Today more than 40 automotive parts are made from nonwoven materials, making the automotive market one of the largest durable markets for nonwovens. Nonwovens can be found in automotive applications starting from the ground up—from tire reinforcements to headliner facings and reinforcements. Nonwovens can be found under the hood, in oil and carburetor filters and battery separators, as well as uses on the opposite end of a car such as trunk liners and trunk floor coverings. Nonwoven fabrics have also found their way into cars’ main cabins in a plethora of uses, including carpet and carpet reinforcements, car mats, covering materials and padding for sun visors, insulation, covering for seat belts and seat belt anchorages and sound proofing, just to name a few.
Despite such inroads in numerous automotive end uses, nonwovens still have to contend with other existing materials—such as wovens and foams—with which car manufacturers and consumers can better identify. However, as nonwovens are beginning to make headway by educating manufacturers and consumers about advantages such as customization, durability and cost-effectiveness, nonwovens are gaining marketshare in areas such as North America and reinforcing their marketplace in the European auto industry. At the same time, nonwovens roll goods producers need to promote their products as superior substitutes to traditional materials, as well as provide solutions to the automotive industry’s ever-changing needs.
“The automotive market is very dynamic and is moving toward different solutions to the issues the industry is facing,” stated Tom Backus, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Cerex Advanced Fabrics, Pensacola, FL. “There will always be an opportunity for nonwovens if the industry is willing to invest the time to understand where the automotive business is headed.” He added that nonwovens must also meet the technological requirements of the car industry, which are becoming more demanding and stringent.
Peter Williams, team co-captain automotive for needlepunch specialist Foss Manufacturing, Hampton, NH, agreed. “Nonwovens of coarser denier and heavier weights have reached their maturity. The future and next generation products are lighter and more cost-effective. If companies stagnate and rely on older technologies and fabrics, the growth will not be there,” he said.
Life Is A Highway
As in any consumer-driven industry, the people who buy and drive cars are clear in communicating exactly what they are looking for. These demands are in turn passed on to suppliers, including roll goods producers. In response to recent consumer demands, nonwovens manufacturers are being asked to supply lighter weight materials at competitive prices to offer a newer-looking option to replace existing materials. “Buyers are more aware of what exists in the market and are becoming specialists in nonwovens,” stated Oriol Roma, export manager for Tefisa (Telas y Fabricados No Tejidos S.A.), Barcelona, Spain. “Every year they ask for better performance at a lower price.”
One such auto manufacturer is DaimlerChrysler Corporation, Auburn Hills, MI, which sees nonwovens as a definite advantage over other materials, especially when cost is a concern. “Nonwovens represent a low cost alternative to many woven and knit systems in use on today’s vehicles,” stated Douglas Peterson, organic materials engineering for DaimlerChrysler. “The cost savings potential for nonwovens in headlining, flooring systems and seating fabric is enormous. Providing they can meet our aesthetic, processing and durability requirements, nonwoven materials represent a cost savings opportunity.”
As auto manufacturers are becoming more knowledgable about nonwovens, some nonwoven suppliers are changing their marketing focus to distinguish their products in an increasingly competitive market. “We focus on performance, reliability or safety as major factors, not price,” detailed Michael Brennan, vice president sales and marketing for Eagle Nonwovens, St. Louis, MO. To meet these goals and grow its marketshare, Eagle concentrates its needlepunching efforts on cabin air filtration, gasketing materials and other technical niches for the automotive field. “The growth areas—and areas with the greatest profit potential—are the technical niches where something besides a cheaper material inspires purchasing.”
At the same time, automotive manufacturers are asking for more than high quality materials from suppliers, according to Michael Long, vice president and general manager for SI Technical Textiles, Chattanooga, TN, making it a challenging segment for nonwovens producers trying to enter the field. “The automotive business is not for any roll goods producer as there is a great deal of R&D work required to ensure that products are self-extinguishing. There are technical issues involved, such as ensuring laboratories test against specifications and control them by lot number. Companies must also keep good records, because that’s part of the car companies’ Tier One standards. It’s competitive, but there are also several hurdles you have to jump through to be a supplier.”
