It's A Material World

August 17, 2005

needlepunched manufacturers report positive trends, giving new meaning to the word 'materialistic'

by C.E. Pelc
Associate Editor

Growth. That’s the word from many manufacturers within the needlepunched nonwovens market. Not only has the market already experienced growth throughout past years, it is expected to continue to grow across the board into the future. What specific factors will help make the market grow is in the hands of customers. As interest in low-cost, top quality products is spurring another look at needlepunched nonwovens, new markets will open and already existing sectors will have the chance to expand. “Demand for enhanced performance fabrics will often fall upon needlepunched structures because they are cost-efficient,” explained Robert Seidler, chief operating officer for industry newcomer Eagle Nonwovens, St. Louis, MO. “Consumers want a performance product, but they don’t want to spend more than they have to for it.”

At the same time that new opportunities for growth are emerging, current needlepunch customers are looking for materials with improved quality to meet ever-increasing demands and roll goods producers are being made to answer these requests or risk losing their positioning in the business. “A needlepunched product today cannot be compared to a similar product 10 years ago,” explained Peter Schoffer, sales director for Fehrer AG, Linz, Austria. “The product itself is becoming more sophisticated. There are higher demands for strength, quality, permeability and other physical properties.”

Stephen Foss, chairman and president of Foss Manufacturing, Hampton, NH, agreed, “Every customer is demanding better value and that includes not only price but performance. Customers will not put up with poor quality and they are not going to put up with a supplier that doesn’t help them control their costs to drive profits. Our specifications will continue to get tighter every year and companies that don’t wake up to that are going to have problems. It’s about price and performance, period.”

Machinery Makes It Possible
To meet these demands, roll goods producers turn to needlepunch machinery suppliers for equipment with increased sophistication. This is the story at needle manufacturer Foster Needle, Manitowec, WI, where according to executive vice president John Foster, roll goods producers are asking for higher quality needles of a finer precision and gauge. As the density of the material increases, fibers become finer and needlelooms become faster. “We’re being asked to supply needles that are of a higher consistency, generally finer in gauge and have barbs closer to the point so that throughput speeds can maintain a high level,” Mr. Foster stated. Additionally, the company needs to meet the needs of individual markets, such as geotextiles and home furnishings, with requirements that are becoming more rigorous.

Another needle manufacturer working to meet customer requirements is Groz-Beckert USA, Charlotte, NC. According to area sales and technical service manager Bill Neely, the move toward finer deniers within the automotive industry has driven demand for high quality fine gauge fork needles. “These needles are used in producing structured nonwoven goods for the automotive industry—such as kick panels—where surface appearance is everything,” Mr. Neely said. In addition, Groz-Beckert is also finding that needlepunched roll goods producers are starting to take into consideration the type of quality standards an equipment manufacturer must meet. “We are certified ISO 9001 and if a customer knows that, they will tell General Motors, for example, that they are working with an ISO 9001 machinery manufacturer and we received our parts from them,” said Henry Tio, president of Groz-Beckert. “To them, this means that all the parts are equal all the time because the International Standard Organization set this standard to control the quality of goods produced.”

In the area of needlelooms, meeting customer demands and increasing quality standards has resulted in sales growth for Dilo Inc., Charlotte, NC. According to executive vice president Klaus Maitre, there is a growing need for high technology systems to manufacture sophisticated products for such applications as automotive, floor and wall coverings, structural products and exotic fiber applications—such as “Kevlar,” glass or ceramics. “The classic requirements of customers are going into different product spectrums as they try to promote different product niches that require different equipment availability,” Mr. Maitre said.

Driving The Automotive Market
Of these sophisticated needlepunched markets, the automotive market has been experiencing significant growth due to the volume of car sales over the past few years. According to Bérangère Amestoy, PR & external communications for Thibeau, Tourcoing, France—member of the NSC/Schlumberger Group—an increase in automotive sales over the last two years has resulted in the company installing production lines that run at speeds as high as one ton per hour.

At the same time, new opportunities within the market are promising sales growth for needlepunched nonwovens, especially in the U.S, as these materials continue to take marketshare from other traditional textiles, such as wovens. “I think the move toward using more needlepunched nonwovens in automobiles, as we’ve seen in Europe, will happen in the U.S. eventually,” stated Terry Saunders, president of Georgia Textile Machinery, Dalton, GA, representative for needlepunching machinery producer Shoou Shyng Machinery, Taipei, Taiwan.

