There is no question that part of the reason why nonwovens have been able to penetrate so many end use markets is their ability to be engineered and tailored to fit a wide range of requirements. Whether the need is for a furniture fabric that won’t burn or for automotive filtration media with the ability to withstand high temperatures, the many tasks nonwovens perform are large and varied in their scope. While the general properties of many nonwovens technologies are able to provide many functions on their own, the materials often receive a little help from a wide variety of binders and additives developed for nonwovens.
These binders and additives come in the form of emulsion polymers, flame retardants, thickeners and surfactants and are used in both disposable and durable markets for nonwovens. Among their attributes are the ability to add strength and durability, water and solvent resistance, improved flexibility and resilience, high temperature resistance, flame retardency and ultraviolet protection.
With all of these requirements out there, suppliers of binders and additives are focusing on research and development initiatives to further enhance their offerings. These expanding needs coupled with a higher level of competition in the market than ever before has led a dynamic marketplace for these products.
“It’s always been competitive,” said Robert Valentin of Noveon Chemicals, Cleveland, OH. “But, more recently the competition has spawned a lot of creativity in the marketplace. Suppliers really have to run efficient operations to be able to respond well to these demands.”
Noveon meets these demands with a laundry list of products that are able to add attributes such as strength, hydrophobic and hydropholicity benefits, compression resistance, elasticity, softness, flame retardency and softness to nonwoven materials. Additionally, binder and additive products must be versatile enough to serve many functions at once. “A lot of customers want products that can serve several functions for their company while still being unique,” Mr. Valentin explained.
And, as the role of nonwovens continues to proliferate into new markets, binders and additives will naturally continue to be used to help them meet performance requirements.
Working With Changes
Like most industries, the binders and additives market has been marked by consolidation, globalization and competition in recent years. A series of mergers and acquisitions has created a market that is dominated by a handful of multinational conglomerates. At the same time, the consolidation of the nonwovens industry has created a demand for companies that are able to provide their products on a worldwide basis. That is, nonwovens producers want the same product supplied to their U.S. operations as is being sent to their facilities across the world. This has increased competition in the market sharply.
“There has been a lot of consolidation among suppliers of both binders and additives,” said Jeffrey Chamberlain of Apex Chemical, Spartanburg, SC. “The impact of all this consolidation on our business has been positive due to several factors. For our sales staff, we are able to keep familiar faces in front of our customers. In terms of customer service, we often get the impression from our customers’ feedback, all of the personal attention we are able to give allows us to offer the customer unique products based on their individual needs.”
Apex Chemical specializes in flame retardant additives but also offers products that provide water repellency and ultraviolet protection to nonwovens. Mr. Chamberlain said recent market conditions have led his company’s customers to expect even more from their binders and additives suppliers. “Of course customers demand lower cost goods and expedient service, which has always been the case,” he said. “However, more so, now than ever before, our customers rely on us for more technical assistance in starting up a project or maintaining an ongoing system with material testings assistance.”
“Customers seek high performance, consistent quality and excellent technical and customer service—all of which result in a low cost/high value binder,” said Kenneth Fioravanti, marketing manager, engineered fabrics, Air Products Polymers, Allentown, PA. “We meet these demands by way of technical innovation, production excellence and geographic presence.”
Air Products Polymers is a joint venture between Air Products and Chemicals, Allentown, PA, and Wacker-Chemie, Munich, Germany. The company was formed in October 1998 to manufacture and distribute latex polymers. Among the company offerings are VAE and EVCL polymers for wet/dry strength, texture/stiffness (and), absorbency, barrier properties, compatibility with other additives, flame retardency and flexibility in processing and converting. “Our customers, as well as their customers, are valuing and demanding new technology and attributes in our products,” Mr. Fioravanti said. “We have consistently been able to meet these needs.”
Noveon is also working hard to meet the challenging needs of its customers. Chief among these needs, according to Mr. Valentin, is a move away from in-house formulating. “People are looking to simplify the number of raw materials they use,” he explained. “But, at the same time, they are also looking for unique operations. They don’t want an off-the-shelf product but at the same time they want products that are ready for them to use.”