Although roll goods producers have already been working for some time on meeting demands from consumers and automotive makers and have launched products to prove it, some producers contend that more still needs to be done in these areas and expect nonwovens to lead the way. “We’re going to see nonwovens become very important to the cost targets of our customer as their performance at lower weights is going to play a role in fuel economy,” explained William Casey, president of Freudenberg Vitech LP, Lowell, MA. “From a safety standpoint, car manufacturers will continue to work on the safety of cars and nonwovens will continue to be a tool that will enable the design engineers to bring their designs from paper to the real world.”
Although certain attributes such as safety, comfort and cost are common customer demands across the board, other attributes such as recyclability show how segmented the automotive industry is on a global scale. On the European front, for instance, a law has recently been passed by the European Union that allows buyers of model 2000 and older cars to return them to the manufacturer after they have reached a certain age. Partially due to this legislation, recyclability has become a major issue in the European market, resulting in the need for biodegradable nonwovens that include no hard-to-recycle materials, such as mineral, glass fibers or foam.
According to Detlev Käppel, managing director of eswegee Vliesstoffe GmbH, Hof, Germany, OEMs are looking to create systems that are easy to recycle, including using nonwovens as foam replacement in car seat and door panel applications. Additionally, Mr. Käppel said that while North American car manufacturers will use a good deal of mineral fibers, such as glass, in their products, European makers have totally removed the use of these types of fibers as they consider them harmful and hard to recycle. Because of the recent mergers of large European and North American companies into multinational companies—such as DaimlerChrysler—Mr. Käppel anticipates that many of Europe’s quality improvements will be adopted in North America. “This recent government regulation will really speed up some developments where nonwovens might be useful in the future,” he commented.
Similar sentiments were offered by Michael Kröner, sales and marketing manager for Lohmann GmbH & Co., Dierdorf, Germany, who predicted that the amount of nonwovens found within automobiles will increase as North America begins to adopt certain European predilections. “It’s a bit different in the U.S. compared to Europe because tastes are different, but I think the U.S. trend towards using nonwovens is moving toward the European trend,” he explained. “North America still uses a lot of films, vinyl films and PVC materials in the interior and I see some of those films being replaced by nonwovens in parts of the car where they are not being used right now, such as the dashboard. They cost more money, but consumers tend to pay more money if it makes them feel better about the product.”
For its part, North America has slowly adopted some of the trends from the other side of the Atlantic, according to North American roll goods producers. One such movement is the removal of fiberglass from auto production, according to Gerald Rumierz, director of automotive business for the Polymer Group Inc. (PGI), Dayton, NJ. “Fiberglass is a very good and cost-effective reinforcement material and a goal for a nonwovens producer would be to produce a purely synthetic type of performance reinforcement,” he stated. Mr. Rumierz added that automotive manufacturer General Motors, Detroit, MI, is leading the way in North America by pushing toward a fiberglass-free component for its cars.
As for other geographic areas of the world, most roll goods manufacturers are seeing South America and Asia as holding the largest future growth opportunities for nonwovens. On the South American end, at Filzfabrik Fulda GmbH & Co., Fulda, Germany, the company’s needlepunched and felted products are now taking on a more global approach. “Thanks to globalization, some of our customers are in Latin America as well as various countries within Europe,” detailed J. Shuttleworth of export-technical applications. Foss’ Mr. Williams also sees South America as an area for growth, “We see more and more production of vehicles and parts suppliers moving farther South and Mexico is a major growth area,” he said.
As for the Far East, most nonwovens producers describe this as an area still in the throes of an economic recession. Although reduced production levels are being reported within Asia, some of this production has reportedly moved to North America’s shores. According to Freudenberg Vitech’s Mr. Casey, Japan is an example of a similar trend. “Japan has seen several years of recession and that has significantly reduced the number of vehicles produced in Asia,” he explained. “The North American area has been the beneficiary of that—there have been more Japanese transplanted cars as more Japanese cars are made here than they were in the past.”
