Springs and foam mingle in today's beds

By Barbara Nelles

There is a potent cocktail found in the taverns of New Orleans. Bartenders gently pour first Kahlua, then cognac and, finally, heavy cream into an old–fashioned glass. The result is a tri-level libation whose flavors mingle deliciously on the tongue. That drink, called the Separator, is an apt metaphor for the way mattresses are being built today—as springs and foams combine at the core of the bed in exciting new ways. Certainly each has a similar effect—all those layers comforting the body from head to toe.

“Consumers have real choice now,” says Martin Wolfson, president of Central Bedding Components and Texas Pocket Springs Technology, a marketer of latex and polyurethane foams and innersprings based in Plano, Texas. “The product is more attractive now. There are all these different materials in mattresses: They’re more consistent (and) more comfortable. We’re making better mattresses. Consumers can find the exact kind of feel they want in their price ranges.”

The mattress manufacturing industry is seeing significant changes in how mattresses are configured because of advances in spring construction and a flood of improved foam products that allow the components to be used in ways they never have been before.

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. And steep increases in the price of raw materials in the past 1 1/2 years—first experienced by spring makers and now by foam suppliers—are certainly behind some of the recent innovations.

At the end of 2003 and throughout 2004, says Jeff Miller, senior vice president of Atlas Spring in Gardena, Calif., “springs manufacturers dealt with extraordinary steel price increases at a time when the economy was not in a period of economic inflation, so passing increased costs on was not easy. Consumers were not ready to deal with them.”
One result of higher springs prices was an increase in foam usage. But then foam prices began their own climb.

“Now, in the past four months, raw materials costs for polyurethane foam have increased four times, and we’re expecting more,” says Ken Conaway, regional sales manager at Future Foam in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

“It’s a seller’s market on the chemical supplier’s side,” adds Bob Steelman, vice president of sales and marketing at Carpenter in Russellville, Ky. “There is a huge demand worldwide for the chemicals and feeder chemicals that go into polyurethane. There are even chemical shortages out there right now.”

“Let me put it this way,” says Michael Crowell, vice president of marketing at Flexible Foam in Spencerville, Ohio, “the last six months have not been fun. But our R&D is constantly looking at new ways of improving our products and our efficiencies.”
For some companies that means moving production to places like China, where labor costs are cheaper.

“We had to find ways to decrease costs as steel prices soared last year, so we shifted more production to China. It seems mattress manufacturers and retailers are unable to pass along their rising costs, and are searching for better cost alternatives,” says Peter Jensen, director of marketing and sales at Keynor Spring in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, which has manufacturing in Canada and Shanghai, China.

For all suppliers it means using more state–of–the–art equipment, more automation—and more creativity in the products they offer mattress manufacturers.

Springs eternal

When it comes to trends in innersprings, Jay Sanders, vice president and director of marketing at Leggett & Platt in Carthage, Mo., puts it this way: “We are constantly innovating, but it’s an evolution not a revolution.”

Jimmy Bush, executive vice president of the Bedding Products Division at Hickory Springs in Hickory, N.C., agrees.

“Innersprings don’t often go through major changes, but there have been tweaks and bells and whistles to all the different types over the years,” Bush says.

Basic categories of innersprings include the classic hourglass Bonnell knotted coil unit, LFKs or open–ended coils introduced in the late 1970s, open–ended coils with helical wires, continuous wire innersprings, and pocketed or Marshall encased coils. But today’s innerspring units can have special “posture” zones achieved by varying coil counts and coil heights and can have reduced sway through alternating–turn coil construction.

Wolfson says Texas Pocket Springs has patented ultrasonically welded quad coils. These are pocketed coils clustered in fours, which are then welded into two–coil modules that run the width of a mattress.

“The idea is that you can design a unit with three to seven zones, using a different gauge wire or different coil height in each module,” he says. “You can also adjust firmness by compressing pocketed coils. A 9–inch coil in a 6–inch pocket will have a different feel from a 7–inch coil in a 6–inch pocket.”

There are spring changes underneath the mattress, as well. The newer low–profile foundations have “gone from coil to rigid wire,” Sanders says, “because the foundation is not going to do as much work now that the mattress is so thick.”

Atlas Spring’s Miller says bedding manufacturers have “taken the blinders off when it comes to innerspring use.”

“Innovation today is being driven by traditional types of coils and combinations of foam,” he says. (But more on that later.)

Foam’s rise

There’s much to report on the foam front. Since all–foam mattresses started working their way into the bedrooms of American consumers, the industry has seen a proliferation of branded products, trademarked formulas and proprietary processes.

