nonwoven roll goods manufacturers find
that covering the world with geotextiles is not as easy as it looks
When the individual sectors of the nonwovens industry are broken out by amount of material consumed rather than sales percentage, the geotextiles market is by far the leader of the pack. With an estimated consumption of more than 300 million square yards in North America alone—and an expected annual growth rate in the double digits—the geotexile market is largely made up of needlepunched nonwovens, with spunbond beginning to take a greater marketshare. The geotextiles sector is part of a larger industry known as geosynthetics, which also includes other products such as geomembranes, geogrids and fabricated drains. The geotextiles market is further broken down into product segments, such as drainage, erosion control, soil separation/stabilization, landfill/ waste containment and asphalt overlays. Of these markets, soil separation/stabilization is considered the largest with 35% of the total market, according to industry estimates.
Although it may seem the nonwoven geotextiles business is a booming market ripe for the picking, industry experts unanimously agree that this is not the case. “The geotextiles market is averaging double digit percentage growth, which makes it an attractive market for people to get into,” assessed Wally Moore, vice president sales & marketing for TC Mirafi, Pendergrass, GA. “On the other hand, you see companies enter the market perhaps seeing the attractiveness of nonwovens, but they do not know the barriers to entrance into the geotextiles market with testing and certification and the obstacle of channels of distribution and how to go to market depending on the segments they are going to attack. That has probably been a surprise and an obstacle to new entrants.”
While nonwovens are estimated to account for 55% of the market over woven and other materials, nonwovens producers not only have to know their product but have to be familiar with the markets’ standards in order to educate consumers on the benefits of using nonwoven geotexiles despite their upfront cost. One company that works to teach the benefits of using geotextile materials is SI (formerly Synthetic Industries), Chattanooga, TN. “Educating government agencies about paying a little more upfront and then having the project last longer over time is still an uphill battle and we recognize that our success in this market is contingent on us teaching them about the benefits of these products,” stated Ted Koerner, vice president of SI Geosolutions. “The government is starting to see the longterm benefits that geotextiles offer.”
This is also the case in Japan, according to Masaki Matsushita, leader of the geotextile spunbond operation sector of roll goods producer Toyobo, Osaka, Japan. The company—which produces spunbond nonwovens for the drainage, coastal and landfill markets—reported that the Japanese government is taking a more active role in preserving its infrastructure for the longterm future. “Government agencies are changing their focus to improvement,” Mr. Matsushita stated. “They recognize that geotextiles are less expensive.”
Another key factor geotextile manufacturers have to take into account is the economy. For the most part, large capital investments such as roads and landfills are financially backed by the government. Obviously, a government is more likely to invest in an infrastructure project during healthy economic times than during an economic slow-down. “Historically, in good economic times you see significant capital projects that would benefit the geotextiles market,” explained Mark Bidner, president and CEO of Western Nonwovens (WNI), Carson, CA. “As the economy slows, governments tend to go back to the approach of fixing as little as possible. It’s fair to say that, given the strength of the U.S. economy over the past few years, government regulatory agents have been very generous in looking to improve the quality conditions of the transportation network and that’s a boom to the geotextile business.”
Laying Down The Law
As a result of strong economic conditions in the U.S., the government has begun to increase its focus on the longterm conditions of roads, bridges and sewer systems rather than taking care of problems on an “as needed” basis. One example of this trend is the passage of the Transportation Equity Act For The 21st Century, or T21, which commits billions of dollars to take proactive positions on U.S. transportation projects, according TC Mirafi’s Mr. Moore. “Some of that is also for maintenance and repair, but I think the government is certainly trying to do the right thing in these times of economic prosperity.”
Mr. Moore also commented on the federal government’s creation of national specifications and requirements for geotextile materials for all states, rather than each state having its own standards. “This makes it easier for manufacturers to make one product to meet all state specifications. From an industry standpoint, it makes it less confusing and less intimidating for a potential specifier to use the product because it’s much clearer as to what they ought to be doing with it,” he added.
The U.S. is not the only area of the world dealing with this topic. On the European side of the geotextiles market, convincing all countries within the European Union to adopt one set of uniform standards is a current topic of debate. “The issue has been that a lot of the standards for geotextiles have been dictated by national bodies and there is obviously tension between them,” said Sean Dunne, managing director of Terram Ltd., Wales, U.K.—the geotextiles business of the BBA Group, London, U.K. “The name of the game is how we can harmonize product characteristics for given applications and respective test methods. The starting point is with the national standards and then it’s a matter of to what extent there can be agreement at a pan-European level. Then the lobbying goes on to try to come up with standards that are acceptable not just to different nationalities, but to different manufacturers that have their own preferred technologies,” Mr. Dunne explained.
Wolfgang Aue, group marketing and sales manager of Polyfelt, Linz, Austria, agreed. “There are specific regulations on how geotextiles are installed that differ from country to country and they should be harmonized throughout the European Union. This has been their intention for many years, but it takes time.”
Competition Coast To Coast
Creating a set of national geotextiles standards is not the only issue the U.S. and European regions have in common. On both sides of the Atlantic, the market for nonwoven geotextiles is extremely competitive as roll goods producers battle for marketshare. In the U.S., additional capacity and increased raw material prices have added up to very low selling prices. “The geotextiles market had significant capacity come onstrea, over the past few years and during that period there was also a significant decline in raw material costs,” stated WNI’s Mr. Bidner. “The problem is that the additional capacity has kept prices depressed and the recent rise in raw material prices has further eroded the profitability of those types of products. Despite increasing demand and a possible increase in overall volume of product used and sold, the margins have further deteriorated as raw material costs have gone up and selling prices have not come anywhere close to recovering the cost increases.” He added that despite the upward economic swing that is currently driving the geotextiles market, overcapacity and high raw material costs have made the market even less attractive today than it was a few years ago.
