Most industry executives said that 2000 was a strong year, bolstered by solid growth rates, sales volume increases and recovery and expansion in several world markets. Growth is expected continue on the heels of growing interest in all kinds of composites and growing investments in the industry. On the flip side, however, overcapacity and heightened raw material costs continue to be serious threats in certain segments.
Freudenberg Nonwovens, Weinheim, Germany, the world’s largest roll goods manufacturer, offered a review of the year. Lee Sullivan, global manager of the company’s Tuft Division, cited the overall strength of the U.S. economy and the recovery in Asian economies as influences on Freudenberg’s staple fiber and spunbond polyester business segments. The company also saw increased demand in North America for its businesses other than interlinings in 2000. Mr. Sullivan reported that Freudenberg’s interlinings business continued to see demand shifts to countries outside of the U.S. “The increases in raw material prices, which began in the second half of 1999 and continued through all of 2000, have impacted margins as the ability to pass on these increases is limited,” he said. “In general the interlinings business remains soft and there have been more bankruptcies and closures among the interlinings producers, distributors and garment manufacturers in the U.S. in 2000.”
According to Mr. Sullivan, in the durable spunbond polyester carpet backing market demand is strong in North America. The production of vehicles in North America remains at approximately 17.5 millions units, a 10-year production high point. This is similar to the 1999 production rate. “We are pleased with the economic vitality of the North American market and anticipate that 2001 will be a strong production year, but will likely decline approximately 5% in unit build rate,” Mr. Sullivan explained. “This will still make 2001 the second highest production year in the last 10 years.”
Mr. Sullivan called 2000 a year of increased demand and stable profits, with some market segments doing very well and others being impacted by events in the global economy. The increases in raw material costs have pressured margins severely, he said, and could only be compensated by increased sales levels. “We anticipate that 2001 will result in a softer demand picture and little moderation in raw material costs,” Mr. Sullivan predicted. “Thus margins and profits will be further squeezed. We expect the U.S. economy to undergo softening during 2001, but in general continue to be stronger than economies in other parts of the world.”
Also commenting on the year was Freudenberg North America managing director Walter Schwarz, who said that the company’s new, state of-the-art staple fiber production line, which was constructed in 2000, will help Freudenberg strengthen its North American hygiene business.
“An important step forward was the announcement of ‘Evolon’ this spring,” Mr. Schwarz said. “This innovative product was developed by Freudenberg over the last several years and we foresee many interesting product application possibilities for it.”
Mr. Schwarz added that all of Freudenberg’s staple fiber market segments have experienced growth in 2000, especially in the filtration and technical product areas. Mirroring Mr. Sullivan’s comments, he said that the interlinings business saw modest growth but suffers from the movement of garment manufacturing to other parts of the world. He explained that Freudenberg companies in other parts of the world have been able to capture this business.
Keith McLoughlin, vice president/general manager of DuPont Nonwovens, Wilmington, DE, called 2000 a year full of challenges for the nonwovens industry. “Growth in existing and new market segments was partially offset by dramatic increases in raw materials and devaluation of the Euro,” he said. “Looking ahead, we expect a moderating, but still healthy level of global economic growth. In this environment, it will be even more important to bring increased value through aesthetics, performance and cost to the under penetrated opportunities in the textile, film and paper markets. As an industry, we must continually work together to enhance our collective efforts in technology development, marketing and branding. The road to continued growth for the nonwovens industry will be paved with healthy doses of investment, sophistication and determination.”
In the year 2000 the BBA Group, London, U.K., continued to invest in growth, according to vice president, marketing and sales for BBA Nonwovens France, Biesheim, France, Pieter Meijer. “New, state-of-the-art lines were started up in our factories in Italy, France, Sweden and Washington state. Other significant events included the commercialization of the new polyester spunbond line in our Reemay, TN facility and, at the end of the year, the first production of air laid materials in the new BBA factory in China,” he said. “This organic growth is augmented by the acquisition of Snow Filtration and of the remaining shares of Air Quality Filtration, further strengthening our presence in this strategic market segment.” Mr. Meijer cited the development of raw material pricing as a main challenge for 2001. “We are cautiously optimistic about the future as BBA has the financial health and operational excellence to continue to leverage the scope and scale of its nonwovens business in support of its worldwide customers and other stakeholders,” he concluded.
