California open–flame standard for mattresses in effect

It was not easy getting here. Since California lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 603 our industry has experienced years of rule–making, public comment, debate and uncertainty. And always the testing: testing, testing and more testing.

But on Jan. 1 California’s open–flame standard for bed sets finally went into effect. There is no question that Technical Bulletin 603 has forever altered the way that beds sold in California are sourced and produced.

In this package, suppliers and manufacturers reflect on those changes. We also look at what’s ahead for bedclothes and consider what is coming down the pike as the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission considers a federal open–flame standard that could go into effect as early as 2006.

Suppliers find new markets, customers

It’s January. Time to put away the holiday decorations, wrap up the pro football season and get used to writing 2005 on your checks.

And, oh yes: Producers of all mattresses sold in California must meet the open–flame requirements contained in the state’s Technical Bulletin 603. As if you could forget.

Clearly, for the bedding industry, Jan. 1 was not just another New Year’s Day.

After years of discussion, uncertainty and more than a few controversies, the landmark flammability regulation is now in effect in the nation’s most populous state. And with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission moving ahead with a 603–like national standard, no bedding manufacturer or supplier can ignore flammability issues.

New standards have had a particularly sweeping effect on supplier companies, who have seen markets and customer bases open up–not only for FR components but for new machinery needed to manufacture compliant beds.

“Before, these products were a commodity–the best thread at the best price,” says Herman Tannenbaum, vice president of sales and marketing for Alliance Thread and Supply in Warminster, Pa., which works with Coats North America to produce Kevlar–based threads. “Now we’re selling what is very much a technical product–one that has accountability, traceability and liability considerations. It’s much more than sewing fabric the cheapest way possible.”

“This is the largest change that the mattress manufacturing industry has ever seen,” agrees Harrison Murphy, president of barrier material producer Ventex in Great Falls, Va. “It marks the departure from making a purely decorative product to making a high performance product that must do more than ever before.”

Familiar ground

The world of bedding flammability protection has long been familiar territory for companies who manufacture products for institutional settings such as college dormitories and correctional facilities.

But, as Tom Taylor, bedding products manager for Western Nonwovens says, those markets presented a comparatively smaller challenge.

“Those are plain mattresses–no pillow–tops, no latex, no visco,” says Taylor, whose Carson, Calif.–based company produces high–loft barrier materials. “TB 603 means you have to cover all types, sizes and constructions. More importantly, the mattress needs to look and feel like everyday bedding. As such, the solution has to be very transparent.”

Having experience in the flammability field, however different, has given some suppliers an advantage in the marketplace, says Richard Cohen, ChemTick executive vice president.

“Having specialized in FR products for 30 years, we see residential bedding more of a normal evolution rather than an unexplored market,” says Cohen, whose Hicksville, N.Y., company manufactures both surface treatments and internal barriers. “TB 603 is not only a new opportunity to serve bedding manufacturers, but also a chance to familiarize them with our entire product line. They may find other products they can use.”

Norcross, Ga.–based Elk Technologies, a maker of sheet barrier and nonwoven fabrics, began working with the bedding industry when California put institutional mattress standards in place with Technical Bulletin 129.

“We have made fire barriers in one form or another for the last 50 years,” says Frank Kelly, the company’s director of sales for consumer fire–retardant products. “We adapted some existing technology to comply with TB 129 then TB 603 requirements and formed a separate company within our parent organization for both R&D and marketing of consumer–related FR products.”

Opening new doors

One of the biggest changes TB 603 has brought is the opening of manufacturers’ doors to new companies, especially components suppliers.

The heightened focus on flammability has made it possible for companies such as Kaneka, a maker of modacrylic fibers, to supply to nonwoven batting producers and textile makers.

“While we had looked for opportunities in the upholstery and home furnishings markets, we really knew very little about bedding,” says company representative Jeff Vercellone. “Once we did our research, it was a whole new ballgame. TB 603 presented a prime opportunity for a fiber that met our characteristics.”

Dupont, another company with FR experience now working more closely with bedding suppliers, acted quickly to get up to speed on the nuances of mattress production. The key, John Dottore says, has been to adapt fire science and technology to the bedding industry’s need for a comfortable product.

