Innovation Boosts Spunlace

June 14, 2005

emerging hybrid technologies and growing specialty markets hit the scene

Spunlaced materials are growing in the medical and home care markets, with products ranging from gauze and bandages to household cleaning wipes.
With major markets for spunlace ranging from medical, hygiene and industrial to apparel, safety and protection and construction to the ever-broadening wipes market, the demand for spunlaced material is still climbing. And, manufacturers, eager to cash in on the diversity of this market, are examining hybrid technology and composite materials to further broaden the appeal of spunlaced nonwovens and expand this technology’s scope into new markets. This should lead to continued growth in upcoming years.

“The spunlace market is undergoing an impressive explosion in demand due to the development of many consumer products that feature wiping applications in the cleaning and cosmetics area,” said Lee Sullivan, general manager of the Tufts division at Freudenberg, Durham, NC. “This increased demand is supporting all of the spunlaced investments that are being made.”

Spunlaced material is dominating many markets for nonwovens, especially the medical and wipes segments. Spunlaced fabrics provide a textile look and feel while offering softness, bulk, drapability, breathability and disposability. Spunlaced materials also typically do not use binders or chemical additives and offer low linting properties. These characteristics make them ideal for applications where consumer comfort is a high priority.

In the wipes markets, which is now one of the fastest growing markets for spunlaced material and nonwovens in general, manufacturers have chosen spunlace to woo customers in many product categories. Household cleaning and personal care wipes are showing significant growth opportunities for spunlace, as new products become available, and large consumer companies begin to use spunlace in their wipes.

“Spunlace is taking away marketshare from other fabrics, such as needlepunch, because it can be manufactured at lighter weights such as 50 gpsm., instead of, for example, 80 gpsm.,” explained Mario Saldarini, commercial director of Orlandi Spa, Varese, Gallarate, Italy. “Spunlace is also completely disposable.”

Spunlace: A Personal Affair
From furniture polishing wipes to wipes that exfoliate skin, products of all kinds are filling store shelves. And, with many of these wipes promising to make household cleaning chores easier or to condense a beauty routine into one step, consumers have quickly adapted to wipes’ ease of use.

Large consumer companies, such as Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, OH, are boosting spunlace’s presence in consumer markets by incorporating nonwovens into their products. P&G’s Swiffer’s electrostatic dust cleaning cloths, which comprise spunlaced material, have witnessed tremendous success since their launch three years ago. Additionally, copycat products and line extensions have opened up opportunities for spunlaced materials. It seems that consumers who are completely unfamiliar with the nonwovens industry can recognize the inherent benefits of spunlace in helping them achieve daily tasks—such as floor cleaning.

“People are discovering how easy and convenient wipes are to use,” said Michael Lunde, vice president of business development at Jacob Holm Industries, Denmark. “Consumers really like the idea of pulling a wipe out of a small package, using it and throwing it away. They are ideal for domestic chores.”

While all of Jacob Holm’s wipes products are experiencing strong volumes, the company’s personal care wipes segment is growing the most. “Consumers are willing to spend more money on a facial wipe that, for example, may help make them look younger,” said Mr. Lunde. “Personal care wipes are growing beyond makeup removal wipes. Now there are wipes that contain sunscreen or wipes that help exfoliate or moisturize the skin.”

Orlandi’s production plant in Cressa, Italy, which manufactures a three-layered material featuring two layers of spunlace surrounding a layer of wood pulp.
The look and feel of spunlace is attracting customers. According to Ken Pearce, director of consumer care and specialty products at BBA Nonwovens, Nashville, TN, spunlace’s ability to offer a textile-like feel and better aesthetics has made consumers more aware of the various attributes that one wipe compared to another. With increased consumer awareness have given manufacturers more insight into what consumers are looking for in a product. Therefore, innovation remains at the forefront of manufacturers’ priorities in trying to achieve their product differentiation goals.

“With the big push for consumer companies to use nonwovens, it is our job, as an industry, to work with these companies to develop new markets,” opined Mr. Lunde. “We need to be proactive and find out what customers are looking for. Consumers are not going to know the difference if a wipe is spunlaced, airlaid or meltblown, but they will try the product, and if they like it, they will continue to buy it.”