Peter Cella, president of BP Fabrics & Fibers, Austell, GA, said he has seen growth in the demand for civil engineering fabrics in excess of 8% per year. “We are optimistic about the prospects for this growth to continue because of the value civil engineering fabrics brings to construction projects and the relatively low penetration rate achieved by these products to date,” he said. “We estimate that only about 25% of all prospective construction projects use these fabrics. Our recent investments in nonwovens capacity, combined with our experience and long-standing commitment to serve this marketplace, give us confidence that we will enjoy significant volume growth in 2001.” In the furniture and bedding markets, Mr. Cella has seen more modest growth and recent softening in the U.S. economy, which has led BP executives to be cautiously optimistic about demand growth next year. “Our primary focus in furniture and bedding in 2001 is to expand our business through the joint development of new products with our customers.”
According to general manager Yukio Kawasaki, sales volume in 2000 registered double-digit growth at Toyobo, Osaka, Japan. This was largely brought on by new product developments including automotive seat supporters, roof liners and home products. “As for 2001, we expect that our nonwovens business will grow at least as rapidly as it did in 2000,” Mr. Kawasaki predicted. “The new products will keep growing and the sales of our new geotextile material, ‘e-Volans,’ spunbond sheet made from recycled polyester bottle will increase.” Demand is not balanced in the spunbond polyethylene market, Mr. Kawasaki said. “Although customer demand has been increasing in every market, the total capacity of supply is far from fulfilling it,” he said. “Roll goods manufacturer Asahi Chemical announced the price increase but it has not been resisted by customers."
On the other hand, he explained, the market for spunbond polypropylene has been flooded with the surge of imports from Korea and Mexico. According to Mr. Kawasaki, most Japanese roll goods manufacturers are suffering from stagnated products, although they installed new machines last year.
Stephen Foss, chairman, president and CEO of Foss Manufacturing, Hampton, NH, reported, “As we look into 2001, we continue to see the need for specialty synthetic fibers in all aspects of nonwovens. We are continuing our development of ‘FossFibre’ with ‘AgION’ antimicrobial fibers. We are introducing our new FR polyethylene fibers as well as improved ultraviolet and brighter colors. Our PCT and PETG fibers are opening many opportunities for a wide range of textiles.” Mr. Foss added that his company expects continued growth in all of its nonwovens businesses and expects additional strength with the opening of its new facility in Pulversheim, France.
Fort James, Green Bay, WI, plays a major role in serving the worldwide need for wet wiping fabrics with its “Airtex” air laid line of products, according to director-nonwoven sales and marketing Stephen Pouliot. “We see healthy growth projected in 2000 and beyond,” he said. “Not only is there good growth in traditional segments such as baby wipes but the introduction of new wipes in household, personal care and other areas will grow the category as a whole. While other fabrics such as hydroentangled play a role, air laid will remain a good choice at all price points, up to premium, where hydroentangled is strongest.” He added that Fort James expects to share in the growth of the absorbent core markets.
Offering a Japanese perspective was Katsuji Suzuki, board director, fabricated plastics products division for roll goods producer Mitsui Chemical, Tokyo, Japan. According to Mr. Suzuki the Japanese nonwovens market has seen an increase in foreign products especially in hygiene and industrial areas. Also, he said the growth of the Japanese medical market is slow because it is difficult for manufacturers to believe that low basis weight spunbond will be as effective as SMS or microfiber spunbond for hygiene applications. Still, Mr. Suzuki maintained that the most important challenge facing the industry is the reduction of manufacturing costs, especially resin and labor costs.
