Nonwovens In Filtration

August 17, 2005

government regulations and consumer requirements drive growth

You may not see them. You may not hear them. But make no mistake about it, filtration efforts are constantly going on around you. Everything from the water you drink to the air you breath undergoes some sort of filtration process before it reaches you and, if legislation continues as it has during the last several years, even more filtration efforts are expected to start up.

While additional filtration requirements may not mean good things for the factory that needs to filter its runoff before allowing it to re-enter the atmosphere, they are welcome by the many nonwoven roll goods producers selling their products into the filtration segment. Heralded as one of the fastest growing end use markets for nonwovens, filtration—both wet and dry—has recorded impressive annual growth levels in recent years and industry experts do not expect these increases to level off anytime soon as new market niches are uncovered almost daily for nonwoven filtration media.

“The growth in the filtration market varies depending on the market segment, but overall we’re seeing about 5-8% annual growth,” said industry consultant Edward Homonoff, president of Edward C. Homonoff & Associates, Brooklyn, CT. “Of course, some segments are growing faster and some are slower. This market is highly segmented by application.”

Filtration is divided into two key end use segments—air, or dry, and liquid, or wet—which are further broken down into myriad subsegments and end use categories. In the air filtration segment, nonwovens compete with a wide range of other materials including paper, fiberglass and wovens in applications including dust collection at large industrial installations, heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, carburetors, vacuum cleaners and air cabin filters. Common nonwoven technologies include wetlaid, meltblown and needlepunched. On the liquid side of the industry, applications include pool and spa filters, oil and lubricant filtration, water filtration, tea bags and coffee filters and blood filtration. Nonwoven technologies commonly used in this subsegment include wetlaid, meltblown and spunbonded.

In past years, nonwovens have been seen as pillagers in the filtration market, taking marketshare and applications from other types of media such as wovens and paper. “The demand for energy savings, low cost, recyclability and light weight gave nonwovens an advantage over other media,” explained Kirk Hwang, vice president corporate planning and international operations, KNH Enterprises, Taipei, Taiwan. “As nonwovens technology continues to advance with new innovation and cost improvement through economic scale, nonwovens will continue to dominate the media market.”

More recently, however, nonwoven materials have completed their proliferation in the filtration market and now nonwovens manufacturers are achieving growth by developing new filtration applications rather than simply replacing other forms of media in existing applications. “Over the years, nonwovens have replaced woven products with the greatest success,” said David Reaman, vice president nonwovens sales at Hollinee, Ingelside, IL. “Now the industry is deriving new categories for filtration applications. This is primarily being driven by things like environmental regulations.”

Additionally, as filtration technology progresses, nonwovens technologies are replacing other nonwovens technologies, creating a fiercely competitive marketplace. “All different kinds of markets are being created for nonwovens while certain nonwoven technologies are cannibalizing others as technology advances,” Mr. Homonoff said. For instance price pressures have led to a mass replacement of polyester needlepunched bag filters by spunbonded cartridge filters because a great deal more media can fit into a cartridge than a bag, Mr. Homonoff added.

In general spunbonded nonwovens are seeing significant growth within filtration as backings as well as for pleated filter media and cartridge applications. “There continues to be a lot of opportunities in spunbond driven in part by becoming a replacement of existing materials,” said Steven Lister, general manager, filtration division at Johns Manville, Denver, CO.

JM recently developed a new fine-fiber spunbonded filtration product. Named “CombiFil,” the medium is a multi-layered structure composed of ultra-fine and coarse polyester filaments. The ultra-fine filaments on the filter surface provide a significant improvement in particle removal while the coarse filaments on the downstream side keep the pressure drop to a minimum. Benefits include improved filtration efficiency, lower pressure drop, long filter life, lower energy usage and excellent media cleanability.

Nonwovens Show Their Stuff
BBA Nonwovens, London, U.K., made its commitment to its filtration business clear last year when it purchased its long-time filtration distributor, Snow Filtration, Westchester, OH, and filtration provider AQF Technologies, Charlotte, NC. “By purchasing Snow Filtration, we are now able to work directly with customers and better understand their product requirements from a nonwovens manufacturing standpoint,” said Frank Baker, marketing director, BBA Filtration. “The acquisition of AQF has added a new technology offering to our filtration media while providing resources and testing capabilities to meet the growing needs of our customers.”

These moves have helped position BBA as a customer-focused global company that provides solutions based on synthetic nonwoven media and components for selected filtration markets, Mr. Baker added. Currently, BBA has several new products in its pipeline that will offer a combination of value and performance benefits.

