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Polyurethane flexible foams: manufacture, applications, markets, and trends

Inspection of available data suggests that aggregate demand for polyurethanes is easier to determine than volumes based on application (i.e., flexible foam, rigid foam, elastomer, etc.) and by region. Chapter 2 provides regional volume production estimates for polyurethane building blocks. This data is presumably easier to obtain since significant producers tend to be large multinational publically held companies that are required to report their manufacturing data. The building block outputs can then be cross-referenced against the feedstock inputs that are also data that is available in the public domain. This same information is not readily available for foam producers. Part of this is because there are thousands of such producers [1]. Producers tend to locate their foam production facilities relatively close to the next-in-line manufacturer within the value chain (i.e., furniture, automotive seating, mattresses, etc.). Furthermore, foam producers are a mix of smaller publically held and privately held companies and can be highly economically sensitive. The economic downturn of 2008-2009 saw even relatively large foam producers enter into bankruptcy proceedings [2]. An aggregate of volume estimates of the flexible foam market in 2012 and projected growth rate broken down by geography for 2012 and 1991 is shown in Figure 7.1. The growth rate is of course merely suggestive, based on extrapolation from previous production/consumption volumes. Furthermore, within each geography, the growth rate may be highly variable with China, for instance, having an expected near double-digit growth in the consumption of flexible foams, while it is anticipated that Japan will experience near-zero to slightly negative growth in the flexible foam segment [3]. This historical discontinuity is dramatically shown in the

Approximate volume breakdown for the production (a) of polyurethane flexible foams by geographical region for the year 2012 and (b) the compound annual growth rate of flexible polyurethane foam production for the years 1991 and 2012. History can be a guide for the future, but extrapolation becomes less reliable the greater the distance from the reference year. (See insert for color representation of the figure 7.1(b).)

FIGURE 7.1 Approximate volume breakdown for the production (a) of polyurethane flexible foams by geographical region for the year 2012 and (b) the compound annual growth rate of flexible polyurethane foam production for the years 1991 and 2012. History can be a guide for the future, but extrapolation becomes less reliable the greater the distance from the reference year. (See insert for color representation of the figure 7.1(b).)

data on Asian growth rate, largely reflective of Japan's consumer demand in 1991 and of China's in 2012. Furthermore, there is paltry data on Latin American demand for 1991, while in 2012 it reflects a substantial proportion of the total. This chapter will cover the flexible foam markets, commercial considerations, and future trends based on data collected from the past 13 years.

The maturity and complications associated with the flexible foam market belie the relatively prosaic nature of flexible foams and their range of applications. In general, flexible foams are associated with their ability to provide cushioning and comfort. Thus, they find large-volume uses in furniture cushions, mattresses, automotive seating, carpet underlayment, clothing, and packaging [4].

 
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