Executives at Companhia Providência, Parana, Brazil, said 2000 was successful due to the recovered economic situation in Brazil, which had caused some slowdown in the industry in 1999. In 2000, the scenario was more stable despite rising raw material costs and Companhia Providência’s operations ran smoothly. In 2001, Companhia Providência will increase its production capacity with the launch of its sixth polypropylene spunbond line. This will bring the company’s capacity close to 40,000 metric tons per year and will make it the leading supplier of polypropylene spunbond nonwovens in Latin America, according to company executives.
The first year in the new millennium was generally satisfactory for Fibertex A/S, Aalborg, Denmark, according to Knud Waede Hansen, managing director. “We saw full capacity utilization of all manufacturing units in the two divisions of the company, needlefelt and spunbond,” he said. “Also, efficiencies and output has increased about 15% in needlefelt and 20% in spunbond. Consequently Fibertex has had its best year ever.” In 2000, demand has been strong in the hygiene sector due to the need for the low weight, high quality product line. Also sales of spunbonded and needlefelt products to the bedding industry have reached record levels. Margins in the geotextile sector are also satisfactory, although slightly pressed. “Only the continuously high prices for raw materials are creating concern,” Mr. Hansen admitted. "Hopefully the larger and fewer raw material suppliers will understand the need to set limits for their ambitions.”
In late 2000, Fibertex increased its capacity of SMS production by starting a new multibeam high-speed line. The line is expected to be fully operational in early 2001. “I feel certain that 2001 will give us as many unexpected surprises as the present year and put heavy demand on the industry’s ability to adapt to new conditions,” Mr. Hansen concluded. “The new economy will be tested and if it fails next year, it will be a tough one.”
Offering a perspective on the Asian market was Kirk Hwang, vice president of Kang Na Hsuing, Taipei, Taiwan. “Conventional nonwovens have become commodities and prices have eroded,” he reported. “But the good news is a stream of new products has been introduced into the Asia market and they have excited the market with innovation. Those new products include multifunctional air laid, ultra-fine spunbond and SMMS. We see the suppliers in the industry competing in both innovation and price. The history of the nonwovens industry in the West is repeating itself in Asia today.”
In 2000, roll good manufacturers Precision Custom Coatings (PCC), Totowa, NJ, was able to emerge successfully from Chapter 11 status and the newly restructured and reorganized company is stronger and more aggressive, according to Dan Kamat, vice president, industrial textiles division. “The company is increasing its emphasis on diversification. The industrial textile division has been reinforced to enter several niche markets including automotive, home furnishings, vinyl coating, lamination, filtration and healthcare.”
The U.S. interlining market has been shrinking over the past few years but PCC’s efforts to globalize have been very successful, especially in the Asian market, according to Mr. Kamat. PCC is planning a significant capital investment to increase capacity and capabilities in new technologies to create added composite structures.
Concert Fabrication, Quebec, Canada, continues to invest significantly in state-of-the-art air laid technology in Europe, Canada and the U.S., according to company president John McNicol. “Concert’s efforts in developing leading edge absorbent air laid fabrics have opened up new frontiers for our industry particularly in personal hygiene, homecare and food packaging applications where double- digit growth in demand is expected to continue,” he said. “We remain the only global manufacturer dedicated exclusively to the development of advanced air laid fabrics. Concert’s focus on innovation, quality and customer service has attracted a dynamic team who share an entrepreneurial spirit and passion for the air laid industry.”
According to Serkan Gogus, commercial director of Mogul Nonwovens, Giaziantep, Turkey, the past year has been busy for most nonwoven producers. “From January to September there was great demand for spunbond nonwovens but this has slowed in recent months because of new capacities. On the other side, there was an erosion in profits due to high resin prices caused by high petroleum prices and weak European currencies,” he said. Mr. Gogus added that strong competition and overcapacity have decreased fabric prices. Discussing the global outlook, he reported that nearly all world economies did well in 2000, especially the U.S. and certain European nations, and there was also a recovery in Far Eastern economies. Mr. Gogus went on to say that in 2000 important market trends included new coming investments; the takeover of important nonwovens companies such as Dexter Corporation, Windsor Locks, CT, and Fort James, Green Bay, WI; high resin prices and the introduction of “Evolon” fabrics by Freudenberg Nonwovens, Weinheim, Germany, which he feels has opened new horizons for the nonwovens industry.
