Longing for a deeper understanding of the mattress industry, I've sought out invitations to visit factories and speak to people who work in this massive business, which is also largely populated by just three companies: The Three S's - Sealy, Serta and Simmons. Now, however, there is a new letter in the mix: T for Tempur-Pedic, which purchased Sealy last year. This is my second factory tour after visiting Shifman Mattress factory last February, and it was remarkable. I saw the whole process from start to finish AND got to see some really cool testing as well. Come visit with me.
The mattress business is an old business, but it wasn't until relatively recently that it was a big, national business. As with large furniture, people used to buy their mattresses from local companies and many brands proliferated regionally.
Sealy began life in 1881 in the town of Sealy, Texas when Daniel Haynes, a cotton gin builder, began making cotton filled mattresses for friends and neighbors. Improving on his design, in 1889 he invented a machine that compressed cotton for use in his mattresses. With his success, he began licensing his invention to others and these mattresses came to be called "mattresses from Sealy."
Fifteen years later, Haynes sold his patents to a Texas Company that retained the Sealy name. Soon after, ad exec Earl Edwards penned the slogan “Sleeping on a Sealy is like sleeping on a cloud.” And with that, Sealy mattresses were a "national phenomenon."
By 1920, Sealy had 23 licensed plants all over the country.
Over the next 90 years Sealy added many innovations to its mattresses, had a number of owners, acquired Stearns & Foster Company, and its fortunes rose and fell with those of the broader mattress industry. As of 2014, it owns and operates 25 bedding plants in the U.S. and has begun a new life after being acquired by Tempur-Pedic last year, making the combined companies the second largest manufacturer in the world with nearly 32% of the US mattress market (see "Mattress merger a test for FTC").
>> Sealy Website (history is here)
>> Sealy Corp on Wikipedia
When you visit a mattress factory these days you are going to see a tremendous amount of efficiency. Since the business is so competitive and there's so much pressure to keep prices down (people generally don't like to spend too much on a mattress and the average price of a mattress in the US is around $750 and hasn't changed a great deal over the years), mattresses are built when the orders come in at the factory nearest to where you live.
The day I visited was a Monday, which meant that many orders had come in over the weekend and it was busy. The day I was there over 150 mattresses were being made to be shipped out the next day.
Getting The Pieces Ready
On one side of the factory separate pieces are unloaded, stored and/or made, ready to be pulled off of the shelf and assembled when an order comes in.
These two pictures below show the unrolling of a pack of mattress springs which happens in a lightening fast moment. They are shipped compressed in rolls of five. We all stood back and watch as it came barrelling towards us.
Where I am standing is the front of the factory where the pieces are made. In the middle they are stored. In the way distance the mattresses are assembled and then shipped. You can see a stack of finished mattresses in the distance.
Here a woman is finishing the making the side panels by sewing on handles for the different types of mattress that Sealy sells. Panels, tops and bottoms are made by big sewing machines and then trimmed down by hand.
Here it comes! Quilted padding comes out of this machine to become the top, bottom and sides of a mattress.
The large quilted rolls are cut down into sides. Here are more side panels coming out of the cutting machine.
Solid beds of springs like these are used in lower price mattresses and here await being wrapped up.
Pieces awaiting an order.
Building a Mattress to Order
This short video shows foundations or boxsprings being made quickly by a skilled team.
Here, more affordable mattresses are assembled with springs wrapped inside foam and cloth, which is glued to prevent movement at the next step: wrapping.
As the different orders come through, the ingredients for similar mattresses are fed to a worker who then puts it all together. Here you can see this fellow putting the "sandwich" of a mattress together under a cover and then sewing it up.
More mattress assembly. With lower priced mattresses like the one in the picture, the process is very akin to building a sandwich and then wrapping it tight, and the process is very quick. More expensive versions have more layers, more natural materials and require more care as they are compressed by the outer cover.
Shipping Out The Back Door
Here you can see finished mattresses wrapped in plastic for shipping and the trucks literally backed up to the factory doors.
Right into the truck go the finished mattresses, each one attached with a destination coming from the order over the weekend.
Two big dumpsters sit outside of the burn testing center, which is a walk away from the factory. With the destruction of 3-5 mattresses a day, they fill up easily.
This is the "Shipping Test," simulating what it's like to deliver a mattress in a truck over five miles of road. This test was begun after they realized that many mattresses arrived "broken" due to delivery and building in strength and durability for this first sideways part of their life was essential.
This robot simulates a 200lb man getting in and out of bed for ten years. You can see the video below. The robot will perform this mesmerizing act 5,000 times and take three days to complete the test.
Federal regulations require testing of mattresses for durability and fire retardance. The "roller" test (pic below) and the burn test is a federally required test, but the others are Sealy's own, higher quality tests.
Cigarette & Blowtorch Testing
The flammability of mattresses has been a big deal historically, contributing to many deaths as mattresses in the old days easily burst into flame and accelerated house fires. A number of strict tests have since cut this problem way down, but has also changed how mattresses are made. While the inside of most mattresses are still highly flammable (i.e. there's a lot of foam in these babies these days), fire retardant layers are now able to keep them from burning quickly or out of control.
Mattresses are required to pass what is called the 1972 "Cigarette Test" which is an amazingly antiquated test, and still require the federal government to sell cigarettes to mattress companies (originally they were Pall Mall). The newer SRM cigarettes, developed by the government, cost about $245 per carton. Here is the description of the test:
"At least 18 cigarettes shall be burned on each mattress test surface, 9 in the bare mattress tests and 9 in the 2-sheet tests. If three or more mattress surface locations (smooth surface, tape edge, quilted, or tufted areas) exist in the particular mattress surface under test, three cigarettes shall be burned on each different surface location. If only two mattress surface locations exist in the particular mattress surface under test (tape edge and smooth surface), four cigarettes shall be burned on the smooth surface and five cigarettes shall be burned on the tape edge." (law.cornell.edu)
Additional test have been added since then, including a "blow torch" test. Required since 2007, it "requires all mattresses and mattress foundation sets sold in the United States to withstand a 2 ft.-wide, open-flame blowtorch test for 70 seconds" (ACA Today).
This building has two testing labs, side by side, and you are looking into one below.
The start of the Blow Torch Test.
The end of the test. You can see that the Kevlar layer of fire protection around the mattress has kept it from becoming inflamed. The first you do still see in the video above is due to the melting of the flammable interior which is now oozing through the seams.
This is Sealy's main burn testing facility . Sealy uses this testing facility for all of their models and also tests Tempur-Pedic beds here as well.
(Image credits: Maxwell Ryan; Sealy, TX; Wisconsin Historical Society)