There's No Place Like Home

By Sandra Levy, Associate Editor | March 18, 2010

Will impending flammability rules for upholstered furniture and "top of bed" ignite or snuff out opportunities for nonwovens suppliers?

The long-awaited flammability regulations for upholstered furniture and top of bed clothes are still in limbo. Still, nonwovens suppliers should brace themselves for the possibility that legislation may indeed be forthcoming.

Expanded legislation will undoubtedly cause headaches for furniture manufacturers who are already faced with rising costs and declining demand for their products due to the limping economy.  But, new legislation could be a boon for nonwovens suppliers who are ready to provide cost efficient flame retardant solutions for these manufacturers.           

Although there haven’t been any new Federal Register notices or other Commission decisions since the 2008 notice of proposed rulemaking for upholstered furniture, INDA’s director of government affairs Jessica Franken said, “According to CPSC staff, they are still doing related testing and research to support the continuing development of a possible rule and to address technical issues raised in the public comments submitted in response to the proposed rule.”
This includes full and small scale testing to validate the proposed test methods and research (being conducted by NIST) to develop standard test materials, including cigarettes and urethane foams, that could be incorporated into the proposed tests.

Additionally cigarette development work is essentially complete and foam work will continue through fiscal 2010.  “While staff has had to devote a lot of time and resources to the implementation of the 2008 CPSIA ruling, they are still working to complete the furniture work and develop regulatory options for the commission as soon as possible, but did not offer specifics about when that would be,” Ms. Franken said.

CPSC published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking in 2005 regarding bedding and received public comments. While there is no current activity in this project in fiscal year 2010,  research in this area is expected to resume in  2011.  

 “I would expect they turn their attention in the days ahead to some of the things they have worked on in the past like upholstered furniture and bed clothes, as well as new initiatives,” Ms. Franken opined.

Steve Ogle, INDA’s director of technical affairs chimed in, “Everyone is holding their breath because they have their arms around so many other issues. But if you go back to what happened in the bedding industry when (16 CFR) 1633 was passed and took effect, the barriers that made that standard possible were designed and built out of nonwovens. The future of comfortable, flame resistant barriers is nonwovens.”

In the meantime, Mr. Ogle advised the nonwovens industry to invest in research.  “There continues to be work done on both inherent FR and post-treated FR fiber structures and durable and nondurable FR finishes. There will be opportunities for all of those. The home market is always an opportunity market for flame barriers. Since the mattress legislation was enacted, more environmentally friendly things have been developed so companies need to continue to look at treatments and fiber structures that are more environmentally friendly, ” asserted Mr. Ogle.
Mr. Ogle suggested lab bench scale tests for flame resistance can help reduce costs associated with research. “Bench scale tests can be conducted on individual components and then compared to fully assembled mattresses and pieces of furniture and fully assembled bedding products. With bench scale tests, you can save time and money by testing components and sub-assemblies rather than have to assemble and test full-scale products. You still have to test the final product, but it gives you the best candidates to focus on,”  he said.

FR Innovations

Freudenberg Nonwovens, a player in the FR bedding market since the mattress flammability regulations went into effect, offers Celestia, a line of needlepunched fiber barriers that are inherently FR. The fibers are composed of cellulosic and polyester type fibers.
Pointing out that Freudenberg has been a longtime participant in FR in other areas ranging from aircraft seating to firemen’s suits, James Frasch, general manager of mattress FR said the FR mattress market is a growth area for Freudenberg.  “There was a lot of learning involved in developing products for the mattress industry because it’s a different standard, but we knew a lot walking into it and we learned how to do it at a very economical price point,” he said.
Freudenberg worked with Lilly Management Group to develop prototypes for their customer base. “The suppliers became the experts in the mattress standard in order to help the manufacturers pass the tests and do their paper work,” Mr. Frasch said.  All the suppliers spent a lot of money in FR product development and in mattress prototype development as required by the standard.
Another company making the most of continuing growth in FR materials is Precision Textiles, which supplies fiber components for bedding and top of the bed applications.
Gerry Welkley, Precision Textiles’ national sales manager, acknowledged that the economic crisis has increased supply and lowered demand. “There aren’t a lot of new homes being built so pricing for our products has continued to erode. Raw material costs seem to be edging up too so you have the dynamics of low demand for our products, yet raw materials continue to increase. It’s been a tough environment for all of us,” said Mr. Welkley.

Precision Textiles offers Precision Flame Protection Satin line, a FR High Loft Barrier. “It is a fiber product placed underneath the ticking or the top fabric of the bed and also in the border of the bed to totally encapsulate the bed (mattress and foundation) from an open flame,” said Mr. Welkley.

Leigh Fibers recently introduced SafeLeigh, an aramid fiber. George Martin, executive vice president of sales and marketing said,  “We’ve included in a blend an aramid fiber that is inherently FR. We use cuttings from the manufacturing process for firemen’s jackets, bullet-proof vests and any type of protective gear that prevents someone from cuts or being burned. The material is added into our mix. It’s recycled material from post industrial waste and has inherent properties. We have a dry process as opposed to a wet process.”  

One-Sided Solutions

The emergence of one-sided mattresses is a trend that is becoming dominant. In response, Precision Textiles introduced  a needlepunch nonwoven that’s usually placed on the bottom of a one-sided mattress. “When you look at a mattress normally there is a quilted soft top. Now most everybody is going to ‘one-sided’ so the bottom of the mattress is flat,” Mr. Welkley said.
Precision Textiles also offers a stitch bonded product dubbed Endure. “The stitch bond has more tensile strength than needlepunch,” he added.  

