A Winning Combination

June 14, 2005

composites gain importance as the nonwovens industry looks for new technology

Composites have already established themselves in a wide array of applications in the nonwovens industry including hygiene, filtration, automotives, roofing, geotextiles and wipes. Virtually unlimited in potential, composites feature a combination of different nonwoven technologies and materials that are specifically tailored to have the exact functions it needs to perform.

Composites have offered a much-needed boost for nonwovens producers looking to expand into new market applications. As manufacturers have the option of combining nearly any type of nonwoven together, they can produce more distinguished products. For instance, in the wipes market, recent composite experimentation has revolved around adding materials that provide functions such as higher abrasion, high wet and tear strength and increased barrier protection.

“Customers are looking for fabric producers to deliver more features and benefits with the materials they provide, and composites achieve this,” explained Karen Renton, marketing and communications assistant for Ahlstrom FiberComposites. “The industries in which we participate (medical, filtration and automotives) comprise manufacturers all eager to simplify their sourcing while innovating and improving their products. Our composites help them to achieve this by combining in one product what used to require sourcing from multiple outlets.”

Composites’ ability to offer more overall functionality compared to a plain nonwoven fabric has left some manufacturers spending most of their research and development efforts, including machinery upgrades and new plant investments, in composites.

Investments Gaining
As commodity nonwovens are increasingly faced with overcapacity issues and pricing pressures, composites are booming. In addition to large-scale companies, smaller producers are looking at composites to boost their nonwovens business. Key areas for this growth include filtration, medical and wipes. In response to this, some of the world’s largest nonwovens producers, including Ahlstrom and DuPont, Wilmington, DE, have made significant investments in composite technology. In February, Ahlstrom announced plans to invest $44 million in its composites business in Windsor Locks, CT. This new line will reportedly use proprietary nonwovens technology to bring value to the web when it comes onstream next year.

Meanwhile, DuPont Nonwovens unveiled its new Advanced Composite Technology (ACT) in May. Six years in the making, this polyester/polyethy-lene technology has 18 patents protecting it and will initially target medical apparel applications under the brand name Suprel. Suprel offers advanced protection and comfort for healthcare professionals and is reportedly the first medical fabric available that is made of polyester for strength and polyethylene for softness. Suprel also offers less surface friction than other medical fabrics, allowing for greater comfort and movement. Comprised from continuous filament fibers, Suprel can transfer heat away from the body and is low linting.

Also boosting the composites market is the practice of combining materials, such as paper, glass and films with nonwovens. These material combinations reportedly offer the best in strength and surface integrity.

“By combining different materials into composite structures, the potential applications for nonwovens are greatly extended,” said Jerome Barrillon, marketing and communications manager of Ahlstrom. “The distinction of market applications as solely nonwoven, film, textile or paper is blurring. This provides a whole new customer base to consider how nonwovens could benefit new markets.”

Jacob Holm’s largest market for composites remains baby wipes, but the company has also begun manufacturing household and cosmetic wipes.

Ahlstrom’s composites target a wide array of markets, in addition to its larger markets. These include food and beverage, reinforcements, wallcoverings and wipes.

In addition to the Windsor Locks expansion, Ahlstrom has made multiple investments geared toward strengthening its position as a leader in the composites market. The company has invested in a $6.2 million fine fiber production line at its Turin, Italy plant. With production expected to begin in October 2004, the line will manufacture advanced filtration media and composites. Also at the Turin plant, a $12.5 million investment was made to reconfigure a line to manufacture products for engine filtration, wipes, medical and general industrial applications for global markets. Meanwhile, Ahlstrom FiberComposites’ Louveira, Brazil, plant is having a $2.3 million upgrade to improve manufacturing capabilities, capacity and product quality to eventually target select nonwovens and specialty filtration markets. This line currently produces automotive filter media products.

Like Ahlstrom, Johns Manville Europe, Bad Homburg, Germany, has also focused on innovation in the composites market. The company’s CombiMat product, which consists of a polyethylene spunbonded material that is needled to a glass layer. This product combines several benefits for bitumen roofing substrates and flooring applications in one. The polyester mat, for example, offers high tear resistance and dimensional stability while the glass fiber mat yields a form-locked component that improves burn behavior. CombiMat is also inherently flame resistant and does not require binders. JM Europe developed CombiMat in response to the increasing demand for combination inlays to produce bitumen style roofing substrates.

Getting What You Pay For
As technology becomes more critical to success in nonwovens, companies are responding to new demands by stepping up production efforts, in all areas of production, to offer quality composite materials. One such company is Kimberly-Clark Nonwoven Fabrics, Roswell, GA, which has been emphasizing composites research, particularly in the filtration and delivery systems markets.

“Composite fabrics continue to be one of our key focal points in the nonwovens industry,” explained J.C. Sneyd, director of sales and marketing of K-C Nonwovens. “A growing percentage of our externally sold products are composite structures. Today, both the product producer and the nonwoven manufacturer are going into the market with composite materials in which they have invested a lot of end user research. Nonwoven manufacturers are replicating finished product testing and are narrowing in on optimum performance attributes before bringing the media to the product producer.”

