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The Inside story: Foams and springs

By Barbara Nelles / July 2009

When it comes to three main interior components of a bed, lumber quietly plays a supporting role in the foundation, while springs and foam battle for position in the bed’s core and comfort layers.

The modern innerspring is being re–engineered to play a much more nuanced and varied role in the mattress. And foams are grabbing attention with their dizzying array of convolutions, contours, colors and functions.

All three components have their own sustainability story, with research and development at foam suppliers leading the pack in a quest for new ways to be “green.”

And component makers say their products carry meaningful messages that consumers need to hear—now more than ever.

“We need to do a slight correction. As an industry we simplified the consumer conversation, concentrating on comfort and turning away from what’s inside the bed,” says Mark Quinn, executive vice president of sales and marketing for the Bedding Group at Carthage, Mo.–based Leggett & Platt. “That was right at the time, but we’ve come too far. Without going all the way back, let’s build more value—in a way that doesn’t confuse the consumer—by discussing what’s on the inside. There are great stories in there and they help justify higher price points.”

Foam’s ever–expanding mattress role

Popular latex, polyurethane and visco–elastic foams are inspiring new partnerships, innovations and creativity in the mattress industry.

“I’m very excited about foam’s potential, particularly when I look at the U.S. market,” says Ed Malechek, executive vice president of foam supplier Carpenter Co., which has headquarters in Richmond, Va. “There is so much room for growth here. Noninnerspring beds are only about 10% of the beds sold in the U.S. In Europe, it’s about 40% urethane, 10% latex and 50% innerspring.”

A peek inside some mattresses reveals a “wedding cake” of colors and convolutions of foam.

The core of the bed may be innerspring or polyurethane foam, “but mattress manufacturers often add 3 to 5 inches of various advanced foams—latex being one of them—to the bed’s top comfort layers,” says Kevin Stein, vice president of marketing, research and development at Latex International, based in Shelton, Conn. “It produces a great feel at a price point that today’s consumer can afford.”

For example, Tielt, Belgium–based Latexco has a new topper that combines three different foam densities and a dimensional feeling into a single comfort layer.

Some foam suppliers say the increased use of premium foams—as cores, in the quilt and as comfort layers—is solving body impression problems and generally helping shrink super–thick mattresses back down to their former size.

Polyurethane foam suppliers see enormous potential for all–foam beds in North America that tell a distinctive comfort story.

In Europe, where mattresses are generally 4– to 8–inches thick, solid latex cores are popular and affordable. But visco–elastic is gaining ground. It’s not uncommon to see solid latex cores topped with visco–elastic.

The demand for various materials used in combination also is changing the mix of products foam suppliers offer mattress manufacturers.

Polyurethane foam supplier Hickory Springs Mfg. Co., which is based in Hickory, N.C., now distributes latex from Latex International in the United States.

“We’re the perfect combination,” says David Duncan, national product manager for Hickory Springs Bedding Foam Products. “Latex is a great sleeping surface, consumers like the ‘green’ story and it gives us the opportunity to offer manufacturers the next hot thing.”

Latex’s growing popularity inspired urethane foam maker Carpenter to release a new, improved version of its synthetic latex, Qualatex, this year.

“It’s urethane foam with the same feeling and properties of good Talalay, but at a better price,” Malechek says.

Demand expands for latex

Sales of latex cores, comfort layers, quilting layers and pillows have been increasing for the past three to six years, Stein says.

In the current economy, offering latex on an extra–thick mattress and doing it at an affordable price point means pairing it with an innerspring or polyurethane core.

“That’s what mattress manufacturers want right now—to tell a latex story about lower price points,” says Kevin Callinan, Latexco vice president of sales. “A $999 all–latex mattress isn’t possible if the mattress is 11 to 15 inches high. But you can get the curb appeal you need at the thicker height by building up the mattress with latex at the top.”

When you use latex in the bed’s top comfort layers, you don’t want to cover it with filler material, suppliers say.

