SAIP interviews Covestro, one of the most important companies in the Polyurethane field

06 December 2017

SAIP interviews to the most famous names in the polyurethane world continue

SAIP interviews to the most famous names in the polyurethane world continue. This time we have gone to Milan where COVESTRO has established its Italian administrative headquarters.

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Here there are the administrative offices, the commercial organization, the communication and all other so-called "platform" functions. In Milan there are about 40 employees, while the remaining are divided between Filago (BG) and Nera Montoro (TR) plants.



We are welcome by:

  • Alessandro Valcarenghi, Head of Commercial Operations Polyurethanes
  • Luca Celeghini, Account Representative Polyurethanes
  • Emanuele Barisoni, Account Representative Polyurethanes
  • Barbara Scannavini, Communication Manager

We will try to investigate the plastics industry and particularly the polyurethane sector where Covestro works.

Covestro, Leverkusen

Barbara Scannavini gives us a short presentation of the company.

“Covestro was established on 2015 September 1st by Bayer Material Science. Although Bayer is still the relative majority shareholder, Covestro is legally and economically independent. The change was more formal than su

bstantial, in the sense that factories and staff remained the same as well as know-how and products. What has changed in the meantime

is that Covestro is much more focused on its business, that is, the production of high-tech polymers.

We wanted to communicate this message using a new name (Covestro stands for Co -Collaboration, Vest-Investment and Stro-Strong) and a new logo that, as you can see, includes the entire chromatic scale. Blue and green, the Bayer colors, testify that we re-affirm our past, while the set of colors represents our future, a future full of new possibilities.”

By the way, regarding new possibilities, it seems that, as far as production is concerned, today Italy is the largest market in Europe after DACH (Germany, Austria and Switzerland): does the figure also reflect Covestro situation?

Alessandro Valcarenghi. “Yes, it does. Covestro has 30 factories in the world, two of which placed in Italy. Italy is a key country for Europe, especially in terms of polycarbonate production. Our Nera Montoro plant, near Terni, supplies polycarbonate slab plates to customers all over Europe; Filago, near Bergamo, produces polycarbonate compounds and exports all over Europe. In Italy there is also the Color Competence & Design Center, a color development center where colors for all Europe are developed.

Today, the pressure of maintaining positive results is higher than in the past, we have to inform investors through detailed reports, as it happens in stock-holding companies. Therefore, we try to carry out tasks with great attention and care to bring the best possible results.

What has happened so far is very good: from the point of view of the Italian polyurethane market, under my direct responsibility, we had very positive results; the other divisions had also performed well. As far as the foreign market is concerned, all business units have experienced positive trends. The price trend of the market has helped us to better perform along with the higher consumptions at global level, perhaps a sign of the good health of our customers.”

Which is the situation in the construction market?

Emanuele Barisoni. “The Insulation & Construction market has been experiencing years of deep crisis, in which we also faced considerable difficulties, both in private and industrial constructions, where investments were almost nonexistent. Among European countries Italy has undoubtedly suffered more than others in this sector. Today we are seeing a good recovery of this market, both in Italy and in Europe. The European market of the building panels is growing well mainly due to two key factors:

  • Higher insulation power;
  • Sustainability for the remarkable energy savings;

The average thickness of the panel rises and consequently also the use of polyurethane; in addition, the panel is replacing the corrugated sheet and other products where in the past the insulation factor was not as important as it is today.”

Considering the improvements and the new solutions of the PU panel versus fire behavior, according to your opinion would it be polyurethane able to take market shares from rock wool?

Emanuele Barisoni: “Actually, rock wool has been a stable niche sector for at least 15 years. Recently, thermal insulation has become the driving factor catalyzing all the attentions. The fire behavior aspect has slipped behind and polyurethane has taken a net advantage over rock wool. Today, where fire behavior regulations are tightening, raw material manufacturers are developing or selling PIR formulations, foams characterized by superior fire reaction properties and capable of achieving fire classification, which in the past was only a peculiarity of rock wool panels (EI / REI 30).

Clearly, where higher fire classifications are required, the PIR can’t be used, so rock wool panels will be requested.

It should be clarified that we can talk of fire behavior referring to rock wool, whereas for polyurethane we can talk of reaction to fire; two different types of tests are foreseen.