“We have a large volume of research and development, which mattress manufacturers appreciate,” says Dottore, a corporate accounts manager at the company’s Richmond, Va., plant. “In the past two years, we have test–burned 500 beds, half of which we developed and designed.” The other tests were performed with manufacturers.

Expanding customer bases

Most of the suppliers BedTimes interviewed agree that the time and expense devoted to market positioning and customer education has paid off with substantial increases in sales to customers both old and new.

“Many of our existing customers are increasing the number of products they currently buy from us, while new customers began to inquire about our services for 2005 as the Jan. 1 deadline approached,” says Paul Sharon, vice president of product development and marketing for barrier supplier Supreme Quilting in Etobicoke, Ontario, Canada. “TB 603 has allowed us to supply solutions to a broader base of wholesale vendors and factory–direct companies.”

FR solutions had accounted for only about 2% of the company’s total sales, Sharon says. But he expected that number to climb to 5% in December and then to jump to 17% in January.

“By March, we forecast that TB 603–related products will account for approximately 35% of our total sales,” he says.

Not that the growth in FR products hasn’t come with some trade–offs.

As Taylor explains: “We had been selling a polyester fill that went into 20% to 40% of customers’ products. That market goes away with TB 603.” But that downside has its own upside. “Now we’re selling material that goes into all of their products,” Taylor says. “As a result, our business will more than double.”

Lasting lessons

With a nationwide open–flame mattress standard in the works, as well as a separate flammability standard for upholstered furniture, the FR supply chain will be tested as never before. Suppliers say they’re up to the challenge, but add that the experience of preparing for TB 603 offers lessons for the future.

“California is a good way to understand the logistical and documentation basis to produce flame– retardant mattresses nationwide,” Dottore says. “The industry will learn a great deal from the transition, especially when it comes to ensuring a ready supply of FR material.”

Taylor is generally optimistic about a transition to a nationwide standard.

“There’s no doubt that this is a steep learning curve for a lot of people, particularly smaller companies who have to change their whole culture,” he says. “A lot of lessons will be learned by the time there’s a federally mandated standard. But, from what I see, the industry is in good shape to be ready. There may well be a high level of voluntary compliance before a federal standard goes into effect.”

Vercellone adds: “Given a logical and reasonable amount of time to prepare, there should be no problem” with securing FR components, he says, explaining that supplying the bedding industry’s demand for FR materials may mean longer waits for some of his company’s customers in other, more mature markets.

But the message to manufacturers remains: Don’t wait until the last minute to make the switch to FR components.

For instance, Tannenbaum says: “Kevlar is a very effective FR tool, but it has different strength, stretching and looping characteristics that need to be fully understood. You can’t just plug it in and go. And with the current military climate, a lot of Western governments are using spun Kevlar for protective wear and retrofitting personnel vehicles. If a manufacturer waits until the last minute, suppliers may not have much flexibility to accommodate them.”

Cohen admits to being surprised by the number of last–minute pleas for help in addressing TB 603 issues.

“A lot of companies waited until the last minute, hoping that the California standard would be delayed or dropped altogether,” he says. “Even if a company doesn’t sell to California, it would be a mistake not to pay attention to what’s been happening.”

The other message is that flammability standards almost certainly will soon be a fact of life for the entire United States. Rather than resist, Murphy believes the industry should see new regulations as an opportunity to make better, safer products.

“The mattress industry will look back on this January as a key turning point in its history,” he says. “The new flammability standard is a good thing and we, as an industry, are far better off with it than without it.”

Dottore agrees, adding that the growing emphasis on regulating the flammability of bedclothes, upholstered furniture and other products will only enhance the mattress industry’s image.

“Ten years from now, people will say that there has been a lot of good progress with fire safety,” he says, “and the mattress industry helped make it happen.”

Beds hit stores, but work continues

For mattress makers, gearing up for California’s open–flame standard has been nearly all–consuming.