Lohmann’s Mr. Kröner added his thoughts concerning the Asian market. “The Asian market is going to recover very soon. Just look at China—General Motors is investing heavily into China and the demand for automobiles, due to its population size, is endless,” he stated.
Running The Competition Off The Road
Not only do manufacturing standards differ based on geographic positioning, there are also differences concerning the way nonwovens are utilized in different areas of the car versus other materials. As is the case with standardization, European manufacturers are again leading the way in adopting more nonwovens while North American producers are beginning to follow suit. One producer agreeing with this idea is needlepunch manufacturer Clark Cutler McDermott (CCM), Franklin, MA, whose company has reported an increase in its use of nonwovens in carpeting in areas of the world other than Europe. “European cars tend to have a taste for nonwovens,” stated CCM’s vice president of marketing Richard Mann. “In Italy and other countries, headliners have been made from needlepunched and other types of nonwovens for quite a while now. More has been done in Europe than North America, but there has been increasing interest because the manufacturers running the U.S. automotive companies are often from Europe. These trends are going to continue to circulate throughout the rest of the world.”
According to Barrie Crabtree, automotive business manager for needlepunch headliner manufacturer Cosmopolitan Textile, Cheshire, U.K., North America is beginning to generate a good deal of business for nonwovens in the headliner area, with additional opportunities for growth being seen in automotive carpeting applications. “The market for nonwovens in automotive applications is mature in Europe and Asia and is becoming the same in North America in the headliner area, particularly with the number of programs planned for nonwovens in that area over the next two to three years,” Mr. Crabtree detailed. “The largest growth market in North America is in automotive floor carpeting.”
Lee Sullivan, global manager, Tuft Division for Freudenberg Nonwovens Group, Weinheim, Germany, also commented on substantial growth opportunities for nonwovens in the North American carpeting market. According to Mr. Sullivan, the use of nonwoven carpets in the passenger compartment floor has found success in Asia and Europe, where the share is approximately 50/50 with tufted floor carpets, while in North America, needlepunched carpets are in less than 1% of cars due to styling issues and the high requirement for fiber loss in North American auto carpets. “The use of carpeting—both needlepunched and tufted—continues to grow at a higher rate than the growth of the automotive build rate, due to a shift in mix to larger automobiles and the fact that more surfaces in the passenger compartment are recquiring textile finishes,” Mr. Sullivan assessed. “The availability of higher quality needlepunched nonwovens will likely accelerate this trend, but it is unlikely that there will be a shift in North America away from tufted carpets, due to styling preferences.” He also pointed to a continuous global shift back and forth in the ratio of needlepunched nonwovens versus tufted carpets and suggested a correlation between the use of tufted carpets in higher end vehicles and needlepunched nonwovens in lower end cars.
Another automotive end use witnessing a shift from woven to nonwoven can be found inside the seats, according to Mr. Long of SI Technical Textiles. “There’s plenty of growth opportunity for suppliers in the automotive business. Certain flooring areas are switching over as well as some hidden areas such as seat components and decking material,” he added.
Follow The Leader
As automotive market trends continue to move from one area of the world to another, some North American manufacturers are benefitting from the adoption of product ideas borrowed from their European counterparts. One such area is cabin air filtration, which began in Germany in 1989 through an introduction by Freudenberg that was later introduced to North Americain 1994, according to Brian Thompson, vice president and general manager for the Filtration Division of Freudenberg Vitech. “Since its introduction, this trend has grown tremendously and as of today, more than 35% of the automobiles produced in North America are equipped with cabin air filters,” he added. Mr. Thompson went on to mention that the growth of the market can not only be measured by increased automotive installations of cabin air filters but also in the increased demand for new technologies to improve the air quality for passenger compartments, such as odor filtration. “Due to increased demand for passenger comfort, health and safety, the removal of odors and harmful gases has become a key factor in the design of new generation products with combination filters that provide both particulate and odor filtration,” he added.
