Chemical finishes allow producers to impart nearly any characteristic to a synthetic fiber, bolstering end-use capability and compatibility with nonwovens technologies such as airlaid, thermal bonded, carded, and more recently spunlaced, spunbonded and meltblown. As fiber producers continually refine their processes and improve products to meet market demand, the most versatile have been most successful.
Viscose is losing ground to polypropylene and polyester for cost and versatility. Polypropylene is certain to be the dominant fiber in terms of overall volume due to its widespread use in meltblown and spunbond processes, both high capacity technologies. Fiber producers are now eagerly searching specialty nonwoven applications, particularly using polyester. These producers have faced many challenges. For example, the global landscape, in particular the current Middle East situation, is having an adverse affect on raw material prices. Synthetic fiber production is heavily dependent on the availability of petroleum products whose prices have spiked recently. This rise of raw material prices has created a struggle for raw material producers to absorb the increase while maintaining profitability—a task that becomes increasingly difficult for an industry mindful of passing value to its customers. “The increasing oil prices certainly have an impact,” said Erik Gammelgaard, marketing director, FiberVisions, Varde, Denmark. “In Europe we had hoped to get out of the recession, and there are some signs of improving economically, but the increasing oil prices could actually put a stop to this development.... I am not overoptimistic about the situation in the near future.” As synthetic fiber producers face this challenge, producers of natural fibers are scrambling to gain entry into a market that until now has been difficult for them to reach. Traditionally higher in cost, natural fibers are popular in Europe and Asia where increased ecological awareness and widespread knowledge of their benefits has broadened their use in the expanding wipes market. Insiders expect natural fibers to gain popularity in U.S. markets as alternative sources. Natural fibers, in particular cotton, are emerging and offer comfort, moisture absorption and retention, and renewability in nonwoven products.
In 2003 total domestic shipments of manufactured staple fibers to nonwoven roll goods producers were 717 million pounds, down 13% or 110 million pounds compared with 2002. These results are the worst recorded since 1997 when 668 million pounds were shipped to nonwovens producers. The high price of raw materials notwithstanding, some experts in the industry attribute this decrease to a lack of new trends in fiber development. To reverse this trend some are calling for further development and modification to existing quality products for line extensions. “The nonwovens market will continue to grow, especially compared to the conventional textile market,” said Wayne Proctor, business manager for the nonwovens market, Wellman Inc. “Nonwovens offer value to their downstream customers, especially in medical and hygiene applications which are not as sensitive to up and down swings in the marketplace. And, the wipes market has always continued to grow especially in the consumer market for home and personal care.”
Recently, polyester staple producer DAK Fibers, Charlotte, NC, announced that due to rising costs of the raw materials Paraxylene and Ethylene Glycol, the company can no longer absorb the increases in cost of it’s polyester staple line. To remain in the market and to offset the raise, DAK has instituted a 9-11% increase on all of its staple fiber products sold to home furnishings, apparel, industrial and fiberfill markets.
“Since the company began, we have focused on fibers and resins in an effort to expand in the polymer additives market,” said Ricky Lane, director of communications and public relations, DAK Fibers. Both antimicrobal and moisture management technologies are incorporated during the polymer stage of fiber manufacturing, which imparts permanent characteristics during the life of the product in which the fibers are used. Mr. Lane said the new fibers will find use in hospitality and dual-use markets where there is a need to control microbial spread.
In addition to polyester, polypropylene is finding increased acceptance as a substitute for more traditional fibers, such as rayon and viscose, thanks to its much sought-after balance of high performance and low costs. In recognition of rising oil prices, Denmark’s FiberVisions is staving off a potential halt in market growth by focusing on fiber development.
“This last year we have introduced new and improved fibers, specifically developed for high tenacity applications,” said FiberVisions Mr. Gammelgaard. The company's latest offering is the HY-Entangle WA, a new polypropylene fiber for spunlace and wipes products. The fiber is reportedly less expensive than viscose and rayon, which are traditionally based in spunlaced products.
And, claims Mr. Gammelgaard, the new fiber cards better, which translates into better productivity. Good release properties, improved softness, whiteness and excellent resistance to solvents, acids and alkalis are also reasons for HY-Entangle WA’s superiority to rayon and viscose. “With FiberVisions' HY-Entangle WA fiber, new designs can be made and even improve the functionality and profitability of spunlace and wipes products,” he said. Some companies are taking advantage the market to increase their strength in the market.
