Meet Julie Walker and Rowland Murphy, the innovation experts helping to reshape the future of flexible PU foam

Innovation is part of The Vita Group’s DNA. From our early beginnings, Vita has set itself apart from its competitors by pushing the boundaries of PU foam development. Never taking our foot off the pedal, today, we operate four state-of-the-art innovation centres, focused on improving sustainability and driving the circular economy.

Investment in cutting-edge technology has been a major contributing factor to our continued success. But tech is nothing without experts to optimise it, and we are exceptionally proud of our team of highly skilled and knowledgeable scientists, whose passion and experience propels our business to make new discoveries and expand possibilities in polyurethane science.
Understanding what motivates these individuals and what they consider to be The Vita Group’s greatest achievements and future goals, provides an authentic insight into our company’s culture and mission.

Scientist Julie Walker is the Technical and Manufacturing Manager at Vita Comfort and encapsulates the long-standing commitment that we have to innovation. Having been with our company for 28 years, Julie – who graduated from the University of Salford with a Chemistry BSc – is a cornerstone of our Innovation Team. The team helps to explore new product concepts; developing new ideas, formulations, and materials to support the next generation of PU foam solutions.

Julie is based at the Innovation Centre in Middleton, which covers wet chemistry (developing new foam grades), the physical property testing of foam grades and mattress analysis. The centre combines Vita’s technical expertise in foam chemistry with the latest state-of-the-art testing equipment and systems and is specifically designed to provide our customers with the ability to follow a complete development program from initial concept through to finished foam core. In recent years, the centre has delivered significant innovations.

The whole focus of the Innovation Centre in Middleton is the customer. We wanted to create the environment and provide the tools to enable us to work with customers, understand their requirements and generate solutions. Several customers have held innovation workshops at the Middleton centre, which have provided our UK team with objectives and priorities for development.

Talking about her own ‘Eureka’ moments, working at the coalface of Vita innovation.

There have been a lot of memorable occasions over the years but one of the most important developments in recent history was the FRee™ range of foams. These were developed straight from the production plant by constantly pushing the boundaries of what was possible in terms of compliance with the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations. The product was born from the team not accepting perceived limits for foam manufacture and always striving to improve quality and performance. As a result, we were able to manufacture a full range of foam grades which are FRee™ from phosphorus-based flame retardants.

Looking to the future, Julie, like the rest of the Vita team is laser-focused on sustainability and helping the company lead the way in terms of waste reduction and raw material repurposing.

We are targeting sustainability on multiple fronts. We are directly and positively impacting our carbon footprint by using polyol (base raw material) from renewable resources which in part reduces our reliance on the petrochemical processes. These foams reside under the Origin™ banner and utilise castor, soy and sunflower oil feedstocks.

The Vita Group also has the rebonded foam Novus™ range, which consumes post-production trim from both foam manufacture and foam conversion processes helping us achieve zero waste to landfill across several of our sites and we are working to achieve this globally.

Post-consumer waste is being addressed via recycling processes, which is highly innovative and fully circular. Post-consumer mattresses are deconstructed and processed to produce a recycled polyol. The polyol is then added back into foam manufacture as a raw material to produce the Orbis™ range of foam grades.

In all cases, these are steps along the road to sustainability. The greater challenges remain in increasing the proportion of foam that’s produced by these innovations and developing new technologies to make the ‘greenest’ product possible and supporting a circular economy.

Taking on these challenges is where Rowland Murphy, Vita’s Technical Division Innovation Manager and another of our advancement champions, also sees the future of the business.

Ultimately the full circularity of flexible polyurethane foams is the goal. It is our hope that with work being undertaken to feed product back in as a starting material that this can be realised over time. Looking at 10 years out I would expect that we will be using a lot more Bio-based polyols and on the journey of circularity with repolyol containing foams, and I would expect within the next 10 years the target of circularity will be realised.

Rowland is well-placed to understand Vita Group’s forward trajectory. He joined the company in 1986 as a Development Technologist working in the laboratory at the Middleton site and was involved in the development of Combustion Modified Polyurethane Foams. It was a pivotal time in the flexible PU foam industry.

I could not have predicted the fundamental shift in the market that was to occur in 1988 with the introduction of fire performance regulations for Furniture and Furnishings but, as I learnt, the work I was involved in was typical of Vita’s approach of being prepared for market change and investing in technology and processes in readiness.

Rowland progressed through a number of roles within the business and was involved in some of Vita’s most exciting advancements.

As Innovation Manager, Rowland now works with the technical foam business at plants in the UK, The Netherlands and Germany and has witnessed the refurbishment of our existing technical laboratory and the installation of a  pilot plant to support both technical and comfort foam development.

With an emphasis on sustainable materials the Pilot Plant facility is envisaged to bring new possibilities to commercial realisation at an ever-increasing pace. Once again Vita is preparing to lead market change.

Like Julie, Rowland also sees trials and opportunity ahead.

We must recognise that there is a potential that our materials could be persistent in the environment and whilst we do an excellent job with the management of our post-industrial waste, we cannot ignore the post-consumer waste and the potential effect on the environment.

We are looking at all the options in front of us to reduce our environmental impact and continuing our journey of transferring into sustainable raw materials – with cooperation between suppliers and consumers this is forming a solid base to move our industry into a sustainable product. Education is at the heart of this. Not only within the industry but as outreach to wider society to ensure that the message that polyurethane foams can be sustainably sourced is understood.

Learn more about Innovation and our sustainability journey.

Watch a video where Julie Walker talks about how the actions of her Vita colleagues is shaping the way we do business and supporting our sustainability journey to net-zero.

Posted 9th May 2022

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