| Despite hitting a few bumps in the road during the past few years, the spunbond and meltblown markets remain two of the most versatile and diverse markets in the nonwovens industry, primarily because of the variety of end use markets in which these materials can be applied, these range from hygiene and medical to filtration, industrial and automotives.
While issues such as overcapacity and lower raw material prices are still weighing heavy on some manufacturers’ minds, these factors have not prevented many of them from forging ahead with new ideas. Whether a company has increased its capacity, created a new product or entered into a specialty-based market, the spunbond and meltblown markets have not stood still.
According to industry statistics, spunmelt, which comprises meltblown and spunbond fabrics, is the most important nonwovens technology in terms of output, collectively accounting for approximately 25% of global nonwovens production. Furthermore, approximately 65% of hygiene product components, which include coverstocks, backsheets, acquisition and distribution layers and leg cuffs, use spunmelt nonwovens. This percentage is expected to rise to 72% by 2005, when 704,400 tons of spunmelt material will be consumed in the hygiene sector. With all of this growth projected in hygiene, coupled with the growth of spunbond, meltblown and their composites in niche markets, it is not surprising that installations and expansions are underway at several companies.
Big Plans Underway
During the past year, numerous spunbond and meltblown producers and machinery manufacturers announced they had plans to increase capacity or enter into a more specialty-based market to increase their product offerings comprising spunbond or meltblown nonwovens.
Among the companies in expansion mode is Atex, Settala, Italy, which added a new spunbond line, this Fall. Approximately 35% of the company’s spunbonded material is applied to hygiene products, which lead Atex to implement its new six-layer (6XS) polypropylene spunbond line. The new line has increased Atex’s production from 12,000 tons to 25,000 tons a year, according to Guni Schiller, area manager at Atex.
“The new line offers products with extremely fine and sophisticated fiber structures and outstanding performance values,” Ms. Schiller said. “It is an alternative to the aesthetics of carded web, high bulk, softness and uniformity with the advantages of high strength and weight that the spunbond process provides.”
Another Italian producer, Tessiture Pietro Radici (TPR), located in Gandino, began operating its fourth spunbond line in February. All of the company’s machines are flexible enough for use in different markets, requiring various widths and treatment applications, such as water repellency, antibacterial benefits, hydrophilicity and anti-static abilities. “Many producers have expanded capacity, which has led to a general development of more technical applications for spunbond fabrics, explained Enrico Buriani, general manager at TPR. “This is the only way to keep prices at reasonable levels.”
While many companies are adding capacity to boost their spunbond and meltblown business, others are focusing on new product development. American Nonwovens, Columbus, MS, for instance, is launching a new spunbond product line called GenUS, which is projected to become available during the latter half of 2003. According to the company’s CEO Ronald Francher, the new line will comprise low denier spunbond products including both polyester and polypropylene fabrics. The fabrics will range from 10-100 gpsm, with deniers as low as 0.5 dpf for use in nearly every nonwovens market segment. “There is a great deal of pent-up demand for low denier products, and we see a great amount of interest in the GenUS family of products,” said Mr. Francher. “Additional interest is expected because this revolutionary fabric will provide improved performance for many current applications.”
“In the polyester spunbond business, lighter weight is the biggest trend I have seen. More lightweight products are coming onstream,” said Lee Sullivan, general manager at Freudenberg’s Tufts Division, Durham, NC.
Among the areas where demand is growing for lighter weight products are filtration and fabric fasteners. But, as the demand for lighter weight products rises, this also poses the threat of a potential overcapacity problem.“Manufacturers have the tendency to add capacity too quickly,s which then offsets the supply and demand ratios. All companies are going to want to chase opportunities though,” Mr. Sullivan added.
The fickleness of the nonwovens industry with markets constantly going in and out of fashion, is always an issue for spunbond and meltblown manufacturers. While some companies have been able to sell out their machines, many others are not operating at capacity. This seems to depend on end use market, with some segments for spunbond and meltblown, such as hygiene, facing trouble, while other markets, such specialty areas, are thriving.
“Overcapacity does not vary by region, but by the market sector as a whole,” opined Stephen Greenough, president of American Nonwovens, Columbus, MS. “There are spunbond products available but not always for the specialized type required for a specific market.”