In response to consumers’ increased product loyalty, roll goods manufacturers are using machines that can pattern or emboss spunlaced fabrics to differentiate their products. “More manufacturers want to create a product that is just a little different than the next guy,” said Daniel Feroe, area sales manager for Rieter Perfojet, Greensboro, NC. “Their goal is to make a product with a slight difference that is still visible to the consumer. Consumers can then associate certain patterns with certain products and will gravitate more toward using these products.” Even something as small as the holes in a facial wipe are noticeable to the consumer, according to Mr. Feroe.

Fleissner’s spunlace line features in-line impregnation/printing and through air drying/curing/thermobonding.
Spunlace manufacturers are striving to differentiate their products in the smallest of ways, partly because of increased competition. Product sophistication for spunlace has peaked right now, as manufacturers and machinery suppliers offer varying characteristics to stand out.

“The increased demand for wipes is leading to the need to create more sophisticated products with recognizable features,” said Axel Seitz, manager of Schwarzenbach/Saale, Germany-based Sandler AG’s hygiene products division. A newcomer in the spunlace market, Sandler will offer multilayered spunlace designs and in-line thermal embossing when its spunlace line comes onstream later this spring. The company’s spunlaced material will target the baby, medical, industrial and cleanroom markets and will focus more specifically on markets that use parallel-carded spunlace.

Advancements In Technology
Constantly aware of stringent customer demands, spunlaced machinery suppliers are always striving to develop machinery that is both cost and energy efficient. Spunlace technology improvements have included machines equipped with lower pressure jets, to save energy, and machines incorporating wood pulp, to allow a more uniform transfer of energy across the total width of the web.

Fleissner, for instance, has incorporated mesh sleeves with microporous shells into its drums to decrease energy consumption by 50% and subsequently cut costs. “There is an increased demand for new products to be produced more economically and efficiently,” Alfred Watzl, vice president of Fleissner, Egelsbach, Germany, explained.

Like Fleissner, Idrosistem, Bassano del Grappa, Italy, has been striving for more efficient production. The company supplies water filtration systems that remove bacteria from water jets in spunlace systems. This creates a more sterile product. “This is essential for any spunlace company that manufactures medical products,” said Saverio Trevisan, president of Idrosistem. “Properly filtered water is fundamental to the production of high quality spunlaced material. Water with the tiniest of particles can clog the jets causing streaks and damaging the product.” Preventing spunlaced equipment from becoming damaged during production is key in preventing downtime and increasing production efficiency.

The competitive nature of the spunlace market has made apparatus, such as water filtration systems, more important to manufacturers that need the best in fabric quality to compete in this market. This is even more important for manufacturers that are investing in new technology to boost their business.

Nordson Corporation, Dawsonville, GA, for example, plans to incorporate an in-line hydroentangling unit at its Center of Excellence facility in Dawsonville this year. Currently, the center houses multiple bicomponent meltblown and spunbond spinning technologies, including a one-meter wide SMS bicomponent pilot line. “We are supplying a research platform for our customers to improve and develop their products,” explained Mark Snider, marketing manager at Nordson.

Once manufacturers test machinery, they have more options in selecting which technology can better their products to allow entry into new markets.

Particularly favored in spunlace technology is combining a staple fiber and wood pulp. Wood pulp fibers are less expensive than other fibers, such as viscose, and can still offer a high level of absorbency, making them ideal for wipes. Orlandi is experiencing the economic benefits of wood pulp through its spunlace line in Cressa, Italy. The line can produce a three-layered spunlaced material, featuring a wood pulp layer surrounded by two substrates containing staple fiber. According to Mr. Saldarini, the line produces wipes for baby and household care wipes—which are two of the fastest growing markets for spunlaced material in Europe.

As the wipes market continues to expand, manufacturers are incorporating more hybrid technology and using composites. Although hybrid technology and composites have already greatly impacted the spunlace market, spunlace technology continue to generate interest.

Jacob Holm, for one, is looking more into composites for personal care and industrial cleaning wipes. “Hybrid technology is not penetrated to a great extent, but there is a lot of potential,” said Mr. Lunde.

Still, manufacturers feel that it will only be a matter of time before the results of hybrid technology can be seen.

“New combinations of spunlaced and spunbond are on the way,” observed Fleissner’s Mr. Watzl. “New composites with spunbonded, carded, meltblown, airlaid nonwovens or with tissue will increase marketshare for spunlace in commodities and special niche products.”

Above: Idrosistem’s energy filtration plant for pulp. Idrosistem’s water filtration systems recycle nearly 100% of the water used.

