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.
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.
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