Technology In Search Of Markets
rnnotes on air laid nonwovens of yesterday, today and tomorrow
By Ivan Pivko NotaBene Associates Inc. Longboat Key, FLrn
A Scandinavian businessman lands at the Atlanta International Airport and passing through the U.S. entry, encounters a rudimentary question on his professional affiliation. For our visitor it is not advisable to admit he is involved in nonwovens. “Non-what?” will likely be the answer. “What type of business defines itself by telling what is it not?” The officer searches his database but cannot find nonwovens on the list of approved “reputable” activities. And our friend might be lucky not to miss his connecting flight.rn
Later that night, after checking into his hotel somewhere in the Midwest, the visitor orders at the local bar a much appreciated bourbon on the rocks. If he answers the bartender’s casual inquiry on what he does for a living by admitting “air laying,” a distinctive moment of silence will replace the lively conversation around, guaranteed!rn
Never mind that neither nonwovens nor air laids are recognized household terms yet. Even within the industry we have a dilemma: under the scrutiny of the 1992 INDA Definition of Nonwovens, the predominantly wood fiber-based air laids do not deserve to be included in the nonwovens family.rn
This is not the first—nor will it be the last—time we are encountering obvious disparities in nomenclature and classification of nonwovens. The conflicts and inconsistencies are results of variants involved in evolution of the given nonwoven processes. Let’s face it: our playing field is an interface industry benefiting from its three principal technological roots: conventional textiles, paper making and polymer processing. And the participants arriving from these diverse backgrounds carry with them, and subsequently apply, a different and often confusing lingo.rn
Although not all nonwovens are created equal, there are some basic steps common to all as we construct a particular nonwoven fabric. At the beginning one needs a fiber and to modify /condition its form and shape in order to make it suitable to process it into a particular web structure (a web is not the fabric as yet). Then, the web must be exposed to a bonding method that creates a fabric of structural integrity. Finally, one may apply to that “raw” fabric some finishing treatments to enhance its desirable physical properties.rn
In the case of air laid nonwovens, the web formed is neither wet laid nor melt blown. It is a dry-state formed, dry laid structure. As the web is formed from the air stream suspended fiber, it is not carded dry laid. Under the general umbrella of dry formed nonwovens it is, distinctively, the air laid web consolidated by a number of available bonding techniques to the air laid fabric.rn
Hysterical About History : Who Is The Inventor?
rnSince the late 1940s the web forming concept developed by Rando-Weber offered machinery to commercially produce air laid nonwovens. This, today labeled as a “classic” air laying method using predominantly textile fiber, is alive and doing rather well. Sort of.
Rando air laid lines, often heavily modified in-house, produce a variety of high loft fabrics in 10-3000 gram per square meter range used in filtration, home furnishings, automotive interiors and some medical specialties. The units’ capacity has been limited by the process speed, typically under 100 m/min.rn
Noticeable exceptions are two spin-offs from the “old-fashioned” Rando.rn
The first is the ex-Scott’s baby wipe operation in Dover, DE. The two lines on site, the second retrofitted in the early 1990s with the hydroentanglement capabilities, have been delivering, most recently to new owner Procter & Gamble, some 20,000+ annual tonnes of a functional quality air laid wiper.rn
At Johnson & Johnson, since the mid 1960s a potential for air laid fabrics in-house manufacturing had been seriously explored. The patented “Dual-Rotor” concept (a Canadian invention) was put in a useful application as a diaper facing until the company decided to terminate its presence in the diaper market. Air laying, although not as a major nonwoven technology, survived at J&J and it has still a presence at PGI.rn
And there was, from the late 1960s through the 1970s, Kimberly-Clark’s heroic, yet failed, attempt to air lay a single-ply facial tissue, the original “Softique.”rn
Over the last quarter of the century the fastest growing and the most successful dry formed nonwovens—by far—have been the wood fiber, wood pulp or pulp-based air laids, not formed in the Rando fashion.rn
Honshu, Kroyer/M&J and Dan-Web—from the late 1950s and through the ’60’s and ’70s—pioneered the tools to make that “other kind” of air laid. The proprietary forming sections of the lines built by these companies are commonly labeled as the horizontal screen or rotary drum formers.rn
In Japan the Honshu Fuji-Shi plant, in Europe all the way from Scandinavia, through France and Germany to Italy, and here in North America at American Can, Fort Howard and Merfin (now Buckeye), thanks to those companies’ dedicated scientists and engineers, backed by entrepreneurially driven executives and encouraged by their customers, within one generation life-span, the “air laid pulp industry” evolved from its humble beginnings into what is today a major nonwoven technology.rn
How Did It Begin?
rnIn what is a very secretive community, it is difficult to determine who did what and when. Historically, the Scandinavian conceptual thinking appears to be ahead the others. Karl Kroyer was always convinced that the invention belongs to him. Yet, it was a Finnish engineer Hejtl’s work in the early ’50s that inspired air laying thoughts of Kroyer. On the other hand, the Japanese were, undoubtedly, the very first to advance the process commercialization and for a long time Honshu made—and arguably is still making—the best air laid around.