Sales manager Per Johannesson of Duni AB, Bengtsfors, Sweden, said that business looks good for the nonwovens industry in 2001. “The big questions mark, of course, is what impact the new machines from Buckeye Technologies and Concert in North America will have on the industry,” he said. “There is an enormous demand for air laid right now but this new capacity will probably have a balancing effect on demand and supply mostly in North America.”
Alexander Maksimow, president and CEO of McAirlaid’s Vliesstoffe, GmbH, Steinfurt, Germany, called the situation in the hygiene market “very positive.” “Volumes are growing steadily despite dramatic raw material price increases, which have caused some turbulence in the market,” Mr. Maksimow said. “In the first part of 2000, festooning was a big issue but this doesn’t seem to be the solution to pricing problems because it just shifts the costs from one party to another. More or less, the future seems to be in full, automatic roll handling systems of which we have seen a couple very promising examples.”
Dick Osman, director, new business and market development for KoSa Textile Fibers, Charlotte, NC, predicted rapid growth in air laid nonwoven applications for absorbent products such as acquisition/distribution layers and feminine hygiene. Structures are being produced that combine low denier bicomponent fibers for strength with polyester fibers for loft and resilience. Markets for wet and dry wipes are also growing as new categories are developed, he said. “Composites of KoSa bicomponent and polyester fibers are being commercialized in automotive applications,” he said. “‘Polarguard Home’ continuous filament insulation is making inroads into comforters and duvets.” According to Mr. Osman, the key to ongoing product innovation and development of new applications lies in close cooperation between nonwovens producers and suppliers of fiber solutions.
In 2000, FiberVisions, Varde, Denmark, saw a revival of staple fiber based nonwovens, according to marketing manager Erik Gammelgaard. “In the carded, thermal bonded nonwovens segment new investments came onstream in Europe and (finally) in the U.S.,” he said. “Furthermore, producers are tending to be more open to combining carded technology with other nonwoven technologies. This will certainly strengthen market innovation and challenge new application areas. One example is the combination of carded and melt blown technologies, which surely will broaden the application area of manufacturers.”
He went on to say that in the air laid industry, the massive capacity build-up is impressive as is the innovation among the producers. These include new product constructions, advanced multicomposite designs with several layers and different functions and the first new diapers with air laid absorbent cores (Indas S.A. of Spain). According to Mr. Gaamelgaard, FiberVisions’ contribution to this development has been three newly launched bicomponent fibers designed to increase the nonwovens’ performance with respect to tenacity and bulkiness and remove any risk of yellowing effects.
George Hargrove, vice president sales, marketing and development for Barnhardt Manufacturing, Charlotte, NC, described the year as exciting, with the company marking its 100-year anniversary. “We are also completing the addition of a new continuous bleaching line for raw stock cotton, which is scheduled to begin commercial production January 1, 2001,” Mr. Hargrove said. “The continuous line provides customers two options for bleached cotton, each with its own unique benefits. The new line increases Barnhardt's capacity by 50% and also provides customer assurance of supply as the two bleacheries are in separate locations on the Barnhardt property.”
Heinrich Jakob, marketing and sales manager for Lenzing AG, Lenzing, Austria, expects the nonwovens business to continue to grow led by spunlaced fabrics in Western Europe. Based on the level of supply reached in the second half of 1999, continuous growth was seen in 2000, Mr. Jacob said. Major influence from Europe impacted the supply of viscose staple fibers, resulting in a situation where most of the fiber capacities were fully booked. Looking toward the near future, Mr. Jakob said the question remains how the development will continue with the background of additional capacities coming onstream. The answer to this question will depend on how and when spunlaced products will penetrate the U.S. and other markets, what will be the influence of new technologies like pulp/polyester composites and how air laid products are going to react to such developments. Mr. Jakob concluded by saying, “I feel that 2001 will be an interesting year with important decisions to come. A major task for the fiber suppliers will be to cope with the industry’s demand both for quantity and quality.”