K-C Nonwovens makes its Coform composite material, a uniquely engineered structure of cellulose, meltblown materials and polypropylene fibers, as well as its highloft and bicomponent materials. Research and development efforts in Coform are predominantly conducted in the filtration, delivery systems and wipes markets. “Our composites are ideal for filtration products because they offer a strong dirt-holding capacity and are very efficient,” Mr. Sneyd said. “Additionally, they are readily pleatable in targeted configurations. The combination of attributes leads to enhanced cost in use for the filter maker and the end user.” Offering at least one unique layer exhibiting enhanced performance needs to be the top priority among nonwovens manufacturers, according to Mr. Sneyd. These conditions also extend into composites. “Many companies can make a layered composite of commodity fabrics and still produce a commodity. It’s typically the unique layer that adds the economic value and desired consumer attributes.”

One such commodity composite product is the spunbond/meltblown/spunbond (SMS) composite. Although these materials are applied in a wide array of applications, including medical gowns and drapes, filtration, bedding and geotextiles, it is more widely produced than other material combinations.

Although the cost of combining nonwovens with other materials can be high, some customers are willing to pay the extra costs for all of these added features. “Combining nonwovens with other materials, such as wovens, in off-line operations, typically add complexity but generate unique materials that product manufacturers covet,” explained Mr. Sneyd. “The combinations of these diverse fabrics offer a plethora of performance and aesthetic attributes that create value.”

Guni Schiller, marketing and sales manager of Atex, Settala, Italy also touted the benefits of composites, “Composites allow certain characteristics that could never be reached with a plain product,” she explained. “For instance, to reach a certain barrier level with a plain spunbond material, you have to compromise and lose softness. Then, to make up for this, manufacturers need to go high in weight. This is increasingly becoming less acceptable by the nonwovens industry.”

Pairing Up
These higher demands, coupled with an increased willingness among customers to pay for the added functions of composites, are also alleviating pricing pressures in the composites market. Still, customers will always consider the cost of a product to some extent before making purchasing decisions.

Jacob Holm stresses the importance of establishing strong partnerships to ward off pricing concerns. The company currently has numerous partnerships with a variety of suppliers, which allow for increased innovation in the production process. For example, Jacob Holm will work with different raw material suppliers to choose fibers that best suit a particular product. These partnerships, however, are not always easy to achieve. In order for a partnership to be successful, a company must have a strong reputation in the products and services it provides to lure others to team up with it. Not every company in the industry is in a position to dedicate the amount of research and development time it takes to do this.

“To innovate and discover new composite technologies, you need to have expertise,” explained Jacob Holm’s Ms. Kim. “This is much more difficult for the smaller players because more research and development needs to occur, new equipment needs to be bought and partnerships need to be invested. Furthermore, companies looking to outsource their materials are only considering a leading company, where quality and capabilities have the reputation for being top notch. Obviously, a company producing a poor quality spunlaced product will have a tough time entering into the composites market. Unless you have a strong history in branded markets, composites are a difficult market in which to become established.”

Converters are also gaining a pivotal role in the composite formation equation. This is particularly true of smaller companies that lack the technology and materials needed to manufacture composites in house.

“Relying on a converter may be more ideal for a market opportunity that requires relatively less yardage of a composite,” explained Mr. Sneyd. “There has been, and will continue to be, a growing opportunity for composites entering into niche applications.”

Offering A More Distinguished Product
The wipes segment has been ripe with new product activity in recent years, and composites, like other technology segments, have been profiting from this proliferation. Composite structures have been replacing items, such as cotton rags with disposable, dual-surfaced nonwovens that allow easier handling. “In household and cosmetic wiping industries, composite materials offer more efficiency,” Ms. Kim explained. “Incorporating an abrasive side and a soft side on a wipe will clean much better than a plain product.”

It is because of the growth in these markets that Jacob Holm is differentiating its Bi-active product, which contains meltblown material combined with either a needlepunced or spunlaced layer, to offer both high bulk and abrasiveness. Other efforts Jacob Holm include adding patterning and embossing options, as well as more colors to improve aesthetic values. “By adding fragrances and colors, especially orange, which is in high demand, your product becomes much more distinguished than the rest,” Ms. Kim said. “I would expect to see more technological advancements in the wipes business during the next three years as these markets are more stabilized and quiet this year than compared to 2002, when it was booming.”

New composites as well as new applications in upcoming years will continue to emerge. Features that add value will further help penetrate composites into various nonwovens markets.

“The industry will revolve around new applications for nonwovens, instead of just substituting plain nonwovens,” opined Atex’s Ms. Schiller. “The composites market offers a never-ending product range due to its unlimited possibilities of combinations, which are underlined by a vast range of technical requests for different sectors.”

In addition to the scope of technical demands, customers will demand stability and commitment from their suppliers to support long term business relationships, as well as high levels of product development. “The ultimate goal is for manufacturers to minimize the total cost associated with the fabrics that is provided as a portion of the finished product’s total cost, while maximizing the benefits delivered,” Ahlstrom’s Ms. Renton concluded.

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