One such opportunity is the replacement of tufted floor coverings with needlepunched nonwovens. According to Scott Miller, sales director for Gates Formed-Fibre, Auburn, ME, the use of needlepunched floor coverings in the European and Asian automotive markets is standard and this trend is starting to emerge in the North American market as well. “Manufacturers are beginning to produce needlepunched nonwoven floor coverings in some models, usually lower end models, because it is a less expensive fabric,” he explained. Mr. Miller added that for nonwovens to succeed in this market, they have to meet the same abrasion resistance requirements as tufted carpet. “Needlepunch has to meet those abrasion standards or new standards need to be set because tufted carpet has a higher abrasion resistance,” he stated. “We have to explore new materials that are going to meet those new standards and as we continue to do that, I think the market will continue to open up.”

There is also a drive to use needlepunched nonwovens in other car components, such as sound insulation, flame retardancy and cabin air filtration, as consumers become increasingly aware of environmental issues and upgrading the inside of the car. “The less noise within the interior of a car, the easier it is to hear the motor, so sound dampening becomes more important,” said Wolfgang Riediger, development manager for Lohmann GmbH, Dierdorf, Germany.

In the area of safety, ORV SpA, Padova, Italy, has taken into consideration demands for products that meet certain standards for safety regulations, such as fire retardancy. This, in turn, is a deciding factor in which types of raw materials the company uses. “The worldwide stress on safety has brought ORV to search for products that comply with the latest safety regulations, among which flame retardancy is an important feature,” added Mauro Montello, sales and marketing manager for ORV.

As for the use of needlepunched nonwoven filters inside automobiles, Jerry Turzanski, R&D manager for Troy Mills, Troy, NH, sees this as a general trend, “People right now are more aware of environmental issues and there is more demand for better filtration in the work place, at home and in cars. There are a lot of cars on the road with cabin air filters.”

Filtering For Profit
Speaking of filtration, this is another growing area for needlepunched nonwovens, especially due to increased awareness and concerns over the environment and allergies. According to Mr. Foster of Foster Needle, the U.S. filtration market has seen an increase in needlepunched filters as government regulations become tighter. “We’ve always had a high degree of concern for our workers in dusty environments in this country,” he explained. “Certain OSHA regulations have specifically resulted in an increased use of needlepunched filtration products in certain business segments.”

According to Fehrer’s Mr. Schoffer, this increase in the use of needlepunched filtration media is not only occuring in the U.S. “Filtration is a growing field. There are still a lot of countries that more or less ignore their environmental problems and when they start to catch up, the volume of filtration products could be enormous. I am optimistic for the future that there is very strong growth potential in this area,” he said.

On the topic of allergens and germs, needlepunched roll goods producers also reported increases in the filtration market. Mr. Seidler of Eagle Nonwovens pointed to the home filtration market for air conditioning and furnaces as an area of potential growth as consumers become more aware of removing potentially hazardous substances from their live-in environment. “That is a huge marketplace now beginning to develop,” he stated. “Individuals are more involved and aware of their own personal health and companies are starting to seize this opportunity. Traditional products such as fiberglass are being replaced by all sorts of nonwovens today.”

In The Home Market
Filtration media is not the only application for needlepunched nonwovens in the home; many components of furniture, bedding, floor and wall coverings are made of needlepunched material. As is the case in other markets, there is projected future growth as nonwovens take marketshare from other textiles and find new and creative applications within the market. For example, Synthetic Industries (SI), Chattanooga, TN, has recently launched a line of self-extinguishing fabrics made by needlepunching a fabric using a self-extinguishing fiber. “Customers are looking for products that will help them comply with the increasingly stringent flammability codes,” detailed Mike Long, vice president of the technical textiles group at SI.

According to Mr. Neely of Groz-Beckert, a high growth area in the home furnishing industry is needlepunching woven upholstery fabric to boost strength and stability. Although nonwovens do not have the abrasion resistance offered by wovens for upholstery materials, there remains an opportunity for growth as more needlelooms are being sold into the upholstery industry. “We look at needlepunching as a technology and people are beginning to apply that technology in many different fields,” Mr. Neely said. “These manufacturers at one time didn’t fit INDA’s definition of needlepunching because they didn’t produce a nonwoven roll good, but to us a company that uses needles and a needleloom is a needlepuncher.”

