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.
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
worlds 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
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.
Holms largest market for composites remains baby wipes,
but the company has also begun manufacturing household and cosmetic
Ahlstroms 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 companys
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. Its typically
the unique layer that adds the economic value and desired consumer
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
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
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
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 Holms 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
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 Atexs
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
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 products total cost, while maximizing the benefits
delivered, Ahlstroms Ms. Renton concluded.