June 1, 2005

spunlace producers strive to strike a balance

Give and take. Up and down. Push and pull. Good and bad. This is the two-sided story being told by spunlace producers. On the one hand, the wipes market is moving from airlaid to spunlaced fabrics, which is a boon for spunlace sales. On other hand, this growth has enticed producers to build new lines, which are expected to cause overcapacity issues that will impact the market for the foreseeable future. Reports also differ with geography, with North American producers content for the most part, and European companies facing overcapacity and the economic effects of an unfavorable exchange rate. A tight supply of viscose is adding to producers� worries and has served to reinforce efforts to lower the viscose ratio in fiber blends.

While several top roll goods producers have entered the market during the past two years (including Sandler AG, Schwarzenbach, Saale, Germany, and Tenotex, Bergamo, Italy), others have bowed out due to a lack of profitability (most notably Pantex, Chiesina, Uzzanese, Italy). Meanwhile, existing players are underway with plans to boost production through new lines in North America (namely Ahlstrom FiberComposites, Windsor Locks, CT, and Spuntech Industries, Upper Tiberias, Israel).

Make Your Mark
In addition to the larger market forces adding pressure, spunlace producers are also facing issues of commoditization and market proliferation in the wipes segment, drivers that have end users looking to stand out from the crowd. �We are seeing an increase in the use of spunlace in wiping markets, specifically baby wipes,� said James Schaeffer, CEO of Polymer Group Inc., North Charleston, SC, the world�s fifth largest roll goods producer. �There is more demand for value-added wipes and demands from customers for better substrates. PGI has responded by reconfiguring some of our Apex assets to capture more consumer-based, value-added products.�

Mr. Schaeffer added that PGI provides an array of imaged wipes for hygiene and household use. �One of our core strategies is to focus on customer-driven innovation. Our new products in spunlace demonstrate that�and there will be more coming.�

DuPont Nonwovens, Wilmington, DE, is also witnessing a push for diversification through improved performance. The company designed and released more than 20 new spunlaced fabrics in 2003.

�These were tailor-made for specific customers to provide better fabrics than what they were previously using,� commented Carl Lukach, global business director, Sontara/ACT Technologies at DuPont. �Everyone wants differentiated fabrics. The trend in spunlace has been and continues to be to provide more differentiation in fabric characteristics that will matter to end users, either in the sense of lowering overall cost or improving fabric performance. This requires engineering skill in fabric process, converting and finishing. The machines alone cannot provide this.�.

According to Martin Davis, vice president and general manager, wipes at Ahlstrom FiberComposites, the trend toward diversification is a result of the commoditization of turnkey spunlace technology. �In order to be able to stay on the leading edge, Ahlstrom has developed spunlace composites that provide customers the ability to differentiate themselves in the marketplace, while staying competitive due to an excellent cost/performance ratio,� offered Mr. Davis. He added that, in the second quarter of this year, the company will start a new, state-of-the-art $40 million spunlace composite line in Windsor Locks, CT, which will be mainly dedicated to wipes markets. �The line is designed to meet market demands for innovative designs and flexibility, to offer our customers more options in designing their next generations of products,� he said. The company plans to unveil more information about its new venture at the IDEA show this spring.

Value-Added Variety
One key value-added feature in the baby/personal care wipes arena is embossed patterns, which have grown in popularity since the middle of last year, particularly in the private label sector. �Flushability/dispersability and biodegradability are also properties being requested for both baby/personal care and home care,� commented Aldo Ghira, managing director of roll goods producer at Tenotex. �We have begun strong R&D activities to help develop these concepts,� he added.

Spunlace manufacturing lines are rapidly coming onstream in the U.S. and Europe.
Tenotex entered the spunlace market last year with the introduction of its Tenolace fabric. The product features a hybrid configuration blending staple fiber carded webs with airlaid wood pulp to create a product with more value. Executives expect the new line, located in Benejama, Spain, to operate at full capacity later this year.

Personalized embossing designs are also increasing in popularity among big branded players in the baby wipes market, according to Ulrich Hornfeck, sales director for Sandler.
�Personalized embossing designs allow end users to identify their brands,� he said adding that in the industrial and household cleaning area, customers are asking for functional wipes possessing structured surfaces and intelligent internal fluid management. �There is also a demand in the field of lower priced products for weight reduction without reducing the performance qualities of the wipe,� said Dr. Hornfeck.

Hyo-young Kim, marketing director for Jacob Holm Industries, SAS, Soultz, France, also commented on growth in the area of lower-priced spunlaced materials.

�This is the case in Europe, not so much in the U.S.,� she explained. �Many manufacturers are looking at Eastern Europe as a target and are preparing for entrance into that market. Many European companies�including private label producers�are moving in this direction by preparing to offer more lower-priced products for this market�

Speaking of Eastern Europe, the push toward individualized designs is also making an impact on this part of the globe, where producers such as Novita, Zielona Gora, Poland, have recently introduced three-dimensional spunlace designs developed to meet individual client demands. �Having exclusive rights to a special design (surface, aperture, etc.), our clients can be singled out on the market,� said Radoslaw Muziol, vice president, sales and marketing. �In fact, there is no limit concerning different designs,.�

These products are mainly used as dust wipes, high quality cosmetic wipes or even industrial wipes if they are matched with a required specific color.