Dave Clark, vice president of sleep products at Englander in New Tazewell, Tenn., summed up the formidable challenge that bedding makers have faced in the past three years this way: “Find materials that are cost efficient, perform well and do not distract from the comfort of the bed.”

If numbers of beds burned are any indication, industry R&D departments have been plenty busy since the California standard was proposed. Eight bedding makers alone report burning more than 5,500 bed sets.

With the TB 603 enforcement date rapidly approaching, 2004 was an especially frenetic time as manufacturers cemented relationships with suppliers of flame–retardant materials, tested more products and refined solutions.

And even as TB 603–compliant beds go on sale in California, most agree the process of developing cost–effective solutions is ongoing, especially with federal standards from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission on the horizon.

Changing relationships

The new flammability standard has affected nearly every aspect of mattress manufacturing. The first challenge for producers was finding components. They researched, they investigated and, in many cases, they collaborated with a supplier–or two–to devise satisfactory FR solutions for their particular product mix.

Creating a TB 603–compliant product is a “complicated process, and it’s very important to choose a supplier who looks at it holistically,” says Steve Bryant, senior vice president of manufacturing services at Spring Air in Elk Grove Village, Ill. “You have to spend the money to research and test solutions, and not just go with what suppliers tell you.” Spring Air considered at least “10 different suppliers,” Bryant says.

Gerry Borreggine, president of Middlesex, N.J.–based Therapedic, says California’s flammability standards helped his company solidify relationships with its suppliers: “We have kept the same supply partners we had in the past, (but) the issue has brought us closer to some due to the intensity of what we had to do within the limited time we had to do it.”

Al Klancnik, group vice president for Serta in Hoffman Estates, Ill., says he was impressed with how many “suppliers came to the plate early with many fabric systems, blocking systems, high–loft barriers and interliners.”

“By being the biggest player in town that was consuming barrier product, just about everyone came to us offering many solutions,” he says. “The process broadened and strengthened all of our supplier relationships.”

Kerry Tramel, president of Oklahoma City–based Lady Americana, says his company was thankful TB 603 did not become effective until this month. Having a reasonable implementation period “was absolutely imperative.”

“There are more solutions now. I shudder to think what it would have been like if we didn’t have that time,” he says.

Eyeing costs

For manufacturers, designing and producing TB 603–compliant bed sets has been not only a challenge of sourcing materials but one of cost containment.

Net FR materials costs can be reduced somewhat because, in many cases, the new materials can substitute for existing padding. But producers have found that FR materials are often much more expensive than the filling being replaced. And these cost increases are occurring at the same time that the price of raw materials, energy and health care are rising.

Bruce Barman, senior vice president of research and development at Sealy, says he believes that because of its size, the Archdale, N.C.–based bedding maker helped advance FR technology and improve efficiencies among suppliers which, in turn, has helped lower costs of FR products to mattress manufacturers.

But the search for lower cost solutions continues.

“In a year from now we could be using a completely different solution,” says Jim Janik, vice president of manufacturing at King Koil in Hinsdale, Ill. “FR vendors will keep coming up with new technologies and will be improving product and, hopefully, reducing pricing in anticipation of the upcoming federal regulation.”

Bob Hellyer, president of Atlanta–based Simmons, which is currently using two suppliers for FR components, echoes the comment: “I don’t think we’ve found the end–all solution. We’ve certainly found the most effective. Now it’s a matter of finding the most cost effective.”

Nuts and bolts

Manufacturers are perhaps understandably reluctant to offer many specifics about the FR solutions they are using in their bed sets, but those willing to discuss the subject in general terms said their primary current solution is a barrier material.

And they invariably described their new manufacturing process as a “one–for–one replacement”: Replace the quilting and border fiber with FR fiber and stitch all exposed seams, including gusset, border and tape edge, with FR thread.

But the California regulations have not only changed the way individual bed sets are designed, they have altered the entire manufacturing process, emphasizing quality control and supply–chain management in powerful new ways.

Janik joined King Koil to manage the company’s FR conversion.

“Quality workmanship is a critical factor in consistently passing the California test,” he says. “Sloppy construction invites failure. To ensure consistent quality (at King Koil) we have implemented quality–control procedures with vendors that ensure product with the proper FR treatment is delivered time and again. This is something we will monitor on a plant–by–plant level.”

