About two years ago, Meia, a Chinese foamer, bought a LaaderBerg machine for its plant in Beijing, but there is more to the company than that. Jane Ho and Simon Robinson spoke with Zhishan Huang, Meia’s chairman, on the fringes of PU China 2018.
Meia has been operating in the Chinese flexible foam market for about 20 years. During this time, the company has learned that investing in the supply chain to a greater degree than many western foamers would consider normal can pay dividends. And it is not going to stop now, as it needs to keep delivering high-quality products to its customers in a number of sectors.
‘We have 20 years of history in Northern China and, because the Chinese market demand has been rising, there has been demand for better quality products, so we purchased a LaaderBerg machine,’ said Zhishan Huang, Meia chairman.
His company has operated with a number of locally produced foaming machines, but decided to make the move to a western-produced machine because of its good quality, its production stability, and its easy operation, Huang added.
Go West for machinery
Meia took the decision after a period of research. A few years ago, the company was smaller and so was demand, Huang said.
‘We spent two years researching the machinery market and finally chose LaaderBerg. LaaderBerg was better for our product portfolio,’ he said. The company settled on a MultiMax machine. ‘We have been using it for a year. It has been stable and has helped to improve our production.’
Meia started production 20 years ago after a conversation between Huang and a relative in Guangdong, who is a senior manager at a Hong Kong-based foamer.
‘He talked me into it. He said it is a good sector and has great prospects,’ Huang explained.
Beijing-based Meia started making box-foam, and supplied it to local furniture manufacturers. This went on for five years, and in 2003 the company started making long-block foam.
Now the self-formulator processes between 6-7 kT/year. The factory employs 130 staff, and covers an area of more than 70,000 m2, including offices, block store, foaming and cutting areas.
Cutting on through
The move to western foaming machinery could soon be matched by a move to western cutting machines. Huang said he had visited both Albrecht Baumer and Fecken-Kirfel’s factories to assess their product offering. He was touring PU China with the aim of visiting cutting machinery companies.
Meia is committed to providing high quality foam to customers that make more expensive furniture.
‘I am trying to be the best, not the largest,’ said Huang. ‘We are not tweaking the products to get a better price. We do that through negotiation with our clients'. He added: 'We have such a great team with Laaderberg and also great clients who support us.
‘Our clients want the best quality products, and can deal with a realistic price. We are also becoming more efficient with better machinery, materials and management, to provide the best products at the best prices.’
Huang said that in China, the demand for mattresses is growing faster than for furniture, so it has been moving production in that direction. He also said that Meia is in talks with Sealy for production within China. Separately, the company has set up a unit making bed-in-a-box products, and hopes to sell products into Europe.
That might seem a stretch to those in the west, but Huang is bullish. ‘We are still competitive, given China’s supply chain advantages,’ he claimed.
Away from flexible foam, Meia has been investing in raw materials, and in other polyurethane product groups.
Shoes and shoe-soling products are an important part of the company’s diversification strategy.
‘We are planning two new plants,’ he said. ‘The factory in Fujian is scheduled to open at the end of the year, making footwear products. The factory in Hubei is scheduled to open in the third quarter of 2019, and will make microcellular foam for shoe soles. Typically, densities will be between 80 and 200 kg/m3.’
Looking upstream, Meia had such problems with domestic supplies of polymeric polyols that it started making its own, and now has capacity for 80 kT/year with a further 160 kT/year scheduled to be on stream in 2019, Huang added.
All about quality
‘When we started the PPO business, we were looking for something different from the Chinese market. Local producers were not able to offer consistent quality and clients had to look overseas,’ said Huang.
He continued that the new plant will be located next to the shoe factory in Fujian, and will supply it through the fence.
The polyols are based on polyethers, and the company buys on the external market. A second phase will see the company purchase EO and PO on the open market. ‘Start from the source,’ said Huang.
A local petroleum company and the local government are helping to build the integrated plant in Fujian.
He started this because a few years ago VOC, odour and hardness distribution were difficult to control with third party materials. By making his own, he gains that control. Raw material quality is improving.
Meia factories will use 100% of production from the polymeric polyol site. ‘It is quite a different market [from flexible foam], but we need to have good quality raw materials,’ he added.
The company is funding the investment out of reserves, and with help from the local authority.