David Andersen, director of marketing, Omnova Solutions, Mogadore, OH, pointed to the escalation of petroleum feedstock pricing and the negative impact it had on the maintenance of margins for emulsion and fiber suppliers to the nonwovens industry as a significant conundrum in 2000. “While prospects are only slightly improved going forward into the first quarter of 2001, we should see some relief by the second quarter,” Mr. Anderson predicted. “On the product development side, I see the continued vitality of chemically bonded systems remaining a strong force in both diaper components and the spectrum of wipes and filtration applications. While the applications will continue to demand emulsion polymers in their manufacturing, an increased demand will be placed on the chemical suppliers to develop higher performing binders to offer improvements in both applications to thinner or composite fiber products with improved cost effectiveness.” Additionally, he predicted there will be continued consolidation in the nonwovens industry that will gradually reduce the overall number of major suppliers over the next three to five years. “"In terms of globalization, areas for significant growth will be the Far East (China) and South America (Brazil), where demand for nonwoven products will generate significant growth rates from 2001-2005.”
According to Biagio Savaré, managing director of Savaré Specialty Adhesives, Milan, Italy, the nonwovens industry focused its efforts on restoring a bottom line that has been threatened by a dramatic increase in the price of basic raw materials in 2000. “This was also a problem in the adhesives segment even though adhesives cannot be treated like cellulose or superabsorbents,” he said. “The marketplace is becoming conscious that the direct cost of adhesives is only a minor component of their total cost and our customers need to be aware of the overall cost of the bond system including product design and process flexibility and reliability.”
Mark Calliari, sales engineer at Paper Converting Machine Company (PCMC), Green Bay, WI, cited an explosion of products and uses in the wipes market as a noteworthy recent trend. "The nonwovens industry had promoted the unlimited number of uses for nonwoven materials,” he said. “Now, the general public is promoting nonwoven products on their own. For instance, a local radio station was having a discussion with male listeners regarding the use of wet wipes. The discussion indicated that men are beginning to accept and even prefer a flushable wet toilet wipe.”
At Fi-Tech, Richmond, VA, sales manager Jeffrey Bassett described business conditions in the nonwovens industry as still strong. “We are coming off a very active period of investment in the dry laid/needlepunched, spunmelt and air laid sectors,” he said. “There is a tremendous amount of new, modern capacity on the market in all of these fields, which will affect the markets for these products in the coming months. We still anticipate modernization among the dry laid/needlepunched producers as companies move to keep production costs in line with the new machines.” Mr. Bassett added that the company does not expect as many complete new lines as the past few years. “In spunmelt nonwovens, new and existing suppliers, both domestic and oversees, will be competing strongly for marketshare,” he said. “The market has yet to really push for the recent developments in finer denier or bicomponent spunbond. The current ongoing investments and pending start ups of new air laid capacity will probably make 2001 a quiet year for any announcements for new lines in North America.”
Offering a perspective on the needlepunch segment was John Foster, vice president, Foster Needle, Manitowoc, WI. “After years of investment in machinery and equipment, the U.S. needlepunching market seems to have an overabundance of capacity in certain segments of the industry,” he said. “For the buyer of needlepunched roll goods this comes as good news, but for the needlepunchers themselves this overcapacity can only mean lower profit margins. In Mexico, there continues to be investment in new capacity by both existing needlepunching companies and some new to the process. The overcapacity in the U.S. coupled with the continued investments in Mexico could mean even more trouble for American needlepunchers.”
Carl Cucuzza, sales and marketing manager for Nordson Corporation, Norcross, GA, said the past year was marked by signs of renewed vigor from Asia and continued expansion of the Latin American market. “At Nordson, we continued to expand our presence in these blossoming economies with local support and inventories backed up by regional experts in the disposables industry,” he said. “At the same time, new equipment developments have helped manufacturers in North America, Europe and Japan increase their productivity, positioning them to profitably compete in these mature markets.”
