The great foam shortage of 2021. Is it real or is this something made up?

Most of my clients are incredibly frustrated right now as I know most of the interior design and furniture manufacturers are.

But how (and why) did this all happen?

Our firm specializes in senior living which has been hit incredibly hard by the pandemic.  Staff is overworked, families are frustrated, and residents are depressed.  Just when we thought things were getting back to normal with the government opening the country back up, health mandates being lifted and the roll out of the vaccines, we have been hit with another COVID related issue, a foam shortage.   Its not just senior living that is having a foam issue, all the families that were locked in their homes for the past year took a look around, binged watched HGTV and decided to DIY renovations and with it order new furniture.   The demand for upholstered goods was more than the system could even handle…even without the perfect storm.

A month or so ago we started to see red flags. One manufacturer sent out an email regarding a “foam shortage.” My first thought was… “another COVID excuse.” I know I sound cynical, but it seemed people were not showing up as much as pre-COVID.  But then there was another, and another manufacturer and another and then the news media was even covering it…  My designer friends were even voicing their frustrations how their delivery dates were moving out and some of the manufacturers were not even giving delivery dates any longer until they would get the foam.

So, it WAS real. This meant it was time to make some magic happen, call in all my favors and make my clients happy.

In an attempt to problem solve through this issue and ensure that we delivered our designs on time as we always have, I started searching for options and solutions at every turn.  What I found out is that this issue is much more complex than I ever could have imagined.

The biggest question that came to mind was why not use regular foam and flame treat the furniture instead of waiting on the flame retardant foam, that seemed to be causing all the delay issues?

The answer came from one of our manufacturers, “As a matter of corporate policy, we don’t use any foam, padding, fillers, etc. that are not CA-117 compliant.  Even if we could use non-FR foam, we don’t believe it is more readily available than the CA-117 variety.  The chemical shortage that caused all of this turmoil is called Polyol, and it is a base chemical used in the production of the foam itself and doesn’t have any bearing on the FR properties.”

Not getting the answer I wanted, I turned to expert in supply chain sourcing, Steven Rosen at Flywheel who works with companies such as Target, Walmart and Best buy to source various products.

Per Steve, “There are a variety of challenging points right now with furniture manufacturing and most of which are a result of Covid-19 and the increase in consumer demand.  Consider it this way, First to get the product made there is a challenge of increased material costs and exchange rate shifts.  Then, once you get the product made, you will need to secure a shipping container.  When COVID happened, shipping containers did not go back to China in a normal cycle.  That has been a challenge driven two-fold by both the increased demand for the containers as well as many containers sitting in the US vs. China.  Then, after securing a container, you need to get your product on a vessel.  With the tight space and less reliability, freight rates have gone up significantly.  Vessels are delayed as they are taking much longer to unload at the US ports.  The longshoreman labor has been impacted with both Covid and the need to quarantine.  The Long Beach port is now working about 50% more boats a day.  Then once unloaded, you have to get your product on a chassis and that too is harder now with the increased level of products at the port and the reduction of available drivers. So, the entire supply chain is stressed in a way we have not seen before.”

While the demand for furniture and bedding was more than anyone expected due to COVID, we did not expect to have a winter storm in Texas that would further cause issues for the industry.

Per Robert Dalheim at the Woodworking Network, “the winter storm hit the gulf coast in mid February. When a hurricane is expected, the petrochemical industry gets prepared and often shuts down their operations in advance, weathers the storm, then gets back up and running safely and in a relatively short time frame. This storm caught everyone unprepared and many plants lost power while they were still running. It’s a tribute to the industry and all the plant engineers and employees that there were no major accidents during this abrupt and unexpected shutdown. Lines in the plants froze. Power, steam, nitrogen, and hydrogen supplies were lost. All of the propylene oxide plants were shut down. It was almost like an unexpected Cat 5 hurricane hit all of Texas in the middle of the night. Restarting those plants first requires the utilities and power. The damage can’t be assessed until services like steam and nitrogen are restored (and in many cases, they’re still down). Then all the lines need to be inspected and damage repaired. The plants will start at reduced rates and may take months to get back up to full rates. Meanwhile, the entire polyol inventory pipeline is empty and needs to be refilled.”

What we have is a perfect storm between pent up consumer demand, supply chain issues in China created by COVID, and literally an epic winter storm that shut down Texas and the chemical plants used to create foam.

The bottom line, everyone is doing everything they can to come back online and take care of their clients.   If you are planning for a project now, double your typical lead-times. Heck, triple them to be safe!  We are all in this together and will all get back to normal together.



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