Published October 2016
Polyurethane (PU) foams are produced, for the most part, in either flexible or rigid form. Within these groups, the density and other properties vary depending on the end use. PU foams offer an attractive balance of performance characteristics (aging properties, mechanical strength, elastic properties, chemical resistance, insulating properties) and cost. Flexible PU foams are used primarily for cushioning (for furniture, bedding, and automobile seating) and rigid polyurethane and polyisocyanurate (PU/PIR) foam for insulation (for construction and refrigeration). For some applications, foams that have some stiffness and some elasticity are produced; in the trade, these are called semiflexible or semirigid foams.
Regionally, polyurethane foam demand is relatively close to production because trade is not economic over larger distances. Even within the United States and China, supply geographically follows demand very closely. However, in Europe, trade in higher-valued foams and compressed foam rolls has increased significantly over the last few years.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of PU/PIR foam:
The major drivers for global polyurethane foam markets are regulation and energy efficiency (for rigid foam insulation); an increasing world population, particularly a rising middle class in the emerging markets (for flexible foam); and increased use for refrigeration (rigid foam). Flexible PU foams generally track global GDP, while rigid PU/PIR foams generally track slightly higher than the global GDP.
Polyurethane foam producers are challenged around the globe with manufacturing "greener" PU foams with improved sustainability and environmental characteristics—for example, polyurethane foams produced with bio-based polyols, rigid foams made with blowing agents with low global warming potential (GWP), and foams not using PBDE (polybrominated diphenylether) fire retardants. Many flexible PU foam producers and automotive seating manufacturers provide products made with bio-based polyols (the renewable content is widely varied). However, market penetration of "green" PU was still minor in most of the global PU markets in 2015.
China is the largest polyurethane foam market in the world, with a 75% share in Asia and 31% share globally in 2015. The important ﬂexible foam markets are in furniture and bedding. The major rigid foam markets are refrigerators and construction insulation, which grew signiﬁcantly, as government tax incentives and rebates encouraged purchases of replacement appliances. Even though projected growth will be slightly lower than historical rates because of the slowdown in the Chinese economy, growth in consumption of polyurethane foam is expected to average 4–5% per year in 2015–20.
During 2015–20, consumption in the Americas is forecast to increase in line with GDP levels at an average annual rate of about 3.5%. Growth drivers are the bedding and transportation sectors for ﬂexible foam and the construction and refrigerator/freezer markets for rigid foam. The latter market will see growth primarily in Mexico and only to a lesser extent in the United States and Canada. Central and South America was one of the few regions in the world to experience a decline in PU foam consumption during 2012–15, mainly because of the recessions in Brazil and Venezuela.
Western European polyurethane markets were negatively impacted by the economic downturn in 2008–09 and the insecurity caused by the debt crisis in southern European countries in 2012. While overall consumption has improved since then, recovery of ﬂexible PU foams has been weaker than the average market and had yet to return to prerecessionary levels by 2015, because of the maturity of the bedding and furniture markets. Consumption of rigid polyurethane (including PIR) foams, however, has reached all-time highs. Growth of PU/PIR foam consumption is forecast at an average annual rate of 2–3% through 2020.
The Indian polyurethane foam market is fast-growing for uses such as insulation for construction and refrigeration, as well as for flexible foam for car seats and two-wheeler seats. Flexible foam accounts for the largest share of the Indian polyurethane industry and will be the faster growing market through the forecast period. Overall consumption of PU foam is expected to increase at an average of 6–7% per year through 2020.
PU foam markets in Japan have been gradually decreasing. Declining automobile production in Japan resulted in decreased ﬂexible foam consumption, while consumption of rigid foam decreased because of the shift of refrigeration equipment manufacture from Japan to other Asian countries. A further decline in the consumption of ﬂexible foam is expected during 2015–20, as Japanese automobile production continues to fall. On the other hand, the consumption of rigid foam is expected to increase, especially for construction markets. Japanese foamers have actively participated in developing environmentally friendly products by adopting CO2 foaming technology to improve their competitiveness and sustainability.