Giampiero De Angelis, commercial director for Fameccanica.Data, Chieti, Italy, has noticed an ever-growing concentration of sanitary disposable product capacity in the hands of a few larger producers, due to mergers and acquisitions that are becoming more frequent. This leads to a decrease in the number of customers, while on the other hand competitors are increasing, he explained. “The continuous search for end products displaying higher performances with a higher competitive edge leads producers to a keener evaluation of the machinery builders’ output, focusing their attention on the services offered,” he said. “High quality, but also technological upgrades and full assistance, allows for customers’ growth and gives added value to each single machine sold. We feel that the market is going in the same direction it has been going in for years with suppliers emphasizing the importance of providing adequate services alongside with their equipment.”
Alain Vuillaume, marketing and export manager, Reiter Perfojet, Montbonnot, France, said that the nonwovens industry has seen tremendous change over the past 15 years. According to Mr. Vuillaume, these changes have been led by various factors such as a constant quest for cost production savings, globalization, astonishing technical developments and concerns over environmental issues.
“In the mid-1980s, the technologies available to produce nonwovens fabrics were thermal bonding, chemical bonding needlepunching and, of course, spunlacing,” he reflected. “At that time, all these fiber bonding processes were available to produce fabrics at a lower cost than conventional woven fabrics.” Since then, however, the industry has evolved beyond the initial growing stage, whether triggered by a market pull or technology push, he said. Mr. Vuillaume explained that spunlace technology is currently the fastest growing nonwovens process representing 10% of overall nonwovens sales in 1999. Compared with other fiber bonding processes, spunlace offers a number of key advantages supported by current marketing trends such as style flexibility, personal care and environmental friendliness, he concluded.
Werner Goeckel, president of Lasor/Systronics, Norcross, GA, has observed increased consolidation and globalization in the nonwovens industry over recent years. He explained that manufacturers are finding that they need to be more efficient in a very competitive marketplace and technology has become a greater factor in this efficiency effort to cut costs and to expand profitability. “Vision inspection providers such as Lasor/Systronics have been helped by this effort,” he said. “Vision inspection systems not only identify defects, reduce scrap and returns, but they increase customer confidence in nonwoven products. This enables nonwovens suppliers who apply the technologies to increase their customer base. Lasor/Systronics anticipates a continued increase in our nonwovens business unit.”
Speaking for Groz-Beckert KG, Albstadt, Germany, was Sabine Richter. “During the last few years, the industry for needled nonwovens fortunately faced a period of steady growth led by a permanent increased demand,” she said. “However, a couple of months ago, it looked as if production means caught up with the demand of these fabrics, leaving this branch of the industry slightly stalled during the summer of 2000. Of course trends can vary from region to region. But be that as it may, whatever the regional trend has been, the main global trend does not go along with the pessimistic view of the needlefelt industry as heading to more restrained production due to cutbacks in capacity.”
Harald Maier, sales manager of Schott & Meissner, Blaufelden, Germany, characterized the industry in 2000 as fairly successful and profitable. He also said that the company made great strides in its efforts to develop materials processing equipment. “As a machinery manufacturer, we have grown up with the market demands for waste recycling and we are now undoubtedly among the leaders, not only for today’s key equipment in nonwovens but also for powder-, flake- and fiber-spreaders in combination with a ‘Thermofix’ contact heat oven,” he said.
“Due to increasing globalization, continents, countries and cultures are closer to each other than ever before,” Mr. Maier said. “In regard to industrial development, there will arise great tasks to be solved for the future. Schott & Meissner will take this as a chance to stay an active and lasting partner for a demanding and progressively growing market.”
