By David Reed, UT EditorPrague-Europe's flexible foam makers had a record year in 2004, with total polyurethane foam production in the European Union 15 countries plus Switzerland and Norway, reaching 442.4 kilotonnes, according to data presented at the 9-10 June General Assembly of Europur, the European Association of Flexible Polyurethane Foam Blocks Manufacturers. This is the highest ever total for the group, marginally ahead of the 440.6kt of 2001, but the situation in the present year will be impacted by the 18-percent annualised increase in raw material prices already registered this year with respect to last, warned Ward Dupont, the group's president. Europur members only account for about threequarters of the flexible PU foam poured in Europe, the group estimates.To add to the concern about the future, much of Europe is in a depressed state, according to data presented by Patrick Lenain, an economist with the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, covering most of the countries in the developed world)."There has been a new delay in Europe's recovery," he reported, "with Italy now in outright recession, and Germany struggling, despite strong growth in its exports."And the latest surveys of consumer and business confidence suggest little change in the immediate future, he warned. "The European Union surveys business confidence monthly," he continued, "and it's been heading south since it peaked in summer last year."It's now below the average of the last two years, it's not good news," he concluded.Other data presented at the 9-10 June meeting, however, painted a slightly less pessimistic scenario, or rather set of scenarios. Global automotive production, for example, is set to rise more rapidly than in the last dozen years, reported Peter Kelly of JD Power Ltd's Oxford, UK office. In the period from 2003 through to 2010, global light vehicle production will rise 31 percent to more than 76 million units, representing about 15 million more vehicles, he said. While most of this increase will be in emerging markets, including Asia-specifically in the People's Republic of China-over 3 million extra vehicles will also be made in the "mature" economies, including western Europe, and North America, his data showed. And eastern Europe will also see a rise in automobile production, from 3.5 million in 2004 to 4.9 million in 2010, Kelly added.The growth will be powered by growing populations and rising standards of living, he explained, adding that cars were also becoming "more of an aspirational item," meaning that people were buying them not just to get from A to B, but more to show their improved status.However, Kelly cautioned, "this is a one-time event, the markets will mature by 2020."Aspirational changes have also led to a more highly diversified automobile industry, suggested Martial Belhache of Faurecia, France's leading car interior component supplier. One consequence of this is that materials used in cars are becoming more refined, under what he characterised by the acronym TALC: T for touch, A for aspect, L for light, and C for colour.This more diversified situation creates new possibilities, Belhache suggested, but the automotive industry is also adding to the urethane industry's problems with growing demands for low VOCs (volatile organic compounds), recycling and improved durability of seats, for example.Other PU-foam-using sectors are also moving ahead, suggested data presented by Peter Hudson of British Vita plc. Last year the bedding sector grew by 1.8 percent, he reported, while the furniture industry grew a solid 5.8 percent in terms of consumption. Production data showed Europe's furniture business rising 3.8 percent, with the industry in Poland showing a 13-percent rise in output, while the country's exports were up 70 percent over the last five years, totalling $1208 million, Hudson's data showed.This increase, however, is dwarfed by that of China, where growth in furniture exports in the last five years has topped 310 percent, reaching $794 million in 2003, the latest year available, Hudson reported. This is about 28 percent of the country's total furniture production in the same year, he concluded."