“Those big, puffy tack–and–jump quilts lose the feel of the latex,” Stein says. “We’re seeing more channel quilting come back in. It’s the European influence and it’s great for latex.”

Interest in 100% natural latex also is expanding rapidly. Polyurethane foam supplier Foamex, which is headquartered in Media, Pa., introduced its 100% natural latex line, Natural Latex by Foamex, to its product lineup in 2008.

“We are at a starting point,” says Mithra Weerasinghe, vice president and marketing director of Latex Green, a natural latex supplier with its own rubber plantations based in Avissawella, Sri Lanka. “As consumers and retailers learn more about the environmental and behavioral aspects of natural latex, interest will grow and grow. We expect big mattress brands to begin promoting it—that’s already happening in Europe.”

Stein says Latex International is among the suppliers trying to meet the demand. The company has stepped up its production of 100% natural Talalay for use as cores and comfort layers.

Memory foam news

The appeal of memory foam continues, even for today’s cash–strapped consumer.

Among the big visco–elastic news is how popular it’s becoming in Europe. That’s one reason why latex supplier Gommagomma S.p.A., which is based in Caronno Pertusella, Italy, developed a new latex core that holds a memory foam topper, as well as latex pillows with memory foam inserts.

Foam manufacturer Ovattificio Fortunato, with headquarters in Bellizzi, Italy, redesigned its memory foam offerings to build in breathability and ventilation. It offers a selection of interesting–looking visco–elastic cores with convolutions, channeling, pin holes and side vents. Some of its bi–level cores are layered with one or more spacer–fabric panels.

“We are seeing lots of interest in visco–elastic here in Italy, in Europe and North Africa and we are trying to teach our customers about just how breathable and comfortable this foam can be,” says Gillian Fortunato, company co–owner.

Adding renewable content

Some polyurethane foam suppliers are creating a “green” story by adding a percentage of renewable content to some foam formulas. Instead of being 100% petroleum–based, these new foams contain a percentage of plant–based polyols, which replace a portion of the petro–polyols.

Almost any plant or animal oil—soy, castor, canola, rapeseed, sunflower, palm, even fish—can be formulated into a polyol for use in foam production.

The current ingredient of choice in North and South America is soybean oil; in Europe it might be sunflower seed oil.
Percentages of bio–based polyols in a given foam range from 5% to 20%. Today, anything above 20% degrades the quality of the polyurethane, suppliers say.

How companies promote these new foams as green is a subject of controversy in the industry, in part because suppliers typically don’t specify exact percentages of bio–based content.

Foamex uses a number of “agriculturally derived” ingredients in its “highly breathable” Aerus Natural memory foams and in its other families of bio–based foams, the company said in a news release. Its manufacturing process also is green and uses a proprietary Variable Pressure Foaming technology that is “virtually emission–free.”

Multinationals like Bayer and Cargill are ramping up production of natural polyols to supply foam producers. Cargill, which has headquarters in Wayzata, Minn., introduced mostly soy–based BiOH Polyols in 2005 and, in 2008, opened its first North American polyols manufacturing facility, located in Chicago.

“We’ve made significant strides to get to 20% renewable content in flexible foams—and our goal is to one day replace 100% of petroleum–based content. We’re working with our manufacturers to test new products and looking at a variety of materials and feedstocks,” says Jessica Koster, BiOH Polyols marketing manager.

Hickory Springs, which participated in the development of BiOH Polyols, was the first adopter of the ingredient, incorporating it into its Preserve line of foams.

“Preserve was the first bio–based foam. It’s environmentally responsible and there’s no denying the feel–good factor for consumers,” Duncan says. “The product started taking off about a year ago, first in contract–type products, especially boutique hotels, and now it’s everywhere.”

Two years ago, Flexible Foam, which is based in Spencerville, Ohio, introduced BioFlex Hybrid Foams and it now uses a percentage of BiOH Polyols in its entire product line, says Michael Crowell, vice president of marketing.

“Our customers have been very pleased,” he says. “We use different percentages for different foam types. The lower density foams cannot use as much; the higher densities take more. We’re working with Cargill to incorporate even more.”