Douglas Brown, vice president of Biax Fiberfilm, Appleton, WI, explained that the 2000 profitability margin has doubled due to the company’s new manufacturing plant and its upgraded “HT Series” melt blown machine. Mr. Brown predicted that 2001 would be the best year ever. He also pointed to high demand for spunbond/melt blown/spunbond (SMS) materials. “Numerous companies are interested in making SMS products,” he said. In closing, Mr. Brown cited strong demand for the company's “Microspan” stretching machine. “Interest in these machines continues to be high due to their ability to stretch films to make them breathable and also to increase strength,” he added.
Michael Robbie, marketing manager for KT Holdings, Winnipeg, Canada, sees the introduction of bulky nonwovens as a growing trend in the industry. “Though using air laids and composites may simplify a converting line, the thickness and multilayer properties of these materials will continue to force the industry to consider new packaging systems,” he said. “For example, spooling is emerging as an attractive alternative to provide long lengths of thick or bulky material, whether conventional spools or ‘Superspool’ (2.4m OD) are used. Spooling will also open the door for sophisticated materials with low strength or delicate caliper characteristics that may only become viable when combined with a complementary material and delivered as a composite,” he said. Mr. Robbie added that in 2001, one of KT’s priorities will be the development of innovative converting technologies that will enhance the delivery of new materials, including composites and pre-assembled products.
Brian Hoge, president of American Threshold, Enka, NC, called 2000 a volatile year for the nonwovens industry. “The cost of base resin material has created upward cost pressure on the producers of nonwoven materials while converters continued to experience downward pressure on price. This led to significant margin challenges for the industry,” said Mr. Hoge. The industry outlook is for this to continue. “Producers of nonwoven materials and converters must continually re-engineer and redesign materials and products to address these challenges,” Mr. Hoge said. “Last year we indicated the lack of development within the nonwovens industry, in particular, new and improved materials. Although we have seen modest improvements during 2000, the volume and selection of new materials, or improvements to existing materials, continues to lag behind the market requirements for change.
“Some within the industry contend that the massive consolidation of supply has hindered development and that the priority has been to drive the financial efficiencies these consolidations were designed to create. While this is true, the lack of resource allocation, both personnel and capital, to the creation of the next generation of nonwovens will ultimately prove to be the greatest future challenge to all of us. The big question is whether or not the current suppliers are truly committed to this process. If they are not, we will soon see new entrants into this great industry. This will be good for all of us.”
Ted Wirtz, president of INDA (Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry), Cary, NC, saw the North American nonwovens business expanding significantly during 2000 and found that industry growth globally has been exceptionally strong in several emerging markets as well. “We continue to witness an evolving industry with significant technology shifts occurring, such as the growth of spunbond/melt blown composite technology; the rising use of spunlace materials supplied by large spunlaced installations and major investments in air laid pulp production,” he said. “Written off as a dying business, carded thermal bonded coverstock is making a comeback with the development of new higher capacity, lower cost production lines. And filtration, that large market of mystery, is mercifully consolidating as companies’ merge.”
INDA has noticed considerable investment in the North American nonwovens industry, Mr. Wirtz reported. Several new companies have entered the business and existing nonwovens producers continue to upgrade and expand their current nonwovens technologies to improve their capabilities, production efficiencies and cost structure. Mr. Wirtz continued be stating that these investments have led to production over capacity in some technologies and ultimately a squeeze in profit margins. From a historical perspective, the overcapacity situation is generally temporary as new markets are developed and existing markets expand.
According to Mr.Wirtz, INDA is more than keeping pace with the change with membership growing and having exceeded 260 in October this year—double the number of three years ago. “We are adding new programs and capabilities to better service members and become an even more important resource for the total industry worldwide,” he explained. “These resources include the publication of industry statistics on North America and selected global markets, educational programs, conferences targeted to specific industries (such as filtration and needlepunching), technical journals and publications. Also, INDA website has recently been upgraded. For the future, we plan to add e-commerce to our site to provide further value to the total industry.”
Industry consultant Colin White of MCW Technologies, Cumbria, U.K., saw a number of accelerating and exciting changes in the nonwovens business in 2000. “Product demands from the marketplace, developed as nonwovens spread into new application areas, can no longer be met by the older generation ‘one process’ nonwoven products,’" he said.
