Filter Focus

August 17, 2005

roll goods producers view segment as a good one for growth and innovation

One of the fastest growing segments in the nonwovens industry, filtration is characterized by dozens of end use areas and applications. This intense fragmentation has made the segment extremely difficult to chart with some participants reporting good times and others reporting bad times. Still, most say that filtration is a good market to be in, due to its resiliency and its opportunities for repeat business.

“The industry is very fragmented and as such different segments have shown different patterns of development during the past year,” reported Per Lindblom, director of marketing, sales and new product development at PGI Nonwovens, N. Charleston, SC. “However, this seems to be behind us, and we remain encouraged by the prospects for growth presented by the filtration industry.”

In terms of fragmentation, all filtration applications fall into two categories—wet, or liquid, and dry, or air. However, in these two categories there are myriad subcategories ranging from blood and water filtration for wet applications to industrial heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) and home air cleaning systems for dry applications. In all of these areas, nonwovens continue to take share from other forms of filtration media such as carbon, wovens and glass, making this an important segment for many roll goods producers.

“The role of nonwovens in filtration will continue to increase due to product diversity and the ability to combine various products to meet specific filtration properties,” said Frank Baker, business development manager of BBA Nonwovens, Old Hickory, TN. “New polymers are also being developed that will continue to widen product offerings.”

BBA Nonwvenso produces more than a dozen branded products for the filtration segment.
As a rule, nonwovens are ideal in filtration applications where strength of extremely high temperatures are required but other advantages of nonwovens include low cost, ease of strikethrough and increased efficiency. Traditionally, wetlaid, meltblown and spunbonded have been the nonwovens technologies most popular in filtration applications but more recently other technologies including airlaid and spunlaced have begun to penetrate the segment.

Because nonwovens have been taking share away from other types of media such as glass and wovens for several years, their role of pillagers of the filtration segment is nearly complete. By now, most of the segments that can convert to using a nonwoven already have so much of nonwovens’ growth is being generated through segment growth, which has come on the heels of increased clean air and water standards as well as an overall trend toward increased cleanliness.

“We have reached a situation where consumers won’t stand for things to be dirty when they don’t have to be,” explained Edward Homonoff, president of filtration consultancy Edward C. Homonoff & Associates, Brooklyn, CT. “This has opened up a lot of opportunities for filtration and increased the standards for the industry as a whole.”

The increased standards have also allowed nonwovens producers to showcase their technology. Because the nonwoven media is precisely what makes the filtration device work, filtration manufacturers can be extremely loyal to media suppliers. In fact, even the final user has a sense of the different levels of efficiency in the filtration segment because of universal standards for filtration, such as ASHRAE and minimum efficiency rating value (MERV) ratings.

A New Focus
In recent years, the filtration segment has become a significant area of interest for many of the world’s leading roll goods producers. Disheartened by the commodity nature of some of the larger markets for nonwovens, such as hygiene, these roll goods producers view filtration as an area where they can differentiate themselves through innovation and know-how. This high level of innovation has contributed to filtration becoming one of the fastest growing markets for nonwovens, second only to the disposable wipes category, which many view as a passing trend. In fact, some would argue that in the long haul, filtration is the fastest growing market in the industry with growth estimates at about 8-10% per year, depending on the region. And, with so many different end use areas there is plenty of room for companies and products alike, according to executives.

“Nobody asks for a huge amount of the same thing in filtration,” explained Mr. Homonoff. “There are so many different things going into this segment that no one filter supplier or media type could ever supply the entire industry. That would be physically impossible.”

Filtration media differ from one another in a variety of ways. These include web-forming technology, finishing techniques, fiber size and pore size. The correct type of filtration media for each individual application generally depends on the desired performance and the price requirements. Because of this, nearly every company involved in the filtration segment has its own specialty, making this segment one area where many companies can report good times. Additionally, innovation is an important part of most companies’ filtration businesses because their products can truly differentiate themselves in the market.

“Most of our new offerings in the filtration segment revolve around unique and/or patented technologies that enable our media to outperform existing or traditional filter fabrics,” explained J. C. Sneyd, director of marketing and sales, nonwoven roll goods business for Kimberly-Clark Corporation, Dallas, TX. “We optimize our technologies for filtration, giving our media a pre-defined engineered structure. Then, through independent, third-party testing, qualify our media on test filters to feel confident we are providing what we say we are.”

