Stagnant. Saturated. These are a few of the negative words needlepunch
manufacturers are using to describe the current state of their market.
Economic troubles, overcapacity and saturated markets have left
little room for growth in the needlepunch market. However, despite
their gloomy outlook, manufacturers of needlepunch material continue
to explore specialty-based market opportunities and technology.
Needlepunch, although stricken with heavy competition, is a wide
and varied market. Common markets for needlepunched nonwovens include
automotives, technical felts, filtration, home furnishings, padding,
medical and papermaking felts. Needlepunched nonwovens can also
be found in tennis ball covers, marine carpeting, ballistic felts
and high-performance brake pads. Manufacturers expect the highest
growth for the needlepunch market in these specialty products. The
growth of more specialty applications has manufacturers striving
to innovate their existing products to apply in a variety of markets.
Manufacturers are using this slow economic period to spend more
time researching and developing ideas, rather than focusing on production.
However, manufacturers are aware of the overcapacity problem still
looming in the needlepunch market. With this in mind, they are looking
for ways for their company and products to stand out among the rest.
Overcapacity remains one of the biggest concerns among needlepunch
manufacturers for a number of reasons. For one, the poor economic
climate is leaving markets struggling. Weakened economic conditions
have affected needlepunch in the geotextile, filtration and furniture
markets. With the government halting spending on geotextile construction
projects and the furniture market experiencing a decline in their
sales, manufacturers are struggling to find new opportunities.
"In the early 1990s it seemed as if needlepunched material
was being applied into new markets everyday,"said Richard Carr,
vice president of sales and marketing at Consumer Products Enterprises
(CPE), Union, SC. "Today, the needlepunch market has somewhat
matured. I am not seeing as much replacement of wovens with needlepunch
as I did back then. Even from a product development standpoint,
there is a standstill. The market today is not even like it was
in the 1970s when raw materials such as wool felt, rayon and polypropylene
While overcapacity is on the forefront of manufacturers' minds,
many believe the situation is only temporary. When the economy climbs
out if its slump, sales in the needlepunch market are expected to
pick up again and start using all the capacity available on the
"There is not so much of a recession, but the market is experiencing
a period of stagnation," Anders Kroer, sales director at Fibertex,
Aalborg, Denmark explained. "There is an over-investment in
needlepunch and competition is very fierce."
Despite the slow economy, needlepunch manufacturers have the opportunity
to move away from saturated commodity markets to join smaller segments.
Lackluster needlepunch sales have left manufacturers exploring niche
markets in hopes of filling capacity and boosting sales.
"The only growth occurring right now
is in very specialized products that meet a specific need,"
said Stephen Foss, chairman and CEO of Foss Manufacturing, Hampton,
NH. Foss is been focusing on products for the growing craft, automotive,
exhibit and display markets in addition to targeting technical markets.
"We have been working to develop more synthetic fibers to broaden
our capabilities," Mr. Foss said. "Many of these newer
fibers, including our binder fibers, are driving development in
the nonwovens industry."
Texel, Beauce, Quebec, Canada is also targeting its needlepunched
material in specialty markets, particularly in disposable washcloths.
The products are used by patients in hospitals and nursing homes
who have difficulty bathing or who get sponge baths in bed. The
success of these washcloths has given manufacturers ideas for other
potential uses for needlepunch in specialty wipes. For instance,
the disposable washcloth can also be used for people who spend a
good deal of time outdoors or at sporting events and do not have
access to a bath or shower.
In addition to exploring specialty products and new markets, manufacturers
are hoping to educate customers about their existing products, especially
if they lack competition. A company that boasts about a specific
product or service will stand out more.
"During this time of overcapacity, manufacturers really need
to focus on their strengths," explained CPE's Mr. Carr. "Needlepunch
is a highly competitive market, and, if you can somehow distinguish
yourself from the rest, it will be a big advantage."
In addition to creating new markets for needlepunch, some manufacturers
are using the market's downturn to take the time to expand their
existing product lines. Tex Tech Industries, North Monmouth, ME,
for example, recently expanded its aircraft material line to include
Fuselage Burnthrough Protection material, which can help prevent
the spread of fire during a plane fire or explosion. "Fuselage
Burnthrough Protection is a lightweight, fire resistant material
that prevents the flame from reaching inside the aircraft,"
explained Eliza Montgomery, textile engineer at Tex Tech. "The
material is placed between the skin of the aircraft and the inside
walls and acts as a protective layer that does not allow fire to
penetrate through the cabin. The material allows passengers more
time to escape the plane during a survivable crash."