Manufacturers are noticing the abundance of lower quality spunbond polyester materials available on the market. James Walker, vice president of Performance Products at specialty products producer, Cerex Advanced Fabrics, Pensacola, FL, a division of Western Nonwovens, Carson, CA, has also seen an increase in lower quality spunbond polyesters, which is primarily imported from areas such as the Far East.
On the other hand, higher quality spunbond polyester is seeing growth, according to Martin Moller, marketing director at Ason Neumag, Fort Lauderdale, FL. “There has been more of a dramatic shift toward spunbond polyester,” he explained. “I am seeing some manufacturers practically running away from spunbond polypropylene.” And, if all of this new capacity cannot reach potential customers, overcapacity is more likely to occur.
“If a product does not meet a customer’s specifications or if they aren’t convinced they need the product, manufacturers are then faced with overcapacity,” said A. Adali, general manager at Eruslu Tekstil Sanayi Ve Ticaret A.S. (Eruslu Nonwovens), Gaziantep, Baspinar, Turkey. The solution for this lies in increasing the range of the material by giving it better performance attributes so that it can address wider needs, produce niche products and make the material readily available to those who do not have access to it.”
Despite concerns of overcapacity and economic weakness, new lines continue to come onstream in the spunbond and meltblown nonwovens segments. Toyobo, Osaka, Japan, for instance, is pleased with its decision to add a new spunbond line, which came onstream in September. “In Japan, we are generally suffering from poorer business conditions than last year because of a heavy recession,” explained Yukio Kawasaki, general manager of Toyobo’s Spunbond Operations Department. “However, our polyethylene spunbond business has had very high sales volumes, which have achieved double-digit growth.”
Like Japan, the U.S. economic climate has left many manufacturers experiencing the effects of a shaky economy. Nevertheless, some have been able to increase sales. In a nutshell, manufacturers are predominantly concerned with how quickly some companies will start-up a new machine line, which leaves them questioning where all the new material will go.
“Instead of just updating an existing line, there are new lines on board,” said Mark Snider, marketing manager at Nordson Corporation, Dawsonville, GA. “Older lines are being shut down and new ones keep opening up.”
Despite concerns of lines beginning operation too quickly, some manufacturers are claiming they see the need for even more capacity in certain regions of the world. Even in areas of Europe where overcapacity is generally considered to be a big problem, it appears overcapacity may be subsiding because of the growth of specialty markets.
Bruno Roche, area sales manager at spunbond machinery manufacturer Rieter Perfojet, Montbonnet, France, said that Rieter’s consumers are demanding more capacity from its production lines. “The need for more capacity is back for us,” said Mr. Roche. “Customers are also really looking to join more niche markets and produce newer products with high value. They still want to use the same lines that make ‘standard’ spunbond products.”
Spunbond and meltblown manufacturers looking to join the specialty markets are much more common now as they are looking for ways to differentiate themselves in a vast sea of spunbond and meltblown manufacturers. One of the best ways to do this is to enter a variety of specialty-based markets. By focusing on offering a variety of products, manufacturers will attract the attention of newer, or once overlooked, consumers.
Roll goods producers are not the only ones focusing on consumer needs. Machinery and equipment supplier Nordson, built the Center of Excellence, 40,000-square-foot pilot facility in Dawsonville, to better serve its customers. After seeing more demands for bicomponent lines, featuring a wider range and higher speeds on its draw jets Nordson built the COE, which contains the first and reportedly only bi-component nonwovens pilot line capable of producing bico-spunbond/ meltblown/ spunbond composites on one line with speeds up to 800 meters per minute. The COE allows each of Nordson’s business units to share its technology and applications more easily, while integrating product development, engineering, marketing and customer support programs.
Working closely with consumers enables manufacturers to understand what their consumers are looking for in a product.
Manufacturers are also seeing consumers demand more composite materials, with either the combination of both a spunbond and meltblown fabric, or additional fabrics as well. The reason for this demand is composites’ abilities to add benefits to a product and help it stand out from the competition.
The Rise Of Composites
The use of composite structures containing spunbond and meltblown material is particularly in demand for use in the ever-growing hygiene and medical industries, due to the ability to provide high levels of barrier protection, which is especially required in these markets. “The most obvious applications include fabrics that provide barrier protection against water, urine and blood,” said BBA’s Mr. Price. “Composites can also provide barrier protection against alcohol and other non-polar products. Other applications can be barriers to dust or other solids. Meanwhile, they are able to maintain permeability to air or water.”
