Polyurethanes Are A Comfort Zone In Cold Economic Climate

As well as with other European plastics sectors, Italy is suffering from the effects of the global downturn. Plastics and rubber machinery trade association Assocomaplast says after positive growth from 1999 to 2001, Italian suppliers suffered a 4% decrease in production value last year despite domestic demand rising 3.3%.

The polyurethanes sector remains relatively robust, however (see story on p. 52). PUR demand remains at a relatively high level, with consumption of some key raw materials growing by 10% last year.

Bayer systems house Deltapur, in Mussolente, says volumes rose 12% last year. Located next to Deltapur is the successful API, one of the few independent producers of thermoplastic urethanes remaining (it polymerizes and compounds). And PUR supplier COIM, in Milan, appears to be in good shape.

Dow Polyurethanes, which acquired EniChem's PUR activities two years ago, is trimming capacity in Italy, but this appears to be an internally-driven move rather than one influenced by the market.

Italy also has numerous PUR equipment suppliers, some of which were started by ex-employees of market leader Cannon, in Milan. They include OMS Group, in Verano Brianza (which reports strong interest in equipment for processing new viscoelastic foams for bedding); Perros, in Abbiategrasso, which concentrates mostly on the refrigeration market; SAIP, in Romano d'Inverigo; and Tec Mac, in Galliate, which has produced highly innovative equipment for special flexible foam applications.

Last year, Krauss-Maffei set up a competence center, Krauss-Maffei Italiana, in Abbiategrasso, to supply production machinery and systems for refrigerators and freezers on a worldwide basis. Walter Tesche, head of Krauss-Maffei's polyurethanes equipment business, says the operation is proving successful. "We are getting orders from all over," he says. The company recently shipped a large plant to the U.S. for the production of construction panels.

One of the latest applications for polyurethanes is gaskets produced in-situ for electrical boxes, automobile air filters, and other industrial equipment. Cannon faces competition from such German companies as Kern Liebers and EDF, but it is confident of having success in this market.

Cannon has sold 60 plants already. It started development in 1994, and initial sales began in 1997-1998. Now, it hopes to sell over 20 units/yr.

It calls its process MFiS, for Microshot Foam in-Situ. Units can dose at rates between 0.2 and 7 g/s. Foam density ranges from 200 to 450. The gaskets can replace those produced by extrusion, die-cutting, or molding, all of which need to be bonded to the part.

But it is furniture and bedding that consume the lion's share of polyure-thanes — 32%, according to London-based consultant IAL — and Italian companies are particularly strong.

Most PUR foaming for furniture is outsourced, but B&B Italia, in Novedrate, one of Italy's leading furniture producers, is an exception. It recently took delivery of a new carousel plant from Cannon for producing cushioning for chairs and sofas. It incorporates Cannon's 10,000th dosing machine.

The specially designed FP2L 32 foaming head, mounted on an anthropomorphic ABB robot, delivers up to 1300 cm3/s of material. B&B has some 400 molds that can run on the carousel, each requiring its own formulation. The mold carriers hold discs that are automatically read by the machine controller as they move into the dosing station, so the head doses accurately.

Most molds are opened and closed manually, but B&B is gradually changing to automatic operation. It has two other lines, with heads delivering around 550 and 850 cm3/s of material, respectively. The intention is to replace these two with a single line that will be both more reliable and flexible.

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