The contribution of Saip to the refrigeration and sandwich panel industry.


The rigid market marches onwards

SIMON ROBINSON editor | Urethane Tecnology International

Although a lot of plant and equipment production was in hiatus in March, April and May, 2020 has proved a surprisingly resilient year for rigid polyurethane. We talk to some key machinery producers to find out their take on the state of the market.

New tougher regulations for domestic refrigeration, a greater market for chilled and frozen food during lockdowns and increasingly stringent building insulation requirements provided three powerful boosts to demand for some forms of polyurethane machinery in 2020.

Although coronavirus lockdowns may have halted production, they did not empty the pipelines of new orders for the machinery makers.

‘The domestic refrigeration market is being driven by new labelling regulations for appliance efficiency,’ said Francesco Abba, sales and marketing manager at Cannon Afros. He explained that the new regulations will come into effect in 2022, and will put much greater demands on the efficiency of domestic refrigerators.

‘The current Class A+++ refrigerator will become class E or D,’ he said. ‘OEMs are looking for new technology and plants to improve the lambda – insulation efficiency – of the insulating foam in the refrigerators. The new labelling will bring fewer and tougher bands.’

Installed base

Cannon believes its VAI Pascal technology will help it to continue to win business, and Abba added that the process has been improved over the past five years. The company’s machines are currently used to make Haier and Mitsubishi produced refrigerators.

Francesco Abba, sales and marketing manager at Cannon Afros.

‘We count more than 150 lines installed, and other OEMs are interested,’ he said. ‘This technology has helped us to dominate in China. Now we supply Haier in Europe at its new plant in Romania, the company’s most westerly site. The first phase has capacity for 500,000 units / year, and eventually it will rise to 1m units/year.

Haier has dominated in the Far East, and bought GE’s refrigerator business North America a few years ago. Now its strategy includes Europe; the company has installed its first VAI Pascal plant in Russia.

The industry is transitioning between blowing agent systems, with many using pentane or HFO or a combination of the two, according to Cannon. This has led the company to work with Electrolux to develop a new moulding process for complex refrigerators using HFO and pentane, Abbas said. ‘We have a four component mix head; it is the only one on the market,’ he claimed. ‘It is a development of the SR mix head that has been on the market for 10 years, but now with four streams.’

Injection points

As the insulating requirements for domestic refrigerators are being made more stringent, manufacturers are increasingly inserting vacuum panels within the insulating foam. This can lead to narrow flow paths for the rigid foam, and has led Cannon to further development work, Abba said.

The four-point injection machine injects the foam into the refrigerator, which is positioned face-down as the foaming has to be done from the back of the unit, and uses a combination of HFO and pentane. The mix head, which is based on Cannon’s SR design, features two polyol lines, and is designed for complex dosing.

‘Four point injection gives us very good foam distribution and this helps to give very good lambda values,’ he said. ‘Modern, complex internal designs include vacuum panels to improve insulation. This makes the mould cavity more complex and producing the foam to fill the cavity is more complex. Four-point injection gives better distribution with less over-packing.’

Chilling out

Taking China as an example, the cold chain and commercial refrigeration represent significant areas of growth. Luca Ceresa, commercial director of SAIP is upbeat about business, and this sector in particular. ‘We are doing pretty well in the cold chain, and in the commercial refrigeration sector, including display cases for supermarkets and food storage,’ he said. ‘That’s not to say we don’t get involved in domestic refrigeration but over the past couple of years we have specialised in commercial refrigeration.’

He added that this a niche market, where there is plenty of room to grow. ‘We are, in some cases, replacing technology that is really old,’ he added. ‘Customers are looking for tailor-made products, and this is where we are quite strong. Sometimes we like to make products that other people don’t want to make.’

Luca Ceresa, commercial director of SAIP

Ceresa: specialising in commercial refrigeration

There are specific challenges to machinery companies aiming their products at the commercial sector. ‘Because there are so many different shapes and models, the flexibility a manufacturer needs from their equipment can be huge,’ Ceresa said. This level of complexity lead to the evaluation and design process for the machinery taking some time.

‘We have a good engineering team with experience, and we decided to attack this market segment a couple of years ago,’ he said. ‘We have done a lot of projects. Even this year, pre-coronavirus and during coronavirus, we had a lot of orders for the installation of cold chain, commercial refrigeration.’

Commercial refrigeration makers may need to stock quite a range of products, he said, and therefore his company has produced fixture that is able to manufacture up to 150 different products. ‘The goal is to make the plant as flexible as possible, because using 150 different moulds would cost a fortune,’ he said.

In addition to production flexibility, the machine had to be able to produce parts on shorter cycle times than its predecessors. ‘We have a dedicated engineering team, and we start talking with the customer, we look at possible solutions with them and then we start to design and build the line. Because we are part of Pozzi Industries Group we can also carry out foam tests in-house. This helps us follow the project from A to Z.’

