Pavneed Mumick, Huntsman’s global VP of technology & innovation for polyurethanes, said that demand for flexible foam in the US is developing towards low VOC, low odour, curing non smell catalysts and non halogenated flame retardant s, for both automotive and flexible applications.
He explained that automotive cushions are becoming more complex. ‘We are seeing layered structures,’ he said. ‘These can be made in one mould, with the top part soft and increasing hardness as you go deeper into the cushion for support. Several OEMs in China and Japan are starting to move in this direction. The furniture manufacturers are starting to become interested.’
He believes the furniture makers are being driven by the chance to reduce manufacturing costs. ‘You don’t have to make layered structures, that is expensive,’ he added. It is cheaper if you can make it in the same mould in one process.
Returning to conventional furniture foam manufacture, Dow’s Robinson said: ‘In Latin America, 100% of the furniture industry is back integrated into foam. The foamers are the brands. They are really worried about emissions and odour. In Europe, you have a split between integrated and non integrated furniture producers. In North America, if you ignore Carpenter, then there is zero integration between the furniture manufacturers and the foamers. The brand owners worry about VOCs. The foam makers are getting questions, certainly, but the pressure on VOCs has been from the brand.’
Robinson was also keen to explain his company’s technology for flexible foam. Aquachill has a cooling feature, he said, but also removes a lot of environmentally unsafe solvents, and odours that come along with some of these applications.
‘The brand owners are clear,’ Huntsman’s Buberl said. ‘Their position is, 'This is the spec, make to it'.’ He added that the changing shape of the value chain makes it easier for mattress makers, and even raw materials suppliers, to understand what consumers want. ‘You get a much quicker, much less filtered feed back loop,’ he said. ‘This will accelerate the adjustment to the needs of the customers. Nowadays, a bed in a box goes to the end user who tweets about products. You have to be able to react.’
Keep it toasty
Away from comfort, construction applications based around rigid foams have always been important for the polyurethane industry. Dow’s Robinson explained that in the US, when considering insulation, size – in terms of insulation thickness – increasingly matters.
‘The construction industry go es for R value/inch and thinner wall structures, because they are generally cheaper,’ he said. ‘Spray foam is growing quickly around the world because polyurethane has the best insulation values when compared to other materials at the same thickness.
‘Spray foam can have significantly better insulation properties than board, if it is applied correctly. The construction industry likes spray foam because it’s easily applied, and it conforms to the shape of the structure it is being applied to.’
Mumick said the Demilec spray foam business that Huntsman purchased in 2018 is growing, and its HFO blown foams are doing well. ‘We get an R value of 7.5/inch, so by the time you have six inches of spray foam, the R value is around 49,’ he said. ‘If you don’t use HF O, then the R value is typically between 5.7 and 6. This means more coats to achieve the same insulation, and it needs more highly skilled operators.’
While the R value is important, there is still a demand for lower density spray foam to compete with les s expensive materials such as EPS. As Huntsman’s Buberl explained, if the density is lower, then the price falls. ‘With a lower price you can penetrate markets and compete with EPS,’ he said. ‘I think the technology is changing in emerging markets. You can get into the market, upgrade the technology, and introduce metal panels. From there, you can use it as a stepping stone to a different metal panel concept. We are in that market in South America: in Argentina, it is big. Brazil is big, and we are going in to Chile.’
As we saw with China in our October/ November issue, the cold chain market is growing there, but it is also growing in the US. And this means opportunities for polyurethane in the next few years, said Robinson. ‘There is an interesting dynamic in the US,’ he said. ‘It is the Amazon effect – many Americans today are ordering their groceries online via apps and waiting for the food to be delivered.’
This means that the old school distribution model of big reefers bringing fresh produce to grocery stores, with big walk in chillers where consumers pick their groceries, is changing. ‘You’re now beginning to see more e commerce,’ he said. ‘People order online, which creates a different distribution system channel. There will still be large reefers delivering goods to grocery stores, but now smaller vehicles such as vans are carrying food.’
He describes a world where either groceries are delivered to the consumer’s door, or where groceries are stores with drive up coolers that hold customers’ complete on line orders. Customers can pick up their groceries on the way home from work, if that is convenient, or even hire a hail and ride company to collect for them. ‘This is changing the whole dynamics of the cold chain industry from reefers all the way down to the consumer,’ he said. It is being enabled by the good insulation properties of polyurethane foam.