According to Mr. White, although composite nonwovens are not new (Kimberly-Clark, Roswell, GA, patented its ‘Coform’ product back in 1978) the idea of multiprocess, multilayer, functional nonwoven webs has really gathered momentum in 2000. “A good example is the introduction of Freudenberg’s ‘Evolon’ process and products that close still closes further the gap between the ‘'traditional’ concept of a nonwoven and the ‘traditional’ concept of a textile,” Mr. White added “This is but one example of the exciting developments still to come.”
“Whether it be in baby diapers or in complex structures for high tech composites, we are learning how to combine processes to produce products that greatly exceed the functionality of their component parts,” Mr. White concluded. “It has been said before that in nonwovens you are only limited by your imagination. Now we can truly see the exciting future that lies ahead.”
Speaking on filtration was industry consultant Lutz Bergmann of Filter Media Consulting, La Grange, GA, “Filtration is in transition,” he said. “We believe that the changes in the next 12-18 months will be more profound than in any other period during the last 25 years. E-commerce is no longer a Schlagwort but is going to be real. We see a tremendous commitment at least from a few companies.”
Mr. Bergmann said that this transition would happen more quickly than most experts predicted just a year or two ago. Pleated filter configurations are penetrating old, well-established market segments. Odor control, the removal of gaseous components, is going to be seen in many more filtration applications. In short, be ready for some, if not drastic changes.
Offering a Latin American viewpoint was consultant Freddy Gustavo Rewald of Nãotecidos Consultoria Assessoria, Saõ Paulo, Brazil. “The year that finished the 20th century was great for the nonwovens industry once the processes were aligned and the economy stabilized,” he said. “While most of the market registered growth, it was especially apparent in the automotive industry, where more nonwovens are being used, and in the hygiene market.”
Many investments totaling approximately $100 million, were made this year in spunbond, thermal bond, spunlace, needlepunch and air laid pulp technologies. Additionally, many agreements for spunlaced lines such as the one between DuPont do Brazil and Cipatex were announced (see Nonwovens News, March 2000).
“For the new millennium, it seems the economy will be stable in Brazil, depending mainly on the Argentinean economy, which was not so good this year and is adopting new economic measures for improving production,” Mr. Rewald said.
University of Washington professor Graham Allan feels that a burgeoning of creativity and innovation has not yet been seen in the nonwovens market of the new millennium. “Although chitosan, the cellulose-like aminopolysaccharide derived from shrimp shells, is now commercially produced from Iceland to China, its wound-healing and rash-preventing properties have not been taken advantage of in bandages and diapers,” he said. “Another substance with a great affinity for cellulose is the monomeric oxidatively-stable heterocyclic melamine. This characteristic is the basis of a new environmentally benign bleaching process where the selective adsorption of melamine onto cellulose protects the underlying fiber from degradation by oxygen or chlorine-based bleaches.”
Charles Banks, president of Charles E. Bank, Greer, S.C., has seen nonwovens consumption continuing its increase on a global basis as the need for single use consumer products increases penetration in markets previously served by woven and paper products. This is unlikely to change as worldwide consumers become more affluent and recognize the product performance benefits of nonwoven-based products, he said. “Similarly, nonwovens usage in the durable segments is being accepted because of their cost-performance advantages vis-à-vis incumbent materials,” he said. “This increased demand is being satisfied, in most instances, by the ever-expanding spunbonded polypropylene capacity that inhibits improved profitability.”
Even with the consolidation of nonwovens products in recent years, new entrants into the arena continue because of the relatively low investment barrier, Mr. Banks added. In recent years, the major roll goods manufacturers have addressed the profitability issue of focusing resources on developing new and modified products, forming strategic alliances and integrating forward into value-added converting/distribution.
“In my opinion, these approaches will continue to develop as the need to improve roll goods producers’ competitive position is required to improve their profitability and thus, attract investment capital,” Mr. Banks concluded.