Nonwovens are found nearly everywhere when it comes to the medical market. With the rise of infectious diseases and standards enforced in hospitals and healthcare facilities, it is no wonder roll good manufacturers are seeing high consumer demand for nonwovens with better protection in the medical market. Currently, nonwovens can be found in a wide variety of medical-related areas, including facial masks, surgical packs, gowns and drapes, sterilization packaging, gloves, surgical accessories and even protective footwear and hoods. Hospital rooms are also no stranger to nonwovens, as they can be found in bedding, pillows, towels and linens. Considering the number of hospitals, healthcare facilities and medical employees, it is not surprising nonwovens manufacturers cannot even begin to guess how big the medical market really is.
According to research conducted by INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, Cary, NC, it is estimated that medical and surgical applications consume slightly more than three billion square yards of nonwoven fabric in the U.S. and Canada alone each year. The result: nonwovens manufacturers have their work cut out for them as they try to find a balance between catering to high consumer demands and producing nonwovens that offer the best protection and comfort.
One key trend being seen in this category is the push for hospitals to use disposables. While disposables are safer for hospital use, there is a question about the amount of infectious waste created once they are thrown away.
Charlie Granger, business development manager for Johns Manville’s Filtration Division, Denver, CO, sees safety as the biggest reason why nonwovens are preferred in the medical market. “Disposable nonwovens are strerilized, packaged, opened and then disposed of, so there is less risk of contamination before or after use than would be the case with a reusable product,” Mr. Granger said. Although Johns Manville’s medical business comprises well less than 10% of its roll goods sales, the company is still witnessing strong consumer demands and concerns regarding safety. “Everyone is coming up with something new they would like to see. Right now we are working to develop our surgical face mask media and we are upgrading products we already sell,” he said.
Mario Saldarini, commercial director of Orlandi SpA, Varese, Italy, believes that medical nonwovens are growing most quickly in European markets, particularly France, Germany and the U.K., but are stagnant elsewhere. “Nonwoven material is commonly being found in swabs, gauze and plaster substrates,” Mr. Saldarini added. “We are finding more nonwovens in the medical area, but in my opinion, they are seeing very slow growth.” Orlandi’s medical production makes up 20% of its business whereas 70% of the company is dedicated to the hygienic and cosmetic industry, which is seeing more rapid growth. Mr. Saldarini said that hospitals need to change their mindsets for nonwovens to gain greater marketshare in the medical market. “Hospitals have to get rid of their mentality that disposables are luxuries. Reusable cotton gauze can then be replaced with disposables. Disposable nonwovens give customers more security and peace of mind,” explained Mr. Saldarini.
Guan Tao, an import and export executive at Hangzhou Advanced Nonwovens, Hangzhou, China, credited new fiber developments for the drive for nonwovens. “Along with developments of new manufacturing, compound and finishing processes in the nonwovens industry and the development and application of new fiber and auxiliaries, nonwoven medical products have been endowed with superior functions. They have more advantages than traditional materials,” he said.
On A Wider Scale
Consumers are among the major influences on nonwovens production. Whatever consumers demand, manufacturers try to match. JM’s Mr. Granger said he noticed the highest consumer demand in more protective medical nonwovens. The rise of infectious diseases, such as AIDS, HIV and Hepatitis, and, more importantly, an increased awareness of these diseases has medical consumers requesting protective apparel.
“There is an increased awareness in the importance of barrier properties in nonwovens. The quality of disposable nonwovens has created a whole new tier of products,” said Mr. Granger. Some common advantages most manufacturers agree on is that they are cheaper, disposable and more flexible to customers’ needs. “Possibilities are really endless,” noted Mr. Granger.
Ray Dunleavy, business manager of BBA Nonwovens, Simpsonville, SC, said that in the U.S. medical market, nonwovens have more or less fully penetrated most apparel and packaging applications. These include products for the operating room such as surgical gowns and drapes, head and shoe covers, face masks, sponges, towels, wipes and sterilization wraps. In other parts of hospitals and healthcare facilities, nonwovens, including pulp-based fabrics, are found in isolation gowns, exam and patient gowns, lab coats, wipes, towels and bed linens.
“Nonwovens performance in the areas of protection, comfort and cost are the key drivers for the change in this market, and this fosters competition between different nonwoven fabric technologies. For example, the high levels of protection and low cost offered by SMS technology are propelling it to marketshare gains in the surgical gown and drape market at the expense of spunlaced technology,” Mr. Dunleavy explained. “However, further gains versus reusable fabrics that are not nonwoven will occur very slowly.”
