Heading Down the Highway

August 17, 2005

a look at nonwovens’ role in transportation

Among the consumer segments hardest hit by economic conditions, the automotives industry depends largely on disposable income levels. Clearly stated, the frequency of consumers’ car purchases largely depend on their economic situations—a person with extra money tends to buy a new car more often than someone with a tighter budget. Naturally, in leaner economic times, there are fewer consumers with extra padding in their budgets, and consequently fewer news cars are purchased.

While this fact might seem cut and dried, the psychology behind automotive purchases and preferences make this an extremely complicated market, which is difficult to predict. Consumers, particularly Americans, love their cars, and many feel that the car they drive tells the world something about themselves. For instance, a mini-van or station wagon denotes a soccer mom while a sports utility vehicle signifies a person interested in sports and the outdoors. Meanwhile, a luxury sedan might be associated with an middle aged man and an economy car is often preferred by a younger driver who cannot afford a more stylish vehicle. Therefore, cars can represent a driver’s age, sex, tax bracket and even his hobbies, making the automotives market extremely complicated.

Therefore, many automotives manufacturers are working to tighten margins and reduce costs to be able to offer consumers what they want at the prices they can afford. This is being achieved through a variety of measures—reduced overheads, tighter margins and replacement of raw materials and components with less expensive alternatives. And, the ability of nonwovens to provide a wide range of attributes at reasonable costs have allowed them to benefit from these cost saving measures.

Currently, more than 40 automotive parts are made from nonwovens, making automotives one of the largest and most diverse areas for nonwovens. Nonwovens provide a variety of functions in automobiles including passenger comfort, noise abatement and engine and interior filtration. In fact, nonwovens are found under the hood, in the trunk and in the main cabin of automobiles in applications ranging from head and trunk liners, carpet underpaddings and seat upholstery to coverings and sound absorption devices in wheel wells. In many areas, nonwovens have given automotive original equipment manufacturers a means to cut costs without sacrificing customer comfort or, more importantly, safety issues. This has allowed nonwoven materials to compete directly with other materials, such as wovens, fiberglass and foams, used in the automotives industry, and as nonwovens manufacturers continue to educate auto makers about advantages including customization, durability and cost effectiveness, nonwovens should expand their role in the global nonwovens industry.

“Nonwovens provide excellent end use performance while offering cost/ performance advantages over traditional knit and woven fabrics,” explained Gerald Rumierz director of the automotives business at PGI Nonwovens, North Charleston, SC.

As cost-effective alternatives to other materials in the automotives industry, nonwovens are not exempt from pricing pressures. As margins are tightened, nonwovens manufacturers doing business in the automotives segment are constantly squeezing their margins, as well, to fend off competition from other nonwovens producers. “There has been considerable pricing pressures even as volumes have decreased,” explained Michael Brennan of needlepunch manufacturer Eagle Nonwovens, St. Louis, MO. “Some nonwovens firms have even refocused their efforts in areas outside of the automotive field or been forced out completely, yet the competition for the remaining volume has remained intense. The price elasticity of demand for automotive nonwovens has been adversely affected but lean, cost efficient suppliers are still finding success in the industry.”

The Economical Choice
With the economy in a funk, the issue of cost has become more important than ever before in automotives. Not only is competition at an all-time high in the value car market, drivers are also demanding more quality and durability from lower priced cars. Today’s purchaser of a car priced in the lower ranges still expects the vehicle to have certain attributes. These include comfort, safety, durability, longevity and, to some degree, style. Likewise, manufacturers do not want to cut too many corners on lower priced vehicles because their reputations are at stake.

For instance, an executive at DaimlerChrysler, said that customers of the lower priced Dodge Neon cars are still critical to flaws in their vehicles even though the car is priced moderately. Because the Neon is an important staple of DaimlerChrysler’s Dodge brand, quality is not immolated. “We cannot sacrifice the performance of our systems just because we are selling into a different price bracket,” he explained.

