Foam doesn't weigh much—and that's why auto makers may put far more of it in their vehicles in the next few years.
Suppliers of polyurethane and expanded polypropylene foams forecast that up to 25 pounds of the material will be incorporated into vehicle construction in the coming decade as auto makers try to reduce vehicle weight.
Woodbridge, a key supplier of automotive foam, believes the growth in the segment will come at the expense of metal and plastics.
Research and development labs are exploring new roles for foam, including shock and energy absorption, improved cabin comfort and noise absorption, said Leonard Roelant, Woodbridge's vice president of product management, marketing and strategy.
"We have a portfolio of product solutions called NexTech, which Woodbridge has been developing in response to the rapid transition toward EVs," Roelant said. "When you look at EVs, it's about optimized packaging space, maximizing comfort and increasing noise absorption. Packaging space is important because batteries are typically fighting for space in the vehicle, which can impact occupant space."
Woodbridge has received requests for foam noise absorption and suppression products. That opportunity has emerged as auto makers create electrified vehicles.
Once the noisy internal combustion engine is out of the equation, various vehicle and road noises become more noticeable. The task of masking them will fall to foam as an absorber in the headliner, door systems and floor areas.
But that will require suppliers such as Woodbridge to make sure their foam provides the same strength-to-weight ratio of the materials it seeks to replace, and that it remains price competitive.
Woodbridge has enabled a customer to use a rear seat design in a midsize crossover that eliminated about 22 pounds at the same cost of the previous design.
Woodbridge also is promoting use of a structural foam composite to replace stamped steel panels, Roelant said.
The supplier is marketing its Stratas board polyurethane core composite technology as a lightweight rear seatback panel.
This product is made by laminating reinforcement layers to custom formulated polyurethane substrates, resulting in a rigid product that Woodbridge says is up to 35 percent lighter than competing materials.
Luxury auto makers also are looking for ways to use foam to improve comfort. Woodbridge is marketing an automotive-grade memory foam called AdaptiPedic.
The company has been awarded its first vehicle contract for AdaptiPedic, with a market launch expected next year.
"Applying this product with a layered approach or topper pad provides a plush, luxurious feel to the seat in the showroom and still delivers long-term durability and ride comfort," Roelant said. "We're finding some applications where we can combine several of our foam technologies to deliver these solutions.
"We see growing market opportunities for this product," he said. "And with the Chinese market's focus on rear seat comfort, Woodbridge expects this to gain much interest."