| From cabin air filters and molded seat coverings to headliners, trunkliners and carpeting, nonwovens are playing a key role in the automotives market. Found in more than 40 automotive parts, nonwovens provide acoustical insulation, air filtration, thermal insulation and reinforcement and protection as well as increased comfort and reliability for vehicle owners. In addition to these benefits, nonwovens are viewed by many automotive companies as the cost efficient material of choice because they offer increased strength and durability. As nonwovens continue to gain speed in automotives, competition among roll goods manufacturers participating in this market has also been on the rise. This has led to increased research and development efforts among manufacturers for this market.
“In recent years, the demands of automotive manufacturers have made it necessary to develop specific nonwoven materials,” explained Klaus Tröger, sales manager for Schwarzenbach/Saale, Germany-based Sandler AG’s automotives business. “Over the course of time, their products have continuously been refined and optimized. Newly developed processes and the latest raw materials are paving the way for technical nonwovens to push forward in areas originally covered by classic materials in automotives.”
With new nonwoven products for automotives constantly coming onstream, automotive manufacturers are examining where these products to replace more expensive materials such as leather seating. Often invisible to the vehicle’s driver or passenger, nonwovens are typically hidden beneath seating or carpeting or sewed to other fabrics to increase strength and durability.
“Manufacturers will often use a nonwoven where leather may have once been to save costs,” explained Edward Merchlinsky, general manager for industrial fabrics of needlepunched nonwovens supplier Amoco Fabrics and Fibers, Austell, GA. “Needlepunched fabrics are ideal for this because they are cost efficient, and can hold a stitch and perform well during pulling, gluing and attaching.”
Nonwovens Toughen Up
“Automotive manufacturers want to stop using non-recyclable foam in the long term,” Mr. Kamat explained. “The trends for nonwovens manufacturers are to develop materials where foam is used and replace it with recyclable, engineered nonwovens. In addition to this, they also provide a strong bond to fiberglass and shoddy materials and stretch evenly without wrinkles or tearing while offering a uniform color.”
Also witnessing the growth of nonwovens’ replacement is eswegee Vliesstoffe GmbH, Hof, Germany, a supplier of chemical, mechanical and thermal bonded nonwovens for the automotives industry. “New stitchbonded qualities have recently been developed for facing applications for interior trim, such as headliners or package trays,” explained Detlev Käppel, sales director of technical nonwovens at eswegee Vliesstoffe. “Other environmentally friendly stitchbonded fabrics have also been developed to replace foam in composite fabrics for seating.”
eswegee’s composite nonwovens are produced by hot melt lamination and can effectively be used to substitute more traditional flame bonded woven-foam sandwich constructions. They are also completely recyclable. The company’s lines of stitchbonded nonwovens, which include its new Multiknit and Kunit materials, are manufactured at its Techtex facility in Mittweida. Multiknit and Kunit can replace foams up to 8mm thick.
“The composites can be produced with multiaxial pattern fabrics with ranges of 200-2800 grams per square meter, using glass, carbon and aramid fibers, as well as hybrids,” Mr. Käppel said.
Despite the advantages that nonwovens are bringing to automotives and the rapid pace of replacing traditional fabrics, the demands of automotive manufacturers and consumers truly dictate of what automobile styles and sizes are most popular. Naturally, the quantity and variety of cars sold in a year will heavily impact nonwovens manufacturers. According to Amoco’s Mr. Merchlinsky, the trends in car styles, sizes and materials can change extremely quickly, even monthly.
“There are always shifts in car styles,” Mr. Merchlinsky explained. “For example, some auto manufacturers will demand bucket seats instead of regular seating. These demands move quickly through the automotive supply chain, which makes participating in this market extremely competitive. Therefore, manufacturers have to be able to change their offerings to meet these demands on short notice.”
These shorter development cycles have put new demands on manufacturers who are are increasingly expected to have increased product development efforts as well as interaction with the automotive OEMs. “The fact that each OEM has specific requirements that need to be systematically met has to be considered among nonwovens manufacturers,” explained Sandler’s Mr. Tröger. “In the long run, only suppliers capable of meeting OEMs’ specific product developments will be successful.”