CertiPUR–US certification available

CertiPUR–US is a new voluntary testing, analysis and certification program to verify that polyurethane foams meet certain health and safety guidelines. It’s administered by the Alliance for Polyurethane Foam, based in Loudon, Tenn., and has certified four U.S. foam suppliers since beginning certifications earlier this year. Foam suppliers that receive CertiPUR approval have the right to use the CertiPUR certification mark on all certified foam families.

The program is modeled after CertiPUR in Europe and is similar except the U.S. process has an additional quality control component. As stated at the CertiPUR–US Web site, both programs were developed in response to an increase in substandard imported foams.

“There is growing consumer concern about the health of the mattresses they are sleeping on and it will become an increasingly important issue,” says Bob Luedaka, executive director of the foam alliance. “CertiPUR adds an extra measure of purchase security for them. It reassures them they are buying a safe, clean product.”

The certification process is open to all polyurethane manufacturers worldwide. Assessment includes volatile organic compound testing and chemical breakdown analysis, as well as durability testing.

The cost of the program runs about $2,700 for testing at one of several independent labs, plus an additional $3,000 per foam family for Polyurethane Foam Association members or $5,000 per foam family for nonmembers, paid every six months for the first year. Afterward, certification is renewed annually and spot testing is conducted. For more information, visit www.certipur.us.

The eternal innerspring gets new twists

At first glance, it may seem there’s not much new in innersprings. Bonnell units, LFK, pocketed coils—they’ve been around for decades. But if you look more closely, innersprings have gotten a lot more interesting.

Spurred by increased competition from foam and air mattresses, innerspring research and development has yielded a number of advancements: new coil configurations, next–generation Bonnell units, increased zoning, comfort–layer coil systems, pocketed coil improvements and even one–sided spring units for single–sided beds.

And spring suppliers have become more vocal in defending and promoting their products.

“Innersprings have been marketed against to propel air and foam sales—and it was done quite well,” says Ken Hurst, U.S. sales representative for Starsprings, an innerspring manufacturer headquartered in Herrljunga, Sweden. “But no one was countering those claims—until now.”

“Show me a $1,500 innerspring bed where you ‘feel like you’re sleeping on top of coils,’ ” says Mark Quinn, executive vice president of sales and marketing for the Bedding Group at Leggett & Platt, a components supplier based in Carthage, Mo. “Attacking the innerspring category as the reason a consumer is uncomfortable with their current mattress is misleading and inaccurate. You can create absolutely any feel you want with an innerspring bed and build in value at every price point.”

Going to new heights

Creating a variety of feels is a primary goal of innerspring suppliers. For instance, there are pocketed coils with high preloads—a very tall spring in a short pocket—that can feel as conforming as an all–foam bed, suppliers say.

“Lots of new products and innovations are out there with unique properties,” Hurst says. “These are not springs as usual; these are specialty springs. The springs pitch should concentrate on durability, temperature and instant reaction—it wins on all three.”

L&P introduced an updated version of the Bonnell in 2008. Its VertiCoil unit is offered in heights up to 7 inches and is engineered for reduced motion transfer, as well as “straight up and down, vertical line deflection,” Quinn says.

Today’s North American market is interested in units 6 inches and taller, says Jimmy Bush, executive vice president of the Wire Products Group at Hickory Springs Mfg. Co., which is based in Hickory, N.C.

“In the last two years, the trend toward thicker one–sided mattresses and an increase in petroleum prices, which affected foam and fiber prices, drove the need for a taller innerspring,” he says.

“Just four years ago we offered two spring heights, 4 inches and 6 inches,” adds Martin Wolfson, president of Texas Pocket Springs, which is headquartered in Keene, Texas. “Now 4 inch is nonexistent and 70% of what we sell is 8 inches.

Tall, one–sided spring units, designed for single–sided beds are available now. L&P and Hickory Springs both make the units, which are designed for high–end innerspring mattresses.

