricia Palao Castillo commented that the bedding market is healthy, despite Spain's financial woes, because, "your rest and health is important."
Foam company results for 2010 indicate how well sales are going. For Recticel Group, one of the biggest flexible foamers in Europe, sales of flexible foams in 2010 were €602.7 million, an increase of 5.6 % over 2009, as a result of higher volumes.
But profitability was down due to rising raw material costs, Recticel noted.
In bedding, sales rose by 5.8 % to €293 .3 million in 2010. But profit was down due to "difficult market conditions" in Poland, Germany and Switzerland.
Recticel said it expected to see overall sales increase in 201 1, but that rising raw material costs would still be a factor.
FoamPartner, the foam materials business unit of Swiss Conzzeta Group, increased its sales by 9.5 % to CHF 127.9 million ($161 million) in 2010, compared with 2009.
This sales rise came largely from "marked technical foams, said Conzzeta.
In comfort foams - in mattress and pillow cores - however, Foam Partner's 2010's sales were the same as in 2009. The strong Swiss franc hindered exports and "intensified the competitive struggle in the Swiss market," particularly for simpler products, Conzzeta said.
FoamPartner also referred to the fact that it had to absorb price rises for key raw materials.
Raw materials prices
At German foam group Otto Bock, business is OK, said Frohlich, also mentioning, "some problems with raw materials prices, but that's not new."
In a similarly philosophical fashion, Reilly of Kaymed said that rising raw materials prices are, "One of the difficulties everybody has."
Jazwierski of EuroFoam also commented on "significant increases in raw materials prices, with no chance to put this to the market," and described this as an on-going situation."
Jazwierski agreed that some flexible foamers are also using more MDI (methylene diphenyl diisocyanate). "In Germany, Eurofoam makes some foam using MDI while in Austria, for example, we use only TDI," he explained.
Cutting foam central
Design complexity in foam mattresses means that the cutting equipment to produce many layered constructions has become extremely important, as was evident at lnterzum.
While most foamers had stands upstairs in Hall 10.2, cutting machinery suppliers took centre stage with huge displays at ground level in one of the central halls.
Here Patisson of cutting equipment supplier Baumer reported that sales started well this year, especially in Asia, and specifically in India and China, for foaming lines.
The company also sold 12 of its loopers last year, she said, "some in China for automotive headliners etc."
And while business in the US may be slow, service and retrofitting is going well in North America - and in Europe, Patisson said.
Retrofitting has become important in the US," because now some of the machines are getting older and you can't get the spare parts for the controls," Patisson said (see also box p 24 on Sitola, which reconditions foam cutting machinery).
Pelma is using Oekotex certification at present, but not Europur's Certipur. Pelucchi said he has reservations about Certipur because it allows companies to self-select the samples that it sends for testing. This is a little like self-verification, he said, "Because no one comes to collect the sample from the production line and verify that it is an actual production sample ... as with Oekotex."
Pelucchi hopes the move to combine Certipur with the Oekotex label will "offer a better reputation for the foam labelling system, because this is needed."
At lnterplasp, Castillo said the company is a Europur member, and has Certipur and Oekotex certification. She feels the tie- in of the two certifications will "make life easier."
Interplasp's Major expansion in Spain
Spanish foamer lnterplasp, based in Murcia, has just spent € 12 million ($17.4 million) to expand its foam plant, doubling its size, with Spanish government aid, said the company's marketing expert Patrica Palao Castillo, at the lnterzum show, 26 May.
And since its capacity has doubled, she said, it now has to go out and sell the material. This means that international expansion is now a priority, and lnterplasp aims to double its current turnover of €15 million within three years, said Castillo, hence its presence, for the first time, at lnterzum.
She said that visitors were showing strong interest at the show. In exports, lnterplasp is setting its sights primarily on France, Germany, Belgium, Poland, Central Europe, as well as on Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.
Part of the recent investment was in a VPF (variable pressure foaming) line from Beamech in Manchester , UK, which the foamer says is one of only 12 such foaming machines worldwide.
VPF will enable lnterplasp to produce more durable and consistent high-performance PU foams, Traditional open foaming suffers from "temperature, pressure and humidity variability ... which directly affect fluctuations in density," the company said.
Tight control of the VPF process, which takes place in a 160-m long enclosed chamber, means these variables become constants. The resulting foam has higher quality and more consistent hardness and thickness, allowing lnterplasp to make a wider range of products and hence find new uses.
Production is totally computer controlled. With the VPF technology, lnterplasp aims to double both production and storage capacity over the next few years. VPF also eliminates emissions, as any VOCs produced remain in the tunnel, and are filtered through two active carbon filters.
lnterplasp, whose motto at lnterzum was "We speak foam," makes 5000 tonnes a year of flexible polyurethane foam in many different grades and densities, said Castillo.
It supplies some furniture foam for sofas, chairs and mattresses, but most of its production, maybe 80%, goes into mattresses.
lnterplasp supplies a third of its production as block foam and converts the rest into mattress blocks or foam for upholstery.
In future, all its foam will be made using VPF technology, said Castillo, agreeing that worker safety is important. Passing through the factory, "you used to be able to smell emissions from old foam line, but now, there is nothing, with the VPF equipment," she said.
lnterplasp has also spent €100,000 to install the first laboratory machine using semi-continuous VPF technology at the University of Murcia, in a project managed by the inventor, Brian Blackwell.