In recent years, filtration has emerged as one of K-C’s most important end use markets for its external roll good sales. As might be expected from a leading consumer products company, K-C’s nonwoven roll goods business has placed a strong focus on brands that have become well recognized by filtration consumers, both the users and choosers of filtration media and products. Brand recognition of K-C’s Intrepid, Powerloft and Fathom media extend far beyond filter makers, to both distributors and end users. And, K-C’s direct customers have benefited from its brand presence through licensing arrangements that result in the media brands being readily recognized on the filter manufacturers’ packaging.

In addition to new technology, many roll goods producers have been focusing on expanding their manufacturing and distributing networks to increase their role in the filtration segment. This has been achieved through global positioning, strategic relationships and acquisitions. BBA Nonwovens, for one, purchased Snow Filtration, Westchester, OH, a long-time distributor of BBA filtration media, in 2000.

“The purchase put us into more direct contact with our customers. This streamlined the supply process and set in place a system that improved communication for new product development,” Mr. Baker explained.

Also that year, BBA purchased filtration producer AQF Technologies, Charlotte, NC, to enhance its position in the functional particle separation segment of the industry. BBA currently supplies a wide range of roll goods, including spunbond, thermal bond and spunlace, to the filtration segment, which allows it to provide great flexibility to its customers. “By using our wide range of manufacturing capabilities, we can customize products for filtration or combine these products as composites to meet customers’ specific requirements,” Mr. Baker explained.

Sandler’s sawaloom self supporting pleat cell media.
In addition to customization, BBA offers more than a dozen trademarked products that have specific application in the filtration market. Most recently, the company introduced Reemay Elite. Reemay Elite offers superior spot to spot uniformity while retaining good strength in both the machine and cross directions. Available in both non-calendered and calendered form, it can be in used such applications as medical/diagnostics where the nonwoven provides support to a fragile membrane.

A Resilient Segment
Traditionally a roofing and construction specialist, roll goods producer Johns Manville, Denver, CO, enjoys the diversity its participation in the filtration segment provides. “It diversifies us from our construction markets and businesses,” explained John Robertson, general manager of JM’s filtration division. “It provides us with a different business cycle to rely on.”

During the past several years, JM’s commitment to filtration has been evident through several expansion plans that were embarked upon to enhance the filtration side of the business. These include the construction of polyester spunbond, polypropylene and polyester meltblown and glass media production lines in Germany. Among the segments seen as key for JM’s filtration business are HVAC and liquid/specialty, both of which are doing extremely well, despite worldwide economic problems.

“The way I look at it, filtration is used in air applications and people keep breathing no matter what. As for water, people obviously keep drinking during tough times as well,” Mr. Roberts explained. “People need many kinds of filtration media no matter what the economy is doing.”

In these challenging times, one of the nicest traits of the filtration segment is its resiliency to economic conditions. While filtration is impacted, to some degree, by economic problems—lower manufacturing levels, fewer filter changes—it has proved to be more buoyant than many other end use areas for nonwovens. Most of the executives interviewed by Nonwovens Industry reported that most areas of filtration have continued to perform well despite concerns over the economy. Really only the cleanrooms area, affected by a downturn in the semiconductor area, has faced challenges.

“The filtration industry is not immune to economic downturns,” explained Robert Murphey, vice president of marketing for engine and industry filtration for Hollingsworth & Vose, East Walpole, MA. “In engine filtration, economic slowdowns affect the road truck miles, which impact filter change cycles. Government spending slowdowns affect capital projects that impact new filter installations and road construction projects. However, I think the filtration industry as a whole has weathered the slowdowns better than most industries.”

Ahlstrom has paid considerable attention to its filtration business in recent years.
And, nonwovens continue to benefit from many consumers’ increased need for filtration devices, making great strides in consumer areas such as vacuum and room air cleaners, where they are replacing glass because of their ability to offer less resistance, meaning smaller motors and less noise for the appliances. “In the consumer area, there has been a great deal of research and development efforts going into finding synthetic products that work as well as fiberglass,” explained David von Loesecke, vice president and general manager of high efficiency and specialty filtration for H&V.

Room For Innovation
Despite the tremendous opportunity for innovation in the filtration market, some executives have noticed a general sense of complacency in the market in recent years. While some segments, such as biotechnology and health care have strong needs that are inspiring nonwovens producers to make high quality, superior products, at the same time, concerns over qualification costs, unknown performance features and the overall bottom line have kept manufacturers in many segments from capitalizing on the many new materials available for producing higher quality products. Furthermore, the conservative position of many companies has only been aggravated by current economic difficulties.