Pocketed improvements

A good deal of recent spring innovation has been in pocketed coils. The coils are better able to mimic foam’s reduced motion transfer and cradling feeling, suppliers say.
Pocketed coils are “the best way to compete with foam and you can create any feel—from plush to firm,” Wolfson says.

Starsprings is engineering “less progressive” coils, Hurst says.

“The Active Zone spring is our highest preload, but as you go down into the spring that’s when it becomes less progressive—it doesn’t push back as hard,” he says.

Yes, pocketed coils are increasingly complex. Comfort levels are changed by adjusting coil height relative to pocket height, varying wire gauge, changing the coil shape and adjusting the number of turns. Some zoned units have as many as nine zones. Such advancements are helping drive demand.

Peter Jensen, director of marketing and sales for Keynor Spring Mfg., headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, has seen “a drastic increase” in the volume of pocketed coil units he’s selling.

“We’ve built in a lot of features, including a zoned product introduced in early 2008, that’s been well received,” Jensen says.

Texas Pocket Springs zones perimeter coils for added support and offers its patented Quatrocoil configuration—clusters of four coils designed to prevent comfort layers from falling between coils. The company recently introduced the Microcoil, a comfort layer for pillow–top mattresses.

Starsprings focused on the bed’s comfort layers with its introduction of 5.1–inch springs compressed into 2.17–inch pockets in the patented X–Pocket and 4–inch springs compressed to 1.18 inches in the Stretch Pocket AZ.

Coils in the top comfort layers are do–able in mattresses with retail prices of $899 and above in queen size, Hurst says.

“It’s fun—the different things you can do in a box top and pillow top that you couldn’t do before,” Hurst says. “It s a completely different feel.”

Consider coil–on–coil–on–coil mattress construction. It was once reserved for ultra high–end bed sets, but is now turning up in premium beds, as well. What about putting coils over foam? Maybe someday.

“Why not? Hurst asks. “There’s no reason why visco–elastic or any other core should be on its own.”

Springs manufacturer Agro International GmbH & Co. KG, which is based in Bad Essen, Germany, might disagree. The company sponsored a study completed in May by the Ergonomie Institute Munchen GmbH in Munich, which found that pocketed springs alone—without additional comfort layers or even ticking—provide the best ergonomic support and pressure point relief when compared to other types of mattress configurations.

The fabric used to encase the springs is important, as well. Most pocket fabric is a nonwoven polyester/polypropylene blend. Variations in the fabric’s weight, fiber blend, seals and seams all impact the feel of the spring unit.

Agro recently introduced an extremely lightweight, silky pocket material that “improves contouring to the body’s shape,” said Kirsten Skrodzki, a member of Agro’s marketing team.

Texas Pocket Springs is researching various natural fibers as an alternative to synthetic nonwoven pocket fabric but none has performed up to par yet, Wolfson says.

Regional preferences vary

In Europe, Marshall coils have become a mainstay and they’re gaining market share in North America.

Prices have come down as pocketed coils have grown in popularity, but affordability continues to be an obstacle to increased penetration in some regions of the world, says Erol Boydak, trade manager for wire and innerspring producer Boyçelik, which is based in Kayseri, Turkey.

Boyçelik recently increased its manufacturing capacity to 5,000 pocketed coil units per week. A large share of that is headed to the U.K. market.

The coils’ regional popularity is not just about price, it’s about preference, Boydak says.

“Most African and Asian countries like firmer mattresses, which can be achieved more economically with a Bonnell spring,” he explains.

Steel has own ‘green’ story

A large percentage of the steel used in the manufacture of innersprings is recycled scrap steel. Depending on exactly where the steel is made, the recycled content of spring units ranges from 50% to 90%. An important source of scrap steel is junked cars and large appliances.

The recycled content of innersprings is a little–known fact that can have particular resonance with today’s consumer.

“In marketing innersprings to consumers, it’s more and more important to tell that ‘green’ story,” says Mark Quinn, executive vice president of sales and marketing for the Bedding Group at Leggett & Platt, a mattress components supplier based in Carthage, Mo. “Anyone marketing innersprings can beat that sustainability drum.”