Kevin Toman, president and chief executive officer of Restonic, which is moving its headquarters to Plymouth, Mass., agrees that the new flammability standards have created the need for more stringent quality–control measures. The first national manufacturer to receive Underwriters Laboratories’ certification, Restonic’s entire supply chain will also be UL–certified.

“You have to document things. You have to spot check throughout the manufacturing process,” he says. “It’s a learning curve.”

Klancnik, too, acknowledges “the learning curve you go through with any new technology introduction.”

“Bedding designs always evolve,” he says. “We’ve had the ability over the past year and a half to go at a measured pace, to find what the challenges are and overcome them.” For Serta, part of that evolution means continuing to test beds weekly, even after you have begun to market your TB 603–compliant product.

Product rollouts

For manufacturers, the work of recent years came to fruition as they started rolling out product to California–some as early as 2003 but most in the last quarter of 2004. And now that they are making FR beds, some manufacturers also are offering the new bed sets nationwide, often upon retailer request.

Among the first out of the gate was Serta, which started shipping its FR products in October 2003. And though Carolina Mattress Guild doesn’t ship products to California, it introduced its first FR beds to retailers that same year.

Tempur–Pedic began sending TB 603–compliant beds to California in October 2004 and will make its FR models available in other markets, says Dave Fogg, senior vice president of the Lexington, Ky.–based company. Therapedic started shipping to California on Dec. 1 and has made FR beds available in segments of its line nationwide, Borreggine says.

“In January, Select Comfort will offer (TB 603–compliant) Sleep Number beds…to our customers in California and as an option for all our customers across the United States,” says Jim Gifft, vice president of product development at Minneapolis–based Select Comfort.

Spring Air is taking a similar tact, and Bryant says “a few national customers” have requested the FR beds.

Toman says he expects a Restonic nationwide rollout to be “a gradual transition, one line at a time, one collection at a time.”But if retailers outside California want FR beds sooner, Restonic plans to supply them.

Lady Americana began its California FR rollout right after Thanksgiving, but Tramel says will “let the market decide” whether FR beds will be shipped elsewhere.

What does the consumer want?
The marketability of FR products
Bedding manufacturers have outdone themselves finding new ways to combine buzz words like “fire,” “safe” and “flame” into unique monikers for the products they have spent so much time, money and effort to create.

Serta has its FireBlocker system; Sealy has FlameGuard. Carolina Mattress Guild offers Safe Dreams and King Koil adds a label reading: “Safeguard Technology by King Koil, fire–resistant protection.” Though it doesn’t even ship to California, United Sleep Products in Denver, Pa., unveiled DreamGuard, a 10–model FR collection, in October 2004.

Kevin Toman, president and chief executive officer of Restonic, which is moving to Plymouth, Mass., says his company is placing Flame Fighter labels on compliant models in its flagship ComfortCare line and will introduce two all–FR lines in early 2005: Ergo Sleep and the Health Rest Collection

Not everyone has eagerly joined in the name game. Middlesex, N.J.–based Therapedic International is calling its FR beds SafeTouch, but President Gerry Borreggine says whether the company will use the name with any “prominence on marketing materials” is yet to be determined.

And when asked whether Simmons had trademarked or branded its FR line, President Bob Hellyer quipped, “We’re calling it ’TB 603–compliant.’” His response was echoed by Dave Fogg, senior vice president of Lexington, Ky.–based Tempur–Pedic.

One question remains: Will the new open flame–resistant beds stimulate demand from consumers seeking safer products? The answer seems to be yes, no and maybe.

Some manufacturers, including Carolina Mattress Guild and Serta, jumped out early, producing and marketing FR products before others. Serta started touting FireBlocker in October 2003 with an advertising and public relations campaign aimed at raising consumer awareness.

“We’re selling safety and peace of mind,” says Al Klancnik, group vice president for Serta in Hoffman Estates, Ill. “There are no give–ups. The product looks and feels great, and it has the added measure of keeping your family safe in the unlikely event of a bedroom fire.”

