Much Ado About Airlaids

August 17, 2005

why is everyone talking about this technology?

There’s no doubt about it. It’s been quite a year for airlaids. Not only is this technology being boosted by new capacity expansions and new producers nearly every month, new product applications using airlaid materials are appearing all over the place to absorb all of this new capacity. Where once airlaid nonwovens were simply seen as a specialized form of paper, they are now being recognized for their absorbency and delivery benefits as well as their dimensional stability and pulpability benefits and are finding application in end uses ranging from filtration to wipes to absorbent products.

“A realization that the technology can make more than just a ‘better paper’ has caused all of this interest in airlaids,” remarked industry consultant Ivan Pivko, president of Notabene Consultants, Longboat Key, FL.

In the last 12 months the worldwide capacity for airlaid materials has nearly doubled as major producers, Buckeye Technologies, Memphis, TN, and Concert Industries, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, significantly increased their production capabilities and other key players, such as BBA Nonwovens, London, U.K., entered the market. What is attracting all this attention to airlaids? The answer varies depending on whom you ask, but most will say the material’s ability to provide compact absorbent cores makes its future in the disposable baby diaper market inevitable.

“The willingness of Johnson & Johnson, Skillman, NJ, Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, OH, Kimberly-Clark, Dallas, TX, and SCA, Stockholm, Sweden, to use airlaids in the personal hygiene core is what has driven all of these changes,” Mr. Pivko said. “The advances in superabsorbents and bicomponent chemistry and availability through expansions of capacity helped airlaid makers engineer the new attractive structures. This will continue, as the use of airlaid—particularly in personal hygiene —is irreversible.”

In addition to absorbent cores in hygiene products, airlaid materials are finding myriad other uses including food packaging and disposable wiping cloths. Airlaid’s role in food packaging has received a boost from Food and Drug Administration’s recent approval of superabsorbent polymers for use in contact with food, and airlaid materials, coated with SAPs, have been replacing wood pulp in the food soaker pads found in meat and poultry packaging. In terms of wiping applications, the recent proliferation of nonwovens wipes beyond the baby wipes market has been beneficial to airlaid materials. These fabrics are found in wipes used for household cleaning, industrial uses and personal care applications.

photo courtesy of Rayonier

Along Came Airlaid
One company leading the airlaid explosion is Buckeye Technologies which recently completed construction on what is reportedly the world’s largest airlaid machine. Boasting 50,000 tons of airlaid material annually, the new machine brings Buckeye’s total capacity to 135,000 tons and reaffirms the company’s position as the largest producer of airlaid nonwovens in the world. “We see airlaid technology as a flexible technology that delivers high performance material for many applications,” said Kris Matula, senior vice president, nonwovens. “It is thin and it can manage the flow of liquids in materials. These are things consumers are looking for.”

Not only does the new capacity significantly enlarge Buckeye’s production levels, it also allows it to produce material more cost effectively. It takes the same number of operators to run a typical line with 12,000 tons of capacity as it does to run this “supermachine.”

While Buckeye is reportedly targeting most of this capacity at the wipes market and other household products, it is also focusing on san pro and other hygiene markets. “The wipes area has become much broader and airlaids provide a soft, spongier feel in these applications,” Mr. Matula said. “This is preferred in the North American market.”

Additionally, airlaid materials are to some degree replacing spunlaced materials, which provide a slicker feel, in wiping applications because they are less expensive. In fact manufacturers are incorporating new technology into airlaid materials to give them similar characteristics to spunlace, according to Mr. Matula.

Following closely behind Buckeye is Concert Industries, which recently installed a second airlaid line in Falkenhagen, Germany and opened a new facility in Gatineau, Quebec with two airlaid lines. The addition of this new capacity has brought Concert’s annual production capacity to 83,000 tons. This new capacity, along with Concert’s acquisition last year of airlaid producer ACI, Charleston, SC, has diversified Concert’s technology offerings allowing the company to penetrate a wide range of end use markets, according to company executives.

Another key development in the airlaid market is the entry of the third largest roll goods producer in the world, BBA Nonwovens, into the market. BBA recently constructed its first airlaid line at a new plant in Tianjin, China.

“In Asia-Pacific it was always our vision to be a one-stop supplier of nonwovens and other materials for the industry,” said Robert Rufli, president BBA Nonwovens, Asia-Pacific. “This vision was possible by the support of all the nonwovens factories of BBA Nonwovens worldwide. We believe that a raw material supplier has to understand the totality of a finished product. By entering into airlaid materials, we enter the core and better understand and serve the customers. We also believe in composites and advanced design concepts. Airlaid fits well into this.”

BBA will initially focus its efforts on producing absorbent cores for the feminine hygiene market, according to Mr. Rufli. These efforts will be followed by concentration on the wipes and food packaging industries.

