companies declare success in Europe and continue quest for markets
Spunlaced nonwovens continue to flourish in the nonwovens industry, with key markets ranging from medical products to consumer and industrial wipe applications to substrates for artificial leather. Within the last year alone, we’ve seen acquisitions and new capacity additions. Other trends have been growth in wipes as an application area and strong regional growth in Europe.
The Story From Manufacturers
All of this activity among manufacturers suggests a belief in the strong future of spunlaced technology. While manufacturers cited overcapacity problems–specifically in Europe and Asia–companies continue to work on growing the business and developing new technology. Today it appears the focus is on productivity, specifically faster machines. Customers are demanding machines with higher pressure capabilities to handle heavier weight fabrics, said Frank Malaney, manager of fabric enhancement technology at BBA Nonwovens, London, U.K., which entered the spunlaced market last year with its purchase of Veratec. “The general objective is [to use] higher pressures to make a more efficient machine or handle heavier weight fabrics,” he said.
Randy Davis, vice president of sales and marketing at Dexter Corporation, Windsor Locks, CT, agreed, but pointed out the downside. “Faster lines will require additional hydroentanglement energy as well as additional drying capacity, making them more expensive to install.”
While faster line speeds will allow more product to be manufactured in less time, overcapacity is already a problem. Tom West, global business director of Sontara Technologies, DuPont, Wilmington, DE, summed up the situation. “Over-selling by spunlaced equipment manufacturers and overbuilding of spunlaced plants in the Asia-Pacific region encouraged by the pre-1998 bubble economic growth–coupled by the collapse of most of the Asia-Pacific markets–has resulted in not only slower overall growth, but much of that growth has been in commodity offerings. [This] has lowered the overall value of spunlaced investments and will continue to lower margins across the industry.”
Dexter’s Mr. Davis agreed, commenting that the increasing investment in spunlace capacity in Europe and Asia may be an issue. “There are a number of lines in place that produce similar products and excess capacity could create pressure on selling prices,” he observed.
Competition From Many Corners
As this industry segment evolves, competition will continue in the form of spunlaced nonwovens versus spunlaced nonwovens, but also in the form of spunlaced fabrics versus other nonwovens technologies. Commenting on this, BBA’s Mr. Malaney said spunlaced fabrics have, in essence, not only created new applications but have also cannabalized existing products or materials because of “unique or superior product characteristics or performance in that particular application.”
According to Dexter’s Mr. Davis, “The ability to produce materials with strength, perceived softness and other textile-like characteristics gives spunlaced materials advantages versus competing technologies and continues to be a viable textile replacement in many applications.”
DuPont’s Mr. West concurred. “The advantages for spunlaced material are its strength, clothlike hand and the absence of binders and adhesives, as well as its cost effectiveness. Replacing wovens, knits or paper products with a new approach or in new applications is potentially far more rewarding with more opportunity for growth.” He explained DuPont’s strategy, “If a producer sets its sights on other spunlace manufacturers or even other nonwoven producers, then it’s aiming at a share of a $8-9 billion opportunity worldwide. DuPont prefers to focus its attention on the $300 billion flexible, two-dimensional sheet structure market.”
Many Potential Market Opportunities
The technology of spunlacing remains one of the faster growing processes within the nonwovens industry. Certain geographic regions and end use markets have been the recent focus of this growth. In terms of geographic growth, manufacturers cite Europe as the region of greatest potential. According to BBA’s Mr. Malaney, there has been dramatic growth in spunlaced applications in Europe including synthetic leather, roofing fabrics and miscellaneous medical and industrial apparel. Spokesperson John Brett of DuPont said the company’s success of spunlaced technology in Europe has been due to a strong combination of substitution, application growth and general strong economy, adding, however, that growth there is likely to slow this year.
Asia is also an area that remains strong in potential opportunities, recent economic events notwithstanding. “There has been significant activity in the last few years in exportation of equipment from manufacturers such as Fleissner, Egelsbach, Germany, or ICBT Perfojet from Europe to the Far East,” BBA’s Mr. Malaney said.
Growth in the form of the capacity expansion has also been a theme among spunlaced manufacturers. New capacity was recently added by several of the top spunlaced manufacturers, with PGI, Dayton, NJ, coming onstream in Europe with a spunlaced line at its Cujik, Netherlands facility. The company had also debottlenecked existing capacity last year and will continue in 1999.
The Sontara unit of DuPont Nonwovens started up its Asturias, Spain spunlaced facility last summer; this state-of-the-art plant is billed as next generation spunlaced technology by the company. DuPont also began an initiative to move spunlacing technology into the Chinese market, forming a joint venture last year with Beijing Dayuan to create DuPont Dayuan Nonwovens, a spunlaced manufacturer based in China.
In terms of end use markets, DuPont’s Mr. Brett said that one of the biggest trends in the industry is the growth of the pre-moistened wipe market on both sides of the Atlantic. “In Europe, it is baby wipes and in North America, specialty wipes,” he said. Recently debuted were new Sontara wiping products, especially general purpose and industrial wipes in North America and Canada and contamination control wipes in North America and Europe.
Last year, Dexter introduced spunlaced wipes and a variety of high-elongation industrial materials. “Dexter has ongoing investments to advance spunlaced technology in support of market opportunities for higher value nonwoven materials,” said Mr. Davis.
In other news, BBA’s Mr. Malaney said that the company is upgrading a machine at its South Carolina plant–previously used for enhancement of woven fabrics–for the manufacture of spunlaced fabrics. Mr. Malaney explained the current challenge of the spunlacing industry, “We’re all working on new products but we have not created a significant new market. Growth sales for equipment in spunlaced fabrics have been heavily focused on synthetic leather replacements,” he said. “Within the last few years, the sales of equipment from Fleissner and ICBT Perfojet–which had been focused on synthetic leather–are now directed towards working with air laid pulp and working toward products like wet wipes that include fiber and pulp.”
What’s New Among Machinery Suppliers?
At Honeycomb, a patent is pending to allow control of the spunlacing process to automatically achieve and control desired porosity. Valmet has introduced the device on filter paper and other nonwovens products.
ICBT Perfojet has experienced growth in the U.S. and Europe, with Italy, China and Israel the strongest regions. Among significant technological advancements is the reduction of energy consumption (the “Jetlace 2000” machine uses only 25% of the energy necessary with conventional technique), up to 40% increase in the tensile strength, new injectors that deliver perfect water needles up to 400 bars, a new fully automatic filtration system that allows complete recirculation of the water used by the process and the development of the new generation of “Airlace” products, which combine polyester and wood pulp.