market for airlaid nonwovens may have finally come out of its slump.
After more than three years of overcapacity, shrinking margins and
dropping prices, industry insiders are indicating that the unbalanced
supply-and-demand ratio that caused these problems may have started
to right itself.
That’s not to say that it’s nothing but sunny skies for
airlaid, whose problems largely stemmed from a massive investment
in the late 1990s and early 2000s that was not met with the expected
level of new product introduction. Airlaid is still in desperate need
of new applications to make moving capacity less challenging. Also,
the material is set to face some severe competition as spunlaced nonwovens—airlaid’s
biggest rival in the wipes market—is currently undergoing a
rate of investment not seen in nonwovens since the airlaid boom of
the 1990s. Still, overall optimism in the industry is higher than
its been in years.
“We are more bullish than ever,” said Paul Farren, global
business manager of Georgia-Pacific’s nonwovens group. “Capacity
is finally tightening up and pricing increases are being absorbed
by the customers.”
Several years ago, at virtually the same time, Buckeye Technologies
built a 50,000-ton-per-year line in Gaston, NC; Concert Industries
constructed two side-by-side lines—with a total capacity of
36,000 tons—in Gatineau, Quebec; BBA Fiberweb built a line
in Tianjin, China and Rayonier constructed a line in Florida. This
surge in worldwide nonwovens capacity, particularly in North America,
was initially seen as a sign that airlaid was getting ready to penetrate
a significant market, namely the baby diaper core.
When no new market opened up, airlaid manufacturers were left scrambling
to fill capacity. While the burgeoning wipes market provided some
relief, most manufacturers openly admitted to trouble. Buckeye,
for instance, responded by bringing its Gaston line onstream slowly
and earlier this year the Memphis-based company closed its Cork,
Ireland manufacturing facility. Meanwhile, despite ever-increasing
sales, Concert Industries closed its Charleston, SC operation and
was ultimately forced to seek protection for bankruptcy in Canada,
a situation with which the company is still dealing.
These moves, and others like them, as well as steady growth in
core markets for airlaid, seem to have finally brought relief to
airlaid manufacturers. While company executives wouldn’t comment,
industry sources have indicated that Buckeye’s Gaston line
is running more or less at full strength, as is at least one of
Concert’s Gatineau lines.
“Airlaid capacity utilization in both Europe and North America
is improving but not to a point where the industry is healthy,”
said Michael Brown, absorbent products sales manager for Buckeye.
“We are seeing growth in all three of our major markets and
new applications are showing promise.”
Historically, the majority of airlaid has been consumed by feminine
hygiene, wipes and tabletop applications, but smaller markets such
as food packaging, filtration and some specialty diaper core areas—namely
swim pants—are also contributing to industry growth. Additionally,
new application areas that are new to nonwovens in general are gaining
|While facing some competition from spunlaced,
airlaid is benefiting from the rapid growth of the wipes market.
During the past five years, the massive proliferation of the wipes
market has been the talk of the nonwovens industry and the airlaid
market has been one of the key beneficiaries of this phenomenon.
The flexibility and cost efficiency of airlaid materials have made
them a top choice among wipes manufacturers, particularly in North
America, allowing manufacturers like Buckeye and Concert to benefit
from this segment’s double-digit growth.
However, this segment has not been without its challenges. The rapid
expansion of spunlaced nonwovens, another top choice for wipes substrates,
has added a number of competitors vying for share. In North America
alone, there are three planned spunlaced lines intent on targeting
wipes applications. And, even before these three new lines come
onstream, already BBA Fiberweb is operating a large spunlace line
in South Carolina, which is reportedly dedicated solely to wipes
and earlier this year nonwovens maker PGI Nonwovens announced it
was earmarking 40,000 tons of its Apex spunlace material to this
As competition from spunlace heats up, the airlaid market is working
overtime to not only retain but also to expand its presence in the
wipes market. So far, most manufacturers are indicating little or
no threat from the market.
Because the needs of airlaid nonwovens require more of its product
than spunlaced match its polymer technology strengths, Vinamul Polymers,
a division business unit of National Starch, has been developing
a number of products to boost airlaid's attractiveness in both household
and personal care applications. "We are trying to bring value
to airlaid to help the material compete with spunlaced in wipes
or attract new markets," explaineds John Parsons, of Vinamul.
