Whether delivering goods around North America in a 32-wheeled transport truck or zipping around town in a Smart car, drivers and passengers are surrounded by foam. Seat cushions, headrests, armrests and other foam-moulded automotive parts ensure their comfort and safety.

This foam has, since the early 1900s, been made entirely from petrochemical-derived ingredients, and manufactured by well-established chemical processes that use additives to make the foam flexible or rigid. The automotive foam market, which is growing at over 10% annually, is expected to reach a global market value of nearly US$41 billion by 2019.

Woodbridge Foam: Introducing renewable plant-based materials

In 1997, Ontario-based Woodbridge Foam Corporation began making inroads into sustainability, replacing between 5% and 25% of petro-based foam content with bio-ingredients such as seed oil and plant fibres. As a leading global automotive foam producer with 68 facilities across the globe, Woodbridge now includes these eco-friendly materials in almost all of their products. And other manufacturers have simply followed in their tracks.

According to Hamdy Khalil, the company's Senior Global Director for Advanced Technologies and Innovation, in-house researchers at Woodbridge worked with Ontario universities to develop formulae for incorporating the new materials without forfeiting comfort or safety. "Automotive manufacturers have differing sustainability strategies that include performance specifications for foam," he says. "Variations on durability, weight, cost-effectiveness, safety—and eventual biodegradability—are challenges to which we must respond."

The product, marketed under the trade name BioFoam™, contributes to fuel efficiency since it is designed to be lighter. It also improves air quality in vehicles by lowering the emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as unpleasant odours.

It is important to manage the renewable content in a given product. "Introducing the materials beyond certain levels can lead to deterioration of the properties in the foam," says Khalil. "We must be very careful to introduce the maximum amount without compromising the physical and mechanical properties."

Khalil points out that at first, Woodbridge fielded questions such as, "Will the foam smell like French fries and hamburgers?" After methodically addressing concerns such as these and anticipating potential problems, Woodbridge launched the formulae and has not looked back. "Our concept became a sustainable competitive advantage and companies started demanding renewable materials in their foam products."

Driving global business from Ontario

Woodbridge Foam has always worked with sustainable and clean technologies. "This means we constantly research ways to introduce renewable materials," says Khalil. "And our first target was substances derived from seed oils." Partnering with other companies ensures that their supply chain remains solid. For example, Woodbridge has teamed up with Cargill Corporation and other seed oil companies to develop and introduce unique renewable materials.

Running a worldwide business from Ontario since 1978, Woodbridge Foam has also benefitted from a supportive environment that includes universities and talent for the company's co-op programs and research initiatives. "The intellectual density in universities and research centres [in Ontario] has made huge contributions to our R&D and pre-commercialization development," adds Khalil. "We believe in innovation and continuously learning from others to improve our products and infuse new knowledge into our company."

At the end of the development road, consumers will not notice any difference in the touch, feel or smell of their vehicles, but can rest assured that what they are buying is eco-responsible. "Seat cushions are our most important business segment, and we cannot compromise on any element of performance or comfort." And this is in keeping with the Government of Ontario's commitment to the reduction of greenhouse gases and the application of green and sustainable technology.

January 13, 2017
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