Castillo said that the company's production of viscoelastic foam is growing, because mattresses now mostly have a viscoelastic topper.
In new product s, Castillo said, lnterplasp is investigating an extremely lightweight 8kg/m3foam, which the firm claims is a suitable substitute for polyester fibre.
lnterplasp also says it was a pioneer in Spain in the product ion of non-flammable CMHR (combustion -modified high-resilience) foam grades.
The company will now be moving into polyester foam, to offer technical foams for filters and automotive headliners. For the latter, lnterplasp also has a Baumer looper to produce the very thin sheets needed for vehicle roof liners, lnterplasp makes these at the moment, but only in polyether foam. With polyester foam, lnterplasp feels it will be able to open up the market, said Castillo.
At its 30 ooo-m² site in Yecla, Murcia, lnterplasp's original installation, houses its first continuous foam line as well as a wide range of converting equipment to cut foam and equipment for mattress production .
New facilities include a building housing the new looper and a continuous block laminator, a 1000- tonne capacity tank room for raw material for the
VPF, a 2700-m² facility for the controlled-pressure VPF foaming machine, with laboratory and offices.
Family owned lnterplasp, which employs 60, also has an 8000 m² facility in Villa del Rio in Cordoba.
Busy for Baumer
Cutting and handling equipment manufacturer Albrecht Baumer GmbH always sees customers from all over the world at lnterzum and found this May's event busier than ever, according to Nina Patisson, the group's new marketing director, and part of the founding family.
"Normally the first day starts quiet but yesterday it was full speed from the word go," and the company had "really a lot of offers for plant. For us this is unusual," she added.
New products from Baumer at the show include a reinforced profiling/flipover machine with automatic unstacking, which it says can cut foam blocks into thicknesses of up to 300 mm deep, without support of the roll or compression of the material in a single operation.
The machine gives cost-effective cutting of multi-zone mattresses and toppers, says the company. Gentle feeding means less height variation, and Baumer says the flip-over function means sheets can be stacked with the profiled part on top.
For companies with automatic lines, this flipover feature allows sheets stacked on a palette to be fed automatically into a glueing or topping line.
"Control technology is what makes the sophisticated 3-D cutting possible, and makes it possible also to combine one machine with another," Patisson noted.
On Baumer's OHFS-H Twincut machine "we have one technology which is quite new,for the furniture industry." This is Quick Select software - for rapid unpacking of a foam block after cutting. (The 'Twincut' name signifies the machine's two cutting modes, by rotating knife or oscillating type- for technical foams - with a change-over of only a few minutes).
For the unpacking software, "if you manufacture a sofa, you have the back, the sides the seats, and you will cut all these parts off one foam block," Patisson said. "You have two customers, A & B, and they both want the same design sofas, and you want to cut the parts off the same block."
The programme finely optimises placing parts for A and B in the same block. "The plan for the person cutting and unpacking the block is colour coded, so green for A and black for B," for example, said Patisson."This really optimises foam use for the foamer," she stressed.
Customers vary in how they plan their cutting, Patisson said. Some will have "just-in-time" production, so for customers A and B, wanting the same sofa: "They do it as I just described. Others will make masses of cushions and backs and armrests and keep them in stock and make the sofa parts up as orders come in," she said.
"Our strong machine is the looper," for cutting huge foam blocks into thin sheets, Patisson said. Baumer has made these for a longtime, and has a good reputation for these giant cutters.
"Of course we are convinced our machines are good ones," Patisson said: "For us precision cutting is crucial."
Room for growth at Pelma
With two foam lines and 100 000 m² of space, Italian foamer Pelma has, "room for expansion." It is "not running at full capacity," said Marco Pelucchi, in a 10 June interview at the Europur meeting in Paris.
Pelma produces about 10 kilotonnes per annum of polyurethane foam in conventional, HR (high resilience) and viscoelastic types at its Bassano Bresciano plant, located between Milan and Verona in the north of Italy.
The company employs 56 people, and as well as a continuous foam line from Norwegian supplier Laader Berg, Pelucchi said Pelma was the first VPF (variable pressure foaming) user in Europe outside the developers - Recticel, and Beamech.
Pelma is one of the biggest Italian foamers, Pelucchi indicated, along with Olmo, Orsa and Vefer, for example.
Pelma's factory was finished in 2005, so it's "a very new plant," he noted.
Pelma's sales in 2010 were €21.216 million ($30.5 million), a 10-% rise over sales for 2009. Earnings (EBITDA) for 2010 were €3.482 million or 16.4 % of sales, with R&D spending at €278 000.
Using VPF means Pelma need not add blowing agents and the chambers of the system "can be considered as closed reactors," in which the pressure can be fixed and controlled, says Pelma's website. The company says VPF "gives the possibility of obtaining a wider range of products, creating new foams with better distribution of density and improved properties."
Discussing trends in foam, Pelucchi said "We are focused on quality and not on quantity."
Pelma converts foam into mattress cores to sell to mattress makers, supplying the Italian mattress market, and is focussed on viscoelastic foam and high quality foam, HR (high resilience) foam with density of 50-60 kg/m³.
Pelucchi said only s % of its production is exported; most is sold to Italian bedding companies. "We have a lot of cutting equipment, from Fecken-Kirfel," said Pelucchi, noting that it has a carousel with 40 cutting bands operating at once, so it can cut a great amount of foam at once.