Diagnosis: Nonwovens

August 17, 2005

nonwovens manufacturers are optimistic about the future of the medical market

Having achieved substantial inroads in the medical field, today nonwovens are used in a variety of applications such as sterilization wraps, barrier products (drapes, gowns and germ-eliminating products), wound care applications, face masks, wipes, incontinence pads and filters. As healthcare workers and patients become more aware of the risk of cross contamination, the demand for cost-effective and convenient protection has risen. In the price-sensitive healthcare segment, some institutions have found nonwovens to be a less expensive choice than woven products in certain applications. With manufacturers reporting a range of growth levels—from 2% to 50%—many companies are looking to further penetrate the medical field in the year 2000 and beyond.

In terms of market growth, key drivers include improved nonwovens technology, the need for an increased number of surgical procedures and expansion into Europe and developing countries. As Europe begins to use more technical surgical procedures and as the Asian economy continues to rebound, the market for medical nonwovens is expected to remain one of the most lucrative in the industry.

Expansion—Up, Up And Away
One contributing factor in the growing usage of medical nonwovens is increased public awareness of cross-contamination. With AIDS, hepatitis and other transmittable diseases on the rise, there is an increased demand from hospitals for clean, sanitary and disposable products in order to protect doctors and patients. Commenting on how health awareness has benefitted nonwovens was Wang Yu Ming, sales manager at Hangzhou Xinhua Group, Hangzhou, China. “The most significant advantage nonwovens offer the medical market are their safety and convenience of usage. Most medical nonwovens are disposable, therefore they can prevent cross-infection of bacteria and protect the health of doctors and patients,” he said.

A spokesperson from DuPont, Wilmington, DE, also recognized the health benefits of using nonwovens. “Hospitals place a strong emphasis on infection control. Universal precautions have been the standard for several years. These precautions require using effective procedures and products to protect healthcare providers and patients. Hepatitis and multiple-resistant pneumonia are the biggest concerns in the industry today. Hospitals are looking for high performance products with excellent, consistent quality,” the spokesperson stated.

“Infectious disease problems have definitely increased awareness on safety precautions for patients and healthcare workers,” agreed Carolyn Green, vice president of marketing and sales for protective fabrics at Precision Fabrics Group, Greensboro, NC. “A few years back when the OSHA regulations went into effect, there was a spike in business, with hospitals and clinics stocking up on healthcare protective apparel, but it hasn’t necessarily translated into a sustainable increase for medical nonwovens,” she said.

One important consideration in how to protect doctors and patients from cross-contamination is cost, and healthcare providers are always searching for cost-effective solutions. While wovens are still being used in the medical field, nonwovens are a cheaper alternative in certain applications. With new and improved nonwovens technologies currently being developed and the rising production cost of woven products, nonwovens are expected to infiltrate a larger share of primarily woven applications.

Thierry Tavakelian, sales manager at Subrenat Expansion, Mouvaux, France, discussed the cost-effectiveness of nonwovens. “Their low cost compared to wovens has been crucial, while budget restrictions for healthcare providers have naturally made the need for nonwovens expand,” he stated.

Explaining the economical advantages of nonwovens was David Lunceford, president of HDK Industries, Rogersville, TN. “Hospitals are now leaning toward nonwovens for reasons of performance and lower cost. Nonwovens have soft and comfortable properties at much less expensive prices than woven products. For wound dressings, if you want the lowest cost possible, you turn to nonwovens. For surgical masks, you can manufacture a composite product and by including a nonwoven layer, you can give the product woven properties,” he said.

While lower costs make nonwovens a more viable option, medical nonwovens manufacturers have also benefitted from the aging worldwide population. “Improved healthcare technology has a price tag,” commented Matthew Pelham, president of Jentex Corporation, Buford, GA. “As people live longer and technology for managing diseases improves, demand increases along with rising healthcare costs.”

Richard Kiedish, general manager at Lantor (U.K.) Ltd, Bolton, U.K., considered other factors. “Medical nonwovens have grown due to a variety of social factors such as more leisure time and increased sports-related injuries. There are also greater expectations from patient for speedier treatment, healing and comfort,” he said.

Boosting growth has also increased usage of single use disposables in Europe and Asia, according to Susan Wimmers, group vice president of marketing, sales and product development, medical at PGI Nonwovens, Dayton, NJ. “With the European Union moving toward standardization, we should see more conversion to disposable products. Also, as the Asian economy continues to improve and the amount of disposable income increases, we should see the same trend,” she said.

