Whether used in a wipe, a surgical gown or as substrates for artificial leather, spunlaced nonwoven materials are finding application in a broad range of end uses, which has helped propel the process into what some say is the fastest growing technology in the nonwovens spectrum. Also known as hydroentangling, the spunlacing process involves mechanically wrapping and knotting fibers in a web through the use of high velocity jets of water.
Currently, 110 spunlace plants are in production worldwide and additional lines are scheduled to start up around the world. Industry experts estimate that approximately 12% of nonwovens produced in the world are made through a spunlaced process.
“In the last two years, we have doubled our spunlacing output,” said David Ferrar, general manager, BFF Nonwovens, Somerset, U.K. “This has been completely driven by demand and we are always able to fill the added capacity.”
The growth in spunlaced materials has been led largely by the increased interest in disposable wiping products for household, personal care and industrial applications. While other applications certainly exist for spunlaced nonwoven fabrics, their textile-like feel, softness, durability and absence of chemical additives make them ideal for wiping applications. These benefits also make spunlaced nonwovens well suited for the medical market where barrier protection benefits need to be combined with softness and drapability.
While spunlaced nonwovens are ripe with benefits, manufacturers are still facing several challenges. For one, spunlacing lines use a great deal of energy so it is important to produce them in large volumes. As overcapacity continues to be somewhat of a problem in the spunlacing market, producers have had to lower the costs of these roll goods. “It has been turning from a sellers’ market to a buyers’ market despite the big growth of the wipes market,” said Walter Hofmann, sales director, Jacob Holm, Soultz, France. “I think it should stay this way for the next two years and a lot of this will depend on what happens in the U.S. market.”
Spunlacing equipment supplier Rieter Perfojet, Montbonnot, France, has tried to cut the cost of producing these materials with the introduction of its new machine, “Jetlace 3000.” The machine was designed to reduce the energy required to entangle the fibers making it less expensive to operate than other spunlacing machines. “Producers want low costs because spunlacing technology is now huge in terms of volume compared to demand,” said Bruno Roche, area sales manager. “This has driven down the costs of the finished material; therefore the costs of making the web needs to be reduced.”
Furthermore, for the segment to continue its strong growth rate, manufacturers must develop innovative technologies to help spunlaced materials find a place in new application areas. One such market is the apparel market, which the nonwovens industry as a whole has coveted for decades. Because spunlaced nonwovens so closely resemble textiles, many manufacturers believe it will be the nonwoven technology most likely to take share from woven and knitted fabrics.
“The apparel market is definitely a possibility,” said Carl Lukach, global business manager, “Sontara” for DuPont, Wilmington, DE. “That’s the big dream of the next decade.”
Spunlacing Wipes Up
For a long time, baby wipes were the main focus of producers targeting the wipes market. While baby wipes remain the largest category in the wipes market, they are being joined by new applications including personal care wipes, household cleaning wipes and industrial wipes. Every day it seems another new wiping product is hitting store shelves. In the U.S., all of the major consumer product giants—Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, OH; Lever Brothers, London, U.K.; Reckitt Benckiser, Windsor Berkshire, U.K. and S.C. Johnson, Racine, WI—have launched wiping products and this trend does not appear to be letting up any time soon. Industry watchdogs claim the proliferation of the U.S. wipes market mimics activity already seen in Europe and Japan.
“In Japan, there is a wipe product for practically any application you can think of,” said BFF’s Mr. Ferrar. “It’s to the point where there is practically one product to wipe your left shoe and another to wipe your right shoe. Europe also has a lot of wiping applications and so does the U.S., but I think it’s still in its infancy.”
While some wiping applications such as personal care products are more suited to air laid materials because they offer a great deal of softness, spunlaced materials are often the fabric of choice because of their durability. Still, industry insiders interviewed by Nonwovens Industry feel that air laid materials pose little threat to spunlacing. “Both the use of air laid and spunlaced fabrics in wiping applications will continue to increase,” said Philippe Wigns, business director, BBA Nonwovens. “There will be a market for both strategies and differentiation in product concept and marketing strategies will further help develop certain consumer markets for nonwoven fabrics.”
Currently, the U.S. imports a great deal of spunlaced material from Europe but industry experts expect to see additional spunlacing lines coming onstream here in coming years. The challenge for these roll goods producers will be to convince Americans that spunlace-based wipes are worth the few pennies more they cost. Of course a big driver in the growth of the wipes market is convenience. Consumers have limited time and a premoistened wipe saves them time whether it is in cleaning the bathroom, removing make up or washing their cars. These wipes, however, must be effective and strong because consumers want to get their money’s worth.
“Spunlaced nonwovens work well for wipes because they are soft, strong, easy to handle and feature good absorption,” said Jacob Holm’s Mr. Hofmann. “It has a more textile feel, like a towel, that consumers prefer.” Mr. Hofmann predicted that companies will soon begin differentiating the structure of their wipes to stand apart from the competition. While now most wipe products are constructed into a plain white cloth material and differentiated only by their outer packaging, in the future companies will use different colors, printing options, embossing patterns and other design capabilities to make their wipes stand out. “It will follow the diaper market,” he said. “In the beginning, everyone made the same product and later began adding bells and whistles like leg cuffs and design patterns. Wipe producers will do the same to differentiate their products from the others.”