Among the trends being witnessed by executives at BBA is a need for higher levels of both liquid and air filtration. “The overall need for a high level of both liquid and air purification is being driven in part by heightened public awareness,” explained David Burdge, general manager. “Recently we saw a significant increase in component orders from one of our customers that supplies filters for large buildings in the New York area. Generally people will seek better filtration of the water they drink and the air they breathe.”

In addition to public awareness, government regulations are also driving growth in the filtration market. “The filtration market is being transformed by legislative changes,” Mr. Homonoff said. “A lot of government regulations tend to drive growth in a number of segments.” Among these are HVAC, where Environmental Protection Agency efforts are heralding increased applications; blood filtration, where countries are calling for more transfusions to be filtered, and automotives, where diesel engine requirements are changing the design of the engine to require more filters.

“The Division of Environmental Protection requires that businesses only exude so much particulate into the atmosphere,” Mr. Homonoff explained. “This requires them to create a bag house and its throughput is a limiting factor on how much you can produce in the plants. You improve the throughput by adding media with the use of a pleated cartridge. This is a relatively inexpensive transformation that provides a boost to the filtration market.”

JM’s Mr. Lister has also witnessed this trend. “The continued push to improve indoor air quality is driving growth in air filtration. Contributions include the Clean Air Act, EPA and OSHA with increasing regulations and standards,” he said.

Mr. Lister is also seeing growth from emerging market opportunities in China and Central Europe as well as upgrades in filtration efficiency around the world.

What A Customer Wants
According to nonwovens executives interviewed by Nonwovens Industry, customers are demanding high quality products that provide further benefits such as improved production, reduced downtime, clean equipment and short reaction times. These needs are being met by new machinery and more highly developed and innovative filter media.

“Consumers are asking for better filtration efficiencies while also asking for longer life media. The drive is for consumers to have a media that costs less over the life of the media,” remarked Per Lindblom, director of sales and marketing for PGI, North Charleston, SC. “Nonwovens can be engineered to provide the longer life that consumers are asking for either by being able to offer a composite or by offering nonwovens technologies that have not traditionally been used.”

PGI recently introduced “Durapex,” a new baghouse media developed using PGI’s “Apex” webforming technology that combines hydroentangling technologies with highly developed finishing. This media offers many enhanced performance features such as high filtration efficiency, less pressure drop and longer filter life, which all translate into cost savings, according to Kim Putnam, marketing manager, specialty products. Another new product from PGI is “Kiara Pool and Spa,” which has been approved by NSF Standard 50 and shows improved filtration and extended service life when compared to previous products sold into the pool and spa market, according to Ms. Putnam. “Kiara PS has a narrower pore size distribution compared to competing products, resulting in better filtration efficiency without sacrificing flow rate,” she said.

“Nonwovens have an efficient manufacturing method,” Mr. Lindblom said. “There are a number of different end uses where knitted and woven products are being used that can be tapped into. However, what we are seeing is that new and improved nonwovens, to a greater extent, are competing with other nonwovens.”

As an example, Mr. Lindblom pointed to the pool and spa market, which has been using spunbonded polyester in its filtration media for 30 years. “We approached the market from a different perspective and were able to deliver an added value product using thru-air technology,” he explained. “The same goes for the dust collector market, needlefelts have been dominating the market for years. We approached this market using our proprietary Apex technology and were able to add life and efficiency to the end user.”

The Lohmann Group, Dierdorf, Germany, recently introduced two needlepunched filtration media products that feature lofty structure and fine flow direction satisfying the high requirements of inner cooled tools. Both “Paramoll Hiflo 130” and “Paramoll Hiflo 180” feature reduced waste, longer life cycles, lower filter material requirements and reduced costs. Additionally, Lohmann has introduced “Paratherm F 60” and “Paratherm Loft F 90,” air through thermal bonded nonwovens designed for oil filtration applications.

“Different production processes very often require special filtration material with different pore sizes,” said Heike Eichler, sales manager. “One of the advantages of nonwovens is that a short time change between the different filter paper qualities is possible when a new production process starts.”

A Changing Market
The beauty of the filtration market lies in its diversity. With hundreds of niche markets and subsegments, there is enough room in this market for many players to be successful. As government regulations continue to come onstream and customer demands become even more stringent, there is no doubt that this market will continue to expand, creating more and more end use categories for nonwoven materials.

