Material gains: What the future holds for the aircraft foams market post-pandemic


Zotefoams director of HPP business units James Bridges (pictured below) discusses the impact of Covid-19 on demand and design of materials, and assesses what the future might hold for the aircraft foams market.

[This feature first appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Aircraft Cabin Management, which you can read in full here.]

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrust cabin health and hygiene into the spotlight. How do you expect this to impact patterns of demand for Zotefoams products?

Keeping passengers safe – and making sure they feel safe – is critical to airlines encouraging people to fly again. Zotefoams materials are bio-inert and have a closed cell structure which does not promote viral or bacterial growth, so all the signs are that demand will increase as cabin designers explore
new materials. 

This is already changing approaches to cabin design. Some fabrics are falling out of favour, for example, because it’s impractical to sanitise them after every flight. There are also signs of a move away from darker colours and towards lighter colour schemes, and even all-white.

These trends mean there are more applications for our Zotek F OSU PVDF foams, beyond the huge savings in weight that have traditionally been the products’ USP. Our newest grade – Zotek F OSU XR – is a case in point.

In what way?

When we set out to design XR we obviously had no idea that the pandemic was coming, but fortunately the whole idea of XR is to extend the weight-saving benefits of Zotek F into new areas of the cabin.

Aircraft manufacturers already use Zotek F extensively for window seals, soft-touch trim, close-outs, insulation, carpet underlay and environmental control systems. It’s light, easy to process and can be used to replace a whole variety of traditional aviation interior materials, including silicone, PU, composites and even some metal components. Its fire, smoke and toxicity ratings also meet all the relevant aviation standards, and the closed cell structure provides vibration dampening, thermal and noise insulation.

What we’ve added with XR are semi-structural capabilities, so manufacturers can now use it in locations such as the interior of seat pods, stowage lockers, rigid armrests and tray tables. In these areas XR can reduce weight by as much as 70 per cent on a like-for-like basis. 

Because grades of Zotek F can be laminated together to create a single material that’s rigid on one side and soft and flexible on the other, it can be formed into curves and complex shapes, so design teams have new opportunities to bring individuality and extra comfort to cabin interiors and the passenger experience.

How does Zotek F OSU XR stand up to the more rigorous cleaning routines necessary today?

Like all Zotefoams products, XR is exceptionally chemical-resistant. This is down to the unique manufacturing process that produces a remarkably consistent closed-cell structure that acts as an excellent barrier to moisture. It is also unaffected by UV exposure, so fully compatible with sanitisation via UV-C.

How has Covid-19 impacted the business? Have you implemented new ways of working?

The pandemic has had a significant impact on the way we conduct our business, though fortunately staff have remained safe and healthy. We have manufacturing operations in the UK, North America and China, with a new production facility in Poland nearing completion, as well as a sales and service office in India. Monitoring and managing different and dynamic circumstances globally is an ongoing challenge but we’re grateful for the way our teams have adapted.

Our Chinese operation was closed briefly at the beginning of the year, in line with a local government decree, but apart from that all our facilities have continued to operate, albeit with modifications in place. 

The health and safety of our team is our priority and is central to decision-making. Staff who are able are working from home to reduce numbers on-site, with enhanced measures to ensure wellbeing. 

For those whose roles are site-based, we continue to comply with evolving local guidance, implementing measures such as social distancing, additional PPE usage, limiting the number of visitors and putting in place regular screening, including temperature checks.

We’re committed to doing everything possible to protect our team, our business and our customers’ businesses, many of which are engaged in vital work to supply medical PPE.

How do you see the aircraft foams market developing in the near future?

It’s clear that the reduction in air travel since the start of the pandemic will impact the industry for some time to come. The number of commercial flights is approximately half what it was this time last year – although business jet charter appears to be less affected. 

Also significant has been the collective realisation that we need to do more to address climate change – think back to all the coverage of reduced pollution levels during the ‘global pause’ in manufacturing and travel earlier in the year.

Zotefoams has a long history in a variety of markets globally, and during times of economic challenge there is a clear trend for forward-thinking companies to take time to investigate better ways of doing things in the future. This has been evident over the past six months with our aviation customers.

The number one trend is lightweighting. This reduces the CO2 footprint of conventionally powered planes and increases the range of those powered by hydrogen fuel cells, which we’ve seen trialled recently. Some 90 per cent of the lifetime carbon footprint of a commercial airliner is clocked up during flying hours, so this is the key area of focus for sustainability.

Allied to lightweighting is material performance, and particularly the relationship between performance and density. The lightest foam Zotefoams produces is MP15 FR in our Azote range, which weighs just 15kg/m3 and consists of only 1.5 per cent polymer, yet is suitable for numerous applications in aircraft cabins.

Compliance with standards – particularly fire, smoke and toxicity (FST) – is non-negotiable, and there’s particular demand for qualified materials capable of fulfilling several uses, since these reduce both the bill of materials and the time and administrative burden associated with standards qualification.

Airlines and their suppliers have invested a lot of effort in assuring passengers that their risk of contracting Covid-19 is no greater in an aircraft cabin than elsewhere. Materials that do not support bacterial or viral growth are much in demand, as are those that can withstand a variety of enhanced cleaning regimes, from aggressive chemicals to UV-C exposure.

Finally, customer experience will be key as airlines compete to be the first choice for returning passengers. Clean interiors, with comfort and individuality achieved through soft-touch elements, are part of that experience and a natural home for aviation foams. These can be formed and finished in any number of ways and easily bonded to surface materials to create a luxurious yet lightweight finish.

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