The largest end user for polymer foams is in the construction industry; mainly for thermal insulation, but it is also used for acoustic insulation and as structural landfill in civil engineering projects. Applications in the construction industry account for over 58% of the overall demand for polymer foams. Packaging is the second largest end use application for polymer foams; mainly for a variety of short-term applications to protect consumer and commercial goods during storage and transit, or for food and drink packaging. The remaining sales of polymer foams are in a variety of applications; including automotive and other transportation vehicles, furniture upholstery and bedding mattresses, domestic and commercial refrigerators and other applications that each use relatively small volumes of a range of foam types.
The growth in demand for polymer foams depends on a number of factors; although there are some common themes that will influence several end use markets, these factors may differ from end application to end application, and region by region.
- Demand for construction materials will depend on government and private construction investment in buildings and infrastructure, on the application of existing building codes and regulations, and the introduction of new and more demanding amendments. It will also be influenced by support schemes for refurbishments and energy saving initiatives, not just in Europe and North America but to address the ageing building stock in countries such as China.
- Increases in urbanisation and the growing size of the middle class population, resulting in increased disposable income levels, will affect segments such as furniture and bedding, packaging, automotive, footwear, and sports & leisure.
- One factor that could have a negative influence on polymer foam demand is in the use of polymer foams for packaging, where it faces challenges around its environmental credentials and their limited recycling options.
New developments in biodegradable foam materials are starting to address some of the concerns on recyclability and waste disposal.
The shares of high-performance polymer foam demand vary significantly from that of the overall polymer foam market due to the varying performance expectations from different end-use segments. The packaging industry, for example, has short-term life expectations for polymer foams; the materials being discarded once the item being protected has been delivered to the consumer. In contrast, the automotive industry has high-performance standards for all the materials that are used in its end products, and this sector is consequently the largest end user of high-performance polymer foams. The demands of the construction industry are much more varied, and while this segment is the largest overall user of polymer foams, it is relegated to second position in terms of demand for high-performance products. Footwear takes a more prominent position in demand for these foams, and the medical device industry, while still small, represents an important high value-added market sector.
Trends in demand for high-performance polymer foams
As higher demands are placed on different industry segments, requiring higher performance from the materials they use, the polymer foam industry must develop new technologies, or improve on existing ones, to meet these more stringent requirements. Properties that are being improved include:
- Reductions in VOCs (volatile organic compounds) to improve workers’ health and the surrounding environment during manufacturing processes, and of TVOCs (total volatile organic compounds), which are volatiles that are emitted during the lifetime of the finished product to improve indoor air quality and reduce health risks to occupants.
- Better insulation properties, which will enable the production of thinner insulation boards that will still provide the required level of thermal insulation.
- Foams with higher inherent fire safety performance for building insulation and in the automotive and transportation industries.
- Other developments involve the investigation of the performance enhancements obtainable from micro and nanoporous polymer foams, syntactic foams, and by addition of nanomaterials such as graphene and nanosilica.
The trend within the automotive industry is to further reduce the weight of vehicles, and consequently improve their fuel economy. The OEMs are also looking to make cost savings where possible by reducing the amount of materials required to manufacture the different components. Polymer foams offer solutions to both these objectives, and their use will increase over the next five to ten years for both interior and exterior components.
There is a strong growth in demand for casual and sports footwear in every region, particularly by younger people, and from a more casual attitude to clothing that can be worn in the workplace. These types of footwear are generally constructed with a midsole area that serves to cushion the impact when walking and improve comfort. A growing demand for sports equipment as populations become increasingly health conscious, together with increasing disposable income in fast-growing economies in Asia, is driving demand for better, lighter and more sophisticated sports footwear. This is stimulating the development of new polymer foam types that will match or improve on the performance of existing foams used for midsoles, but with lighter weight.