“Every consultant to the industry has identified more filtration market niches than any one company could ever serve,” said Matthew Miller, technical marketing manager of roll goods producer Crane Nonwovens, Dalton, MA. “Perhaps that is the beauty of the market. Suffice to say, we are exploring many areas in both gaseous and liquid filtration. There is quite a bit of interest to eliminate glass fibers from filtration media and there is always interest in cost effective materials that have both high temperature and chemical resistance.”

Therefore, there is nothing left for nonwovens producers looking to target the filtration market to do other than improve their technology to create more efficient filtration media. Of course, the very nature of nonwovens make this a natural process. “What you can do with a nonwoven is engineer it for an application and get a performance that’s not too expensive,” Mr. Homonoff said. “This is an industry that changes a lot—it’s definitely not stagnant. A lot of technology is being brought onstream that’s going to play a role.”

JM’s Mr. Lister said his company has been doing a lot of work with composite structures to break away from the three main trends seen hurting the filtration industry—maturity, competitive pressure and disappointing profits. “The customizable properties of composite structures are giving consumers more options for their applications and end products,” he said. “All of the different materials—meltblown, spunbond, fiberglass—have tradeoffs so we are trying to combine the benefits of many materials into an improved product.”

Another company experimenting with composite structures is KX Industries, Orange, CT, a producer of carbon block for water filtration applications. The company’s latest product, “Plekx” is a composite web consisting of a nonwoven carrier sheet, a layer of extruded medium and a nonwoven cover sheet. “This filter medium provides a compact adsorbent structure that is thin and pleatable, highly permeable and inexpensive,” said Susan LeDonne, director of sales and marketing.

Plekx is the company’s first large-scale project that uses nonwoven material. Executives said the use of nonwovens in filtration provides tremendous flexibility both in terms of a delivery vehicle and air pressure/flow requirements. These media mainly find application in self-supporting dry, dust, HVAC and automotive filtration and their main benefit is the lack of a need for expandable wire.

Vliesstoffwerk Sandler GmbH, Schwarzenbach/Saale, Germany, offers traditional thermal bonded and needlepunched filtration products as well as some brand new meltblown media designed for versatile applications. “What is even more important is that all these media are certified environmentally friendly,” said Martina Pöhlmann, sales manager.

While this subsegment remains the emphasis at Sandler, the company has also been investing a lot of effort into the automotive and medical filtration subsegments, according to Ms. Pöhlmann. “Polyester and polyproylene are, in themselves, a very sterile medium and these properties are ideal for medical and automotive filtration,” she explained. “During the the next five to 10 years, these two subsegments will undoubtedly be a big influence, causing growth in the market. But for now priority number one for us is producing high quality, classical filtration media and remain simultaneously innovative in this field.”

Talk About Competition
Despite the myriad niches and subsegments of the filtration market, the large number of players involved in this market makes competition tough and competitors in this segment generally need to offer a mix of commodity-type items and more specialized niche products.

“Overcapacity is only present in supply for commodity-type products,” said BBA’s Mr. Baker. “To be successful today, filtration media must be engineered for specific applications. Companies whose products offer higher overall value to the customers because they are engineered for the specific application are not seeing overcapacity situations.”

Also, as is the case in all industries, advanced technology plays a key role in a company’s success. In fact, Hollinee’s Mr. Reaman described filtration as a survival of the fittest-type environment. “The filtration market is intensely competitive because you have different types of nonwovens technology vying for end use applications,” Mr. Reaman said. “Many of these types are vastly different from one another but still compete in the same segments.”

A smaller company, Hollinee has been able to compete because of its significant investment in research and development that has allowed it to bring more innovative products to the marketplace. During the last 12 months, the company has launched high efficiency needlepunched nonwovens media as well as electrostatic filtration media for dry applications. “Our objective is to locate and grow niche filtration segments where we can provide guaranteed value to the customers,” Mr. Reaman said. “The key to success in the filtration market with any company that intends to grow is to provide highly efficient products at a competitive price. It’s as simple as that.”

Another smaller company, Crane Nonwovens, has been successful because of the flexibility its small size allows. “To be successful requires flexibility to changing conditions,” Mr. Miller said. “That’s true for all businesses but I think it’s particularly true in filtration where customer needs are constantly changing and evolving, new materials and processes are constantly available and regulatory requirements are evolving.”

And as these new materials and processes continue to come onstream and regulatory requirements become even more strict, the amount of nonwoven material finding its place in filtration media will certainly continue to increase.

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