These varied demands, trends and applications for nonwovens in automotives are forcing manufacturers to closely monitor rand continuously update their products. While achieving this, manufacturers have to strive to keep their products’ cost down.
A Smooth Ride
“The major demands from customers for nonwovens in automotives are developments for lower costs, high efficiency filters and sound absorption capabilities in the car’s interior to improve silence in the automobile’s chamber,” explained Hidemichi Mukunashi, general manager of Kureha, Shiga, Japan.
In an effort to provide more efficient filters, Kureha selects an ideal combination of synthetic fibers and bonds, such as water soluble resins, to design its thermal bonded nonwovens for automotives. “Typically, our engine filters are thermal bonded, which provide highly efficient filters with small dimensions. These filters can also easily be molded to fit into a certain filter unit.”
“The main advantages of Colback for carpeting applications are moldability and tuft bind for good carpet abrasion properties,” explained Harry Verbakel, global business manager of Colbond’s automotive business. “When used as a support medium in filters, Colback offers high stiffness, air permeability and mass regularity. Colback is applied where its performance can be converted into a reduction of total costs of the end product.”
Cost is a major force driving the growth of nonwovens in the automotive market, but, at the same time, it is posing a big obstacle to nonwovens manufacturers. During the past several years, the weak global economy has contributed to OEMs have been placing more pressure on tier one and tier two automotive suppliers. This eventually has impacted other players in the supply chain, including roll goods manufacturers, that are also battling high raw material costs.
“Sometimes the focus on individual cost components is too high and the effect on the total cost is forgotten or the quality level of the end product is at risk,” explained Colbond’s Mr. Verbakel. “We are seeing a trend among newcomers in the automotives market who believe that high volumes in automotives to fill the excess capacity of their fleecing lines. We consider this to be risky for everyone. Not only is the price pressure very high but so are the logistical and quality demands. A standstill of an original equipment production line, for example, easily costs thousands of U.S. dollars per minute. Neither selling volume at low margins by the nonwovens producer nor buying below-market prices by automotive customers will compensate these huge risks.”
Another trend Mr. Verbakel has seen is the growth of online car auctions. Where once buying a car was considered to be a lengthy, well-researched process, it is now becoming an anonymous pricing and gambling game on the Internet.
“In the automotives industry, this tool is believed to be an advantage for the buyer,” he explained. “Although it might be useful for certain commodity goods, it is useless for applications in which specialized nonwovens are being applied.”
The Environmental Factor
Vehicle recyclability is gaining more attention in Europe than in the U.S., mainly because of the pending laws about to take affect, but nonwovens manufacturers around the globe are still ensuring customers that their products are easily recyclable. “There is an interest in recyclability in North America, but, since it isn’t really required, it isn’t as important or demanded as much as it is in Europe,” explained Amoco’s Mr. Merchlinsky. European roll goods manufacturers involved in the automotives market are responding to these concerns with new quality management systems.
eswegee, for example, has incorporated a quality management system. This system complies with the requirements of DIN EN ISO 9001, for quality, and DIN EN ISO 14001, VDA 6.1 and European Union environment restrictions. “In order to standardize customer benefits, this system is now available throughout all of our group’s operations,” Mr. Käppel explained.
Both automotive and nonwovens manufacturers adapt to their businesses to constantly evolving trends in the automotives industry, their research and development efforts show no signs of slowing down.
Of particular interest in coming years will be nonwovens used in acoustic insulation applications. Sandler, for one, has addressed this trend with its sawasorb plus and sawaform products. Sawasorb Plus, constructed of 100% polyester fibers while offering a lower basis weight and low-flammability. “In the future, market-oriented developments will dominate. This will comprise both classic research and development and customer-specific projects,” said Mr. Tröger. “More complex nonwovens will find their way into the field of high-tech textiles. It is therefore essential to recognize future requirements and needs in advance and to incorporate them into multifunctional products.”