FR: Is the industry ready for Round 2?

by Jim Parsons

What a difference two years make.

When the mattress industry converged in Indianapolis for ISPA EXPO 2004, there were plenty of potential answers for complying with the impending open–flame bed set standard in California. The problem was that nobody was quite sure they were asking the right questions.

At the time, some manufacturers and suppliers were still uncertain whether Technical Bulletin 603 would be implemented as scheduled in January 2005 or if the California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation would tinker with the testing and performance criteria. Some manufacturers seemed content to wait until the last minute to settle on a compliance strategy, raising fears of FR material shortages and price spikes.

Fast forward 24 months to San Antonio and ISPA EXPO 2006. Flammability was again the hot topic, with more than 40 exhibitors offering FR materials and services. This time around, the industry has more than a year of experience working with a California regulation that in many important respects resembles the federal open–flame standard approved by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission that will take effect July 1, 2007.

The result, it seems, is that at least some of the earlier uncertainty about flammability has given way to confidence.

“Over the past two years, the flammability issue has defined itself into an understandable form for what we’ll be faced with in regulations,” said Norm Rosenblatt, chief executive officer of Therapedic New England. “Most groups have identified a course of action and are following it.”

Darryl Tarbutton, president of Bemco in Des Plaines, Ill., agreed: “There is better education in the industry, suppliers have better products and manufacturers have time to proceed with an orderly compliance process using California as a guide.”

Supply–side perspectives

The marketplace for FR materials has evolved significantly since 2004, as well. Mattress manufacturers can now choose from a wider range of proven FR options. There also are more vendors that have a better understanding of what mattress manufacturers need to do to comply with the standard.

“With TB 603, the initial goal was compliance,” said John Dottore, sales and marketing manager for DuPont Advanced Fibers Systems in Richmond, Va. “Since then, technology has allowed us to provide compliance, as well as comfort while also eliminating extra costs. We’re also able to tailor options to a manufacturer’s specific needs.”

Even relative newcomers to the business of FR materials for bedding say they have plenty to offer.

“We got into this segment two years ago,” said Nathan Dry, director of technical fabrics for Cortina Fabrics in Swepsonville, N.C. “Nearly every (product) is a response to a manufacturer’s need or question.”

The range of potential solutions goes a long way in helping manufacturers climb the

flammability experience curve, said Pete McGill, vice president of research and development for Performance Fabrics & Fibers in Andrews, S.C.

“In 2004, manufacturers were trying to figure out what material to use and how to make mattresses with it,” he said. “Now, small manufacturers can pick a supplier, find out if they have an FR material and how well it works, then ask their help in building the mattress.”

And with FR products having moved from the realm of research and development to full–scale production, manufacturers can enjoy somewhat better prices than was the case during the ramp–up to TB 603.

“Along with improving our products, we’ve also worked to streamline our processes,” said Frank Kelly of Elk Fabric Technologies Inc. in Dallas, “The cost in 2004 was 2 1/2 times what it is now.”

Familiar territory

But the more some things change, the more others stay the same. Many FR material suppliers worry that the pattern of manufacturer responses they saw in California will repeat itself on a national basis as the calendar counts down to July 1, 2007.

“Larger companies have more at stake, and they’re the ones that showed the most interest at first,” said Todd Cooper of Pacific Upholstery Supply in Gardena, Calif. “It filters down to the smaller, independent companies that will do something at the last minute.”

Dottore noted that a small mattress manufacturer may sit on the sidelines, “because they see themselves as fast and flexible.”

“Unfortunately, there are hundreds of others that see themselves the same way,” he said. “If too many people wait too long, the rush at the end could overwhelm suppliers and testing labs.”

Larry Volkmann of Stork Twin City Testing, based in St. Paul, Minn., agrees that too much complacency could have dire consequences.

“Manufacturers who haven’t started developing a compliance strategy may not understand the time commitment required for design and construction,” he said. “As we get closer to the deadline for the federal standard, our backlogs will get longer and we’ll have less flexibility to accommodate manufacturers.”

Then there are the federal standard’s documentation and labeling requirements, which are far more extensive than what manufacturers must meet under TB 603.

“The fact that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission can enforce this standard with a paper audit is big,” said Harrison Murphy, president of Ventex in Great Falls, Va. “They don’t have to visit you, as is the case in California.”

In an effort to clarify requirements of the federal standard, issues such as compliance and documentation were addressed at a flammability SHOPtalk held the day before the opening of ISPA EXPO in San Antonio. Additional SHOPtalks sponsored by the International Sleep Products Association and Sleep Products Safety Council will be held around the country in 2006. BedTimes also is working with the CPSC to present a series of articles on subjects such as pooling, prototype testing, recording–keeping and labeling requirements.

“I’ve seen more activity from the CPSC locally in the last three months than in the previous 30 years,” said Jeff Friedman of Turner Fiberfill Inc. in Montebello, Calif. “It’s a sign that they are serious about enforcing safety standards.”

There’s no time like now

Perhaps the most important echo from 2004 heard in San Antonio was the need for mattress manufacturers to take advantage of all available resources in preparing for the federal open–flame standard.

“They should definitely work with the FR suppliers,” said Mary Sharkey, vice president of manufacturing for McRoskey Mattress Co. in San Francisco. “We wouldn’t have gained the knowledge we needed without their help and patience.”

Cortina’s Dry added that time is definitely not on anyone’s side.

“Manufacturers should be on this by the first of June of this year,” he said. “Even if they decide down the road to change their FR material or construction strategy, they’ll at least be learning the process.”

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