Spunlace Soaks Up The Spotlight In Nonwovens Technology

August 17, 2005

spunlace has become a preferred technology among nonwovens manufacturers

In recent years, the many benefits of spunlace material, including softness, durability and a close similarity to textiles has won it a preferred spot in many key end use markets. Also known as hydroentangling, the process uses high-powered water jets to form a web and is possibly the fastest growing technology in the nonwovens industry.

While spunlaced material is receiving a huge boost from the vast proliferation of the wipes market, particularly in Europe, it is also the preferred technology for a number of other applications. These range from medical garments to substrates for artificial leather to apparel linings.

In addition to market penetration, the tremendous popularity of spunlaced material has led to a great deal of research and development investment in the segment. This has not only caused significant developments in the way spunlaced is manufactured, it has also led to its marriage with nonwovens technologies in the form of composite structures.

Many manufacturers predict that combining technologies will be the next big step within the spunlace market after a few hurdles, mainly costs, are overcome. But, in the meantime, spunlace technology is rapidly growing and contributing to the creation of new nonwovens end use markets.

Spunlace Gets In On Wipes
When asked about the key trends affecting spunlace technology, most manufacturers inevitably mention the wipes market. Originally comprised mainly of baby care products, the wipes market now offers products for virtually any daily activity from makeup removal to household cleaning. And, as a preferred wiping material, spunlace has reaped some of the success of the wipes market.

Since starting production on its first spunlace machinery line in 2000, Green Bay Nonwovens, Green Bay, WI, has been producing wipe material for all of the major markets including: hygiene, personal care, facial cleansing and makeup removal wipes, food service, industrial and household cleaning.

According to Keith Lauritsen, vice president of marketing at Green Bay, the wipes market is currently a $135 million market and, by 2005, it is predicted that wipes will grow to a $1.5 billion market. Two years ago, face wipes had barely any store shelf space, whereas now these wipes are taking up an estimated 10% of shelf space.

“Wipes are like the pull in the catalyst in demanding more spunlace machinery,” said Mr. Lauritsen, “Spunlace machinery is now receiving more improvements, especially during the past few years. More machines are coming out onto the market and working on ways to reduce downtime and allow greater efficiency.”

Looking to catch a piece of this booming market is Tenotex, Terno d’ Isola, Italy, which will be starting up its first spunlace line next month. The company’s “TenoLace” cost-effective spunlaced fabric is produced by a hybrid staple fiber/wood pulp process. It features enhanced absorbency, softness and isotropic properties and, among other areas, is helping Tenotex gain entry into the wipes market. Tenotex’s initial target markets for its new wipes business will be body care, food service and industrial cleaning. After initial involvement in these wipe-related markets, the company’s next step will be to expand into medical and other protection applications, according to company executives.

“Our spunlace investment follows our intent to diversify products and markets,” said Tenotex’s managing director, Aldo Ghira. “We are re-converting part of our assets to applications that offer better opportunities for added-value products and longer life cycles.”

As more and more uses for wipes are being uncovered, spunlace manufacturers will have to continue to upgrade to meet these new demands.

“The diversity of end uses in wiping markets is leading to a diversity of product response from spunlace manufacturers and is encouraging novel processes and new combinations,” said Steve Barrington, sales and marketing director at BFF Nonwovens, Bridgwater, Somerset, U.K.

Spunlace is a preferred nonwovens technology when producing products such as wipes primarily because of its strength and softness, but as with all markets, competition is always soon to follow. To keep up with the competition, spunlace machinery manufacturers are updating their lines and doing trial runs of new technology combinations. Many manufacturers believe that combining technologies is the key that will open up the door to success for the future of spunlace.

A Winning Combination
Although the combination of nonwovens technologies has not hit it big yet on the market, it seems to be on the verge of success. Machinery supplier Fleissner, Egelsbach, Germany supplies machinery and installations for manmade fiber production for all fiber types including conventional processes and compact fiber processing lines.

“Fleissner is leading in the development of the spunlace technology with new processes,” said Alfred Watzl, vice president of Fleissner. “These new processes include the combination of hydroentanglement and airlaid technology and the future potential to spunlace spunbond nonwovens.”