DuPont has focused its Sontara brand of spunlaced material more on the industrial area than the consumer segment. Credited with developing the spunlacing process more than 30 years ago, the company dabbles in baby, personal care and household cleaning wipes but has focused more on high tech areas such as wipes for the aerospace, cleanroom, automotive, automotive refinishing and printing industries. For instance, the company recently combined knowledge from its automotive surface coatings unit with its nonwovens technology to create an automotive surface preparation system containing five wipes. “We applied the science from an area the company knows a lot about—the surface coatings segment—to benefit our Sontara brand,” said the company’s Mr. Lukach.
Like DuPont, IMP Group, Padova, Italy, has been content to focus its spunlacing business on niche applications. Nearly 90% of the company’s spunlaced output finds application in the artificial leather substrate market, according to Marcello Bozzo, product manager. The company entered this market because it saw great opportunity for spunlaced materials in the Italian shoe market and is now the European leader in artificial leather substrates. “We mainly produce viscose-based spunlaced nonwovens because they are able to absorb moisture and simulate real leather,” he added.
Many of the same features—good drapability, the absence of additives, effective barrier protection—that make spunlaced materials ideal for the wipes market also make them ideal for other areas including the medical and protective apparel markets. These features have also led some nonwovens manufacturers to envision a place for spunlaced nonwovens in the future of the garment industry, which could mean great things for the nonwovens industry as a whole.
Spunlace technology is being driven by a desire among manufacturers to compete with woven and knitted fabrics. One company making great strides in this area is Freudenberg Nonwovens, Weinheim, Germany, which launched “Evolon” last year. Boasting a versatile product range and vast end use capabilities, Evolon, which is being dubbed the first continuous microfiber spunlaced fabric, competes favorably with woven and knitted fabrics as well as with staple fiber nonwovens by offering higher strength to weight ratios. Manufactured through a proprietary process that combines filament spinning and web formation, Evolon offers good drapability, soft hand, high tensile strength, comfort properties and good launderability. Applications range from apparel, interlinings, rental laundry workware and automotive to carpet backing, sound insulation, footwear, luggage and home furnishings.
Industry experts expect to see more innovations similar to Evolon appearing to reshape the spunlace market and, in effect, the nonwovens industry as a whole. “The ability to split fibers with high pressure to make subdenier fibers is receiving a lot of interest,” said Don Gillespie, vice president of spunlacing machinery supplier Fleissner, Charlotte, NC. “This process gives materials a fine and soft texture.”
Additionally, the formation of composite structures containing a spunlaced layer with a second layer made with another woven or nonwoven process is expected to boost the category into new application areas. “Spunlaced materials on their own can’t really make a great deal of inroads into the clothing market unless they are part of a composite,” BFF’s Mr. Ferrar said. “We will be going after a share of the woven market by combining a woven with a spunlaced nonwoven.” While Mr. Ferrar declined to comment on his company’s specific plans for the apparel market, he did say the company would be making major announcements in upcoming months.
Besides coupling spunlaced materials with woven materials, manufacturers are examining the possibility of layering them with nonwovens made with other processes such as air laid and spunbond. “Spunlacing in combination with other technologies is the future of this market,” Rieter Perfojet’s Mr. Roche said. “Adding another technology can make spunlaced materials easier to produce while improving the qualities of the end product.” Reiter Perfojet has already developed a combination spunbond, spunlace and air laid line that runs at extremely high speed.
In addition to composite structures, spunlaced manufacturers are seeking ways to develop a higher weight fabric through the spunlaced process. Created through the use of higher pressure water jets, these thicker fabrics compete directly with needlepunched nonwovens, according to Fleissner’s Mr. Gillespie. Fleissner has already been able to process spunlaced fabrics with weights as high as 600 gpsm. Two reasons spunlacing is preferential to needlepunching are its quicker line speeds and its ability to keep the fibers from damage, Mr. Gillespie added.
While grabbing share away from competing nonwovens technologies as well as knitted and woven applications is necessary for growth to continue in the spunlaced market, the future in this category depends largely on the efforts of big name nonwoven end users which are, in turn, dictated by consumer demand. “The spunlace category should grow for a while,” BFF’s Mr. Ferrar said. “The challenge will be for the big national brands to create more innovative products.” For instance, last year, P&G launched its “Swiffer” brand of antistatic dust clothes made of a scrim-reinforced spunlace material. This product opened up a whole new category for nonwovens in the household cleaning market.
What other categories spunlaced nonwovens find their way into remains to be seen. Whether it be the above mentioned apparel industry or another application that no one has yet dreamed up, there is no doubt that this textile-like application has the power to help the nonwovens industry move into previously untapped markets, take share from woven and knitted materials and continue the growth it has seen in recent years.