Full Speed Ahead For Nonwovens

August 17, 2005

auto manufacturers focus on costs, recyclability and lower weights for the future

Oil and carburetor filters, carpets, trunk liners, headliners, door trim pads, seat slip agents, upholstery backing and rear shelf panels. The list goes on and on, but it is clear that nonwovens are found in practically every automobile on the market today. According to research conducted by EDANA, the European Disposables and Nonwovens Association, Brussels, Belgium, cars produced today contain an average of 30 meters of nonwoven material. Most car manufacturers agree that the advantages of nonwovens make them preferred over woven materials. As manufacturers and suppliers look toward the future, they are becoming more aware of several issues, especially in terms of cost, recyclability and weight, that further boost the role of nonwovens in automotives.

Nonwovens are not new to the automotive market; auto manufacturers began using nonwoven-like material in the 1950s for sound and thermal insulation benefits. For example, a shoddy pad was used under floor carpets for cushioning and sound absorption.

“A mastic coated shoddy was often bonded to the firewall as thermal and acoustical insulation material,” said Elwood Trask, vice president of technology at automotive component supplier Gates Formed Fibre Products, Auburn, ME. “Fifty years ago, automobile seats didn’t contain any foam. Typically, a one-inch thick jute pad was used to cover the seat springs, and a three-inch cotton padding covered the jute. The first nonwoven mats were reportedly made from a black coated rayon needlepunched carpet.”

One of the first cars to use nonwoven material, according to Dr. Trask, was the 1975 Cadillac Saville, which featured color-coordinated- needlepunched trunk mats and package trays made by “Ozite” from solution dyed polypropylene fibers. Package trays were added later, to replace painted hard boards. That was then and, ever since, nonwovens have received quite a jump start in the automotive market.

Conforming To Demands
Nonwovens offer a variety of advantages to the automotive industry. Among the most common advantages noted by manufacturers and suppliers are better moldability, appearance versatility, competitive prices and cushioning. “Wovens do not elongate well, and knits tend to want to recover to their original shape. Nonwovens can be molded easily, and they retain that shape without deformation of any type,” said Steven Brown, director of the automotive business unit at roll goods producer Foss Manufacturing, Hampton, NH.

Matthias Schuster, general manager, technical nonwovens for the Automotive Europe Division of Freudenberg Nonwovens, Weinheim, Germany, agreed. “Nonwovens can be given special characteristics. Unlike woven knitted fabrics, these technical characteristics are ideal for linking with design requirements,” he explained.

Cost is a primary factor considered by manufacturers and suppliers in the automotive industry. Since nonwoven material is less expensive than other materials, they are widely preferred in the automotive market, said Richard Kiedish, managing director at roll goods producer Lantor, Lancashire, U.K. “Nonwovens tend to be less expensive, can give more loft and cushioning and are more suitable for composite constructions,” he said. “However, sometimes both nonwovens and wovens are used together to maximize the best features of each.”

But, some feel cost should not be the main motivating factor in the automotive industry. “Sometimes the focus on individual cost components is too high; the effect on the total cost is forgotten or the quality level of the end product is at risk,” said Harry Verbakel, global automotive manager, Colbond Nonwovens, Arnhem, The Netherlands.

Therefore nonwovens manufacturers are challenged to develop less effective products that also meet strict quality and performance standards. This challenge is becoming harder as consumers become more aware of safety and manufacturers become more aware of cost. This situation has been aggravated by lower production levels in the automotive market, which have led to less business for nonwovens producers.

Another growing concern in the automotive industry is safety. Some manufacturers have made cars with higher levels of fire retardancy. Therefore suppliers are faced with the challenge of providing high quality products that perform a variety of roles at low prices. A lot of this is achieved through technology. Executives at roll goods producer Fiber Dynamics, High Point, NC, have witnessed a boom in technological growth during the past five years, within the automotive market.

“Nonwovens technology has really taken over,” said John Carpitella, vice president of industrial sales at Fiber Dynamics. “What gets put into the nonwoven, and what it is made out of is what really determines the price. Manufacturers are always working to produce products that are lighter and thinner and more fire retardant. Fire retardant products are expensive and in higher demand, as auto manufacturers become more aware of their liability in terms of accidents.”

While nonwovens are increasing in importance to automobile makers, the volatile nature of this market can make it tough for nonwovens producers to flourish. Michael Brennan, vice president of sales and marketing, for Eagle Nonwovens, St. Louis, MO, said that a decline in the automotive market has taken its toll on nonwovens suppliers. “During the past year, as automotive production was cut back, the industry’s requirements for a nonwovens have decreased. This has forced producers to lower their prices, thus affecting margins. This is inevitable when nonwovens manufacturers fight to fill excess capacity,” he explained.

Nonwovens producers are also feeling the effects of lower basis weights in the materials they are supplying to the automotive industry. Lighter weights mean lower costs—a good thing for automotive markets, but a bad thing for nonwovens.