Cost remains a huge factor when it comes to developing nonwovens and with the implementation of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) laws, came many new standards for hospitals. “Basically what we saw was a spike in demand while all the facilities took steps to fill their cupboards with disposables, and then sales returned to a more normal level,” said JM’s Mr. Granger, regarding the action many medical and dental facilities took in response to OSHA’s standards. OSHA regulations called for employers to provide protective equipment for their workers, mandating that nonwovens used is hospital and healthcare facilities have better barrier protection while still offering comfort.
“Air flow and moisture vapor transmission are what makes a garment comfortable, but with air flow also comes bacteria. Wherever air molecules can flow through the fabric means that there is a risk that bacteria can also penetrate the fabric. There continues to be growth in the use of composites, especially nonwovens matched with specialty films, to provide comfort and barrier protection, but there is always a cost-price pressure,” said Mr. Granger.
Carolyn Green, vice president of sales and marketing at Precision Fabrics Group, (PFG) Greensboro, NC, believes nonwovens are growing in the international medical market but cost will be factor. “There is always a pressure with cost. Manufacturers are always trying to find better properties with a lower cost,” Ms. Green said. PFG, which is mostly involved in the composite market, is developing several new products for its medical division and is currently a leading innovator of value-added nonwoven fabrics for the global medical products market, according to company executives. PFG targets a wide range of end uses encompassing products such as surgical gowns, drapes, masks, wound dressings and table covers. Orlandi’s Mr. Saldarini added, “Synthetic nonwovens are lint-free, pure and have more stable prices when compared to cotton, which usually sees prices jumping up and down. Synthetics tend to be more stable.”
It is clear nonwovens have advantages for use in areas of the world where consumers can afford them. However, in developing countries where health standards are not as strongly enforced as they are in the U.S., the future of medical nonwovens is questionable. Serkan Gogus commercial director for Mogul Nonwovens, Baspinar, Gaziantep, Turkey, forsees a strong and quick growth for nonwovens in the medical market. “Nonwoven material is found nearly everywhere, in emergency, surgery and patient care,” Mr. Gogus said.
Mogul is currently trying to develop its market outside of Turkey. “We expect to see growth in developing regions, such as the Far East, Eastern Europe and South America,” Mr. Gogus projected. “We are also introducing our new SMS fabrics, aside from our spunbonded fabrics.”
The use of nonwovens in the medical markets of developing countries is expected to be much lower than the U.S. and other economically advantaged countries due to significantly less household income. “As countries move from third world status to second world, they begin to focus on medical issues,” said JM’s Mr. Granger “Health and sanitary issues are a big problem in these countries, but so are financial constraints. People in third world countries are making $200 a year so they are going to have trouble affording one sanitary product that costs four dollars.”
“Western Europe and Japan have higher growth rates than the U.S. market (in the 5-10% range) while Asia, Eastern Europe, South America and the Middle East are growing even more rapidly. Education on the clinical and economic benefits of nonwovens directed at health officials and practitioners in these regions result in increasing demand,” said BBA’s Mr. Dunleavy.
The medical nonwovens industry in the U.S. has remained relatively mature, according to Mr. Dunleavy. “The U.S. market is growing at 1-2% annually. Growth is driven by increases in surgical procedures stemming from our aging population, which is offset by a reduction in nonwovens used per procedure resulting from advances in surgical technology and less invasive techniques,” Mr. Dunleavy explained.
Hangzhou’s Mr. Tao believes that nonwovens are growing very quickly in China. “Along with the continuous growth of the national economy, China is going to establish an integrated system of medical treatment and healthcare step by step to upgrade people’s health and improve the instruments used in medical treatments continuously,” said Hangzhou’s Mr. Tao.
Spunlace Comes In First
Manufacturers all seem to agree that one of the most preferred nonwovens technologies used in the medical market is spunlaced. “Spunlaced is really used most often, especially in surgical rooms or anything that involves direct contact with the skin,” said Mr. Saldarini.
Additionally, the absence of chemical treatment in spunlaced material makes it a fabric often favored in the medical market. JM’s Mr. Granger agreed. “Spunlaced and SMS are most commonly used because they are the most fabric-like. It’s a combination of barrier protection and comfort,” he said.
Spunlaced nonwovens are made by entangling polyester fibers with a layer of wood pulp, whereas SMS materials feature a composite of three layers—spunlace, meltblown and spunbonded—normally using a polypropylene resin and then being stacked together.
BBA’s Mr. Dunleavy said that nonwovens are suitable in protective medical devices for a variety of reasons. “Suitability depends on end use application, as nonwovens can be designed to be absorbent or repellent, breathable or impervious, with film lamination or soft and stiff,” Mr. Dunleavy said.