Innerspring manufacturers also recycle all of their own production waste.

“We collect and sell to recyclers all steel scrap generated during our manufacturing processes,” says Jimmy Bush, executive vice president of the Wire Products Group at Hickory Springs Mfg. Co., which is based in Hickory, N.C. “None is wasted.”

At the bed’s base: Lumber use growing

A few trends are influencing how wood is being used in bed bases. For starters, growing interest in all–foam beds in North America has meant an increase in wood–only foundations. And, regardless of mattress type, some mattress manufacturers are turning to wood to reduce their costs, forgoing a traditional metal box–spring unit in favor of an all–wood foundation.

“It seems as though something new is happening every day in the way wood is being used,” says Ron Beauchamp, general manager of BLR–Bois Le Roux Inc., which has headquarters in Weedon, Quebec. “Wood is the perfect material. It’s resistant, lightweight, easy to manipulate and natural. With beds, they are looking to tweak the way they build the frames. Some manufacturers are saving money by using thinner cuts, 1–by–3s instead of 1–by–4s, but the products they build are just as strong because they’re well–engineered. Bed frames may be lighter today, but they’re stronger.”

In 2008, lumber in bed sets began to gain prominence for the “green” story.

Worth noting, says Ryan Trainer, executive vice president and general counsel for the International Sleep Products Association, is that foundations represent a sustainable use of wood because they are constructed from byproducts of prime, construction–grade lumber manufacturing.

Despite his company’s roots in “The Steel City,” Dean Woods of Pittsburgh–based Hodder Lumber agrees.

“Sure, there’s a green story with steel, but wood is a renewable resource with a much smaller carbon footprint,” he says. “More and more mattress makers are interested in documenting the sustainably forested wood they use in their beds and I expect that trend to continue.”

Most of the strong, slow–growing spruce, pine and fir used in beds made in North America is from the certified sustainable forests of northern Quebec.

All wood sold by BLR is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and BLR itself is in the process of obtaining certification.

“Ninety–five percent of Canadian forests are state–owned,” Beauchamp says. “The federal and provincial governments are managing the people’s resources and we must respect very stringent policies in order to maintain a sustained yield. It’s about the future; it’s for our kids.”

Other prominent certifiers include the Canadian Standards Association, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, the American Tree Farm System and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. There are a number of certifying organizations worldwide and debate exists about the rigor of some programs.

A good guide to sustainable forestry certification systems is available at Metafore, a nonprofit that, according to its Web site, specializes in “working with businesses to implement innovations relating to evaluating, selecting and manufacturing environmentally preferable wood and paper products.” Go to www.metafore.org and click on “Tools and Resources,” then “Certification Systems” and then “Introduction to Certification Programs.”

Update on trade dispute

The Softwood Lumber Agreement of 2006 settled the decades–old trade litigation between the United States and Canada. At the heart of the case was the U.S. government’s claim that the Canadian lumber industry is, in effect, subsidized by its federal and provincial governments—the owners of most of Canada’s forests. And, thus, Canadian exports were unfairly competing against the domestic U.S. lumber industry.

The agreement gave Canadian provinces a choice of two export–tax options when selling into the United States: 1) a 15% export tax with modest volume limits or 2) a 5% export tax with the potential for more restrictive quotas contingent upon prevailing market prices.

In 2007, the United States alleged that Canada had miscounted its exports from those provinces that had chosen the 5% export tax. A binding arbitration panel convened by the London Court of International Arbitration agreed with the United States in early 2009. The court’s ruling imposes a temporary tax of 10% on exports from Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and Saskatchewan—provinces that had chosen the 5% option—until the harm caused by the counting error is offset.

The temporary 10% duty is applied to nonradiused bed frame components, says Dean Woods of Pittsburgh–based Hodder Lumber. Side rails, end rails and other pieces that are routed or have radiused corners are not included in the duty tax.

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