By Stephan C. Kratzer, Business Development Director Technical & Flooring Division.
While it’s rarely in plain view, flexible Polyurethane foam plays an important role in virtually all the world’s planes, trains, and automobiles. In fact, without the right foam, our journeys would not only be less comfortable, but they could have a larger environmental impact and even be more dangerous.
The Vita Group is a leading global supplier of flexible PU foam to the automotive, aviation and rail industries with our solutions valued by our customers across the world. Our foam is used in Automotive markets for interior trim applications and engineered components, such as seating, headrests, headliners, roof pillars, door panels, car mats, tyres, electric vehicle batteries and vehicle acoustics.
For decades, we’ve also been providing a full range of soft furnishing goods for aviation and rail seating. This has seen us design, manufacture and supply foam cushions, mattresses, armrests, dress covers, and upholstery.
PU foam has become an indispensable part of today’s transportation industry and is helping solve key challenges the sector is facing.
One of the most apparent uses for foam in the transport world is to cushion seats, armrests and floors to make trips more pleasant. In the aviation sector, the selection of different shapes and materials can have a significant effect on how suitable a seat is for sitting and sleeping. In addition, the headrest, backrest and bottom cushions will need to be suitable for the structure and application of the seat in question. Factors such as the cut and sew of fabric, choice of leatherette or leather as well as padding, stitching, embossing, and edging can all influence the selection of foam.
To enhance comfort levels, foam can be adapted using special ingredients to change properties such as its rebound (or ‘springiness’) and to provide better support for the user. Wrinkle-reducing properties are also very important in seating to avoid the padding moving out of shape.
Increasing the foam’s durability will make sure that it can provide all these comfort benefits for longer, so users and operators don’t have to worry about journeys becoming uncomfortable over time.
Noise reduction is another way flexible PU foam makes journeys more enjoyable. A lot of time is spent in the transport sector solving NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness) issues. The foam within a vehicle can affect the sound in many ways, for example through absorption, damping, sound deadening and insulation. This can help quieten intrusive noises from the engines and mechanical parts as well as the tyres, other passengers or external sources.
Achieving the right acoustic performance requires us to take a deep dive into the mechanics of sound and know how it travels. By understanding both this and foam science, we can influence how much or how little sound is absorbed by using different materials and production processes or changing the foam’s cell structure and air permeability. We often work closely with customers to tailor-make grades of foam to meet specific acoustic requirements.
Getting the weight right is key to this aspect of the vehicle’s foam composition, as the higher the mass the more it will insulate sound. Achieving the optimum balance of noise reduction and weight is vital since making a vehicle heavier or lighter will affect its performance, handling and energy demands.
Safety is a crucial factor, as regardless of the vehicle in question it’s vital that the people and goods in transit reach their destination healthy and undamaged. When it comes to foam, this means complying with demanding fire resistance requirements by incorporating flame-resistant additives into the formulation.
For public transport systems, the foam must exhibit particularly exacting flame retardancy properties. In the rail sector, we have developed foam grades that are designed to meet the strictest industry flammability standards. These solutions were initially developed for the UK market (specifically BS 6853 and BS 5852) and were later certified for the very strict European Standard regarding fire protection on railway vehicles (EN45545-2:2020).
The success of our graphite foam means it has been recently introduced to the US rail market and it has been proven to meet the USA’s material flammability benchmarks (ASTM D 3675).
Being available in moulded and block foam options also means that this type of foam provides rail car designers with a lot of flexibility and options. Thanks to the fact that these foams are not made using chemicals such as melamine or other ingredients that require mandatory labelling, they have the added benefit of using fewer toxic ingredients in the production process.
The transport industry is working hard to become as sustainable as possible. This has made our solutions produced using bio polyols and re-polyols very popular in the sector due to their environmental profile. Our bio polyol foams, such as OriginTM, use ingredients from sustainable sources such as soya, pine and castor, while our re polyol foams, like OrbisTM, use raw materials from recycled foam.
We’re looking at life cycle assessments to understand the environmental impacts of our products from cradle to grave. To achieve full circularity, we offer transport customers the opportunity to recycle end-of-life foam cushions and use them in new products.
We’ve been playing a role in helping the automotive industry move away from fossil fuels by creating foams suitable for car battery conductivity and which protect batteries from impacts, heat insulation and sealing. Innovative products like these for Hybrid EV batteries are becoming more and more important as E-mobility takes an increasing share of the market.
This is an ever-evolving challenge and we often undertake bespoke research with customers, suppliers, universities and industry organisations to ensure that foams are available to suit the latest transport demands.
Our ability at Vita to provide comprehensive customer service, ranging from material selection and prototype construction to acoustic and burn tests and series production, is also highly valued. This service is particularly important to getting the balance of properties right and landing upon the ideal, customised specification that fits a vehicle’s unique shape and requirements.
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