This producer of PU foam fabrication machinery offers creative solutions to keep bedding manufacturers moving along.
The past few years have posed an unusual mix of tough business challenges for the bedding industry, from coping with threats posed by the Covid-19 pandemic to managing widespread kinks in global supply chains. While a number of these challenges persist — along with some fresh ones, such as inflation — new opportunities have emerged, says Rick Hungerford Jr., president and chief executive officer of Edge-Sweets Co., a leading polyurethane foam machinery supplier based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
ESCO is a 140-year-old designer and assembler of foam fabrication machinery, cutting lines and polyurethane mixing and dispensing equipment. The company has seen its bedding-related business steadily increase since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020 as mattress makers ramped up production to meet a sudden spike in demand. And with the global supply chain continuing to pose challenges for offshore sourcing, as well as tariffs on Chinese bedding causing major changes in import strategies, Hungerford expects there to be a new wave of investment in North American mattress manufacturing going forward.
“Companies are trying to take things back into their own hands,” Hungerford says. “They’re frustrated by the uncertainty and expense that is involved in bringing in products from faraway places such as Asia.”
As a result, he expects to see quite a bit of investment in new factories and expanded facilities in North America in the next few years. “The Mexico market especially is going to really pick up,” he says. “We anticipate that a lot of the mattresses that were being produced in Asia will move to Mexico, and that’s going to create new demand for machinery.”
For decades, ESCO has offered highly specialized machines for cutting and processing polyurethane foams. Taking an engineer-to-order approach, ESCO uses modern manufacturing technologies, 3D modeling software and a finite element analysis approach to meet its customers’ requirements. Finite element analysis is a numerical method used for solving a multitude of complex engineering problems relating to solid and fluid mechanics. ESCO offers a diverse line of PU-related machinery that can be bought “off the shelf” in standard configurations or customized for specific needs.
Edge-Sweets Co. traces its beginnings to 1883 when Frank Edge fabricated his first jigsaw blades. Building on this start, Edge formed the Frank Edge Co. in 1887 to produce saw blades for the booming furniture industry in Michigan.
About a half century later, in 1949, Martin Sweets Co. was launched when physicist Martin Sweets went into business manufacturing electrical equipment. In 1956, he received a request from General Electric Co. to design and produce machinery to process polyurethane foam.
In the 1950s, Edge Saw was formed, manufacturing one of the first saws for cutting flexible foam rubber. By 1957, Edge Saw’s primary business was the manufacture of foam cutting equipment, and the company’s growth paralleled that of foam production in the United States, which, by the early 1960s, had begun to extend into the sleep industry.
In 1971, Edge Conveyor was formed to supply specialized conveyors for use in foam production. Then, in 1973, Edge purchased North American Urethanes, a specialist in the engineering and manufacture of urethane metering and dispensing equipment. The acquisition added foam and elastomer dispensers to the Edge product line, giving the company the ability to provide “wet end” systems for flexible and rigid foam. With the acquisition, Edge Industries became the only machinery company capable of supplying equipment for the production, processing and cutting of soft and rigid foam, according to its website.
In 1985, Edge-Sweets Co. was formed as Edge merged with Louisville, Kentucky-based Martin Sweets Co., combining the two companies’ lines of machinery and equipment for processing and cutting PU foam products.
Focus on PU foam machinery
Today, ESCO operates in a 90,000-square-foot facility in Grand Rapids. The company supplies a full range of PU foam fabrication machinery, including saws, slitters, trimmers, CNC (computer numerical control) machines and stackers and conveyors, as well as PU metering, mixing and dispensing systems. On the foam fabrication side of its business, ESCO services companies in the mattress, furniture, packaging, industrial insulation, medical and automotive industries. On the dispensing, or foam pouring side, it serves building products, defense, automotive and medical sectors, among others. Sleep products account for about 15% of total business, Hungerford says, adding that the company focuses its sales efforts on manufacturers in Canada, Mexico and the United States.
Hungerford has led ESCO since 2011. He took the helm shortly after the death of his father, Rick Hungerford Sr., a longtime certified public accountant who stepped in to lead ESCO in 2000.
Like his dad, Hungerford is a trained accountant. He started his career as a consultant with Deloitte & Touche before joining ESCO in 2001 as president. In that role, Hungerford oversaw a major redesign of the ESCO product line utilizing new manufacturing principles. Under his leadership, the company also developed a new web-based procurement system and implemented new levels of automation within the company’s enterprise resource planning system.
“My background is in accounting, so I speak the language of business and numbers, but I also have a passion for engineering, scientific concepts and ideas and advanced machinery,” Hungerford says. “I grew up with the TV series ‘MacGyver’ (a character known for fixing complex problems with whatever was at hand), and I love working with our highly skilled engineers on solving difficult issues for our customers. Together with our team, I’m always trying to push the envelope to make our machines faster, more efficient, and just generally better.”
Hungerford points to a new blade cleaning system that ESCO recently developed for its foam slitting machines as an example of the benefits of the company’s problem-solving mindset. Recognizing that gel beads embedded in mattress foams can gum up slitting blades, ESCO’s engineers came up with the system to remove gel and glue more easily from cutting blades.
ESCO also developed special cutting sequences for processing thin, sticky visco topper sheets called “Up and Over” that improve productivity and quality. In addition, the company was one of the first to introduce a silicone applicator that travels the width of the blade guide to apply a thin layer of silicone on both the top and bottom, enabling cutting machines to operate at full capacity for longer periods with fewer adjustments.
