Foam alternatives pushed as shortage lingers
June 4, 2021 | 10:24 am CDT
Hickory Springs foam production

HICKORY, N.C. – North Carolina-based component supplier Hickory Springs Manufacturing (HSM) is pushing alternatives to foam as the foam shortage lingers on.

“Since the crisis began, our research and development team has been working on new ways to incorporate more readily available coil and fiber solutions that can help our customers find alternative ways to keep up production while providing the same level of performance for their accounts. We have identified a number of good solutions that can be implemented relatively quickly to help our customers,” said Tim Witherell, vice president of HSM’s Bedding business. “Foam shortages continue to be an obstacle, but we have products that can help our customers decrease their reliance on that material.”

For upholstery manufacturers, HSM has several fiber and pocketed coil solutions that can be used as foam alternatives in the seat cushion, arms and backs of upholstered furniture. These include polyester fiber paired with individually wrapped coils – displacing some of the foam used in seat cushions – or the use of pocketed coils as a replacement for the foam traditionally used in the center of the seat cushion. In addition, the company’s polyester fiber solutions can be used in the trim parts of an upholstered furniture piece to replace foam used to pad the arms and backs.

It also has a number of replacements for mattresses. Check out more here.

The foam shortage began in mid-February when a winter storm hit the Gulf Coast, forcing shut downs and setbacks at many of the companies that produce the chemicals that make foam. Most of these companies are located in Texas and Louisiana.

"Foam is made using a number of chemicals, but the main two are polyol and toluene diisocyanate (TDI), writes industrial chemical maker EverChem Specialty Chemicals. "It takes roughly two parts of polyol and one part of TDI to make foam. Foam plants buy these raw materials and have them delivered by either railcars or tank trucks. A typical foam plant will have storage tanks that are big enough to offload a few railcars (180,000 lbs each) or tank trucks (45,000 lbs each). They don’t carry a large inventory of these raw materials, but depend upon a steady and timely supply of railcars and trucks in order to produce the foam for their customers.

"When the pandemic hit last March there was a lot of uncertainty about future demand. The entire furniture-foam-polyol-PO chain of production slowed to a crawl.

"No one predicted that the demand for bedding and furniture would increase while people were in lock down. The industry came back in June hoping to catch up for the lost production in that April May time frame. The industry tried to run at 120% rates to make up for the two lost months, but the PO plants can only run at 100%, so there was not enough to supply everyone what they wanted. PO production issues in the Fall curtailed polyol production even further to the point that the producers had to put together allocations for their customers. No one could get everything that they needed.

"Then the winter storm hit the gulf coast in mid February. When a hurricane is expected, the petrochemical industry gets prepared and often shuts down their operations in advance, weathers the storm, then gets back up and running safely and in a relatively short time frame. This storm caught everyone unprepared and many plants lost power while they were still running. It’s a tribute to the industry and all the plant engineers and employees that there were no major accidents during this abrupt and unexpected shutdown. Lines in the plants froze. Power, steam, nitrogen, and hydrogen supplies were lost. All of the propylene oxide plants were shut down. It was almost like an unexpected Cat 5 hurricane hit all of Texas in the middle of the night.

Some furniture makers, including Wesley Hall, predicted the shortage would be short lived. 

The foam shortage appears to be easing, but is still present.

 


 

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Robert Dalheim

Robert Dalheim is an editor at the Woodworking Network. Along with publishing online news articles, he writes feature stories for the FDMC print publication. He can be reached at robert.dalheim@woodworkingnetwork.com.