Mr. Watzl also sees growth in the splitting of microdenier segment fibers for high-quality nonwovens. Higher speeds for spunlace of up to 400-500 m/min, higher web weights for coating substrates to replace mechanically needled nonwovens and more apertured and patterned design structures for the web surface are some other recent trends Mr. Watzl has witnessed.

Moving aside from technology combinations, Idrosistem, Varese, Italy produces water filtration machinery to ensure a high level of purity for a product.

Idrosistem currently produces this machinery for companies that have a new or existing spunlace lines.

“By using our water filtration systems, which are made by patented sand filters, spunlace producers can avoid continuously cleaning the jet strips,” said Idrosistem’s sales manager Sevario Trevisan. “This drastically reduces the amount of times operators have to change the safety filters and keeps bacteria and foam from growing in the water jet circuit.”

Other problems caused by poorly filtered water include clogged jet strips, which lead to streaks in the spunlaced fabric, and excessive discharge of water in the filter’s back washing. Idrosistem’s filter can achieve a 99% reduction in suspended solids, which are fibers in the water, according to company executives. In addition to this reduction, Idrosistem’s sand filters can achieve a 60% reduction in surface agents and a 50% reduction in oil. In the case of pulp water treatments, combined with a floatation unit, the filtration efficiency is increased to 80% in surface agents and oil is reduced 95%, according to company executives.

Another new feature on the technology side of spunlacing incorporates airlaid pulp into the spunlacing process. Rieter Perfojet, Montbonnet, France is one such company that has incorporated airlaid pulp into the spunlacing process with its new Jetlace 3000 spunlace machinery line. According to company executives, Jetlace 3000 aims to reduce operating costs by optimizing energy with new injectors linked with a special strip design. The machine, which is predominantly used in the fabrication of wet wipes, involves three steps in the manufacturing process. The fibers are first entangled through JetLace 3000, then pulp is inserted onto the hydroentangled web. The pulp is then entangled into the web which, in turn, creates a finished wipe.

Bruno Roche, sales manager of Rieter Perfojet noted that a big trend is combining different technologies to make a finished product, and this trend shows no signs of slowing down. Rieter Perfojet is currently busy doing trial runs to incorporate spunbond, spunlace and airlaid. Despite high consumer demands, Mr.Roche has noticed that manufacturers are much more aware of what end uses the spunlace material will end up being for. “Today we know for which applications the machinery is being produced for, whereas 10 years ago we did not know,” he said.

Tenotex’s Mr. Ghira is also witnessing the growth in incorporating hybrid processes into spunlace manufacturing. “Our choice of the staple-wood pulp spunlace technology is based on a hybrid formation, which is carded staple fiber and airlaid pulp. This offers advantages in terms of cost effectiveness with lower weights and comparable physical performances versus traditional airlaid,” explained Mr. Ghira. “This complex process is designed to provide performances typical of cellulose short-fiber processes. Spunlacing cannot cover all the requirements of the wiping market but certainly most of them.”

Mr. Ghira believes that combinations using different technologies will begin dominating the market in about in five years. “Commercial products combining spunbonding and spunlacing are coming out in the market,” he said. “In the future, market volume will be dominated by commodities, highly competitive products with improved technology and high cost efficiency.”

In a certain sense, the combination of technologies offers the best of both worlds. “Airlaid nonwovens make excellent wiping cloth products, where absorbency, low cost and light-duty wiping are the principal requirements,” said Paul Vandette, vice president and general manager of BBA Nonwovens’ Specialty Business segment, Old Hickory, TN. “Spunlace nonwovens, although higher in cost, offer products that are softer and stronger than airlaid nonwovens. In addition, spunlace products provide a true textile feel and performance.”

PGI Nonwovens, S. Charleston, N.C., has recently been awarded a patent for its “Spinlace” technology, which combines spunbonded material and the company’s “Apex” spunlace technology into a soft, three-dimensionally imaged, and lightweight substrate, according to PGIs executives. “Combining technologies will allow us to create engineered materials that could not be produced using traditional single technology methods and end materials that cannot be duplicated by standard woven goods,” said a group of PGI executives.