Needlepunch Undercover
Another market that depends on the needlepunching process for strength is the geotextiles, or geosynthetics, market. Although last year the market in the U.S. was struggling due to overcapacity, that problem has resolved itself and now the issue is finding capacity to meet the market’s growth. “There has been overcapacity in the past and some of that has been absorbed,” explained Mike Devlin, vice president general manager for industrial fabrics at Amoco Fabrics and Fibers, Atlanta, GA. “The current players in the market are mostly seasoned geotextile manufacturers and I think that fact is helping the industry as it is generally well-designed and well-marketed product out there, resulting in a growing confidence factor for product in the marketplace.” Mr. Devlin added that the geotextiles market will increase as environmental awareness continues to gain momentum, causing more government intervention and regulation.

It is this increased awareness of the environment that is driving the geotextiles market in Europe, according to Wolfgang Aue, vice president marketing for Polyfelt, Linz, Austria. “There are thousands of landfills in Europe that need to be covered within the next three to five years,” he said. In addition, the formation of the European Union has helped to drive civil engineering and public work development, which before experienced a lack of government funding. Due to this, Mr. Aue predicted a 5% growth for the market and a strong forecast for needlepunched nonwovens, “It’s very clear for Europe, as in the past, that needlepunched nonwovens will play an absolutely dominant role in the geotextiles business.”

Finding A Niche
Many needlepunched nonwovens manufacturers agree that the way of the future is niche markets. This has already been proven to some extent through increasing sales volumes and growth in smaller markets. One example of this trend is Consumer Products Enterprises (CPE), Union, SC, whose current core business is focused on the use of acrylic needlepunched felt for the home sewing and craft industries. According to vice president sales and marketing Paul Inskip, the company’s set-up as a specialty producer has allowed it to take some of that expertise and apply it to larger markets, such as home furnishings, while also concentrating on a less saturated consumer base. “We’ve been able to apply sophisticated technology to some of the consumer products we make and we are having some success translating that across to the industrial and home furnishings products we create,” he explained.

Another company focused on niche opportunities is Tex Tech Industries, North Monmouth, ME, whose niche application markets include tennis ball felt, aerospace and commercial aircraft, hot gas filtration and safety and protective fabrics. “We specifically target niche markets as opposed to broader markets and that’s where we’ve seen all of our growth,” stated Maureen Owen, corporate director of marketing and development. It is this move toward specialty niche products, Ms. Owen believes, that will allow needlepunched nonwovens to grow. “Needlepunched nonwovens will continue, as they have done in the past, to reinvent themselves every few years and play an important part because of companies that don’t settle for the traditional role of needlefelts and continue to go after new markets.”

As for other niche opportunities, Ken Knudsen, vice president sales and marketing for American Nonwovens, Columbus, MS, reported an increase in the use of needlepunched material within the wipes market. “Through our other technologies we have been involved in the wipes market a fair bit and for a number of years needlepunch did not participate,” he said. “Now needlepunch has started to branch out into the wipes market and I think we’ll see even more of it going forward.” Due to the higher weights and prices of needlepunch technology over traditional wipes technologies, such as air laid, Mr. Knudsen sees needlepunched nonwovens being used primarily for higher end specialty wipes.

Pointing Toward The Future
Now that is has been determined that niche markets will play an important role in the future of needlepunched nonwovens, what else will factor in? According to J. Frank Carstens, divisional manager needlepunch for Fibertex A/S, Aalborg, Denmark, the fate of the needlepunch market depends on increasing the knowledge of just what needlepunched nonwovens can do. “Needlepunched nonwovens can form part of many technical solutions in the industrial sector and this opens up new future growth opportunities. The problem is that nonwovens, despite more than 30 years of existence, still remain unknown within many industrial applications,” he said.

For Troy Mills’ Mr. Turzanski, the needlepunch market will continue to grow due to its ability to create a strong product without the use of potentially harmful additives. “Needlepunched nonwovens are a good way to make a tough, strong nonwoven without a lot of chemical additives, so it is fairly clean,” he explained. “I see this as positive for the market, especially with concerns over allergens and consumers having possible allergic reactions.”

As for threats to the industry, Mr. Maitre of Dilo dismissed rumors of hydroentangling possibly taking marketshare away from needlepunch. “If you talk to the machinery manufacturers, they will tell you it’s had a modest increase but it’s nothing to get excited about,” he added. Mr. Foster of Foster Needle agreed, “The amount of proliferation into the needlepunch segment by spunlace has been very negligible so far and that’s the only potential threat to needlepunched nonwovens that we see on the horizon.”

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