Looking toward South America, interest in airlaid materials has even reached this developing regions, according to Miguel Fernandez, production manager of Softbond S.A., a division of Airlaid Corporacion Industrial S.A., Pilar, Argentina, an airlaid producer with a capacity of 4000 tons per year.

“Our main end uses are wet and dry wipes and feminine care products, for the markets in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil,” said. “We would describe the South American market as ‘in development’ and there is a slow but continuous change from other raw materials to airlaid. These applications were not possible in the past due to high airlaid price, high freight costs, tax costs, but now the trend is to use similar materials to the ones used in Europe and the U.S.”

Straight To The Core
While the disposable wipes and food packaging industries are certainly viable growth areas for airlaid producers, they are commodity markets that do not command as high prices as absorbent items. This has led many airlaid manufacturers to eye absorbent hygiene markets, such as feminine hygiene, adult incontinence and baby diapers, for their products. Already, feminine hygiene manufacturers have shifted their production lines to accommodate airlaid cores, which has led to thinner, more absorbent products and resulted in greater consumer comfort.

While the move toward airlaid in the feminine hygiene market has certainly meant big things for airlaid markets, it is generally accepted that the airlaid diaper core is the holy grail of this industry. The size and scope of the diaper market would mean greater consumption of airlaid materials and many producers are now targeting diaper manufacturers in an effort to get them to make the shift. Already some smaller diaper manufacturers are producing airlaid cores, but for the larger manufacturers, the change would mean a total reconfiguration of their production equipment, a shift that airlaid producers argue is worth the investment.

“The expectation is that we have an airlaid material that can meet both performance and cost expectations for the diaper market,” said Don Young, Rayonier Performance Fibers, Jesup, GA. “We’ve done our homework and believe we can deliver a product to diaper manufacturers that maintains or reduces their current costs.”

Rayonier made the shift from pulp producer to airlaid producer three years ago when it began producing “NovaThin” absorbent cores, which have been well accepted by feminine hygiene producers, according to Mr. Young. The next step for the product, according to company executives, will be integration into disposable diaper cores and adult incontinence products.

“We are seeing interest in adult incontinence and baby diaper applications,” Mr. Young said.

Mr. Young added that Rayonier’s success with NovaThin has largely been the result of its existing knowledge of the absorbent hygiene market, which was cultivated during its long history as a fluff pulp supplier. “We have taken the market knowledge we had and used it to build a team and a position in the absorbent core market,” Mr. Young said.

Foremost among the advantages of the airlaid baby diaper core is its compact size, which not only increases the baby’s comfort but also decreases the shelf space needed for retailers to display their products. “The airlaid baby diaper is half the size of a traditional diaper,” said Alexander Maksimow, president and CEO of airlaid producer McAirlaid’s Vliesstoffe, Steinfurt, Germany. “It’s more comfortable for the baby, easier for mothers to carry, easier for suppliers to transport and better for the environment. Everyone is looking at this very closely and until now it has been a global supply situation.”

McAirlaid’s began producing airlaid materials in 1999 and now operates one line at its Steinfurt facility. As for expansion plans, Mr. Maksimow said this will depend on market conditions. “So far the situation in Europe hasn’t been bad at all,” he said. “Basically all airlaid producers are in a good position, and we’ve been seeing a great deal of growth for the last decade or so. This small downturn of the past 12 months really means nothing in the long run.”

The tens of thousands of tons of new capacity will certainly open the door for the global leaders in the diaper industry to incorporate an airlaid core into their products—if this is what they choose to do. Already, airlaid cores are reportedly used in swim diaper products by national brands.

The big challenge among airlaid producers as well as end use manufacturers in the hygiene market will be educating consumers to the merits of a thinner material in absorbent products. This goal has already been achieved in feminine hygiene products with women now trusting thinner pads to absorb their menstrual flows. Now the challenge remains in the adult incontinence and baby diaper markets where producers need to prove that thinner airlaid cores can, in fact, handle urinary flow.

Wiping Up Sales
While the airlaid material that goes into wiping products is less expensive than absorbent core materials, and hence a commodity item for most producers, this market has not been ignored by manufacturers. Of particular interest is the wet toilet paper products now being launched by several large consumer product companies. Kimberly-Clark, Dallas, TX, was the first company to announce such an initiative when it developed “Cottonelle Fresh” rollwipes, premoistened toilet paper on a roll, which is being heralded as the biggest innovation to hit toilet paper since its was put on a roll in the early 1900s. This product is made of a water dispersible airlaid nonwoven and moistened with a solution containing cosmetic ingredients. Airlaid manufacturers are closely watching this product, which is protected by 14 patents, because its success could mean a whole new category for airlaid nonwovens to penetrate.

One harbinger of the success of wet toilet paper is K-C’s competitors’ rush to compete. Procter & Gamble has already reportedly purchased a similar product that will be launched under its “Charmin” brand and Georgia Pacific, Green Bay, WI, the new owner of Fort James’ airlaid operations, offers a similar product contained in a tub.