Cold beer

Hennecke OMS has won a number of refrigeration orders since the start of the year, according to Eraldo Greco, the company’s sales director for insulation board lines. ‘Orders for refrigeration have not disappeared,’ he said. For example, he said, during the lockdown period the company picked up a job for the Russian manufacturer USK, which was looking for a complete foaming plant for cabinets and doors. It includes an in-line six-mould fixture for cabinet foaming, and a six-station rotary carousel for the door foaming operations. The system uses pentane as blowing agent.

Away from niche markets in commercial cold chain and refrigeration, Hennecke machinery will be helping campervan enthusiasts keep their beer cold. ‘We won a contract for Thetford, based in Etten-Leur, Netherlands, to make machines building very small cooler and refrigerators for bars and campervans,’ he said. Thetford is a sister company of Norcold Refrigeration of the US, which makes mobile sanitation products for the RV, marine, camping and truck markets. Greco explained that the system has two special foaming stations for different sizes of cabinets, and a rotary carousel for door foaming operations.’

Meanwhile, in North Africa, Tunisian-based company Grand Ateliers du Nord (GAN) ordered a pentane conversion for its existing refrigeration line. In China, it has won an order for refrigeration foaming fixtures from Haier. The company has also supplied machinery to Daikin in Germany for making polyurethane-insulated water heaters.

Keep it cool

Returning to the cold chain, Cannon’s Abba said his company has been working with Manni to develop a foaming station for rigid truck panels. The Manni 2+0.5 is designed for container trucks with 13.5m-long sidewalls. The press is 16m x 3m wide and, Abba said, it is very important to get the foam evenly distributed in the panel.

‘[The machine] gives users good flexibility and enables insulated side panels to be made in a single pass,’ he said. ‘It lets beginners in the market have an efficient plant to build rigid truck panels.’

A developing trend in the market is towards more flame-retardant insulation materials, and therefore some customers want PIR. This is difficult to apply because the mixtures have limited flow, but this technology gives much more even distribution in the panel,’ he said.

Refrigeration is, for most people the most tangible, if invisible, way that polyurethane touches the lives of consumers, but increasingly in different parts of the world regulations are driving the use of higher-performance building insulation.

Orders for machinery in the rigid polyurethane and PIR markets are holding up well, according to Hennecke’s Greco. ‘We started the year strongly after a busy 12 months in 2019,’ he said. ‘We had installations in North America, Europe and Far East as well. At the moment we have three turn-key lines which we are due to start building soon. And we are about to install a complete insulated panel line in Lithuania starting from the unwinders through to the packaging panel line.’

He added that the company’s sales activities continued throughout the lockdown period. ‘We focused on orders for our regular customers, and we have won orders for four PU/PIR lines in North America,’ he said. ‘Our teams will be installing these lines in the next few weeks. The market is still placing orders, despite coronavirus. It was very quiet through February, March and April, because no one was sure what to do or how to do it. People were at home for two months, but orders started to pick up from May onwards.’

Ceresa said the situation was similar at Saip. ‘I thought that during coronavirus everything would stop,’ he said. ‘But we got new orders for sandwich panel production lines. We got a very big order to supply new lines in the US, and one in China. The two in the US are for rigid facing with PIR and mineral wool. The Chinese one is for flexible facing in a very special application that we developed at Cedepa.’

Cedepa is a joint venture between Saip and Dow, with a full-sized rigid foam panel production line in Spain, where both companies can test out new concepts under realistic production conditions. It is also available to third parties. Ceresa says this order confirms the usefulness of the setup. ‘Without Cedepa, we could not have proved the new product concept,’ he said. ‘We are in discussions for some other orders, I’m favourably surprised, but it seems that the projects are still going on. Some entrepreneurs are making investments.

Energy efficiency

Ceresa believes this is a sign that they are helping to keep the industry moving, not least in response to the EU’s plans to encourage better energy efficiency. ‘I still see possibilities of improvements of investments in sandwich panels,’ he said. ‘During coronavirus, the demand for building insulation and local subsidies for energy efficiency has been on the rise. ‘I think that there will be demand for new lines in the next few years. Northern Europe is always more active than southern Europe, but in the end, this is a trend. There are incentives for public and private sectors to invest in building insulation. I am optimistic.’

Cannon’s Abba said that his company is already working on a system for insulated panels. The new Vertipas system dispenses foam into a retarding device, and flattens it before it starts to rise. This helps to improve the insulation properties of the board, he said, and the process is undergoing customer trials.

Looking ahead, Saip’s Ceresa said that the company is trying to adapt to the current situation. ‘With remote control of the lines and other special working parameters, things will be different in the future,’ he said. ‘We must be ready for new challenges. We are making a lot of internal studies and discussions to manage what the future will tell us in terms of machinery, technical support and software. These could be key points for the future.’