“There is always a desire for suppliers to find ways to take cost out by making lighter weight carpet constructions that still meet the OEM performance and aesthetic requirements,” said Scott Shields, engineering manager of advanced overhead systems at Intier Automotive, Magna’s Interiors Company, Newmarket, Ontario, Canada. “It is really about ‘how low can you go.’ Right now we are using almost half the amount of fabric in our headliners to reduce the weight in cars,” he explained.

In other areas of the world, especially in Europe, it seems cost is not always the first thing that comes to mind with manufacturers. There are many different markets, defined by what the consumer likes and dislikes, that determine things like cost and what is put into a car.

“Europe uses products that are much more expensive than what the U.S. uses,” said Fiber Dynamics’ Mr. Carpitella. “In America, the idea is that we must always be must vigilant and provide high quality with low cost. The sophisticated processes used in Europe would not get very far in the U.S.”

Sophisticated processes are not commonly found in the U.S. because most cars are mass produced or streamlined. With mass production comes the task of producing a nonwoven with the lowest cost possible, while still offering a high level of quality.

Another difference between the U.S. and European markets is that European manufacturers tend to offer more product options for automobiles. “In Europe, cars will offer 10 different feature options for a visor alone, whereas the U.S. will offer fewer options, such as whether to have a vanity light or not,” explained Intier’s Mr. Shields. “In North America, there is more involvement with customers whereas, in Europe, consumers are more concerned about appearance. The U.S. strives to be super-efficient.”

While manufacturers in Europe tend to offer more variety to their automotive consumers creating a more diverse market for nonwovens to penetrate—cars in the U.S. still have a lot to offer. Basically, the idea is that as cars become more sophisticated, their parts must also meet high standards to comply with the new innovations to the car as a whole. Since car products are made with nonwovens, this also means that nonwovens are expected to comply with the new demands that are brought on.

Nonwovens Constantly Striving
While nonwovens have long been used in automotives, in recent years the material has made its way into a variety of new areas. Traditional applications include trunk liners, door trim, seat side and back facings, thermal insulation and package shelves, and consumer demand has heralded new uses such as floor carpeting, headliners, wheelwell liners, door panels and insulation, for both sound and protection from possible sharp objects in cars that may rip or rub against foam or other fabrics and cause wear and tear. With so many other places left in the car for nonwovens to conquer, manufacturers have their hands full trying to come up with new ideas for all these applications. For instance, hotter engines have meant that nonwovens must provide increased insulation in cars.

“With more heat comes a buildup; so there will be a push for insulation pads. The hood will be one area requiring insulated pads,” said Fiber Dynamics’ Mr. Carpitella. “Batteries will also have insulation surrounding them to protect heat from damaging them. The battery will be encapsulated in a protective pad package.”

Besides insulation, nonwovens are serving other functions in automotives. For instance, fire retardancy, antibacterial and water repellency are all benefits being offered by new nonwoven materials. Fiber Dynamics recently developed new equipment that allows products to be thermally bonded with different finishes, including fire retardancy, repellency and mold releases to avoid mold growth in the cavity.

A Line Of Their Own
The role of nonwovens in automotives has become so great that some roll goods producers, including Colbond and PGI, North Charleston, SC, have devoted entire product lines to the market. Colbond’s thermal bonded, spunlaid nonwoven, “Colback,” is made from a bicomponent filament with a polyester core and a polyamide sheath. Colback can be used as a backing material for molded carpets and option mats, as well as a support medium for cabin filters. The polyester core allows good mechanical and thermal stability while the polyamide functions as a binder and has good affinity for a variety of coatings and dyestuffs, according to company executives. More commonly found in premium class cars, Colback nonwovens are also used in some mid and lower-end cars.

The nature of the Colback gives auto manufacturers a great deal of flexibility in products. “During processing, Colback can be treated by the interior parts producer, according to the requirements of the application,” Colbond’s Mr. Verbakel explained.

Mr. Verbakel added that products like Colback will help nonwoven materials continue to grow in the automotive market. “The popularity of nonwovens in automotives has shown a healthy average growth of 10% for many years now and is expected to grow in the future,”

Like Colbond, Polymer Group (PGI), North Charleston, SC, offers its own interior fabrics line and has recently launched a new protective car cover material made from the company’s proprietary “Apex” web forming system.

“The ‘Apex’ system of web forming, laser imaging and finishing technology allows fabric designs that were previously off-limits for commercial production,” said Gerald Rumierz, director of PGI’s automotive business. “A major supplier of headliners to the world’s auto makers is working with PGI to create ‘Miratec’ headliners, created by the Apex process.” This process also allows for three-dimensional fabrics, made by the laser transfer of the image.

Miratec headliners offer the typical advantages of nonwovens while adding abrasion-resistant, stain-resistant and flame-retardant benefits to the material. Additionally, auto parts made with Miratec are recyclable. “An all-polyester fabric can be made, which aids in recycling at the end of the headliner’s life cycle,” Mr. Rumierz added.

Also in the spotlight from PGI is “Endura” a lightweight protective cover material, which resists UV rays and contains a microporous membrane designed to transfer water vapor and dust out while keeping the underside ventilated.