Back in the U.S., PGI is also working on 3-D fabrics. �We believe the next wave of customer demand will be in the form of a need for expanded product dimension,� said Mr. Schaeffer. �Customers are looking for increased strength, better uniformity, cost effectiveness and more cloth-like features. Our high-end spunlace and Apex products offer that next tier of performance through 3-D designs incorporated directly into the fabric versus traditional embossing,� he said.

For its part, Israel-based Spuntech Industries agrees that there has been a proliferation of products developed with spunlace material, especially in the wipes area. Said Pete Pascavage, director of sales and marketing, �Spuntech has responded to the portion of this proliferation which requires a high level of innovation, development, and close cooperation and communication with customers.�

Mr. Pascavage confirmed that the company has committed to a major production expansion to better serve the North American market. Plans include construction of a state-of-the-art operations facility in North America, with start-up targeted for the second quarter 2005. Spuntech has been operating a sales/customer service office in the U.S. for more than a year in anticipation of the expansion.

Another roll goods producer answering the call for value-added spunlaced fabrics is Orlandi, Gallarate, Italy. The company�s fourth spunlace line produces value-added nonwovens designed to differentiate themselves on the market.

�The material produced on this line is comprised of three layers, with two layers of synthetic fibers containing fluff pulp in the middle,� said company representative Mario Saldarini. �This offers several benefits including softness and a fabric-like touch, while the materials are thicker and stronger. At the same time the converted wet wipes hold much more lotion, avoiding the liquid-release at the box bottom. This new spunlaced product is designed to meet the requested performances of a perfect wet wipe for personal care purposes such as make-up and baby wipes.�

The Big Shift
In the wipes market, the transition from airlaid to spunlace is fueling both growth and innovation and one company responding to this shift is Ahlstrom. �We have opted for more innovative and technically advanced solutions with composite structures, supported by a significant investment in R&D,� said Karen Castle, marketing manager, Wipes.

�Our new technology will offer differentiated capabilities to respond to the growing commoditization of spunlace as it substitutes airlaid. Hydroentanglement can produce products that are binder-free, therefore reducing the interference with lotion chemistry,� she said. �This gives manufacturers greater flexibility in designing new products.�

Medical gowns, like these made with DuPont materials, are a major consumer of spunlaced fabrics globally.
Ms. Castle added that the market is demanding more complex designs, which the transition to spunlace composites will be able to provide. Another trend�initiated mostly in Europe and Japan and slowly spreading to North America�relates to environmental concerns linked with disposable wipes. �The ability to supply biodegradable and dispersible wipes will become increasingly important as consumers understand both the practical advantage and long-term environmental impact,� Ms. Castle said.

PGI is also taking a proactive role in the move from airlaid to spunlace wipes. �We are taking the lead in the change up to spunlace. We believe we have the greatest amount of spunlace capacity installed throughout the world and some of the best equipment as well,� Mr. Schaeffer said. �We will continue to take a leadership position in bringing innovative new spunlace-based wiping products to the market,� he said. Mr. Schaeffer went on to say that PGI continues to see significant growth in North America driven by continued demand for value-added wipes and the transition by large consumer products companies from airlaid to spunlace, particularly for use in baby wipes.

In the household cleaning sector, Sandler predicts a move from airlaid to spunlace as well. �For most applications in the cleaning process, airlaid will be replaced by spunlace because of its more pleasant textile structure and thus more convenient to use,� commented Dr. Hornfeck. �Another advantage lies in the fact that spunlaced products have an excellent price-performance ratio. Such characteristics cannot be integrated into airlaid products.�

Jacob Holm�s Ms. Kim anticipates a similar market shift. �In the household cleaning market, spunlace will take some marketshare from airlaid because it is stronger and performs better,� she said.

While in the European cosmetic and baby wipe markets the shift from airlaid to spunlace has already occurred, this technology change is happening much later in the U.S. Ms. Kim went on to estimate that approximately half of the U.S. baby wipes market is still using airlaid fabrics. �P&G plans to switch some of its products, and once this happens, smaller companies will follow, including private label producers, which now hold about a 20% share of the baby wipes market,� she added.

When it comes to competition from composites, most spunlace producers agree that these fabrics do not yet pose a substantial threat to core, high-volume spunlace markets. While composites are making inroads in cleaning and specialty niche markets, the commodity wipes market is generally considered out of reach. �We haven�t seen much impact from composites,� commented PGI�s Mr. Schaeffer. �We are seeing enough unilateral growth in demand for the technology that any volume gained by composite materials goes unnoticed,� he said.

In fact, instead of a threat, composites are considered a challenging new frontier for many producers. �Composites bring nonwoven fabrics to the next level,� said Ahlstrom�s Mr. Davis. �Providing spunlace composites to an increasingly demanding market allows manufacturers to build in more functionality, giving consumers more sophisticated products. Whether in wipes with increased practical benefits or in the medical field with improved comfort and protection, composites are providing the market with the next generations of products,� he said.

One composite fabric attracting attention is DuPont�s Suprel, which is the first new fabric from the company�s Advanced Composite Technology (ACT) portfolio. �DuPont Suprel has the engineering and scientific capability behind it to discover and provide new end-use applications for nonwoven fabrics,� offered the company�s Mr. Lukach. �With the ability to utilize multiple polymers and multiple polymeric structures in a composite fabric, DuPont ACT is breaking through the current inhibitors in today�s nonwovens process technology. DuPont has integrated advanced polymer and fiber science with nonwovens process technology, both of which are core capabilities of DuPont�.

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