Precision’s latest offering is FR lamination. The process involves taking a needlepunch FR fiber and laminating it to the ticking or top fabric of the bed.  Lamination is used more in high end lines.
“They’ll take a suede fabric that has a smooth, soft look and no quilting lines or patterns. It improves the performance to the flame protection because you don’t have the needling of the quilting going in and out of the barrier. It’s all laminated so it’s all smooth. Having the needling going in and out allows more heat from the flame to pass through to the other components in the bed. If it reaches a certain level of heat it could convert it over to a flame,” said Mr. Welkley.
Cost Consciousness

When it comes to FR chemicals, nonwovens producers are looking for flexibility and cost effectiveness. In response, Huntsman International is offering Flovan CGN, a flame retardant made of phosphorous nitrogen based products that work on all fiber types.
 “One thing that is important for nonwovens manufacturers is they want to have products or chemicals that are flexible,”  said Pat Eberlein, business development manager, FR Barrier Materials.

Huntsman’s product works on all fiber types so it allows the nonwovens manufacturers to be more innovative and have more flexibility. They can use various fiber types so they can make their intimate blends. A lot of topical products either work only on cellulose or only on polyester.”
Huntsman’s product covers all the fiber types which allows a nonwoven company a lot more flexibility to lessen the price of their product, make a product that is stronger and more resilient. It is used now in certain upholstered furniture applications.

FR Barrier Materials

Another experienced player, Milliken Specialty Nonwovens offers Paladin, a full line of FR materials for the mattress market. The highloft nonwoven is the main product. The line also includes knit sleeves for visco elastic beds as well as decorative covers. All of the Milliken FR barriers provide inherently flame retardant solutions.

Bob Champion, Milliken’s general manager said the company anticipated mattress legislation and started working on a product a full year and a half before the rules went into effect. “Serta started making compliant beds long before the legislation and it was largely through knowing them that we started looking at it, he said.

Milliken started out with a  nonwoven airlaid barrier and has since expanded its product offering to include various knit products for visco elastic beds, latex or memory foam beds.
“The solution that works on a traditional inner spring bed has not proven to be adequate for some of these heavier or more exotic foams,” Mr. Champion added. That’s a pretty high growth part of the market so we focused a lot of the effort in the last year in making products that work for this segment of the market. They tend to be higher priced but they do require a little different solution.

Peering Into The Future

While it’s anyone’s guess when legislation will be enacted for upholstered furniture and top of the bed applications, FR suppliers agree that if new legislation is enacted it will present opportunities for  nonwovens players.

Precision’s Mr. Welkley said, “We have things pretty much on the shelf ready to go. It all depends on how stringent the test criteria are.  The products we’re involved with in bedding would be adjusted to fit the other markets.  You either increase the fiber performance or decrease it depending on the test criteria they end up with.”

Emphasizing that future legislation will be costly to furniture manufacturers, Mr. Welkley said,“Bedding legislation was a huge cost for all the testing that had to be done plus the components themselves. We can work with those customers to come up with an economical solution because we’ve done a tremendous amount of work in the bedding market from where it started to where it is today.”

Costs have already come down in mattresses and Mr. Welkley is confident his company can do the same for other FR areas.  “We can help makers of top of the bed products and furniture manufacturers to get to an economical solution,” he said. “We are continuing to look at what is the new solution that’s even better. Now it’s become a commodity. There could be some new technology—a new innovation that we would see that would be beneficial.”

Huntsman’s Mr. Eberlein also views future legislation as an opportunity for companies that already have experience with FR. His company’s FR product for mattresses, for example was created for the automotive industry, which originally had pretty stringent FR requirements.

 “When this mattress thing came about we were able to pull this product in,” said Mr. Eberlein. “Its advantage for home use is we have this nonwoven we want to put in a furniture but we’ll have polyester, cellulose in there wouldn’t it be great if we had a FR that covers both fiber types.  It works on multiple fiber types.”

While Freudenberg’s Mr. Frasch believes there is opportunity for growth for nonwovens companies in the FR mattress sector, he was cautiously optimistic about opportunities in the furniture and top of bed market because of the testing. “The furniture market would be an opportunity, but it’s not clear yet whether nonwoven fabrics will be a big player in the furniture standard. With mattresses it’s a composite standard—you are testing an entire mattress. With the furniture standard, what’s been proposed is testing based on mock-ups and individual components. It’s not necessarily guaranteed that nonwovens would play a big part in it.”
Mr. Eberlein envisions that future legislation will be as much of a boon to nonwovens suppliers as mattress legislation proved to be. “They’ve been able to add lines and make more money. There were some companies who previously weren’t in that area. They weren’t targeting airlaid nonwovens. When the new legislation came about they had production lines that had dryers and chemical application equipment so they were able to pick up business,” he said.
“Try to be ready,” he continued.  “Get ahead of the curve. Be involved in coming up with standardized testing and be involved in the work teams that get together that form these testing procedures in Washington. More and more people are learning the value and flexibility of nonwovens. This new legislation can open up the doors of nonwovens because there’s so much you can do with nonwovens. You can make a highloft to a scrim. You can make a needlepunch. You can build a component that goes in the home and there are many different ways to make it work.”

Mr. Champion seconded Mr. Eberlein’s thoughts. “If it happens we’re ready for it. We’re already working on solutions. It will be an opportunity to grow. Those two pieces of proposed regulation have been sitting out there for a long time. I don’t see it happening in the near term.  We also make mattress pads in order to broaden our offer to the bedding market.”

     Finally, nonwovens players may want to heed Mr. Ogle’s recommendation: “If they want to play, they are going to have to do the work now. The research needs to be done so that your product is ready. Eventually it will be a standard, we don’t know when it will be but, as always, the nonwovens industry will have the answers.                                                              v