Tex Tech has also refocused its product offerings to allow more
expansion to the technical needlepunch market. "We are now
focusing on high-performance, needlepunched nonwovens, rather than
commodity products," explained Shirley Ashton, vice president
of sales and marketing.
Needlelooms Still Thriving
With many needlepunch manufacturers eyeing specialty markets, the
current demand on high-performance products is especially strong.
These stringent demands have led machinery manufacturers, despite
the economy, 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
On the machinery side of the needlepunch business, which includes
needle suppliers and needleloom machinery manufacturers, innovation
continues. With needles, companies are developing ways to make them
last longer and not break as easily. Needle manufacturers have also
introduced more fine-gauge needles in their line-up for a better
Foster Needle, Manitowoc, WI, is enhancing its needle quality to
ensure their products offer better and longer-lasting performance.
"Customers want needles to last longer and be more consistent
to increase production efficiency," explained John Foster,
executive vice president of Foster Needle. "They really want
the best overall product"
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.
"As more improved looms are sold, needle breakage becomes less
of an issue and increased needle lifetime becomes more important,"
explained Bill Neely, technical service manager at Groz-Beckert.
"This is especially important because there are now more fine-gauge
needles used to create a better surface quality. Since these barbs
are usually smaller, less metal is worn away. This also means there
is a longer lifetime on these more expensive needles."
Another customer complaint Groz-Beckert has addressed is width loss,
which often occurs when needling woven upholstery fabrics. The company
has developed a fine-gauge needle with a teardrop-shaped working
blade cross section. According to Mr. Neely, the cross section has
two fully rounded edges and a highly efficient edge, which features
relatively small HL styled barbs. "Our HL barbs help minimize
damage and assure adequate needling. These needles are becoming
more widely used to minimize width loss," he said.
Improvements have also been made in the needleloom business, as
machines feature new technology to offer higher speeds and throughputs
for greater production. Some manufacturers worry that this may eventually
exacerbate the overcapacity situation, as specialty markets can
easily become saturated.
"High-speed and more efficient needlepunch
machinery has allowed products, once considered specialty, to become
commodity," explained Tex Tech's Ms. Ashton.
When it comes to increased needleloom efficiency, the DiLoom HSC
Hyperpunch machine from Dilo Maschinenfabrik, Eberbach, Germany,
has everyone in the needlepunch industry talking. The Hyperpunch
machine uses an elliptical needling process which, according to
company executives, can improve the lines' productivity with higher
throughput speeds and reduced draft, or longitudinal stretch, during
the needling process.
"We are intrigued by the possibilities of Hyperpunch's elliptical
needling," explained Michael Brennan, vice president of sales
and marketing at Eagle Nonwovens, St. Louis, MO. "There seems
to be real advantages. For example, 'harmonics' or 'corn rows' on
lighter weight felts could be reduced."
|Customers can see a trial
run of Fehrer's Superlooper machine at the company's demonstration
center in Linz. The high-speed Superlooper machine manufactures
According to executives at Dilo, hyperpunched
fleece provides a more even surface appearance with reduced weight
variations, making the process ideal for synthetic leather. Hyperpunch
uses plane elliptical needle beam kinematics to move the needle
in the running direction of the material during penetration. The
horizontal movement reduces the speed difference between the needles
No matter where needleloom technology is heading, manufacturers
still need to conduct research with customers to understand their
specific demands. "For a machinery supplier, it is of critical
importance to provide assistance in the development process of its
customers," said Allois Ollinger, sales director at Dr. Ernst
Fehrer AG, Linz, Austria. "Research laboratories give customers
the chance to test machinery makers' equipment."
Fehrer's demonstration center in Linz houses several of its needlepunch
machinery lines, including the Superlooper, which can manufacture
random velour at speeds up to 3000 strokes per minute. The demonstration
center allows Fehrer's customers see a trial run of the Superlooper,
which is equipped with a multipurpose needle distribution that allows
ribbed velour production.
Dilo's Hyperpunch and Fehrer's Superlooper are just two examples
of new machinery innovation shaping the needlepunch market. Both
machines are improving the quality of finished materials. Now that
needlepunch is being made softer, stronger and with smoother surfaces,
manufacturers can more easily enter markets such as specialty wipes.