Last month, Austrian-based viscose supplier Lenzing AG, acquired the entire Tencel group of companies from Cordasi BV, an international financial group. The acquisition is expected to fortify Lenzing’s position as one of the leading manufacturers of high-quality, cellulose-based fibers in the world.
Competition Offers Alternatives
The current spike in pricing for nonwovens has caused them to lose an edge to natural fibers that have traditionally been more expensive.
As this gap in pricing narrows, natural fiber producers are seeing an opportunity to penetrate nonwovens-dominated markets, particularly medical and hygiene.
Of all the natural fibers, including hemp, flax, jute and sisal, cotton is by far the most popular, thanks to its versatility in a wide range of products.
It already has some applications with nonwovens in feminine hygiene items, industrial and medical wipes, mattress pads and filtration media.
“Targeting the nonwovens market is part of an overall strategy titled Absorbent Product Initiative,” said Chuck Allen, technical accounts manager of bleached cotton supplier BBA Natural Fibers Group, Simpsonville, SC. “Based on the growth in the nonwovens area, we would certainly like to target absorbent applications.” Recent interest by cotton producers in the nonwovens industry was spurred by a study sponsored last year by bleached cotton supplier, Barnhardt Manufacturing, Charlotte, NC. Results of this study revealed consumer confusion about the contents of disposable baby wipes.
More than half of the 500 mothers or female primary caregivers surveyed incorrectly assumed that some baby wipes are made with cotton fibers. Presented with this evidence, the survey shows, more than half of the mothers made clear their preference for a product made with cotton. Additionally, those surveyed said they would be willing to pay more for wipes that contained cotton.
“Cost being an important parameter to retailers makes cotton and synthetic fiber mixtures ideal. Polyester offers a great alternative in combination with cotton to help reduce cost dynamics,” said George Hargrove, vice president of sales and marketing at Barnhardt. “In a baby wipe, where mothers have said they were willing to pay more for cotton, different amounts of polyester blended with the cotton would give the benefits and cost effectiveness that's desired.”
Barnhardt is making a push to educate the entire supply chain from nonwovens converters and roll goods manufacturers on the attributes of cotton. Nonwovens producers, for the most part, have been reluctant to engage in cotton spunlaced fabrics.
In many cases, said Mr. Hargrove, U.S. companies have shied from the costs of setting up their carding, fiber forming equipment and filtration to run cotton, even though European roll goods producers are doing so rather successfully. Barnhardt feels that this is a trend that can be changed.
Making A Case
Cotton Incorporated, Cary, NC, is an advocacy group that attempts to make others aware of the advantages and strong consumer appeal of cotton. The group is continually looking for new areas of opportunity for cotton fiber, especially in light of the Barnhardt study. One of the most promising is in nonwovens, particularly hygiene products. Cotton Incorporated’s research, development and marketing efforts focus on using cotton in four key areas of consumer hygiene products: diapers, wipes, feminine hygiene and adult incontinence.
One of the tools that Cotton Incorporated has available to nonwovens manufacturers and product developers is a sampling system for cotton components in absorbent products. The Fabricast line displays technical information and processing data for each new wipe, diaper and feminine hygiene structure available. Most samples in the library of thousands are cotton rich or 100% cotton.
Fabricast gives customers a chance to look at products and get the basic overall formulation, right through spinning and dying or finishing, bringing to light the technicalities of forming certain webs. “We just want people to be aware of the possibilities and if you can back it up with viable information and assist from the technical side, they have a better understanding,” said Mac McClean of Cotton Incorporated.
Mr. McClean said that the global response to cotton has been strong, especially in Asia where there's a preference for high-end fabrics and environmental conscienceness is high.
He does point out that in the U.S cotton is seen as a premium material particularly in nonwovens, where economics is a controlling factor.
But in view of the current market, it’s believed cotton can be a serious option. “With a lot of companies in North America, when the economy gets flat it gets tough, and they look for alternatives,” said Mr. McClean.
Experts in that industry believe working closely with nonwovens product and machinery manufacturers can ensure a clean transition to running cotton on existing equipment. But, it may be a tough sell.
“In the nonwovens industry, the polyester staple fiber business is good,” said Wellman’s Mr. Proctor. “Cotton is on the outside of the nonwovens business in wipes and hygiene, looking for a way in. Bleached, cotton is a very expensive commodity--it may work in conjunction but never take its place.”