Foam supplies show positive signs

Challenges remain and can continue for the near term, but the foam shortage afflicting furniture and bedding manufacturers shows some signs of easing.

There’s no immediate relief, however, at this point. After a few more months of tight supply, foam allocations restricting manufacturers’ capability to catch up on record-level backlogs since last year’s fourth quarter should back off sometime this summer.

That’s according to two foam producers - Carpenter Co. and NCFI - who decided to discuss the sore topic of foam supply with Furniture Today.

According to Carpenter Senior Vice President Michael Faus, chemical producers supplying polyols and TDI, key raw materials for foam, are flowing product again at high levels. Carpenter, which had earlier placed customers on 70% allocation, is raising that figure.

“We bumped (allocations) up the other day to 90%, and we announced we’ll keep it at 90% in a few days,” Faus told Furniture Today in mid-April. “We’re still taking it on a week-by-week basis, but our customers were clapping their hands whenever we raised it right back up.”

Faus said high backlogs vs. material supply are the primary reason behind continued allocations. Big demand dictates some continued apportioning of foam.

“For anybody we supply, backlogs are huge, and that’s why we can’t be running at 100%, even 110%” of normal foam production levels,” Faus noted. “We expect the 90% (figure) to move up maybe sometime in-may.”

Chris Bradley, executive vice president of consumer products at foam producer NCFI, said the situation is improving, but there’ll still be a lot of catching up to accomplish even after foam makers are back again to running at full bore. NCFI includes a 280,000-square-foot foam plant in Mt. Airy, N.C., in addition to facilities in Dalton, Ga., and Houston, Texas.

Bradley doesn’t expect foam availability to come back to “full-blown normal” until July. The problem lies in a combination of ongoing raw material issues, transportation bottlenecks and no let-up popular at retail.

That said, NCFI’s allocations to customers show signs of improvement.

“Looking at the first half of April and the second half of March, we were in the 50% range,” Bradley said. “Looking at the next half of April and into May, we’ll be selling more than that but still less than 100%.”

Way to obtain major chemicals such as polyols and TDI are better, but recycleables issues remain.

“Chemicals have definitely improved, and we’re looking for further improvement, but all of the focus has been on the major chemicals,” Bradley said. “You might have a catalyst that’s only 1% of your foam volume; you’re investing in a handful of thousand pounds at the same time vs. thousands, but if you can’t get it, you can’t make foam.”

Other materials used in upholstery and bedding beyond foam that haven’t gotten as much attention lately bear watching aswell.

“In the past little while, the polyester fiber found in things such as cushion wraps and filler for mattresses has been a concern,” Faus said. “That’s so early in the overall game, it’s really unpredictable. My guess it’s a short-term issue vs. foam, which includes been a longer-term challenge for some time now.”

Transportation issue

Logistics a lot more than raw material supply certainly are a problem right now for foam resources.

“The big challenge is logistics, getting chemicals to your plants,” Faus said. “We’ve had rail-car issues, with cars sometimes diverted elsewhere by mistake, particularly on the West Coast. I don’t know whether it may be the sheer velocity of business.

“We can manage tanker trucks just a little easier,” he continued, “however they don’t have the capacity of rail cars. We've 11 pouring plants in THE UNITED STATES, nine in the U.S. and two in Canada, so we are disseminate.”

Truck transportation is a challenge for NCFI, where Bradley also believes logistical problems donate to the foam bottleneck more than raw material supply at this stage. Taking into consideration the shortage of drivers and huge demand for road-hauling services, he doesn’t see that increasing quickly.

“We’re continually getting deliveries moved back because we can’t get the truck,” he said.

Pressure still on

Unrelenting demand for furniture could keep the pressure on as foam producers’ customers face backlogs that keep growing.

“Until we get almost a year in a row of full production of chemicals, we’ll be playing catch-up,” Bradley said, noting that foam demand was higher than supply even before disruptions in last 2020’s fourth which year’s first quarters. “We were already on (chemical) allocations prior to the Texas storms hit this winter.”

He added that recent stimulus checks have only increased demand from NCFI’s customers.

“Even when everyone’s back to 100% foam production it will be another several weeks before we catch up,” Bradley said. “It’s definitely improved, but we’re not out of this yet.”

While noting foam supply is subject to numerous factors, Carpenter’s Faus believes some degree of allocations could continue into mid- to late third quarter.

“A lot is determined by demand,” he said. “Demand remains very high, and I haven’t seen any change for the reason that in virtually any of our categories.”

Faus also reported that Carpenter Co. has gotten at night malware attack in mid-March that put additional pressure on the company’s capability to serve customers.

“We had to accomplish things manually for some time, sort of like when you and I first experienced this business, but we could actually still get some good product out,” Faus said. “Here are a few things lingering from that, but for the most part we’ve recovered.”c