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'From designer chairs to gel cushioning

Bayer MaterialScience AG : 29 April, 2005  (Company News)
Extracted from the presentation made by Reiner Schneider, Head of Marketing & Innovation EMEA and LATAM regions, Polyurethanes Business Unit, Bayer MaterialScience AG
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me extend a very warm welcome to you all on behalf of Bayer MaterialScience AG, who is appearing as an exhibitor at Interzum 2005 for the first time. In this presentation I shall be telling you all about an extremely versatile material which has long been used in the furniture industry and for interior design purposes but is continually making fascinating new applications possible. I’m talking about polyurethanes. Before I go into these in more detail I’d like to briefly introduce our company.

Bayer MaterialScience is one of the world’s leading polymer companies. In 2004 the company, which employs about 18,000 people worldwide, generated sales of EUR 8.6 billion. At about 40 production sites, Bayer MaterialScience produces around 7 million metric tons of polymer raw materials. Our main competitors include BASF/Elastogran, Dow Chemical and GE Advanced Materials.

Bayer MaterialScience’s business activities are spread across five business units and the two wholly owned subsidiaries H. C. Starck and Wolff Walsrode. The bulk of the sales (45 percent) are generated by the Polyurethanes Business Unit, which produces raw materials for all kinds of flexible and rigid foams and for more specific applications. The Polycarbonates Business Unit is in second place, accounting for 24 percent of sales. This business unit produces, among other things, the transparent hi-tech plastic Makrolon® as well as a variety of high-performance films and the PC+PBT blend Makroblend®. In third position is the “Coatings, Adhesives, Sealants” Business Unit, which primarily makes polyurethane raw materials for coating, adhesive and sealant applications. The Thermoplastic Polyurethanes and Inorganic Basic Chemicals business units are significantly smaller. In the spirit of backwards integration, the latter makes an important contribution to providing our company’s raw materials.

The largest consumers of Bayer MaterialScience’s products are the electrical and electronics industry and the construction industry, accounting for 18 percent of sales, followed by the automotive industry with 15 percent. Another 12 percent of our sales – still a healthy figure of more than EUR 1 billion – is in the area of wood processing and furniture production.

With a total sales figure of EUR 3.9 billion in 2004, the Polyurethanes Business Unit is by far Bayer MaterialScience’s largest. Around 3,900 employees worldwide are responsible for generating these sales and around 2.3 million metric tons of polyurethane raw materials are produced at 23 production sites around the world. This makes us global market leaders as far as polyurethane raw materials sales and the number of products are concerned, but also a technology leader in terms of production processes and applications.

Polyurethanes are produced by the chemical reaction of polyvalent alcohols – known as polyols – and polyvalent isocyanates. The experiment you are about to see was carried out in a similar form by Dr. Otto Bayer, the man who invented polyurethanes in 1937, nearly 70 years ago. The beaker contains a polyol and an isocyanate which are thoroughly mixed together. The reaction starts very quickly, as you can see by the rapidly growing mushroom of polyurethane foam. Flexible foams like this are a typical polyurethane application.

Depending on the polyol and isocyanate selected and/or the selection of other auxiliaries, and the way in which the reaction is controlled, it is possible to produce very different physical forms of polyurethane with very precisely adjustable properties. The most important products are foams which are either cut into blocks or used for the foam filling of cavities. Flexible foams are predominantly used to produce upholstered furniture and mattresses. Molded foam is the preferred material for automobile and airplane seats. Rigid foams have the best thermal insulation properties of all materials available on the market and are therefore mainly used in the refrigerated distribution chain and for heat insulation in housing construction. Integral skin foam products have a flexible or rigid outer layer and cellular core. Flexible integral skin foams are processed into, for example, shoe soles, while rigid foams are used as engineering materials which may also be reinforced with fillers or glass fibers.

The other physical forms of polyurethanes are very versatile but are used in significantly smaller quantities. Castable or spray elastomers are used wherever it is important to have high resilience and low abrasion, e.g. in wheels for fork-lift trucks and inline skates. Elastomers include polyurethane gels which can, for example, be used to great advantage in the manufacture of ergonomic office furniture. Mr. Lion from Technogel will tell you more about this shortly.