“Now, everyone from the Big Ss to the mom–and–pops are adding all–foam beds,” says David Duncan, national products manager for Hickory Springs Bedding Foam.
“Full–foam bedding, by the end of last year, had become very strong,” agrees Roger Coffey, president of Sleep Comp in Tampa, Fla., a distributor and fabricator of four grades of latex and 30 grades of polyurethane.

But “all foam” or “full foam” hardly means a simple bed. “You can build a tremendous piece of bedding using all polyurethane foams,” says Gary Wahrmund, senior vice president of Leggett & Platt Urethane. “But you won’t have today’s exciting buzz words, ‘latex’ and ‘memory foam.’ Most all–foam beds lean toward including a visco or latex layer.”

Todd Councilman, sales manager at Vitafoam in High Point, N.C., whose company recently launched Vitality Sleep Solutions, a line of polyurethane bed cores and visco–elastic toppers and pillows, describes a typical all–foam mattress construction: “A high–resilience foam base, a thin comfort layer for softness and a visco–elastic topper.”

Coffey puts it a bit differently: “You’ll have several layers of foam including the firm edge factor, the support layer, different comfort layerings and memory foam or latex on top.” But the gist is the same: layers and layers of specific foams.

And the laminating trend is definitely building, Duncan says.

“We ship foams laminated and cut to size or in blocks for producers to cut themselves. Everybody is shooting for at least one all–foam version in their line, usually with a visco–elastic product on top, like our Viness,” he says.

Continual improvement

Continual improvement is part of the bedding industry’s mantra, and the success of all–foam constructions is leading foam suppliers to hit R&D hard.

Vishal Malhotra, director of marketing and strategy at Foamex in Linwood, Pa., says Foamex takes “a solutions–oriented approach.”

“One of our core competencies is our product–design engineering team,” he says. “If manufacturers are looking for a unique feel in their mattresses, we help them design it.”

Carpenter’s Steelman says that “interest in latex and visco–elastic beds has spurred polyurethane foam producers to develop higher density foams.” Aside from its Viscolux brand, Carpenter markets Omalon, a high–density support foam, Richquilt a super–soft polyurethane comfort foam, and Qualatex, a synthetic latex.

“The push toward higher quality foams is ongoing,” Steelman says. “We just introduced a 5–pound visco. Certainly, visco remains the hottest foam on the market today.”

Malhotra, whose company markets Reflex Memory and Sensus brands of visco–elastic, agrees that visco is “hot” today—in more ways than one.

“Visco is the best thing that has happened to the bedding industry in a long time. The pressure release is amazing,” he says. “But visco is being perceived as hot, temperature–wise. Foamex is testing solutions to take care of that. Ventilation will become a big thing. Look for new products on the horizon.”

Flexible Foam’s Crowell says his company will have nine full–service pouring plants in the United States when its newest facility in Longview, Wash., opens in April.

“We work continually with our chemical suppliers looking to improve sag factor, tensile tear, elongation,” he says. “For instance, there’s a new chemical that will improve sag factor by 15%. Improvements of 10% to 15% in certain foam characteristics give mattresses greater longevity.”

Wahrmund of Leggett & Platt thinks the most exciting thing happening in foam today is “improving foam’s ability to retain original firmness, improving compression set and improving height retention.” The company has created its New Generation line of foams to address those challenges.

Changing the appearance and feel of the comfort foam layers is an important part of the foam story.

The egg crate, with its uniform peaks and valleys, remains the standard surface convolution of polyurethane foams, but more and more companies are zoning the convolutions. Surface cutting of the comfort layers creates complex and attractive patterns in as many as seven zones, and most foam makers have their own techniques for doing so.

As Wahrmund explains, with horizontal cutting “we create intricate shapes in the foam, changing the firmnesses across that piece. There might be large rectangles cut in the lumbar area and small fins cut in others.”

Foamex has patented what it calls Surface Modification Technology to produce any number of designs and feels. Carpenter, on the other hand, zones foam through a special “extraction process,” that “allows you to make foam more anatomically correct,” Steelman says.

Latex rebounds—again

Domestic latex production in the United States virtually disappeared when tire makers stopped using rubber. Now latex is riding the tailwinds of other foams, often appearing as a quilting or comfort layer or as an underpinning for memory foam toppers.

“2004 was a breakout year for latex. It used to be mainstream; now it’s coming back,” Sleep Comp’s Coffey says. “It’s a higher quality product with a natural story, and everyone knows how resilient rubber is.”