Toman says his company will use FR as a marketing tool “because you have to justify the cost” of compliant beds.

“We’ll definitely implement some marketing programs to make sure consumers understand the FR concept, and then there will be more consumer interest,” he says.
Some industry suppliers say that if manufacturers aren’t using FR properties as a marketing tool, they are making a mistake.

“The industry tends to focus too much on cost and to lose focus on the real marketability of their product,” says Harrison Murphy, president of Ventex in Great Falls, Va. “Many manufacturers believe that if they just don’t talk about something, consumers won’t find out what they are doing. The opposite is true: Consumers will be interested in knowing what’s been done to make mattresses safer.”

Frank Kelly of Elk Technologies in Norcross, Ga., agrees. If consumers were more aware of flammability issues, he believes they would seek out products with fire protection qualities.

“As the consumer becomes more educated regarding the need for FR products within the home environment, our markets and sales chains will expand and grow,” says Kelly, who is director of sales for consumer fire–retardant products.

But there are manufacturers who are less certain that the FR properties of bed sets can be used successfully as a marketing tool.

“The jury is still out on how consumers will see FR. Certainly, FR mattresses benefit consumers, but it is difficult to say whether they will see it as a selling point,” says Jim Janik, vice president of manufacturing at King Koil in Hinsdale, Ill.

Kerry Tramel, president of Oklahoma City–based Lady Americana, agrees: “Comfort, support and price–that is what’s on people’s minds when they shop for a bed, not flammability.”

Better Sleep Council research offers some insight into the consumer’s mind when it comes to flammability and mattresses.

According to a 2004 survey designed to measure consumer awareness and attitudes about mattresses, sleep and related issues, “fire safety is not an urgent issue for most consumers.”

A majority (55%) of consumers said that they would pay slightly more for a fire–resistant mattress if the quality were not compromised, but “they do not feel that they are at any greater risk of fire because their mattress is not ’fire resistant’,” according to the study, which was conducted by the Michael Cohen Group on behalf of the BSC.

Steve Bryant, senior vice president of manufacturing services at Spring Air in Elk Grove Village, Ill., says his company has no plans to market the FR properties of its beds beyond attaching the law label.
“When we buy something today, we expect it to be safe. We don’t see (FR) as a marketing opportunity,” he says.

CPSC votes, 2–0, to propose federal open–flame standard

As this issue of BedTimes was going to press, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission decided by a 2–0 vote to formally propose a federal open–flame mattress flammability standard. In doing so, it approved the draft standard recommended by CPSC staff in early November 2004. That proposal incorporates nearly all of the product performance requirements set by California’s Technical Bulletin 603.

The CPSC’s proposed standard is the culmination of work that the agency began in the mid–1990s on open–flame mattress ignitions. The International Sleep Products Association and the Sleep Products Safety Council have worked closely with the CPSC throughout this process to represent the mattress industry’s interests and support development of a science–based standard that will improve safety, be practical to implement and result in mattresses that consumers will find comfortable and affordable.

In addition, the CPSC decided by the same 2–0 vote to issue an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the purpose of considering whether to establish a federal flammability standard for bedclothes (top–of–bed products such as pillows, comforters and bedspreads). Research shows that in most fires involving mattresses, bedclothes were the first article ignited and that the burning bedclothes in turn ignited the mattress.

Notices of the CPSC’s actions were expected to be published in the Federal Register by early this month. The public will have 75 days after the notices are published to submit comments regarding the proposed mattress standard and 60 days to comment on whether the CPSC should proceed with setting a new standard for bedclothes. The CPSC also will hold a public hearing on its proposed standard.

ISPA’s Government Relations Committee and the SPSC will submit comments regarding the proposed mattress standard and will continue to work with CPSC staff to respond to questions throughout the rule–making process.

Separately, the SPSC plans to research whether the CPSC’s proposed open–flame mattress standard makes the existing federal cigarette–ignition mattress standard redundant. If so, the industry would urge the CPSC to rescind the cigarette–ignition standard once the open–flame standard goes into effect.

For more information, check www.cpsc.gov or the latest flammability news on this web site.