As Needlepunch Sales Lag, Manufacturers Remain Optimistic

June 14, 2005

plagued by overcapacity problems, needlepunch manufacturers are looking for growth opportunities

Lagging. 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.

Overcoming Overcapacity
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 were launched."

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 market.

"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 applications.

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 surface quality.

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 random velour.

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 and material.

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's Appeal
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 than needlepunch."

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 explained.

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
Palm Island under construction in Dubai City
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.

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 project.

" 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.

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