“If we who make our livelihood in filtration think the industry is mature, it will dampen the prospects for growth,” opined Matthew Miller, technical marketing manager of Crane Nonwovens, Dalton, MA. “I prefer to take a more optimistic viewpoint and think it’s important to share that message. There are many unmet needs in a host of industries that continue to represent enormous opportunities to all of us in the filtration area.”

Crane hopes to capitalize on some of these opportunities with Cranemat CC, a wetlaid PPS nonwoven that can be used as a filter or as drainage support. This product joins a range of fluoropolymer nonwovens for gas and liquid filtration and Cranglas 500, a high silica glass fiber nonwoven, which are currently among Crane’s offerings for filtration applications. “During the past five years, we have broadened our position from that of a supplier of glass and polymeric nonwovens by adding grades using nylon, PVC, PPS and, most recently, fluoropolymer materials,” Mr. Miller explained.

Filtering Out Technology
While traditionally dominated by meltblown, spunbond and wetlaid technologies, the market for nonwovens in filtration has expanded to include a wide range of other technologies such as airlaid and spunlaced. Whether the broadening of this segment can be blamed on the attractiveness of filtration as a growth segment or on the diversity of this market is uncertain, but it has certainly led to increased innovation for nonwovens in this segment.

One company introducing new technology to filtration is PGI Nonwovens, whose Apex technology has enabled it to better respond to demands for better filtration efficiency and fewer bag changes. According to Mr. Lindblom, PGI’s Durapex filtration media replaces needlefelt media in many applications because of its uniformity and reduced pore size as well as its ability to eliminate a number of the disadvantages associated with needlefelt manufacturing. Additionally, PGI’s Aquapex media for wet applications, also made with Apex, is available in weights ranging from 2-5 opsy and shows significant advantages over spunbonded media.

While its Apex technology has undoubtedly been the recipient of much attention in recent years, PGI can produce nonwovens using an array of different technologies and most of these processes have found their way into the filtration segment. Among these are spunbonded, air through bonded thermal bonded, meltblown, SMS, wetlaid and spunlaced.

“PGI has identified filtration as a growth segment in which we would like to participate,” Mr. Lindblom explained. “We have, during the past several years, grown our sales in this area rapidly. We continue to invest aggressively in product development and penetrate existing markets as well as new ones to increase our marketshare. Additionally, PGI’s wide technology base gives us the opportunity to focus on customer needs and the ability to engineer products to meet those existing needs.”

Among these many needs are higher purity, specific performance attributes and better efficiencies, which has helped transform the industry in recent years. Where once users were force to “take what they could get,” meaning they were often left with a sophisticated type of paper for their filtration needs, the emergence of universal standards has raised the bar for media.

“Ten or 20 years ago, filtration was a crude industry and people really took what they could get,” JM’s Mr. Robertson explained. “Now the demands have really expanded, and there is a real need for high performance products in many areas.”

One of the ways in which the consumers’ preference for more efficient filtration media is evident is in the increased demand for MERV 6-12 rated filter media. Where once consumers were content with low-grade filtration media for their personal use, now more than ever they are savvy enough to rate filtration media based on universal standards. The presence of standards and the knowledge of the end user are major influences and some companies have really gone out of their way to educate their consumers. This has led to consumers not only choosing better performing filters but also changing their filters more often. Both of these trends clearly benefit nonwovens.

“Nonwoven filtration media address these issues at a practical level through a great amount of flexibility to meet the specific requirements of each application,” explained Alistair Brown, vice president of marketing for Ahlstrom FiberComposites, Helsinki, Finland. “Not only do nonwovens allow active or passive filtration for specific applications, they also provide a filtration media that can be cost effectively converted for the final filter process.”

Ahlstrom has added several new nonwovens-based filtration product lines including synthetic media for particulate and odor removal as well as composite laminated media for high pressure, fuel injection systems. “Because of our diverse customer base, we are often called upon to develop unique product solutions that can ultimately effect the direction of an entire market segment,” Mr. Brown explained. “By combining different materials into composite structures, the potential applications are greatly extended. This learning goes on to then generating better ideas and solutions in succeeding generations of products.”

Concerns over health issues have also benefitted nonwovens as many companies are looking to replace health-hazardous filtration media with synthetic materials, according to Ulrich Hornfeck, sales director of Sandler, Schwarzenbach/Saale, Germany. Particularly in Europe, filtration manufacturers are extremely experimental in adopting new materials and technologies into their products. “There is a worldwide development in improving filter efficiencies and in creating environmentally friendly and healthy products,” Mr. Hornfeck said.