ESCO’s new VTX machine, introduced at the March 2022 ISPA EXPO, also has features that bring an enhanced level of speed and flexibility to mattress production lines. VTX is a high-speed trimming machine that performs like a vertical blade CNC machine but can run up to a ¾-inch blade rather than a standard 3.6-millimeter (0.14-inch) blade. In addition, the VTX is designed to use a double-edged blade, so the machine can cut from either side.
“Customers are able to trim all four sides of a king-size mattress with VTX in just 15 seconds,” Hungerford says. “And VTX can be used to trim finished mattress assemblies, as well as for processing rails for hybrid mattresses. In the case of rails, special sequences and batch capabilities are available for high-speed, high-yield processing.”
Because speed is such a priority in bedding production, ESCO is always on the lookout for new ways to shave the time involved in cutting foams and other tasks. Current projects include the development of a fully integrated “mattress factory” concept that provides automated assembly, gluing and trimming of foams on a series of connected machines, including ESCO’s HTX 51-88 horizontal foam splitter and its VTX 24-88 vertical trim saw. Due to be completed in the next year, with the introduction at the 2024 ISPA EXPO, ESCO’s “mattress factory” aims to reduce cycle times on mattresses going through these stages of production from several minutes to 30 seconds.
ESCO also is expanding its portfolio with a new series of automated pallet offload systems. The systems are used to place a full slit block of foam onto a mattress, Hungerford says. “From there, the loaded pallet is moved downstream for various secondary processes.”
Reducing logistical logjams
The fact that ESCO has been in business for more than a century gives it a unique edge, Hungerford says, “since customers know our track record and our commitment to quality and service. Another feature they like about us is that we build all our machines in the U.S. That’s a big plus in today’s uncertain — and costly — shipping environment.”
Because ESCO relies on sources in Germany for parts (such as controls, aluminum extrusions and actuators, and precision gear reducers), and in Asia for consumables (such as wire, pneumatic tubing and connectors), Hungerford knows first-hand how challenging supply chain flows have become since the onset of the pandemic. For some parts, demand has outpaced supply and — compounding the problem — shippers and ports have often been backed up.
“You really have to stay in front of it, so you don’t get surprised,” Hungerford says. “Otherwise, the delivery of an entire machine could be delayed due to a hang-up in the delivery of a single small part, like a pin for a connector.”
To make sure ESCO stays on track with its own production and shipping schedules, ESCO opted to streamline its product line in recent years to reduce the number of machines being produced. While the company still offers a variety of more basic legacy machines, it focuses most of its efforts on its latest generation of CNC machines and others with advanced automation features.
In addition, for the past three years, ESCO has been building most of its new machines to stock rather than waiting for orders to come in. This enables the company to get out in front with ordering the key electrical components and parts it needs, minimizing potential delays that could impact its ability to deliver on time.
Before any ESCO product is delivered to customers, it undergoes a rigorous quality control protocol process. The process starts with the offsite inspection of frames, which are machined by local specialists, and continues through every stage ESCO’s own in-house assembly of all components and electronics.
“Each machine is interacted with by several departments, starting with the production team to ensure that it is built to our standards,” Hungerford says. From there, engineers begin loading software programs and setting machine defaults. Prior to shipping, the service department performs a final sign-off.
For any first build of a new machine, ESCO requires that the lead engineer for that design be the person who puts the machine together. “This way, ESCO engineers have hands-on experience with the build and can find solutions to make the system better,” Hungerford says.
ESCO employs about 55 people, including 10 product engineers. Many of the company’s employees have worked with ESCO for 20 years or more. While finding and securing talent for its team is ESCO’s top challenge right now, the company’s track record of success and entrepreneurial spirit has been a good drawing card for filling open positions, Hungerford says.
“We don’t have a broad middle layer of management,” he says. “Instead, we place a lot of responsibility on all our staff to wear many hats and be versed in many topics within the company. That’s gives everyone a chance to grow and succeed.”
While designing production machinery may not be on the radar for new engineering graduates, “a career with ESCO offers the chance to have an immediate real-world impact,” Hungerford says. “We’re designing machines that are used to make important products that people use every day. The work is fast-paced and always changing, since customers count on us to solve their production challenges.”
Customers bring challenges to ESCO in the form of machinery specifications — can a process be made simpler or faster, for example — “and sometimes they will nudge us in a direction of a wish list item or project they’d like us to consider.”
The producer also identifies new opportunities by studying patterns in customer demand and common challenges shared by customers. While artificial intelligence isn’t a big topic yet for ESCO, Hungerford sees potential opportunities emerging for the company to use AI in 3D printing prototypes and for CAD/CAM machining.
When it comes to supporting customers at the plant level, most ESCO machines have an onboard PC or built-in programmable logic controller that provides its engineers with remote access. In addition, the company has a team of five traveling technicians and four deployable engineers who are available to visit plant locations and troubleshoot machines for any problems that may emerge.
On the parts side, ESCO last year launched FoamFabSupply.com, a source for most standard parts for popular ESCO machines as well as blades and other cutting tools for competitors’ machinery. Parts listed on the site are available to ship the same day if an order is placed by 2 p.m. eastern time. The company also offers blade subscriptions at a discount so customers can set up blades to be automatically replenished based on monthly demand.