Speaking of new generations of cabin air filters, one company leading the way in filtration media for cabin air applications is All Felt Products, Ingleside, IL, through its patented electrostatically-charged filtration media. “The advantage of the product is high efficiency with low resistance to air flow,” said Edward Hoel, president of All Felt. “In the automotive industry, manufacturers want to keep everything as small and light as they can and therefore they’ve been able to design filters that don’t require large motors or large rollers to move the air. We see cabin air as the largest growth area in the automotive filtration market.”
Mr. Brennan of Eagle Nonwovens also pointed to growth potential in air cabin filtration due to emerging interest from both the government and consumers on the topic of air purity. “We expect cabin air filtration to experience tremendous growth and we are focusing a considerable amount of attention to it. There is increasing awareness with regard to air quality among consumers. Additionally, government regulations and standards play a major role in stimulating growth in areas where performance or safety are of paramount importance. We expect this niche area to be highly profitable for needlepunch and other technologies,” he concluded.
On the topic of growth opportunities for nonwovens, one area starting to receive considerable attention both in North America and abroad is sound insulation. PGI has recently launched a new headliner face fabric made of its proprietary “Miratec” technology through a partnership with automotive seat and interior manufacturer Johnson Controls, Milwaukee, WI. Additionally, PGI will assist Johnson in producing various fabrics for vehicle interior applications that provide visual, structural and possibly sound insulation performance. “If you can not only provide structural performance but also acoustical attributes you are definitely going to have a valued product,” commented PGI’s Mr. Rumierz. He went on to explain the problem that needs to be resolved in this area is that some nonwovens in certain applications are too board-like and are negative for acoustic situations because they bounce sound rather than absorb it. “Producers need to make a nonwoven that has both strength and an ability to absorb or pass sound,” Mr. Rumierz added.
Mr. Käppel of eswegee also pointed to potential growth in the North American market in acoustic applications, due to the mergers of major European and North American companies. “Because of the mergers, a lot of new acoustical systems are coming to North America. As they build new cars, they are taking the bass system that they know from Europe as a stepping stone for other developments in North America,” he explained.
One Way To The Future
Looking ahead, the future of nonwovens in automotive applications seems bright, especially as new areas of interest evolve through product innovation and technology developments. According to Mr. Backus of Cerex, there are still a good number of areas that nonwovens have yet to penetrate, such as seating face fabric and air bag cushions. “What we need to work on as an industry is providing the automotive business the quality fabric it is receiving from wovens, which is not easy to accomplish,” he continued. “What’s so exciting about the automotive industry is that the sectors that are driving cost and performance can work to our advantage over wovens if we are smart enough and prudent to invest in the right technologies to meet those criteria. And it’s not just today’s criteria, but also tomorrow’s criteria, which is sometimes more difficult to quantify and identify.” Additionally, Mr. Backus pointed to composites as a way of gaining marketshare through the competitive advantage of having the flexibility to meet the ever-changing needs of the auto market as it refines and defines performance criteria.
Mr. Mann of CCM also discussed growth possibilities through the advent of new technologies. “We see more interiors being made from nonwovens,” he stated. Additionally, Mr. Mann commented on the integration of parts brought to the assembly line as another future growth area. “The assembly line will be faster and cleaner in operation and even small providers of automotive parts will have to integrate parts themselves and go deeper into engineering,” he added.
All in all, roll goods producers agree that nonwovens will play a key role in the automotive market and through time, product and process developments and customer demands, this role will grow substantially. “Nonwovens are a great toolbox for manufacturers to be able to balance cost and performance,” PGI’s Mr. Rumierz summed up. “Certainly the use of nonwovens helps cars to be made lighter and as new fabrication systems come along, nonwovens are going to be one of the tools that will be there from the ground up by being part of the solution from the beginning.”