In an effort to lure customers, many auto makers today are offering generous warranty packages, protecting the vehicles for as many as 100,000 miles. Therefore, manufacturers have more at stake than their reputations if their cars do not stand up to consumer demands. Where once American-made cars seldom had projected lifespans exceeding 100,000 miles, today’s cars are expected to last well beyond the 100,000 mile mark. Naturally, the increased longevity of the typical automobile has put greater demands on interior parts tjat must support passengers for more miles of driving and riding than ever before. Furthermore, the increased life of today’s vehicles have tightened margins as consumers are purchasing cars less frequently.

“Due to cost reduction efforts, nonwovens have the opportunity to take the cost out of value-added materials such as acoustical and thermal applications that consumers crave and necessary components such as headliners and carpeting that consumers expect,” the DaimlerChrysler executive explained.

To capitalize on this opportunity, however, nonwovens manufacturers need to provide plush, durable materials that mimic wovens, something that U.S. automotives manufacturers have not broadly seen in the past, according to executives. However, this seems to be changing as nonwoven materials are being produced with better hand, increased tensile strength and greater similarities to wovens. This has helped nonwovens’ expansion in the automotives industry which started in composite laminates for structural components and led to use as facing fabrics in the main cabin, according to executives.

“In facing fabrics, nonwovens provide excellent end use performance while offering cost and performance advantages over traditional knit and woven fabrics,” PGI’s Mr. Rumierz explained. “PGI’s Miratec fabrics have demonstrated superior molding performance over a wide range of substrate systems. Color, uniformity, fading, abrasion and other key metrics have been engineered to meet or exceed current standards.”

In Step With Tradition
Among the automotive components presently offering the greatest potential for nonwovens are headliners and other areas where the loftiness of nonwovens eliminate the need for foam cushioning. While many of the more traditional applications for nonwovens are fairly saturated, nonwovens producers still consider automotives a growing segment. “The nonwovens segment in automotives is growing faster than the automotives segment as a whole,” explained Edward Cerney, regional vice president of tufts for Freudenberg Nonwovens, Durham, NC.

Through its tufts division, Freudenberg provides spunbond polyester used as a primary or secondary carpet backings for automotive interiors. While this application is nearly 100% dominated by nonwovens, the company remains bullish about the potential for nonwovens to grow in automotives. Other applications of interest to the company include interior filtration devices, headliner facing, tray facing and structural materials for molded parts. “Typically we compete in areas requiring highly engineered designs or in areas where quality and appearance are critical,” explained James Frasch, vice president of the technical division of North America for Freudenberg Nonwovens.

According to automotive OEMs, nonwovens have a long history of success in parts of the car not typically noticed by consumers such as headliners, trunks and filtration devices. While these mature applications continue to be vital to nonwovens manufacturers, growth opportunities are limited. Therefore, manufacturers are moving to new areas of the automobile in an effort to further expand the role of nonwovens in automotives. In fact, some automobiles manufactured today contain as many as 40-50 pounds of nonwovens. When comparing the price of foam and wovens to nonwovens, the incorporation of more nonwovens into vehicles can dramatically reduce the manufacturing cost of each car. “Automotive manufacturers are looking to take every penny out of production,” explained Steven Brown, director of the automotive manufacturing unit at Foss Manufacturing, Hampton, NH. “Manufacturers today are using needlepunch in areas they would not have even considered it a couple of years ago.”

When deciding which type of material to use in their interiors, automotive makers choose from a large pool of material choices including wovens and nonwovens in all types of colors, styles and grades. These choices are narrowed by the vehicle’s initial target demographic because certain styles are preferred by different vehicle types based on what the manufacturer is trying to achieve. “The materials are driven by the vehicles—the teams give us instructions on what the vehicle needs and what it is expected to achieve,” explained Mary Dovell, materials engineer at Honda America. “We are always looking for a new material.”

Among the more traditional applications for nonwovens in automotives are door panels and trunk liners.
While nonwovens have traditionally been avoided in certain applications due to lack of durability and other concerns, interest in nonwovens has been increasing because of their ability to reduce costs. For instance, the most economical version of the 2001 Honda Civic contains a needlepunched carpeting in some of its models, marking the first time the company has implemented such a measure in North America. “I would like to see more nonwovens truly replicating the look of a knit,” Ms. Dovell explained. “They are getting there. I’ve already seen a lot of nice patterns.”

