First microchips, now automotive suppliers risk shortage of seat foam

Carmakers attempting to navigate their way through a shortage of microchips while mitigating the effects of a global pandemic might have a new problem to worry about. The severe winter storms that left thousands without power and water in Texas in February 2021 also shut down the refineries that provide the raw materials in seat foam.

Getting to the root of the problem requires following a surprisingly long supply chain. Foam found in most car seats, under the upholstery, is often made with polyurethane, which is manufactured using an organic compound called propylene oxide. In turn, this industrial liquid is produced with byproducts of the oil refining process.

That’s where Texas enters the equation: its refineries provide the petroleum byproducts that kick off the whole process. The storms that froze much of the Lone Star state caused blackouts that put refineries on pause. Anonymous sources told Automotive News that some suppliers could run out of foam on March 8, though they didn’t single out the affected companies.

“Everyone is scrambling. This problem is bigger and closer than the semiconductor issue,” an executive said.

Other executives — all anonymous — the publication spoke to called the issue “a threat, not a given.” Some added that the shortages might become problematic during the second half of March 2021. Sourcing foam from suppliers abroad is possible, but rearranging the supply line on such short notice is much easier said than done.

Surprisingly, carmakers are not as alarmed as companies located further up in the supply chain. General Motors doesn’t anticipate any immediate production impacts. Toyota noted it’s too early to predict the near-term impact that the shortage could have on its factories in North America, while Hyundai and Kia are monitoring the situation. Stellantis is keeping an eye on how things develop, too, but it’s not expecting an impact on its operations.