In Italy, regulations are oriented to PIR and are abandoning B3 and B2, as the new legislation includes in addition the opacity of smoke measurement.”

PIR is not easy to produce, adequate equipment and skilled operators are needed.

Emanuele Barisoni“In fact, in the process of panel continuous production, it is a material that needs to be worked very carefully; the “production window” is narrower and higher temperatures are required. In Italy I see a growing interest; although today the kilos / square meters of panel produced with PIR are not comparable to those produced in Germany (we talk about 5-6%) if we consider that regulations are becoming more and more stringent also in our country, the use of PIR could soon spread here too.

As for the refrigeration market, we, Saip, are seeing a sort of investments' migration from Central Europe to the East. Are you experimenting the same trend?

Emanuele Barisoni: “Generally, the refrigerator sector is rather stable, but we are also witnessing a shift of volumes towards Eastern Europe, such as Romania and Turkey. There is less and less production in Italy and a strong tendency to concentration is in progress. The latest one in time is the incorporation of Indesit by Whirlpool and the formation of a unique pole that I think is today among the largest.

The novelty is also here the tendency of regulations which ask for ever-higher energy classes. Some producers are already increasing the thicknesses, such as, for example, Electrolux Professional, thanks to the new plant SAIP has designed and built; others, are developing different foam solutions, we call them Microcell, more reactive foams having smaller cells, which with the same thickness have superior insulating capacity.”

Alessandro Valcarenghi: “Technology is changing a lot in this sector. Sometimes extreme performances are requested to materials, especially with regards to productivity (i.e. manufacturers think of making double, quadruple injection ...). The market is quite demanding, therefore it is absolutely important to collaborate with machine makers to find suitable technological solutions.”

Leverkusen: PUR Technical Center

A big change is coming even for the blowing agents sector… the market is quite disoriented and has no idea of the costs it will have to meet.

Emanuele Barisoni: “In my opinion, the issue is to develop formulations that will allow you to have the same results as before from a qualitative point of view. In addition, it is necessary to distinguish between those who have never used pentane and those who already use it. I visited customers who use pentane both in the refrigerator and panel and they have confirmed that they are not interested in HFOs in Europe at the moment, because of products’ high costs. If their pentane product has a certain Lambda value, they will never change for the HFO, since the reduction of insulating power would be minimal in the cost of the final foam. At this point it becomes only a matter of marketing, or, in the future, of even more insulating performance regulations. In addition, from the point of view of costs, it turned out that replacing pentane with HFO has a very high incidence: together with a customer we calculated that a 100 mm thick panel costs € 4.00/sqm more. Some studies are also considering pentane and HFO blends to try to reach a compromise solution: better lambda performance at an acceptable formula cost.

Another HFO weak point is today the formulated polyol stability. These new blowing agents are more critical than current HFC, so they should be blended and used in a short time.”

Questi nuovi espandenti, sono più critici degli attuali HFC, quindi vanno miscelati e utilizzati in breve tempo.

Saip has developed a solution that simplifies the process of "pentanizing" by bringing the blowing agent directly to the mixing head, ensuring at the same time greater stability of the system. Our impression is that innovative technology is available but customers, especially the small and medium ones, have a wait-and-see behavior and try to postpone the problem.

Luca Celeghini: “I do understand customers which want to see what's going to happen before investing in a new plant. In my opinion, apart from those who already use pentane, mixtures and so on, many have not yet perceived the importance of the matter. Slowly, thanks also to our questions on how they intend to deal with the blowing agents topic, they begin to gather information and form an opinion. For our part, we are trying to figure out which are the first areas to be involved. It is necessary to formulate products that yield quality results, even when customers are using their machines. If we consider all the current restrictions related to these products, we understand why addressing this step will really be a challenge.

I think there will be an acceleration of the process in the next two to three years. The complete phase-out of HFCs in polyurethanes is set for 2022, but since new product constraints are introduced each year, it will take good thinking and solutions in advance.”

We think that the level of knowledge and expertise of customers should grow. If you intend to use a system which is able to have high performances but also which needs to be processed in a sophisticated way, should you not improve the quality of your way of producing? Which is your opinion?