Polyurethane coatings have high abrasion resistance and very good corrosion protection properties and are used to coat wood, furniture and wood floors, automobiles and even mineral substrates. Adhesives are used in the furniture and construction sector, shoe production and the automotive industry. Bayer MaterialScience is a leading manufacturer of polyurethane raw materials for coatings and adhesives and also of thermoplastic polyurethanes. These are used as plastic granules for a wide variety of applications ranging from sports shoes soles and car instrument panels to ear tags for calves. This very brief introduction should give you an impression of the versatility of the adjustable properties of polyurethanes and their potential applications.

Applications in the wood processing and furniture production sectors, making up 27 percent of sales, constitute the most important area of use for polyurethanes from an economic point of view, closely followed by thermal insulation applications. Products for the automotive industry make up 15 percent, while more than a quarter of world polyurethane consumption in 2004 was in other applications. Another important advantage of using polyurethanes is the fact that molds made of aluminum, epoxy resins and other cost-effective materials can often be used for processing, making production very economical.

Our Baydur®, Bayflex® and Bayfit® polyurethane systems represent the considerable diversity, functionality and freedom of design which polyurethanes offer in the furniture industry. I’d now like to introduce you briefly to these product ranges and show you some famous examples from the world of designer furniture.

Bayfit®, the flexible molded foam from Bayer MaterialScience, makes it possible to combine spectacular shapes with a high degree of functionality, reconciling maximum comfort with top quality. This also applies to the foam filling of very large moldings. Functional elements such as interior springs and support elements can be directly integrated into the molding. Bayfit® also makes it easy to encapsulate inserts in foam. The foam can be adjusted to different qualities, ranging from supersoft to ultra hard. It can therefore be used in a wide range of applications in furniture for the home, office or public buildings, as well as for medical technology. One example of the latter is mattresses, where the viscoelastic or slow-recovery foam effectively helps to prevent bedsores.

One example which demonstrates the advantages of Bayfit® is the “Peel” chair which expertly combines complex shapes with high functionality and is also very comfortable to sit on.

The same goes for the “Le Bambole” sofa with its state-of-the art shape and high level of comfort. What makes it particularly remarkable is that it has been constructed without an internal frame. Stability is achieved through the use of varying densities of polyurethane foams.

Office furniture like the “Oson S” office chair made with molded foam upholstery from Bayfit® retains its firmness and contours for years, allowing a relaxed and comfortable yet healthy sitting position which is very important if employees are to concentrate and perform at their best.

Unlike Bayfit®, products from the Baydur® range are rigid engineering materials that may – as in the case of Baydur® 60 – have a cellular core. They are extremely tough and hard and can be coated very cost-effectively using the in-mold coating process. Due to their cellular core, moldings made from the integral skin foam Baydur® 60 have a sandwich structure which makes them robust yet lightweight. This makes the material suitable for a wide range of applications but also means it can be produced cost-effectively. Baydur® 110, on the other hand, is a virtually solid, microcellular engineering material which can be used to produce large, thin-walled moldings.

The “Rolf Benz 7200” chair made from the polyurethane integral skin foam Baydur® 60 is a comfortable yet functional seat. Its special feature is the comfort mechanism hidden beneath the upholstery. While you are leaning forward to eat, the chair is in an upright position. After the meal, when you want to relax, the shell can be moved into the relaxation position by applying slight pressure.

This material was also used to make the designer light “Carrara”, produced by the Italian manufacturer Luceplan. Despite the fact that it is 1.85 m high, the corpus, which weighs 4.4 kg, consists of only one piece. The good flow properties of the Baydur® components mean that it can be produced in a single shot and that a molding surface can be achieved which exactly reproduces the texture of the aluminum mold.

In contrast to the rigid integral skin foams from the Baydur® range, Bayflex® products are flexible, elastic integral skin foams which have a cellular core and are therefore very lightweight. They also offer wide freedom of design and a high degree of comfort. The material also has a high-quality surface which can be cost-effectively combined with other materials by bonding.

The exterior of the “glide away” couch looks like a comfortable mattress into which five large wooden compartments have been inserted for storing books or magazines. Its base is slightly convex, which makes it easy to adjust. The backrest angle can be altered using a handle located at the foot of the couch. To produce it, an elastic material with excellent elongation at break was required to withstand the deforming stresses involved. Bayflex® integral proved to be the material of choice for this.

A very recent example of the high degree of design freedom offered by polyurethane systems is the FREE FORM chair “Dumbo” made by Fratelli Rossetto, Italy. The distinguishing feature of the seat is the sitting surface shaped like a half shell which is visually attractive and very comfortable. It consists of Bayflex® 20/30, a flexible, elastic polyurethane integral skin foam with a sealed outer layer and cellular core which provides effective damping of mechanical stresses.