Mr. Wang of Hangzhou Xinhua suggested the need for government regulations in order for medical nonwovens to expand further. “Due to the limited economic factors in developing countries, nonwoven medical products have not progressed to a large scale, despite larger medical markets in these countries than those of developed countries. A lot of progress needs to be made in order to extend medical nonwovens in developing countries. Governments have to promulgate statutes to speed up the process,” he said.

Improving Technology A Must
If nonwovens want to make headway in replacing certain, mainly woven medical products, some manufacturers warn that technological improvements are necessary. Commenting on this topic was Serkan Gogus, commercial director at Mogul Nonwovens, Gaziantep, Turkey. “Nonwovens need to be more drapable, easily washable, sterilizable, particularly in polypropylene and biodegradable products. Once those improvements are achieved, the medical field will make a move toward nonwovens,” he said.

Lisa Krallis-Nixon, general manager for Charter Medical Limited (a division of Lydall), Winston-Salem, NC, also expressed high hopes for nonwovens, paricularly in high-end medical fields. “Nonwovens are capable of having a lot of surface area and will be used in genetic engineering, bio-processing and cell selection/separation. Manufacturers will not be mass manufacturing your typical nonwoven but instead will be using more membrane technologies,” she explained.

Discussing the possibility of nonwovens taking over woven areas in the medical field was Mr. Pelham of Jentex. “There are certainly areas in the medical market that can and will trend toward nonwovens technologies. As technology continues to improve, there will be further replacement of woven garments by nonwoven materials due to continued increase in acquisition and processing costs of woven materials,” he said.

HDK Industries’ Mr. Lunceford recognized similar opportunities for nonwovens. “Bed sheets are a real opportunity for nonwovens, particularly in the area of reusable—rather than disposable—products. Nonwovens manufacturers need to find a way to engineer fabrics and modify technology in order for this to happen,” Mr. Lunceford commented.

Alison Kelley, medical product manager at BFF Nonwovens, Bridgwater, U.K., pointed to possibilities for nonwovens in various wound care applications. “There will be an increase in nonwovens usage in tubular and compression bandages due to new elastic scrims that are available,” she stated.

While nonwovens begin to make inroads in wound care products, surgical sponges are another growing application, said George Hargrove, vice president of sales and marketing at Barnhardt Manufacturing, Charlotte, NC. “In the past, gauze sponges have had a significant share of the market but nonwoven sponges are beginning to grow in this area,” he said.

Double Trouble
While on the one hand nonwovens continue to threaten woven applications in the medical market, on the other hand, bloodless operating procedures have somewhat diminished the need for protective medical apparel, thus impacting the development of medical nonwovens.

Discussing this trend was Precision Fabrics Group’s Ms. Green, “The increase in less invasive surgical procedures has definitely slowed medical nonwovens growth. With less invasive operations, there is less need for protection and generally fewer personnel are involved. This translates into fewer people gowning,” she said.

A spokesperson from DuPont had another point of view, “Bloodless operating techniques have had minor impact on the market for medical nonwoven materials. Regardless of the type of surgical technique, there will always be a need to operate with an aseptic field and to use proper precautions. Although it changes the balance of protection and comfort that may be required in those specific procedures, it does not eliminate the need for a product that provides adequate protection for the healthcare staff. In other words, there may be less demand for reinforced garments or specialty gowns, but the staff will still wear a protective garment in the O.R.,” the spokesperson said.

In addition to alternative surgical procedures, a second threat cited by many U.S. manufacturers is an increase in Asian imports. With cheaper labor costs abroad and the improving economic situation in Asia, U.S. companies are facing stiffer competition in global markets. Addressing this issue was Mark Dillon, president of Bio Med Sciences, Allentown, PA. “Increased imports from Asia have hurt U.S. manufacturers. The U.S. has the advantage of being the innovator in nonwovens technology but as products become a commodity, you see production move overseas,” he said.

Marty Paugh, director of marketing for Isolyser, Norcross, GA, does not necessarily see Asian imports affecting U.S. producers, although he predicted that they may have some future impact. “Materials made in China are hard to bring into the U.S. because of high tariffs. Once China joins the WTO and normal relations are established, you will see more of an effect from Chinese manufacturers,” he said.