Alessandro Valcarenghi: “It is very important for us to let our customers know that our product is not a simple formulation and that price is not the only variable. What I would like they understand is that launching a new formulation, which today is required to have high performances, takes not only time but also a strong commitment in research and development and in investments; moreover, the product must also be in line with market analysis and Covestro strategies. Medium-long term technology has a cost and consequently this will be reflected in selling prices as well. It is therefore important that customers understand that in a sector becoming more and more complex to build and get a product which stands up in the market, price must be just one of the variables, although important, together with knowledge improvement and development of technologies used by our customers.

An example taken from the sector of panels: you can’t expect the PIR to have high adhesion properties if ordinary steels and equipment not technologically advanced are used. In Italy and abroad, panel manufacturers will have to upgrade their plants as B3 will go out of use.”

It seems that the use of elastomers in technical applications, such as wheels, is growing with respect to rubber. Do you have the same feedback or do you still consider it a niche product for limited applications?

Emanuele Barisoni: “It depends on the performance required. We have an exceptional product called Vulcollan® that behaves very well in different situations. Some more problems can be found with MDI based formulations which make not always easy to get certain performances. Maybe tomorrow we shall have formulations with particular resistance, but, at present, MDI based formulas still remain a niche sector.

For what concerns polyurethane the challenge continues. It is not easy to get good performance levels using polyols with a certain type of cost. Up to now no one has come beyond certain levels but maybe tomorrow someone will find out the right technical solution.”

The polyurethane world is extremely dynamic and full of challenges. According to forecasts, consumption will increase: just think about cold chain in Africa and in India.

Luca Celeghini: “Worldwide consumption of polyurethane records an impressive growing trend. It is a product of such versatility that it lends itself to infinite uses: rigid for panels, viscoelastic for pillows, not counting all the compacts.

It is estimated that in the most industrialized countries about 8/9 kg polyurethane per person is used, versus about 0.5 kg per person in Africa. There is a very high percentage of the world's population that must still reach certain standards. If these standards are developed, the future of polyurethane is definitely good. When the cold chain starts in developing countries, we will witness a real polyurethane explosion.”

Emanuele Barisoni: “The overall trend of polyurethane growth is positive. Investments for new chemical raw material production plants are continuous both for the production of Diisocyanates (MDI and TDI) and Poliols (PET and PES). We see a fairly strong growth trend at world level. Each geographic area has its own dynamics and prerogatives, but growth is an undeniable fact.”

Today we can’t talk about growth without legitimizing it with sustainable choices. Which are the areas where Covestro is experimenting with green technologies?

Alessandro Valcarenghi: “COVESTRO has always been focused on the sustainability of its technologies. It's a fundamental driver for us. From this point of view the CardyonTM polyols, or polyols containing CO2, recently on the market, represent the main category. At the moment we have a pilot plant and we are mainly focused on the bedding area, with good results. Recycling and the Circular Economy are absolutely hot topics. Whoever is going to manufacture something must also think to the end that the final product will make; all the chain-subjects will be responsible and will have to find solutions.”

All countries, especially in Europe, are adopting increasingly restrictive regulations, thus we are expecting big changes on these points.”

Luca Celeghini: “Yesterday we were concerned about formulating an interesting product and having it on the market, today we are required to have a complete view of its life-cycle, we have to know which its final destination after main use will be. Today there are new questions we have to answer to, such as:

"I don’t use this mattress anymore, what can I do with it? I ceased using my fridge? What do I do with it? I no longer use this type of panel? Can I recycle it?"

Barbara Scannavini: “Covestro's commitment to environmental sustainability is strong. Through the person of Patrick Thomas, global CEO and President of Plastics Europe, the Company has been publicly committed to reducing CO2 emissions and achieving certain environmental targets. We have already achieved a clear reduction in emissions and by 2025 we count on achieving our stated goal of reducing CO2 emissions by up to 50%.

Today, the search for "clean" alternative energy sources is more than ever important and Covestro is committed in the front-line. An example is Solar Impulse, the plane which travels thanks to solar energy. Covestro is not only a sponsor but also a supplier of various materials for the construction of the aircraft.

The underlying concept of Solar Impulse is that we can fly just using solar energy without using fuel. The airplane travels in day time thanks to solar rays and at night thanks to the energy accumulated during the day.

An experiment of great value, a reference and a starting point for the development and improvement of technologies such as solar panels, high efficiency engines, all the heating industry where the implementation of this model will mean a clean cut of consumptions and costs. A new frontier for a more sustainable world."