Creature Comforts
While the role of nonwovens has certainly been one of cost savings in the automotives industry, they have also played the part of a luxury element in some cases. These are the areas where nonwovens enhance the automobile in a way not available from other materials. For instance, the Lexus ES 300 sedan features throw-in floormats that contain a layer of nonwoven material sandwiched between the woven outercoverings. Here, the purpose of then nonwoven is to provide sound absorption in the mats, which reportedly cost $300 per set.

“In smaller, less expensive cars purchases are driven by the sticker prices and the mileage per gallons, and here the role of nonwovens is to bring production costs down,” Freudenberg’s Mr. Cerney explained. “Whereas, in larger vehicles, or more luxury-style cars, purchasing is driven by extra options. In this segment, the opportunities for nonwovens are not driven by cost savings.”

Another nonwovens end use designed to make the driving experience more enjoyable is as abatement devices in tire wells. Because more than 40% of cabin noise is generated by tires, this application drastically reduces the amount of noise in the cabin. In fact, the increasing interest in reducing noise in automotive interiors has contributed to a two-fold success for nonwovens. For one, nonwovens have been replacing fiberglass in existing noise abatement applications because of the materials’ ability to be environmentally friendly and cost efficient. Additionally, nonwovens are penetrating new areas of noise abatement formerly not possible in automotives thanks to new technology and product development.

“Nonwovens have really come a long way,” explained Gregory Gabrel, general manager of Innotherm, a Hickory Springs, NC-based producer of thermal bonded nonwovens. “Ten years ago, nonwovens in automotives comprised a lot of shoddy material but now we are actually engineering nonwoven products to meet specific applications. Automotive manufacturers are coming to us with specific problems, and we are attacking these problems with specific products.”

Another attribute of nonwovens that has led to success in automotives is moldability. The ability of nonwovens to mold into extremely specific shapes, such as door panels, engine crevices and tire wells allow manufacturers to increase sound absorbency without altering the design of their vehicles, which is important in this market where consumers make their purchasing decisions based largely on the look and feel of the car and take things like a smooth and quiet ride for granted. “Customers equate quiet with quality,” explained Stanley Gillet, Innotherm’s national sales and marketing manager. “Consumers tend to expect that a quality vehicle is quiet and smooth. Nonwovens can help to achieve this.”

Speaking of adding benefits, roll goods producer Sandler Nonwovens, Schwarzenbach/Saale, Germany, has several products aimed at automotives. Its sawasorb absorbers for automotives are made from 100% polyester fibers, which are structured to provide excellent acoustical characteristics. Additional attributes that are clearly prime for automotives include moisture resistance and ability to withstand rot. Sandler’s thermal bonded sawaform product also comprises 100% polyester. Designed to provide acoustics in interior applications such as door panels, sawaform is fungus and germ resistant, flame retardant and recyclable.

The features of sawaform not only address concerns of consumer comfort, they are also in step with pending government regulations that will affect the automotives industry in upcoming years. Amidst concerns of driver safety, the government has sharpened its focus on flame retardancy in several areas, chief among them home furnishing and automotives. The ability of nonwovens to use flame retardant fibers or to be treated with flame retardant benefits are expected to lead to growth in the segment, as nonwovens are able to provide flame retardancy benefits without driving prices sky high.

Moving from customer safety to Earth friendliness, parts recyclability has become an interest for automotive manufacturers who are facing legislation requiring all European cars to be 100% recyclable by 2005. Naturally, manufacturers, particularly in Europe, are examining parts made with nonwovens as a possible means to achieve this goal.

As the automotives industry faces challenges as diverse as environmental friendliness, economic downturns, driver preferences and government regulations, nonwovens manufacturers will continue to look for ways to help them succeed. Already, industry observers have seen increased reliance on nonwovens in foreign markets such as Europe and Japan, where customers do not demand as much luxury from their vehicles. Surely, this will continue in these markets and rev up in the U.S., as nonwovens producers create the right combination of luxury, durability, style and price in their products.

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