June 6, 2005

manufacturers are finding new life for the process in specialty applications

The needlepunch industry is in a state of change as it refocuses itself in the direction of specialty products. During the past four years, the words “lagging,” “stagnant” and “saturated” were most commonly used to describe needlepunch. Economic troubles and overcapacity forced many needlepunch producers to review their business strategies and make efforts to right their sinking ships. Essentially divided into two groups—specialty and commodity producers—commodity needlepunch manufacturers enjoyed a boom in the 1990s. The goal, according to experts, was chasing optimum prices and lowering costs, while constantly seeking protection from Asian influence. However, faced with a changing landscape, manufacturers of needlepunch material are exploring specialty-based market opportunities and technology to gain an innovative edge and remain viable.

Needlepunch, although stricken with heavy competition, is a wide and varied market, and uses include automotives, technical felts, filtration, home furnishings, padding, medical and papermaking felts. Needlepunched nonwovens have traditionally been found in tennis ball covers, marine carpeting, ballistic felts and high-performance brake pads. The emergence of more specialty applications has manufacturers striving to retool existing product lines to provide materials for these niche and specialty markets.

“We’re always trying to retool our (needlepunch) business and stay one step ahead of our competitors, trying to find those value-added, specialty products,” said David Rowell, executive vice president and COO, Foss Manufacturing, Hampton, NH. “We have certainly aimed ourselves and our business plans at specialty markets that are in need of development—that plays a key role for us.”

Gaining Momentum
Overcapacity has largely impacted commodity needlepunch producers, typically those making 2-, 4- and 6-ounce needlepunch fabrics. These manufacturers are being faced with the challenge of developing specialty uses for their materials to avoid problems. Needlepunch is especially gaining momentum in the automotives market, where it continues to replace woven materials, thanks to its moldability and ease of trimming. Needlepunch is currently found in car package trays, headliners, trunk liners, carpeting and padding, and manufacturers expect this number of applications to increase.

Needlepuncher Precision Custom Coatings, Totowa, NJ, currently supplies a black needlepunch material that acts as a sheath for the fiberglass hood liners in Cadillacs. The material is embossed with the Cadillac logo, and its luxurious feel, said Dan Kamat, PCC’s vice president, Industrial Textile Division, is exactly what the luxury auto maker was looking for.

“Unless you can do something special, you can’t get a premium for your product,” said Mr. Kamat, “Commodity needlepunch is an extremely competitive market, you have to have the ability to add value.”

PCC produces a hotmelt coated needlepunch material used in the production of the Brillo Toss ‘n’ Scrub scrub pad.

Although PCC’s core business is apparel, Mr. Kamat sees huge growth potential in the company’s budding industrial markets, which make up about 15% of its industrial business and is the company’s fastest growing division. Of its industrial products, 30% are needlepunch. In 2001, the company added a 5.5-meter-wide line to its one-line operation.

By 2003, PCC had reached its capacity in needlepunch and added a third line, this time a 5.5-meter-line. The capacity helps PCC provide materials for such products as industrial wipes, geotextiles, healthcare, filler pads for incontinence pads and fire-retardant fabrics that meet the most stringent safety codes. Furthering its ability to give added value to its customers, PCC—whose primary business is coating—has the largest hotmelt line in the industry. This ability has enabled PCC to provide the material for a double-sided disposable cleaning pad. Developed to offset declining steel wool sales in the household cleaning market, Church & Dwight’s Brillo Scrub ‘n’ Toss leverages the Brillo brand name into the growing scrubbers market.

Response: Innovation
Raw materials price escalation is one of the largest problems currently facing the needlepunched nonwovens industry. The problem has caused end users to reduce less profitable products and shift toward those products that are more likely to be profitable. Experts say that having strong relationships and long-term agreements with raw materials suppliers are key. Some manufacturers are also taking advantage of the market’s downturn by working on raw material innovation.

“At Foss, our whole approach has been to achieve this through specialty fibers. We are spending large amounts of energy on this fiber development,” said Mr. Rowell. Fiber development, he said, is a way to help his company bring extra value to the marketplace in difficult financial times. This is being achieved through bicomponent fibers, fibers with special additives or combinations of both.

“This allows the engineering of fabrics using those fibers that bring extra value to the marketplace,” he said. The results have included such innovations as flame resistance, antimicrobials for the medical industry, recyclables or ones with enhancements to increase cycle times or yield for end users.

Foss Manufacturing’s Fosshield technology has a number of uses where antimicrobial properties are a requirement in needlepunch fabrics.

