The foam crisis: One year later

By Karl Kunkel

“It seems like a distant memory at this point,” says Kerry Tramel, referring to the impact of shortages and price hikes for the polyurethane foam used in bedding and upholstery last autumn. “I don’t know of anyone who is concerned about supplies at this point in time.”

Tramel, president of Oklahoma City–based bedding maker Lady Americana, would acknowledge, however, that pre–crisis low foam prices also are a distant memory. Foam availability generally is back to normal, but costs haven’t come down much.

The great foam shakeout started early last autumn, when supplies of TDI (toluene diisocyanate), a chemical used in polyurethane foam production, dried up and prices rose dramatically—in part because of the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hitting the U.S. Gulf Coast and in part because of closures and limited capacity of feeder chemical plants.

Bedding manufacturers scrambled to lock up the best deals they could from foam suppliers, while foam companies sought to do the same thing with their suppliers. Some foam companies instituted short–term allocations for bedding manufacturers of as much as 50% and foam prices, by many accounts, rose as much as 70%.

“It looks as though prices have pretty well stayed where they were,” says Perry Davis, president of Leggett & Platt’s Bedding Group, headquartered in Carthage, Mo. “It’s a double whammy when you take foam and wire. That’s a pretty good percentage of the raw material in a set of bedding.”

But Bob Steelman, vice president of sales and marketing for Carpenter Co., a supplier of foam and fiber based in Richmond, Va., expects both supplies and prices for TDI–based foams to loosen more as a new feeder chemical plant in China gets up to speed. The $1 billion plant is a joint venture involving BASF, Huntsman and several Chinese partners. One of the plant’s primary products is TDI. A start–up ceremony was held in mid–August.

“Right now, foam supplies are still on the tight side but more stable,” Steelman says.

Steelman estimates that polyurethane foam prices are up substantially over last year because of feeder chemical price increases. In contrast, he says, he has seen some price jumps in polyester fiber pads, which can be used as foam replacement materials, but those increases have been less significant.

“There aren’t a lot of options out there that offer the same support and cushioning,” Steelman says. “Foam would have to get outrageous before (mattress manufacturers) went back to the old cotton and those things. You just don’t get the same support and comfort.”

There’s more to this story. Read about it in the November 2006 issue of BedTimes…