While Colbond’s Colback and Miratec are prime examples of how versatile nonwovens can be and how they are tailored for use in most automotive applications, not all companies have a complete line of nonwovens for the automotive industry. Eagle Nonwovens, for example, tends to focus on applications that are more specialized.

“We are focused on niche areas where the applications are technically challenging,” said Mr. Brennan. “Although these areas have not been immune from the woes of the automotive market this year, we believe that these areas hold the best potential for profitability and growth as automobile production gains momentum in the future.”

While Eagle has been successful to date in automotives, most companies that the company works with have experienced significant declines in their felt requirements due to cutbacks at automotive manufacturers, according to Mr. Brennan.

Needlepunch Dominates In Production
Despite cutbacks, one thing has remained the same—the use of needlepunching to produce automotive nonwovens. Although there are a variety of nonwovens technologies used for automotive products, needlepunching remains the preferred choice in producing nonwovens for automotives. Many manufacturers attribute the ability of needlepunching to offer special characteristics that help add to the overall advantages nonwovens offer.

Foss Manufacturing, for instance, relies solely on needlepunching for its auto applications. Foss makes interior trim fabrics as well as engineered fabrics intended for structural enhancement or non-aesthetic applications. Headliners, pillar covers, visors, package trays, parcel shelves, seat backs and sides, spare tire covers, load floor carpets and trunk linings are just some of Foss’ trim fabric placements. Engineered fabric applications include products such as engine hood liners, acoustical felts, fire retardant felts, anti-squeak fabrics and seat stiffeners. Mr. Brown noted that the biggest trend has been toward lower weight and finer denier with a non-fuzzy monochromatic de-lustered appearance. Pile fabrics are trending to lower pile height and the finest denier fiber possible. “Luster is a thing of the past,” Foss’ Mr. Brown added.

As manufacturers are moving away from luster and other luxurious features, more concentration is being placed on keeping cars clean and germ-free. A good example of this trend is the rise of Foss’s “Fosshield” antimicrobial fibers in the automotive industry. These fibers offer durable and permanent resistance to bacteria, mold fungus and mildew, which are all concerns with seating applications.

“With respect to seating, there are two categories of usage: functional and aesthetic,” explained Intier’s Michael Roy, textile engineering specialist for seat systems. “Aesthetic uses include needled carpet for toe bar covers and seat back-of-backs and needled micro-denier fiber ‘synthetic suede’ fabrics. Functional uses include retainers, reinforcements, plus-pad scrims, such as ‘’angel hair,’ and needled nonwoven backings on supported vinyl. “There is renewed interest from North American automotive manufacturers for headliner decorative materials from foam backed knits to nonwovens. Nonwoven decorative materials are used extensively by Japanese and European manufacturers globally.”

Looking Down The Road
Now is a time of transition in the automotive market as the push toward recyclability and lighter weight nonwovens continues. Most manufacturers seem hopeful that the capabilities and advantages of nonwovens will make them versatile enough to mold to the needs of automotive manufacturers; however, nonwovens manufacturers have a variety of predictions for the future.

“The fibers in most nonwovens are made from plastics such as polyester, polypropylene and nylon, which match the other plastic components in the vehicle, and can be recycled in the same manner,” said Gates Formed Fibre Products’ Mr. Trask. “Utilizing similar and compatible polymer systems to simplify recycling is a plus.”

Also discussing recyclability was Lantor’s Mr. Kiedish, who said that recyclability goes hand-in-hand with cost. “When a higher proportion of the vehicle can be recycled, total cost benefits can be recouped,” he explained.

Recycling has become a big issue with cars and this trend will definitely continue to be a primary focus in the future. A pending European Union (EU) law will soon require that a percentage of a car’s material be recyclable, meaning that nonwovens used in cars will have to be recyclable as well. This translates into the use of nonwovens that are recyclable as well. Maurizio Peruzzo Industries, (IMP), Padova, Italy, is one company that has already begun to take steps in this direction. “The 200/53 EU Directive demands the automotive industry is to achieve the recyclability of vehicles up to 80% by 2006 and 85% by 2015,” said Massimo Coro, product manager of Valsystem, IMP’s automotive division. “Nonwovens, felts and waddings must also conform to these requirements. Our company has already begun to take steps, considering the use of different components such as fibers.”

Gates Formed Fibre Products’ Mr. Trask notes that using similar polymer systems will be a benefit with the recycling trend. “Utilizing similar and compatible polymer systems to simplify recycling is a plus.”

With nonwovens being made with lighter weights and recyclability options, many manufacturers have high expectations for the future. “The use of nonwovens will increase as the percentage of textiles used decreases,” said Dr. Trask. “However, an obstacle that has to be overcome is the idea that nonwovens are cheap, low-tech materials. Producers will achieve this by concentrating on quality and product development.”

Yukio Kawasaki, general manager, of Toyobo, Osaka, Japan, also believes improvements will lead to growth for nonwovens. “Factors contributing to their growth and success are their competitive prices and physical properties. It also depends on where nonwovens are applied,” he said.

As roll goods producers continue to make products that fit these demands, certainly nonwovens will continue to penetrate the automotive market.

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