What Are Manufacturers Up To?
Plans are underway at Barnhardt Manufacturing to introduce the “Steripocket” spunlaced nonwoven product designed to help oral surgery patients. The eight-ply, sterilized sponge absorbs bleeding from gums after tooth extraction.

Currently available from DuPont is the “ComforShield” nonwoven fabric for medical gowns. The fabric provides high strike-through protection in a single layer fabric and is 50% lighter than reinforced gowns. The company also continues to highlight “Tyvek 2FS” for medical packaging applications, which offers benefits for form/fill/seal applications such as printability, better processing and cost effectiveness.

Isolyser has recently introduced “Enviroguard” drape and gown fabric. The fabric degrades much faster than most materials and can be dissolved in hot water. The company is also working with Allegiance Healthcare, McGaw Park, IL, on the “Resolve” medical disposable waste receptacle. The companies are currently testing the disposable units that will completely process and sterilize “Orex” products and other non-pathological and non-radioactive waste. The unit will allow healthcare workers to put all red bag waste into one receptacle, instead of separating Orex products and other disposables. The system uses 260°F water to agitate the waste in order to make it soluble and/or dispersible.

In other Isolyser news, the company has signed a joint development agreement with Consolidated Ecoprogress Technology (CET), Vancouver, Canada. The deal will create a framework for the joint development of technology and products for disposable consumer goods. On the manufacturing front, Isolyser has launched Aqualace Company, Inc., Gainesville, GA, as part of an effort to secure North American capacity to supplement increased need for “Orex” fabrics for its healthcare, industrial and disposables goods businesses. Expected to come onstream in mid-2002, Aqualace’s facility will include state-of-the-art equipment designed to manufacture PVA polymer based nonwoven fabrics along with other traditional polymeric materials.

HDK Industries is concentrating on new fibers and composites for the medical market. The company will offer engineered nonwovens containing specialty fibers with benefits such as antibacterial and antimicrobial properties.
French roll goods producer Subrenat is currently working on a technology that will give nonwovens certain characteristics such as releasing specific medicine to cure local diseases. Subrenat produces building, furniture and household textile products including nonwovens.

Western Nonwovens is currently looking into bandages utilizing the corn-based fiber polyactide (PLA) from Cargill Dow, Midland, MI. PLA gives bandages beneficial characteristics such as high absorbency, strength and bounce.

Mogul Nonwovens’ new melt blown line will begin production in August. The line will have SMS and SMF (spunbond/melt blown/film) capabilities designed for use in medical and other applications.

New from Bio Med Sciences is the double-sided “Dual-Dress” multifunctional wound dressing made with “Silon” fiber. One side is made with hydrophilic foam with an adhesive surface for difficult fixation conditions, while the Silon side provides a non-adherent cover for fragile and sensitive wounds.

New Kids On The Block
Several new companies have thrown their hats into the medical nonwovens ring. New to the medical nonwovens segment is yarn producer Unifi Inc., Vadkinville, NC, a producer of spunbond SMS composites using polypropylene fiber for the medical, hygiene, protective apparel, furniture, bedding and industrial markets. The company operates a facility in Mocksville, NC.

Another new company in the medical nonwovens field is Eagle Nonwovens, St. Louis, MO. Eagle began producing technical needlepunched nonwovens in July for the healthcare, aerospace, automotive, home furnishings and filtration markets. The company operates an 82,000 square foot facility with state-of-the-art Dilo equipment along with in-line calendering, heat setting, singing and glazing capabilities. Eagle manufactures soaker felts for use in three-layer adult incontinence pads. The company is also looking into developing a proprietary product for large volume use in the medical market.

Jentex Corporation, Buford, GA, has begun production of melt blown nonwovens in its newly opened facility. Jentex will produce melt blown media for medical and filtration markets worldwide (see Company Cameo, page 102 in the print version).

Just The Facts
According to INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, Cary, NC, the medical/surgical market is the highest revenue generator in the disposable nonwovens segment with $462 million in sales for 1999. A total of 1.6 billion square yards (154 million pounds) of nonwoven material was used last year. The market is expected to sustain an average annual growth rate of 2% over the next five years, with consumption expected to increase to 1.7 billion yards by 2003. Spunbond is the most popular technology with 45% of the market, followed by hydroentanglement with 35%, both wet laid and melt blown have 10% and carded holds the remaining 5%.


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