Product improvement also allows woven material to be more easily
replaced by less costly nonwovens.
Needlepunch is especially gaining momentum in the automotives market,
where it continues to replace woven materials, for 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.
Mr. Kroer of Fibertex cited needlepunch's three-dimensional appearance
as a benefit for automotive use. "Needlepunch's three-dimensional
appearance is a big advantage over spunbond material, for example,
which only has a two-dimensional shape and is therefore much thinner
In addition to automotive market growth, CPE's Mr. Carr believes
that needlepunch materials used in the craft industry will grow.
The success of CPE's needlefelt material in there has executives
hoping to expand into retail markets. CPE's peel-and-stick felts
can be easily die cut into various shapes and sizes. "It could
gain mass retail and functional appeal,"Mr. Carr said.
In addition to growing markets, manufacturers are targeting growing
developing markets in Asia and Latin America, which are ripe for
growth. "Asia is showing the most growth, especially in synthetic
leather and filtration applications. Needlepunch products will continue
to grow in quantity here," said Mr. Foster.
While developed regions demand newer and better materials to improve
needlepunch's performance, developing markets in Mexico and Latin
America have lower standards for their materials. "Most of
the products requested by people in developing regions are very
new to them and therefore offer a renewed value," Ms. Ashton
In developed regions, new technical and specialty applications will
emerge as manufacturers continue to focus on research and development.
Groz-Beckert's Mr. Neely has also seen manufacturers use slow times
to repair their equipment or, in some cases, completely change or
stop planned projects. "In certain situations, such as the
government halting funds for geotextile projects, the business is
completely changing hands, and the product development process starts
all over again," he said. "The effect of these efforts
may take a while to be seen, but product development will have a
very positive effect for needlepunch in the long term."
Additionally, the cost effectiveness of needlepunch will remain
an advantage in the future. "Every industry is facing deflation
because customers are driving prices down,"Mr. Foss added.
"Only by creating new markets can margins be improved or maintained."
Product and new market development will reign at the top of needlepunch
manufacturers"to do lists. With these measures being taken,
perhaps manufacturers will use more positive words, such as rapid
growth, strong sales and innovation to describe the state of the
needlepunch market a few years from now. 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.
"The need for new products is now," Ms. Ashton opined.
"Product development is key to maintaining market success.
Companies cannot merely copy others' development work, but they
must work hard at acquiring their own."
Fibertex's Geotextile Used In Resort Construction
Fibertex's F-650M geotextile is being used
to help stabilize a breakwater at Palm Island, a new resort
in Dubai City, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
|Palm Island under
construction in Dubai City
Fibertex, Aalborg, Denmark, is using its needlepunched filtration
geotextile, F-650M, to stabilize a 7.5-mile long and 656-foot
wide breakwater at the resort.
Dubbed as the eighth wonder of the world, Palm Island is a residential
and resort island with 2000 luxury villas, 40 luxury hotels,
the Middle East's first marine park, shopping complexes and
cinemas. The island, which is shaped like a palm tree, has 17
fronds, which are 246 feet wide and 1.24 miles long and surrounded
by a protective breakwater extending 3.1 miles into the sea.
The fronds are surrounded by 7.5 miles of protective barrier
reefs, extending three miles into the sea. The first island,
Jumeirah, is expected to be complete by December 2003.
During high tide the breakwater can reach 13 feet above the
water's surface. The outer side of the breakwater is constructed
with an outer layer of large stones, each weighing up to 10
tons each and an inner layer, featuring smaller stones weighing
up to a half ton. During the beach's construction on the breakwater's
inner side, 160,000 tons of sand and gravel will be pumped in
daily. To prevent erosion, Fibertex's F-650M is placed between
the two layers. The F-650M features high uniformity and permeability
can help stabilize the breakwater.
"In large-scale land projects, such as Palm Island, which
is built directly into the sea, the quality of construction
materials is important," said Anders Kroer, sales director
of Fibertex. "Due to the irregular surface of the large
stones and the high pressure from the sand and coarse gravel,
a very strong and flexible geotextile was required for this
" Palm Island took four years of planning and will be accessible
by 990-foot bridges, connecting the island with Dubai City,
or by boat. The island will also feature a monorail system.