The 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.�
A Rough Road Behind
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 ground.
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 market.
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 solvent strength.
"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 before.
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 products.�
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 for airlaid.
�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.