Vinamul's Nacrylic ABX-30 is being billed as an abrasive binder
for scrubbing wipes, able to provide durable scouring properties
in dry, wet and harsh solvent conditions. The company is also offering
the Dur-O-Set Elite Plus binder, which provides the wipe with an
electrostatic charge that picks up dirt and traps it in the substrate,
and Dur-O-Set Elite Ultra, which makes wipes softer, stronger, more
absorbent than conventional polymers and provides 40-50% higher
wet strength and 80-90% higher solvent strength. And, speaking to
the industry's environmental consciousness is Vinamul's Structurecote
product, which creates a wipe that is 100% biodegradable while maintaining
"We are seeing in airlaid an evolution toward different features
and improved performances," Mr. Parsons said. "We are
seeing a lot of new applications for airlaid in the pipeline and
many of them are featuring wiping technology."
|Developments made by Vinamul Polymers
are allowing airlaid materials to be more abrasive than ever
Machinists March On
Another significant indication of the airlaid market’s imminent
recovery is the sudden interest among machinery suppliers in the
technology. Of course, the industry’s mainstays Dan-Web and
M&J Fibretech, both headquartered in Denmark, continue to hone
this technology in search of new markets and overall expansion.
These two companies held the original patents on the technology
and currently the majority of the world’s capacity is produced
on machines made by them.
It is no secret that the past several years have been extremely
challenging for these two companies. Few companies were interested
in purchasing airlaid lines during the period of overcapacity and
machinists have had to look to new areas for growth. To some degree
these efforts centered on global expansion and some success was
achieved in areas beyond North America and Europe. Dan-Web, for
example, supplied a large-scale airlaid line to C-Airlaid (see sidebar,
page 34), Russia’s first airlaid producer.
While global expansion has to some degree alleviated stress, the
creation of new types of airlaid technologies has been the key focus
for many airlaid machinery manufacturers. Dan-Web, for instance,
has been working on combination lines incorporating airlaid and
spunbond technologies for wipes as well as the forming of fibers
based on cotton linters and bamboo pulp. Meanwhile, M&J Fibretech,
which was recently purchased by Ason Neumag, has been developing
new applications for airlaid nonwovens that are new to the market.
“It’s been a hard time for customers,” said Henning
Skov Jensen, managing director of M&J Fibretech. “It’s
hard to sell new lines for typical applications to our usual customers.
Instead, we have been working with other customers to develop specialty
M&J’s pilot line in Denmark has been fully booked for
the past year, which Mr. Jensen is seeing as a good sign for the
future of new product development.
Beyond these two airlaid veterans, newcomers, not necessarily to
nonwovens but to the airlaid market, are targeting this segment,
signaling its potential for the future. One such company is A. Celli,
an Italian producer of winders and rewinders for hygiene applications.
Earlier this year, the company unveiled its Wingformer airlaid forming
machine that is able to achieve productivity levels higher than
450 kb/h/meter with semitreated pulp or more with untreated pulp.
The result of a four-year project, the Wingformer combines Celli’s
expertise in nonwovens with its strong tradition in the paper-making
market. A Wingformer has been installed at Rieter Perfojet’s
new pilot facility in Montbonnot, France, where it works in tandem
with a Rieter spunlace line.
So far, Celli has been applying most of its efforts with this technology
toward airlace systems, a combination of airlaid and spunlaced material,
where one of its formers can do the job of two formers in a typical
system, according to Celli managing director Allessandro Celli.
Another new entry, The Airlaid Alliance, uses the processing expertise
of airlaid producer McAirlaids and the machinery know-how of Saueressig.
The goal is to license and install turnkey lines to produce binder-free
airlaids through a process patented by McAirlaids, said Peter Gawley,
managing director of the alliance. Since 1997, McAirlaids has been
using heat and pressure in the place of binders to produce airlaid
nonwovens without the use of an oven. The absence of binders equals
lower production costs, while the absence of an oven significantly
lowers the cost of the initial investment and thus open up new doors
“We really think that time is right for traditional airlaid
nonwovens but the material can be expensive and the lines can be
expensive to install,” Mr. Gawley said. “Cost has been
a prohibitive factor in many markets for airlaid, particularly the
baby diaper market.