The Future of Polyurethane Foam for Composites & Tooling

rick brownYou won’t find a bigger advocate for polyurethane foam than General Plastics’ Rick Brown. With a PhD in chemistry, Brown has the technical background that allows him to excel in technical sales as the Senior Account Manager for outside sales in West North America.

“The most important thing is to understand your customer and customer applications,” said Brown.

And that’s exactly what Brown does. He works to gain an understanding so thorough, that he is able to see (and work towards) a future of polyurethane applications most have never even considered. Although the main use for polyurethane foam is in the soles of shoes and as insulation, Brown’s ambition is focused on other, more non-traditional areas of polyurethane use.

Composites and tooling are two great examples of industries that are poised for polyurethane dominance, here’s why: 


Brown said that, “composites have been around for a long time, but polyurethane foam hasn’t really captured the American understanding of what’s possible.” An example of this is airplanes. Historically, the material used to make them is aluminum. However, over the years some small parts, mostly interior, have been made out of polyurethane foam.

“If you start to apply that to bigger parts like the wings,” explained Brown, “then you’re talking about a whole new way of looking at materials.”

The driving force behind composites is strength and weight. This is because in most composite applications, you want to make it as light as possible without compromising strength.

In the case of airplanes, “if you can fly a plane that weighs less, that translates into better fuel economy, which is huge in the industry all around,” said Brown.

Another composites industry Brown is advocating the use of composites is bridges.

“As a citizen, I thought it was important to write letters to the white house and representatives about the possibility of building composite bridges with polyurethane foam as the core material,” Brown said. “We have a lot of bridges made out of steel and concrete, but I’ve spoken to engineers about how you could increase the life span of a bridge without negative effects on strength.”

Brown has since written congressmen with the idea of an infrastructure program.

Brown admits that, “the technology may not be ready to replace the Golden Gate Bridge,” but he explained that it would still be possible because, “you could start small.”

Air cargo containers are also an area Brown has faith composites have a bright future in. “If we can take those aluminum containers and convert them to composites, and still meet the necessary flammability standards that the Federal Aviation Administration requires,” then a whole new application for composite containers is achievable.

Additionally, composites would help with fuel savings, Brown said. “If you calculate the weight of an air cargo container and put 100 of them inside a plane, and change those 100 containers to composites, now you can look at massive fuel savings – as much as a 40% drop in weight that translates directly to fuel savings.”

Examples such as these provide an optimistic outlook for the future of composites and polyurethane. Yet, polyurethane composites are just now starting to grab hold in the US.

“Composites are gaining traction, but you still don’t see a lot of it in every day life,” said Brown.

So if composites are so great, why hasn’t it taken hold yet? Brown says it’s because of price.

“Once it gets to the right price, we’ll see more replacement of traditional materials such as aluminum,” said Brown. “Composites are highly specialized, but it’s just a matter of time before the US and Europe are the leaders in composites.”

Brown says that building something with polyurethane composite material has to do with the design engineers designing parts that can be used as composites instead of metals.

“After that,” Brown said, “whatever your mind can imagine is the only limiting factor.”


Tooling is the second industry in which polyurethane is becoming a rising star. Tools made of polyurethane are considered soft tools, which are anything that’s not metal, such as wood.

Brown explained that because foam is cheaper than metal, General Plastics’ foam is a popular choice for tooling especially for prototypes for molds.

Modeling encompasses a wide variety of applications. In the case of polyurethane, it can be anything from an actual size car model, to the statues you see in Disneyland, to store signs that look like wood. And now with the new machining capabilities, polyurethane foam can look like any type of material, even metal.

One of the main applications for polyurethane tooling today, however, is for flight decks.

“We use flexible foam that has some give to it, and a lot of these parts surround the pilot, or the pad on the emergency exit. We can mold and machine both rigid and flexible foams to get the final part.” Said Brown.

According to Brown, the trick with tooling is knowing how many parts you need, and at what temperatures.

“If you’re manufacturing hundreds of thousands of parts, you need a heavy duty tool. Soft tool is a polyurethane foam that can be used 1-8 times before it’s fatigued at high temperatures, but at room temperature you can make a lot more.”

“It’s kind of like us humans – if you put us in the sun we don’t last as long,” Brown joked.

Picking a Product

Brown says that deciding which product to use all depends on the client’s process and how they manufacture a certain part.

“The main factors are load, temperature, environment, and time. Engineers do calculations based on these factors and come up with plausible solutions,” Brown said.

If you’re new to General Plastics, the number of choices may be overwhelming at first.

“We have a lot of different series of foam, and the use of each all depends on application,” said Brown.

That’s why General Plastics has a knowledgeable sales team who, like Rick, are passionate about finding the right product for the application as well as discovering new and innovative uses of polyurethane foam.

Even if you haven’t considered polyurethane as an option for your composite or tooling needs, it may be worth exploring. Just give us a call and we’ll work together to see if polyurethane could be a cost-saving alternative for your application.