In Europe, the market is just as competitive according to general manager technical textiles Anders Kroer of Fibertex, Aalborg, Denmark, who reported that the last decade has seen the level of competitiveness within the market grow considerably, which is a plus for project owners but a problem for manufacturers. “The drawback is that there is complete focus on price and less focus on quality,” Mr. Kroer discussed. “Fibertex has experienced many such examples and this problem is accelerating. This is also the reason why Fibertex is a very keen participant in norm, standard and certification working groups with the overall target of improving quality consciousness.”
Competition is also a key issue for the Indian geotextiles market, which is a market that has yet to reach maturity. “The market has become very competitive since importation into the Indian market has become easy,” explained C.K. Chaudhuri, general manager for Charminar Nonwovens, Hyderabad, India. “Only the fittest domestic manufacturers will be able to survive in such a competitive situation, as now products are specified according to international standards. The prices are coming down drastically while quality standards have become more stringent.”
Constructing The Market Of The Future
With all of this competition causing the geotextiles market to tighten, roll goods producers are beginning to give first priority to locking marketshare for the future. One way of doing this is by examining new niche markets that are basically outgrowths of the geotextiles market, such as the professional landscaping market. This is an area where Freudenberg North America, Durham, NC, plans to expand as it becomes a more strategic part of its business. According to vice president sales and marketing for Freudenberg Nonwovens Tufts Division Ed Cerne, the company sells its spunbond polyester seconds from its primary carpet backing business into the landscaping market for both commercial and residential applications as weed blockers. Mr. Cerne explained that the company advanced into this market because it was too competitive to go against polypropylene materials, which is the raw material of choice on the spunbond side of the geotextiles market. “Surprisingly, in the landscaping market, polyester seems to be making inroads against polypropylene,” Mr. Cerne asserted. Due to sales growth attributable to national home improvement retail chains and more cost-effective production methods, Freudenberg will boost capacity by early 2002 with the addition of new machinery. “The new machine will be primarily for primary carpet backing, but landscape fabrics will play a more significant role in the utilization of total capacity,” Mr. Cerne added.
At Fibertex, the company has found a niche in the airport market with many new airports utilizing geotextiles. According to Mr. Kroer, an example of Fibertex’s involvement in this market can be found at Chek Lap Kok, Hong Kong’s new airport, for which the company supplied more than eight million square meters of geotextiles. In addition, the company is also gaining marketshare in the landfill area, where new landfills are being built based on the encapsulation method, which uses membranes lined with nonwoven geotextiles.
Back in the U.S., WNI has decided to evolve its geotextile business toward more specialty, value-added products. “For a long time the growth of the geotextiles market was dependent almost entirely on the development of the transportation infrastructure. Growth opportunities for nonwovens in the geotextiles market are now much broader,” Mr. Bidner of WNI stated. “There are significant opportunities in specialty engineered nonwoven geotextiles for specific technical applications and that’s where longterm growth will come from.” For the future, WNI plans to focus on niche areas within the traditional transportation irrigation and horticultural areas through both its needlepunched and spunbonded capabilities.
On the converting side of the market, Precision Fabrics Group (PFG), Greensboro, NC, is seeing the trend toward more sophisticated nonwoven geotextiles. “The wish list for geotextiles is getting more sophisticated,” explained Richard Bliton, director of sales and marketing for PFG’s Industrial Group. “Customers are looking for something more than just a vanilla textile; they are looking for something that will give them an edge product-wise.” To this end, PFG is currently working on R&D with customers to develop materials with more sophistication. “The current products in the geotextiles market are relatively mature and customers are looking for a new generation of products that will be fresh and have growth potential,” he added.
This Land Is Our Land
Due to the fact that nonwoven geotextiles producers continue to advance their marketshare through new product offerings, end user education and niche opportunities, the geotextiles market holds obvious growth potential. “Geotextiles are still only used one out of every seven places they could be used, so there are plenty of opportunities for using nonwoven geotextiles in engineering applications, but success in market penetration is contingent on educating engineers so that they specify the product in their design,” stated SI’s Mr. Koerner.
Mr. Dunne of Terram agreed, “If you look at the average civil engineer, when he or she was going through university very little was taught about geotextiles, if anything at all, therefore there was no established use for these types of products. We spend quite a bit of our time teaching students and practicing civil engineers about geotextiles and their use. Bit by bit these types of products are having a broader appeal.”
As traditional nonwoven roll goods manufacturers for the geotextile market continue to look for ways to increase marketshare, some have begun to turn their attention to niche areas within the agricultural market. One such niche area is the dairy industry, where new studies have shown that making the lives of dairy cows more comfortable may in turn make the profits of dairy farmers larger.
At SI, Chattanooga, TN, the company sells a nonwoven fabric that is used within cow mattresses that are placed on the floor of barns for the dairy cows to sleep on. According to SI’s director of communications Kemp Harr, SI became involved in this niche market after a study was published stating that the yield of a dairy cow could be improved by making its life more comfortable.
On the other side of the Atlantic, a similar study in the U.K. by university veterinary professors found that milk yields and fertility rates of dairy cattle were impacted by whether a cow was lame or not. After the studies found that up to 20% of cattle became lame due to the usual conditions of a farm’s lanes and gate openings, a consistent path for cows to walk on was developed by Terram Ltd., Wales, U.K. “This is why we developed a product called ‘CowTrax’ and have been producing it for the past few years,” explained managing director Sean Dunne.