As newer composities become available, combining airlaid with spunlaced material is particularly showing a great deal of potential throughout Europe. Rieter Perfojet’s Airlace 3000 machine manufactures materials typically comprising 50% airlaid and 50% spunlace, by infusing spunlace onto a prebonded web. Airlaid material is then added through a series of low-pressure wood pulp injectors. “In Europe especially, combining airlaid and spunlace is big,” Mr. Feroe noted. “In the U.S., it seems to be coming. However, incorporating an airlaid machine is very expensive and, if a company invests in one, it would most likely dedicate itself to predominantly producing airlace products.”

Despite the high price of adapting lines to accommodate hybrid technology, it is still driving technological innovation in the spunlace market. One of the main reasons behind this trend is the ability of hybrid technology to allow a product to fit into more than one market. For instance, Tenotex, Terno d’Isola, Italy, operates an impregnating and an in-line calendering line that add bulk to the company’s spunlaced products for the wet wipe, personal care and home care markets. “Added-value features like these shape the spunlace market,” explained Aldo Ghira, managing director of Tenotex. “Also, producing a web by using a multicomponent machinery line or through hybrid technology achieves benefits that cannot be done with spunlace alone. Incorporating a web, for instance, allows a material to be made with varying degrees of performances.”

Incorporating greater speeds and widths have also become more important for manufacturers that want to enter a growing market more quickly. Improvements in carding provide a good indication of the extent to how much some machines have been changed.

“Carding machines have really shown improvement,” said Rieter Perfojet’s Mr. Feroe. “They are getting much faster and wider. Carding machines with spunlace 10-15 years ago typically ran 100-150 m/min. and can now run up to and more than 250 m/min. Widths have increased from 2.5 meters wide up to 4.5. Obviously, this means the material can be produced much quicker and there is more of it. Fortunately, strong sales in the household wipes market are helping to absorb all of this capacity.”

This firefighter’s coat was made using a spunlaced nonwoven out of high-temperature fibers that provide flame protection.

A Foggy Outlook?
The picture for spunlaced materials right now is perfectly clear—they still are in great demand. However, this picture may start to blur as manufacturers wait to reap the rewards of their research and development efforts. It could take several years for this to occur.

Freudenberg’s Mr. Sullivan predicts that composite growth in medical applications will eventually take share away from spunlace. “The medical market is one example of a segment where materials other than spunlace are also prospering,” explained Mr. Sullivan. “It is in the medical apparel area where SMS materials have shown strength and may erode the traditional spunlaced segment. The next logical evolution in the medical fabrics industry is an SMS product based on a polymer other than polypropylene. If this were to occur, there would be a dramatic increase in capacity versus demand, putting great stress on the smaller players.”

Even though Freudenberg is the world’s largest nonwovens producer, its spunlaced business is relatively small, making it one of the companies that could be impacted by such a scenario. The company’s staple spunlaced fiber only serves niche markets. With other material combinations gaining speed, Freudenberg is strictly going to focus its spunlaced materials on technical applications, such as flame retardant barriers. Mr. Sullivan, therefore, does not foresee major growth in the company’s future for traditional spunlace. “We tend to focus more on technical applications, while others focus more on large volume applications,” Mr. Sullivan explained. “With the continuing trend in commodity status, the spunlace market will evolve into a situation where the big players are the eventual winners, and the smaller layers have to develop niches or die.”

With this in mind, Freudenberg is hoping its Evolon material, which consists of hydroentangled, continuous-filament microfiber materials, will help Freudenberg advance in specialty markets.

“Our future capacity expansions will focus on Evolon, not traditional spunlace,” said Mr. Sullivan. “It is increasingly difficult to offer differentiated products with traditional spunlaced materials. I would not encourage further investment by anyone with this technology as consumer products are predicted to drive sales by at least 10% during the next few years, resulting in a saturated and slowing market.”

While Freudenberg might not see spunlace as a growth area, many other nonwovens producers continue to see potential for this market. Manufacturers of all sizes continue to pursue new product development in a variety of end use areas.

“It is more important now for the nonwovens industry to be able to cater to more complex applications, such as personal care product developments,” Jacob Holm’s Mr. Lunde opined. “Working with sub-suppliers and customers to create desirable products and, at the same time, making sure that you are capable of adjusting your production lines to new substrate demands with an ever increasing frequency requires a lot of investment to stay ahead.”