The global recession of 2008–2009 has significantly reduced demand for polyurethane foams in most countries and regions according to a report by CEH Marketing Research. Demand in 2009 will be down by 3–35% depending on the product and country or region. Some companies, especially old and/or small production facilities, are expected to shut down permanently and others with multiple manufacturing sites could close some capacity. For most regions of the world, demand for flexible polyurethane foams is expected to grow at an average annual rate of about 2–4% from 2008 to 2013. Demand for rigid foams will grow at a faster rate. However, assuming that most countries will face drastic drops in 2009 demand (0–5% in the strongest economies to 5–20% in the United States and Western Europe), average annual growth rates of 5–15% are forecast for 2009–2013.
Polyurethane (PU) foams constitute the largest category of cellular polymeric materials. They are produced, for the most part, either in flexible or in rigid form. Within these major 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 and rigid PU foams for insulation. For some applications, foams that have some stiffness and some elasticity are produced; in the trade, they are called semiflexible or semirigid foams. Flexible polyurethane foam is used primarily as a cushioning material in furniture, transportation and bedding applications. Rigid polyurethane foam is utilized mainly as an insulation material in construction and refrigeration/freezer applications. Flexible polyurethane foams account for 54% of global consumption, but the split with rigid polyurethane foams varies by region. Rigid foams constitute more than 50% of total polyurethane foam consumption in China and Mexico, which are important manufacturing sites for refrigerators and freezers. Several thousand producers worldwide manufacture polyurethane foams, frequently at several plant locations. Most foam producers concentrate their efforts on either flexible or rigid foam because the markets and technologies are quite different. In recent years, the industry has witnessed a concentration process, primarily in the United States and Western Europe. Current production capacity for both flexible and rigid polyurethane foams is adequate to meet demand.
Polyurethane foam producers are challenged with manufacturing “greener” products—that is, 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 automobile seating manufacturers provide products made with bio-based polyols (the renewable content is widely varied).