Coffey says bedding manufacturers are “getting creative” with latex. “They’re layering memory foam on top of latex and conventional foam. My customers are finding that visco recovers more quickly, more often and actually lasts longer if you have latex underneath,” he says. “Plus, we’re working with a European manufacturer on latex quilting rolls. It’s new in the United States, and we’re just getting it off the ground.”
Natural latex suppliers market several grades of latex, usually Talalay, Dunlop process, and latex blends. Councilman is excited about growing demand for Vitafoam’s improved synthetic latex, which he says performs like natural latex.

Latex experienced 50% growth in 2004 to over $175 million at wholesale, says Kevin Stein, director of marketing for Latex International, one of the few manufacturers of Talalay latex in the Western Hemisphere. The company is based in Shelton, Conn.

He attributes the category’s growth partly to nesting baby boomers in search of ultimate comfort and the rise of hybrid high–end beds.

“We insert high–quality visco (toppers) into our latex for a dual technology story,” Stein says. “In addition, we’ve committed to building a $3.5 million topper line in 2006 that will go directly into the quilt.”

Hybrid sleep

Perhaps the biggest trend at the mattresses core is how springs and foams are coming together in totally new configurations.

For instance, as Jensen at Keynor Spring notes, Bonnell innersprings are being used even in upper–end bedding now because “you can put exotic layers of foam on it, and it feels like a different bed entirely.”

Foam–encased or bucket units are an excellent example of how well springs and foams can work together, and some estimate 50% to 60% of innerspring mattresses are now foam encased.

“In addition to increased demand for solid foam cores, we are seeing greater demand for no–flip, foam–encased innerspring units—a type of construction that has increased the amount of foam used in a mattress,” says Future Foam’s Conaway.
The bucket construction allows foam and springs to work together nicely. The springs prevent foam fatigue and the foam rails prevent spring fatigue, plus the foam rails fill the cover out attractively.

“(It) makes a nicely tailored bed, and it’s a story that appeals to consumers,” Miller of Atlas Spring says. The innovation comes from combining the two—springs and foam.”

“This is a style that will stay awhile,” Foamex’s Malhotra agrees, adding that his company is in the concept–testing stage for a new foam encasement solution.

Behind much of this hybridization is the growing popularity of alternative sleep surfaces that is impacting the way innerspring mattresses are produced, Miller says.

“Foam and air have made stronger inroads than any previous (alternative sleep surface). The majority of innovation today is being driven by traditional coil types and combinations of new kinds of foam,” Miller says. “As this trend continues, it will make it more and more difficult to discern the portion of business each has because of this combining of materials.”

Mattresses: Single sides and super sizes

By Barbara Nelles

Both foam and innerspring suppliers say consumers’ love affair with really thick, princess–and–the–pea–style mattresses continues, which makes multiple component layers practically a requirement for traditional innerspring mattresses, all–foam constructions or hybrids.

Research and development efforts of foam companies center on supplying mattress makers with an enormous variety of polyurethane, visco–elastic and natural and synthetic latex foams with high resiliency, varying densities or super–soft characteristics for quilting, comfort, support and encasement. And it’s all created with an eye toward fluffing those ample mattresses.

Jay Sanders, vice president and director of marketing at Leggett & Platt in Carthage, Mo., explains: “Our goal … is to help manufacturers fill that really big mattress, in ways they can better afford.” One way has been to bring up the height of innersprings, though the technology does reach its limits, he says.

Also providing challenges to suppliers of foams and innersprings is the industry’s recent embracement of the single–sided mattress.

Jimmy Bush, executive vice president of the Bedding Products Division at Hickory Springs in Hickory, N.C., believes the single–sided mattress is an opportunity for coil innovation.

“Simmons Canada has announced a different shaped coil for their one–sided bed,” he says. “This is just the beginning of this type of innovation. It will give manufacturers more support in promoting their one–sided story.”

With the end of flipping and rotating mattresses, avoiding body impressions in the comfort layer becomes a major concern.

As a result there has been a move toward durable, higher–density foams for support and comfort in quilting and topping layers. Foam manufacturers say they are constantly refining the comfort and support layers to provide long–lasting bounce back. These layers often back up the polyurethane topper or quilting foams described as “super soft.”

“We’ve come up with Strata Flex, a fiber–replacement polyurethane foam,” says Michael Crowell, vice president of marketing at Flexible Foam in Spencerville, Ohio. “A foam feels as soft as fiber but retains its shape.”

The durability of latex is another solution to the single–sided compression dilemma, says Kevin Stein, director of marketing for Latex International in Shelton, Conn.

In fact, aside from the growth in all–latex beds, Stein says the biggest latex innovation his company sees is the “premier cushioning technology” in traditional innerspring beds.

“These are high–end spring beds where they’re putting an inch or two of latex right under the tick. They’re ‘hybrid beds,’” he says. “It’s about a 2–year–old trend and it’s driving the use of latex.”

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