With regard to combining different technologies, Green Bay Nonwovens’ Mr. Lauritsen noted that there is still a gap between airlaid and staple fibers. “Softness and strength are the top two key attributes for wipes. Absorbency is about the equivalent to an airlaid product,” he said. “The only disadvantage is cost with pulp versus staple fibers, such as rayon and polyester—these are more expensive.” While Mr. Lauritsen believes that cost remains the cloud hovering over the future of technology combinations, some manufacturers believe that spunlace is best alone, without combination.

BFF Nonwovens’ Mr. Barrington tends to prefer the advantages of spunlace material over airlaid. “Spunlace traditionally makes a virtue of its purity, its handle, softness and general cloth-like properties, hence its suitability for wipes and medical applications. The airlaid people talk a good fight but their market penetration does not commensurate with their publicity efforts. Newer technologies always overclaim.”

Unparallel Demands
While the ever-growing wipes market is driving sales in the U.S., it is a different story in Europe in terms of capacity. In Europe, the demand is not as high as it is in the U.S. for wipes. Green Bay Nonwovens’ Mr. Lauritsen said, “Currently the U.S. is not sitting on excess material because we have a high demand here, especially for wipes. In Europe right now, supplies are increasing while demand is decreasing and this is what is causing overcapacity. During the next few years, I think the two will balance out—supply will be lowered and demand will increase. The U.S. has plenty of demand for spunlace products, whereas, in Europe, the demand is not as strong.”

Still, the U.S. is not completely off the hook with overcapacity, because some of the products sold in the U.S. are imported from Europe.

Orlandi Spa, Varese, Italy has witnessed the issue of overcapacity in Europe, but this has not stopped it from adding new spunlace lines. The company is already looking into a fifth spunlace line on top of its recently installed third and fourth lines. This added capacity seems to make sense for Orlandi. The company witnessed a 40% jump in its sales when it added its third line in Cressa, Italy in 1999. The company incorporated a fourth line, also in Cressa, that passed the installation phase in early July of last year. The fourth line features a patent-pending technology in which a nonwoven sandwich is created through the spunlaced process. This sandwich contains an interior core of wood pulp surrounded by two polyester layers.

If companies in Europe keep coming out with new machinery lines for spunlace products when the demand is not as high, overcapacity will remain an issue for the time being. However, overcapacity is not found in every market where spunlace is used. Some markets requiring more specific, tailored applications aren’t sitting on excess, unlike with some markets, where end uses run rampant.

PGI executives explained that there is overcapacity in some industries, but not in all of them. “The amount of capacity available in spunlace is difficult to quantify due to varying perception of what is on the market compared to the end use applications. In some of the more specialized processes for medical and industrial products, there appears to be equilibrium; however, in the commodity segments, such as low end disposable wipes, there is some downward price pressure due to increased supply, compounded by the strong dollar, thus making imported fabrics more financially attractive,” said a collaboration of executives at PGI.

Spunlace Sets Sail
All manufacturers seem to agree that the future of spunlacing is bright, but new technologies and trends are definitely emerging onto the surface. “Producers are still going to be looking for less down time, less stops during a production run and high quality water,” said Idrosistem’s Mr. Trevisan. While these demands won’t be changing any time soon, there are few noteworthy trends beginning to bloom, and manufacturers are standing up and taking notice of these.

Embossing for one, has become a popular demand. For instance, Cincinnati, OH,-based Procter & Gamble’s Swiffer household cleaning cloths feature an embossed pattern. According to executives at Rieter Perfojet, there is a lot of interest surrounding embossing. Rieter company executives also believe that lowering energy costs and offering more flexible and efficient machinery lines will still reign high on consumer checklists.

With all these technologies and future predictions knocking down the door for the future of spunlace, it is clear that this technology is setting sail for a successful and profitable future in a wide variety of markets. Although many manufacturers have different opinions on what should and should not be down to spunlace, once a few companies start to innovate, others, without doubt, will be soon to follow in order to keep up with this competitive industry.

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