“Spunlace is most suitable because there are no chemicals used during the hydroentanglement production process and it makes it very hygienic and sanitary. Spunlace is soft and the surface will not become damaged,” Hangzhou’s Mr. Tao said. “Spunlaced nonwovens can produce both light and heavy weight products with different degrees of softness,” commented David Farrar, managing director of BFF Nonwovens, Bridgwater, Somerset, U.K.
BFF fabrics go into swabs, fixation tapes, non-adherent dressings, disposable drapes, surgical gowns, ostomy bag components and wipes.
But spunlace is not the only nonwoven technology finding application in the medical market. For instance, BBA Nonwovens uses several different technologies to manufacture fabrics for the medical market, including high barrier SMS fabrics for surgical gowns, drapes and CSR wrap applications.
Additionally, spunbonded fabrics are used more for non-sterile apparel and laminate structures and wetlaid fabrics are used more for disposable linens. Johns Manville uses spunbonded polyester, meltblown polypropylene and polyester to produce its nonwovens for the medical market.
Bacteria control must also be considered when producing a nonwoven, especially one that is going to be used in the medical market. Foss Manufacturing, Hampton, NH, has recently introduced a new antimicrobial line to assist in preventing bacteria from growing. “Fosshield Antimicrobial Technologies” effectively guards against the growth of a broad spectrum of odor-causing destructive bacteria, mold and mildew. With its added level of product protection, Fosshield fiber allows for applications across a wide range of products that are vulnerable to the effects of bacterial degradation, including bed linens, towels and wound care. The new antimicrobial technology is derived from an all-natural, silver-based inorganic composition. Silver, one of the oldest known antimicrobial agents, has been proven effective in protecting fibers and fabrics from a broad spectrum of destructive and odor-causing bacteria, mold and mildew, according to company executives.
Fosshield uses a proprietary patented process developed by Foss for incorporating the advanced silver-based agent into the bicomponent (two polymers/additives) and binder (adhesive) fibers of fabrics. A continual delivery system ensures the slow release of silver. The result is a fabric that maintains efficiency of its antimicrobial protection for the longevity of the product and can withstand multiple launderings. There are several other new Fosshield products currently under development that are intended for use in the medical industry for mattress pads, pillows and hospital scrubs.
Among the latest developments from Hangzhou are improved plaster substrates. “We have plaster nonwoven substrates that have high blood-absorbency and are soft,” Mr Tao said. “Our new plaster substrates offer a different spunlaced fabric structure that offers more comfort.”
Nonwovens sometimes need to receive a chemical treatment to prevent water, blood or bacteria from seeping through the fabric. Chemical treatments applied to nonwovens can range from a water repellent substance to a film. According to INDA surface treatments adapted or borrowed directly from traditional textile, paper or plastic finishing technologies are used to enhance fabric performance or aesthetic properties. Examples of performance properties are moisture transport, absorbency or repellency, flame retardancy and abrasion resistance. Fabric finishing is either chemical, mechanical or thermal-mechanical; chemical finishing allows for dyestuffs, pigments or chemical coating applications on fibers.
Disposables Forecast Bright
Manufacturers agree that the future of nonwovens looks promising, if certain obstacles are addressed during production. “The future of nonwovens looks bright as markets move more toward disposable products. As new treatments and methods of care are developed, the possibilities for the use of nonwovens can only improve,” said BFF’s Mr. Farrar. However, Mr. Farrar also noted that people may be unwilling to switch products if something they use already works well. Additionally, many medical products have a long development time, which can be difficult to overcome.
The flexibility of nonwovens remains a key characteristic as the future of nonwovens in the medical market is speculated. “Nonwovens will continue to adapt to meeting the changing needs of the medical market, be it in the structure or composition of the nonwoven itself or in combination with other materials or with post treatments,” BBA’s Mr. Dunleavy projected. “Flexibility and adaptability at low costs will contribute to its success. The wide variety of technologies and fibers enables nonwovens to be engineered to meet the specific needs of each different end use application.”
Nonwovens manufacturers agree that nonwovens will see success in the future with the development of newer and hi-tech materials in the medical market. “Factors that will bring success to nonwovens in the medical market also involve medicine, new-type and higher-tech materials, which will support their development,” said Mr. Tao. To achieve this growth, nonwovens have several obstacles to overcome. “The low-speed development of the fiber industry may limit the developing speed of nonwovens for medical products. Also, the degree of acknowledgement and understanding about nonwovens for medical products in different countries will limit their popularization and applications as well as development of nonwoven medical products in such countries,” Mr. Tao said.
Most manufacturers agree that nonwovens are key when it comes to the medical market. The main cloud that still lingers overhead is the question of what becomes of the disposable after it is thrown away.
“The waste treatment after usage will bring certain pressure to society and the environment due to the increased use of disposable nonwovens,” offered Mr. Tao. With manufacturers busy developing new products, they just might discover a solu-tion with disposables.