Speaking of Georgia-Pacific, the company has been exploring ways to best capitalize on its airlaid business since acquiring the operation last year, according to senior sales representative Tom Kalupa. With 85% of its capacity being consumed internally by the company’s toilet and tissue operations, G-P will undoubtedly remain a strong force in the business.

A Machinist’s Point Of View
Airlaid technology finds its roots in Denmark where it was developed by machinery and equipment suppliers M&J Fibretech, Horsens, Denmark, and Dane-Webforming International, Risskov, Denmark. In recent years, other machinery and equipment manufacturers have developed airlaid forming lines and some roll goods producers have custom built their own machines, but these two companies, these two companies are recognized in the industry as the pioneers of airlaid technology.

While some companies, like Buckeye, after they acquired Walkisoft, have been engineering and developing their own machines, most airlaid producers are still depending on the expertise of machinery and equipment suppliers. “Most people have realized that a project for a complete airlaid plant requires more than 20,000 engineering hours combined with extensive trials in order to come up with the correct design of the equipment,” said Jesper Dobel, general manager of Dan-Webforming said. “Additionally, a high number of patents held by the technology suppliers also protect their intellectual properties.”

With a strong background in the airlaid market through his experience at both Dan-Webforming and M&J Fibretech, Mr. Dobel has witnessed the shift in the industry from a pioneer driven market to a huge industry where planned plants with capacities in excess of 20000 tons and up to 100,000 tons are the rule instead of the exception. “This is putting a pressure on the companies engineering such technologies and the challenges today to higher speeds and higher capacities are bigger than ever,” he said.

Mr. Dobel said he feels this unprecedented growth in the airlaid market is the result of a decade’s worth of interest. “I will not say that it has gotten more attention recently,” he said. “I believe that the industry during the last 10 years has been focused on airlaids and has been willing to develop the process. Every time new capacities are brought onstream people say that the growth has got to stop sometime, but looking back in the history, there is a clear trend that the industry has been growing and continues to grow. I believe additional capacity will be good for the market because it develops new products and emphasizes other people to follow the path.”

While capacities have gotten higher, the basic premises of airlaids have remained the same. Most improvements have dealt with higher line rates and better efficiencies rather than effecting the process, he added.

Henning Skov Jensen, managing director, M&J Fibretech, said that the shift from traditional diaper lines to ones with airlaid absorbent cores can not be measured economically because of the versatility airlaid lines offer manufacturers. “Airlaid is such a flexible process,” he explained. “You can latex bond or thermal bond material so it’s hard to determine the price/performance differences.”

Airlaid material’s move to take over the diaper market will take several years, but, just like the airlaid core began dominating the feminine hygiene market, so will it carve its place in diapers. “We have seen the first product on the market already,” Mr. Jensen said. “It is undoubtedly a huge market for airlaid suppliers.”

The recent swell in airlaid capacity around the globe has led many industry watchers to speculate that roll goods producers will wait a while before making any further expansions but Mr. Jensen said he is not worried about this glut in airlaid. “We are in business so you will definitely see more capacity coming,” he said. “More manufacturers are looking for airlaid.”

Just like roll goods supplier such as BBA are eager to increase sales by joining the airlaid market, so are machinery and equipment suppliers vying for a piece of the action. NSC Nonwovens, Elbeuf, France, recently came onboard with the development of “AirWeb,” an airlaid machine that is an alternative technology to direct carded web and crosslapped batt process. “AirWeb is a complementary technology that combines the low cost fibers used in traditional carded drylaid with the AirWeb fiber range,” said Jean-René Wattel, nonwovens division director. “The combination of webs permits us to achieve stronger final products.”

Another company offering finishing lines to complement airlaid machines is Metso Paper (formerly Valmet), Biddeford, ME. When airlaid producers incorporate bicomponent fibers and other temperature sensitive binding fibers, uniform bonding is required throughout the web, according to Elizabeth Belliveau, of Metso. Metso’s “Thru-Air” technology is able to achieve this bonding. “Machinery suppliers are offering airlaid lines that include Dan Webforming or M&J Fibretech formation technology with their assorted finishing methods to allow for a greater diversity of end products,” she said. Similarly Reiter Perfojet, Montbonnet, France, is offering “AirLace” technology, which combines carded webs with airlaid pulp to create roll goods for wiping applications. “The composition and structure of this nonwoven is different because it uses long staple fibers,” Frederic Noelle, Reiter Perfojet’s research and development manager, said. “This give the product unique characteristics for bulk and absorbency, among other things.”

The combination of machinery and equipment suppliers offering new capabilities, roll goods producers developing new airlaid characteristics and end use manufacturers finding new applications for airlaid materials will certainly help the market consume the high volume of new capacity currently coming onstream in the airlaid segment. To many, the new capacity and the new applications are similar to the old chicken and egg adage—it’s hard to discern whether the new capacity is calling for new products or the new products are looking for added capacity.