Atex has also developed some new composite products using spunbond and meltblown nonwovens, especially for the household and wipes markets. “The abrasive wipes business is an interesting area for us because it can be used in both industrial purposes and body care,” explained Ms. Schiller. “The advantages of composites are in giving multifunctionality to products.
Executives at Jacob Holm Industries in France have also noticed that spunbond and meltblown manufacturers are shifting their focus from monolithic fabrics to composites as a result of the high price pressures on conventional products.
“Since there is little product differentiation, selection criteria are mainly driven by cost, convenience and runnability,” explained Hyo-Young Kim, marketing manager at Jacob Holm. “Additionally, a single property substrate can serve only a certain market. To provide several characteristics of different fabrics, the solution can be to combine monolithic spunbond and meltblown nonwovens with other materials, such as spunlaced and needlepunched. By adding different properties to spunbond and meltblown products, manufacturers benefit as clients are willing to pay more.” Additionally, Jacob Holm produces both tensile- and stability-enhanced nonwovens by sandwiching spunbond material between two spunlace layers. “This composite is equivalent to top-quality, spunlace-only products, that are currently applied in washable and institutional wipes,” concluded Ms. Kim.
A Word About Meltblown
Jentex Corporation, Buford, GA, produces meltblown material for the filtration media, medical, adhesive web and disposable wipe markets. Although executives at Jentex have not witnessed a new market emerge onto the meltblown scene recently, certain markets for meltblown are expanding through the use of meltblown material, particularly cabin air filtration and air filtration products for homes. “There is a growing desire to filter the air we breath, and this is done efficiently by adding a highly efficient fine fiber meltblown media to filtration composites,” explained Matthew Pelham, CEO and chairman of Jentex. “There are some niche markets where a longer life filtration capability is required, and I see meltblown material playing a key role.”
Some examples of these roles include longer life fuel filters and transmission filters, where combinations of meltblown filtration capabilities with durable substrates into filtration composites will experience growth, according to Mr. Pelham.
Also showing interest in meltblown is Atex. The company has shifted some of its focus away from its new line of spunbond to hone in on new areas of the meltblown market. In March, the company began supplying meltblown nonwovens for sensitive applications in the medical, absorbent core, filtration, building membrane, packaging as well as the wipes market. “A lot of applications don’t just require mechanical performance but also advanced, multifunctional abilities, such as strength, combined with high absorption, liquid retention and waterproofing, and the option of either abrasive or soft sides,” Ms. Schiller explained. With all of the available options Atex’s meltblown products provide for the market, the company now has more opportunities to supply its products to more a diverse range of markets.
New Markets On The Horizon
As new markets where spunbond and meltblown nonwovens are being developed, one manufacturer has noticed the apparel market relying on nonwovens as well.
Ritas, for example, located in Baspinar, Gaziantep, Turkey houses a 2.5-meter-wide spunbond line that produces materials for a wide assortment of end use markets, including bedding and furniture, interlinings and the show and luggage industries. The company is now promoting the use of its materials in shopping bags comprised of spunbond polypropylene, mainly because prints can easily be applied onto polypropylene fabrics.
“Many stores and markets are preferring to use shopping bags made from spunbond instead of polyethylene bags,” Aykut Peltek, general manager at Ritas said.
With the increased demand for composites and companies deciding to enter into more specialty markets, the future of the spunbond and meltblown markets is showing promise, despite overcapacity pressures and pricing.
In the future, spunmelt manufacturers will continue to keep tabs on each other, especially because different niche markets are growing and the hygiene and wipes markets are continuing to grow rapidly.
“The real pressures for manufacturers pertain to keeping customers,” opined Pavel Hubaty, managing director at Ecotextil, Neratovice, Czech Republic. “Low-quality products and large quantities influence the behavior of the end users and distribution companies.”
Generally speaking, it looks as if it is smooth sailing ahead for the spunbond and meltblown industries, due to the growing population, the increasing areas of end use application and preference of nonwovens to conventional textiles, according to Eruslu’s Mr. Adali. “These will all pave the way for increased nonwovens consumption.”
On the meltblown side, Jentex’s Mr. Pelham believes that the future will not rely so much on the amount of meltblown producers but rather the quality of meltblown materials. “I think there will be a consolidation of technologies where the synergies of meltblown technology and other nonwovens manufacturing routes will create composite products that are new and improved over current materials for existing and new applications,” Mr. Pelham projected.