One such offering by Foss is the recent development of a patented process, known as Fosshield Antimicrobial Technology. Ideal for use in needlepunch fabric, the fibers are built around registered inorganic silver-based antimicrobial agents. The patented process incorporates the silver antimicrobial additives throughout the bicomponent and binder fibers of fabrics.

Equipment Advancements
With many needlepunch manufacturers eyeing specialty markets, the current demand for high-performance products is especially strong. These demands have led machinery manufacturers to create new needlepunch technology that provides roll goods manufacturers with faster machines, offering smoother surfaces and even weight distribution. The result is needlepunch with quality that gives manufacturers the chance to develop new applications.

Therefore needle suppliers and needleloom machinery manufacturers are also fostering innovation in the needlepunch market. Recent efforts in needle development include ways to make them last longer and not break as easily. Needle manufacturers have also introduced more fine-gauge needles in their line-ups for a better surface quality. Foster Needle, Manitowoc, WI, for example, is enhancing its needle quality to ensure their products offer better and longer-lasting performance.

“Recent capital expenditures at Foster have been extensive as improvements into all areas of our process have been implemented in the year,” said the company’s president Perk Foster. “All of our sales personnel—each of whom have been needlepunchers in their past employment—carry CD-roms and other instructional techniques with them into our customers’ factory areas and conduct literal classroom experiences for the production staffs.”

Needle supplier Groz-Beckert USA, Charlotte, NC, has designed its needles to have a longer life span. The company’s new conical-shaped needles, for example, prevent needle breakage in applications using heavyweight or shoddy materials. The needles are conical in shape up to approximately one inch of the needle’s crank, which results in less build-up and improved surface quality.

Improvements have also been made in the needleloom business, as machines feature new technology to offer higher speeds and throughputs for greater production. Productivity gains are often achieved through machinery technology, working methods and the originality of the products. To help the needlepunch carpet industry to regain satisfactory levels of financial return, NSC Nonwoven is enhancing needlepunched carpet lines.

To help the needlepunch carpet industry gain satisfactory levels of financial return, NSC nonwoven has developed the NL 11/Twin-SE Carpet Star.

Among the company’s most recent offerings is the A.50-SDB needleloom, designed to rib a 320 gsm carpet product—in line—at speeds up to 16 m/min, which correspond to a production of approximately 1250 kg/hour.

This technical ability eliminates intermediate storage of flat needlepunched and significantly shortens the production process. The finished structured carpet is produced in line and wound up at the end of the line, saving costs of labor, storage and handling of flat needlepunched products.

Additionally, the company’s Ouat!sys technology ensures entry of the carded web into the crosslapper carriages at very high speeds while preserving fiber orientations in the web. It does this without increasing tension drafts to diminish web characteristics.

Until now, this bottleneck severely limited the plants’ ability to optimize production on older lines. Ouat!sys, therefore, contributes not only to an overall increase of line output, but also to an improvement in the qualitative characteristics of the final product.

Meanwhile, needleloom maker Fehrer AG, Linz, Austria, has introduced the NL 11/Twin-SE Carpet Stat, a structuring needlepunching machine for the production of high-quality rib and velour products with two independently operating needle zones. These allow the creation of a new range of large repeat patterns and needled carpets with a surround or borders on all sides, offering the production of conventional patterns at higher speeds. The two needle zones are adjusted to one another electronically in accordance with the prescribed recipe for maximum design flexibility.

Forward Thinking
The cost effectiveness of needlepunch will remain an advantage in the future, while product and new market development will remain a top priority of needlepunch manufacturers. Consolidation will help some survive, but innovation is the key for future success. “While overcapacity is still an issue it is better now than it was two years ago due to mergers and acquisitions. I anticipate further activity along these same lines,” said Danny Grover, Southern Felt.

Needlepunch companies must have the ability to add value and fill specific needs when producing roll goods to survive the current state of the market..

With these measures being taken, words to describe the needlepunch market should become “rapid growth,” “strong sales” and “innovation.” Whoever can supply a cost-effective and quality needlepunch product that meets a new need will prosper.

In the meantime, manufacturers must continue to push forward with innovation to find new uses and markets for needlepunch. Although it may be years before the industry can see just how well their efforts have paid off, these are the manufacturers that will be ahead once the economy picks up. “Product development and innovation of new designs in felting needles have been major goals and strengths in the past and will continue in the future,” said Foster Needle’s Mr. Foster. “This development work is continually ongoing and more unique and useful new styles will be forthcoming in the very near future.”