Having made a brief sortie into the world of designer furniture and interior design, you may be asking what shape things are going to take in the future. The company’s guiding principle here is “VisionWorks”. This states how, by means of innovative developments, Bayer MaterialScience can turn its customers’ ideas into reality. One of the keys to this is the materials we develop. Secondly, the know-how we have built up over many years, and hence the knowledge on which our work is based, are crucial to realizing our visions.

As an example of how VisionWorks has been implemented in practice, I’d like to show you a recent development which has already aroused a lot of interest. PurSonic® is the name of a new high-end surround-sound system which was developed by Puren in partnership with Bayer MaterialScience and Siemens AG. The products are soundboards made from rigid polyurethane foam which are fully integrated into the wall, i.e. are invisible to the listener, and produce an amazing sound experience without visually unattractive speakers.

The soundboards, measuring only about 7 millimeters in thickness, do not emit sound from points. Instead they emit flexural wave oscillations thanks to coils on the reverse side. To get an optimum result here, a total of 18 months of time-consuming developmental work on the material were needed as the soundboards needed to be able to resist a number of other materials as well as steam without being damaged. Thanks to their extensive know-how and experience in developing rigid polyurethane foams, the experts succeeded, in their partnership with Puren, in developing a specialty material based on the products Desmodur® and Desmophen® that satisfied all the requirements ideally.

With the PurSonic® system currently being launched on the market, another team of experts at Bayer MaterialScience is already focusing its attention on the more distant future and on the following question: How will we be living in the year 2020? Naturally, no one can really see into the future. Nevertheless, for a company that carries out research it is very important to identify future trends at an early stage so that we can play an active part in creating this future together with our customers.

With this in mind, interdisciplinary teams of trend scouts are developing future scenarios which allow the likely trends to be detected. Ultimately, these scenarios make it possible to choose project ideas that promise to be successful. The experts then develop road maps detailing how precisely these will be developed.

At Bayer MaterialScience the task of recognizing future trends falls to a department which for a good reason is called New Business. There, teams work very efficiently to identify the market and technology trends of the future and make these usable for Bayer MaterialScience and our customers. The Creative Center looks for the market trends of the future, thereby employing a “Market Pull” approach. Our New Technologies Division, on the other hand, specializes in the development of new materials and production processes and follows up technology trends using “Technology Push” methods. The selected product ideas are then converted into specific projects by our industry-specific division Industry Innovation and developed further until they are ready for the market.

I already indicated to you that we have been jointly responsible for initiating a network project “Future Living 2020” which deals with the issue of how we will be living in the year 2020. In this project, 13 participants from industry and higher education have come up with a future scenario. The participants come from a wide range of industries and provide the ideal complement to our in-house know-how. Our aim is to be the first-choice solutions provider of raw materials and technologies for this key industry. To be successful in this, it is crucial to identify future consumer needs.

Working together with our partners in workshops, we have drawn up two future scenarios for 2020 which differ fundamentally from one another – a world of polycenters and one of oligocenters. Polycenters are regional economic and growth zones which may extend beyond national boundaries. The close links between Ticino, Piedmont and Liguria with parts of Provence are an example of this. Oligocenters, on the other hand, are the points of intersection between worldwide trade, capital and information flows. The idea here is of a few networked megacities – like those developing in Asia.

The findings obtained from the two scenarios form part of detailed investigations on individual subject areas such as traffic, logistics, energy generation, communication, leisure, living, working and food. Work, living and leisure for many people may be consolidated in multifunctional building complexes, for example. This results, in turn, in new applications such as smart walls with functional surfaces or new lighting concepts.

All the examples I have shown you so far of how our polyurethane systems are used involved flexible, rigid or integral skin foams. Technogel®, a polyurethane gel, is quite different – a hi-tech material offering a wide variety of possible applications. It was discovered by Bayer chemist Dr. Dietmar Schäpel nearly a quarter of a century ago and now we can’t imagine our lives without it. You’ll find it as a cushioning material in shoes, in your bicycle saddle where it takes the strain off your spine, and in special plasters where it promotes wound healing. All these qualities are thanks to its exceptional properties: it is elastic, transparent, light-fast, tolerated by the skin and has a unique feel.

However, polyurethane gels are also a beneficial invention in ergonomic office furniture where the key aim is to relax the muscles as far as possible and prevent backache. The Technogel Italia company is presenting its concept for a new generation of office furniture at the Interzum fair.
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