Ed Wotier of Para-Chem, Simpsonville, SC, agreed. “We are focused toward developing custom-designed systems to our customers,” he said. “Most of our clients do not want to formulate at the plant level.”
Parachem offers a variety of binders and additives to the nonwovens industry including emulsion polymers, flame retardants, thickeners and surfactants to the durable and disposable markets. Attributes include strength, durability, water and solvent resistance and improved flexibility.
Another key requirement is the ability to be global, according to Mr. Valentin. “We’ve had an awful lot of demand to be able to supply similar product types on a global basis,” he said. “The globalization of business has really happened in our customer base.”
Of course these needs must be met at a low cost that provides immense value to the end product. “Customers are looking for better value and they’re looking at us to help them achieve better value,” Mr. Valentin added. “We have been doing this by offering new compositions as well as by creating new ways of doing things.”
Reigning In Regulations
In addition to customer demands, the binders and additive market is shaped, to some degree, by government regulations. Whether the regulation is designed to protect the environment from pollution or to protect a human from the outbreak of fire, it falls into the hands of binders and additives suppliers to meet it. Because of the global nature of this business, these suppliers must keep up with regulations all over the world, whether it be in the U.S., Europe or Asia.
“Customers have locations around the world and they want the raw materials used in their products to be uniform in all of their locations,” remarked Noveon’s Mr. Valentin. “Different parts of the world have different regulations and many suppliers have been able to meet the challenges of conforming to these regulations.”
For instance, clean air and water initiatives have required treatments that are alkyl phenyl ethoxylate (APE)-free and low formaldehyde. While this trend is more advanced in Europe, where environmental consciousness is strongest, many of the end products manufactured in the U.S. or other world regions are sent to Europe. Hence, these regulations have to be met around the world.
As these regulations tighten, suppliers of all raw materials must focus on innovation and research and development to meet these needs without compromising efficacy or increasing prices. “The regulations for low volatile and APE-free material as well as other environmental matters, continue to tighten,” said APP’s Mr. Fioravanti. “Using our product development units, our product/process development teams have led to reformulation efforts, such as the APE-free and ultra-low formaldehyde products, to allow our emulsions to meet these more stringent regulations without compromising performance.”
Moving away from environmental concerns, some government regulations are designed to protect human life—not the environment. For instance, the U.S. is seeing a big trend toward fire protection. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recently released a proposed flammability standard for upholstered furniture. This standard recommends the use of fire-resistant barrier fabrics as a means to reduce the toll taken on human life and property when upholstered furniture is ignited.
“As more nonwovens are being utilized for industrial fabrics and applications where they are found in public facilities, the need for flame retardant treatment has increased as mandated by the federal, state and local laws, which apply,” said Apex Chemical’s Mr. Chamberlain.
In addition to focusing on meeting government regulations, some suppliers are also examining the growing diversity of nonwovens as a significant area prime for future growth. While world economies are in somewhat challenging times, the nonwovens industry is doing a fairly better than some its sister industries such as the pulp and paper and textiles markets. This has led some of the chemical companies who have traditionally targeted textiles to begin targeting nonwovens. One such company is Ciba Specialty Chemicals, High Point, NC. “In textiles, we are leader in this technology so it seems a natural fit for us to enter the nonwovens industry,” explained Mimi Carter, marketing manager for chemicals. “This is a product area where you can still differentiate yourself and your products.”
One key area of exploration for Ciba is antimicrobials, particularly for the medical markets in bed sheets and other contact areas, and in some other textile replacement areas such as nonwovens for active wear and workout clothes. “People are seeing more antimicrobials in personal care so it’s a natural off shoot,” Ms. Carter explained.
Whether it’s caused by increased regulations or increased attention on nonwovens, binders and additives suppliers to the nonwovens industry certainly face many challenges in the future. Still, these suppliers are confident that they will meet the future with continued success.