All Those Diligent Paper Makers
rnKarl Kroyer, right from the beginning of his involvement in air laying and for the rest of his life, believed that he had invented a process that, some 2000 years after the original Chinese invention, would make a better paper. Mr. Kroyer was also a skillful promoter and a good number of Europeans as well as North Americans followed that promise.
Likewise, Honshu was, during the decades of air laid pioneering, always a paper company. Did the technology, in its infancy and through the initial growth stage, fall in the wrong hands?rn
Being challenged by new business opportunities, the early air laid corporate executives and their marketing visionaries responded in a classic fashion that reflected their paper-product related background. “Let’s make the high-tech (yet mass commodity) wipe of tomorrow!” was the direction given to their R&D troops. “Give me an industrial wiper that will replace the rug. A single-ply toilet tissue. A superior (bulletproof) kitchen towel. The most luxurious Kleenex for her beautiful nose...” Scientists and engineers obliged and indeed delivered some rather attractive air laid fabrics. The only disappointment was that the consumer was not quite ready to pay the premium for what was still a basic commodity article.rn
rnBy the mid ’80s Hoshu’s first thermal bonded air laid fabrics hit the market, while Coloplast in Denmark and DFP in Sweden started to explore niche applications for thermal bonded materials.
In the early ‘90’s air laids participated (although only marginally) in the feminine hygiene business by supplying customers like J&J and P&G with a latex bonded air laid component for the composite feminine hygiene absorbent core. In the noticeably thin feminine hygiene design—with dramatically reduced leakage—since fluid was now locked in the SAP gel, the old “sponge- inspired” core became rapidly obsolete. Consequently, air laid producers received an open invitation from the feminine hygiene converters and marketers to offer more. And the new composite core imperative for the personal hygiene segment was born! Air laid “paper” practitioners discovered the technology’s nonwoven side potential and never looked back.rn
Since 1989, every air laid pulp line installed or on order—some dozen units—have been or will be equipped with thermal bonding capabilities. A Walkisoft installation in the U.S. is soon to be retrofitted and the same is expected at Havix in Japan.rn
Most importantly, improved margins achieved with nonwoven air laids fueled aggressive expansion activities among the technology participants. Merfin’s unprecedented 1992-1997 growth period is the prime example.rn
Capacity Versus Output
rnWorldwide installed air laid capacity has been presented by different parties at different forums in a broad 200-350,000 annual tonnes range. The higher numbers are typically subscribed to by equipment suppliers who labeled some carding lines, retrofitted in the past with the air laid formers, as well as today’s aggressively promoted wood fiber air laying component as a complement to spunlacing lines (most recently Dan-Web machinery at DuPont’s Asturias installation or the M&J unit at Albaad, Israel) as incremental air laid capacity.
If we adhere to those definitions offered above and agree with a premise that the process component that gives the dominant character to the fabric determines categorization of the technology, neither the above noted production units nor Suominen’s, Personal Care’s or Spontex’s lines belong to the list of the “genuine” air laid installations. (Still the fact that air laid is finding its way to expand beyond the “original” applications is, indeed, a measure of success of that technology.)rn
Any capacity numbers are meaningless if we do not appreciate the importance of the past, current and projected product mix of the output at the given time. Without understanding the product mix dynamics, we are unable to think strategically. Our data shows that in 1998, globally, the air laid producers generated “only” about 205,000 tonnes of first quality pulp-based air laid fabrics. The split between European and North American production is almost equal (45% and 43%), with a further 12% contribution from Asia Pacific. The last year was the very first for air laid manufacturers as a group to produce an unprecedented volume (one fifth) of nontraditional air laid fabrics, 11% thermal-bonded, 7% multi-bonded and about 2% of X-bonded.rn
Back to The Future: It’s The Diaper, Stupid!
rnSCA Hygiene Products (Mölnlycke) commercialized the “Nana FH” branded product, McAirlaid’s just installed its very first line and Rayonier has a newly developed “EAM NovaThin” material; all are pursuing their own proprietary air laid web consolidation. (At this stage, we have grouped and labeled these approaches under the umbrella term, X-bonded.) Decreased fiber cost—CTMP at Mölnlycke, in-house/in-line fiber processing by Rayonier and reduction/elimination of the external binder—removes a large roadblock to the next air laid hurrah.
In our judgment, a new chapter in air laying is being currently written by two companies knowing the cellulosic fiber the best. Each of them has chosen a very different path, yet still leading to the same objective: to protect, and preferably, grow their specialty pulp business.rn
Buckeye Cellulose has bought, at premium, an instant entry to air laying through the 1997 acquisition of Merfin International. Rayonier, on the other hand, committed years of significant R&D effort into development of the EAM, an X-bonded material. Both are prime industry candidates to have (and to operate successfully) a super-capacity air laid machine. Those lines will have at least three times, and preferably more, of the production capacity of today’s state-of-the art air laid installations.rn
At the current capacity the industry can effectively participate, as it does, in the feminine hygiene business. Some, although not yet substantial, inroads were made as well into the adult incontinence segment. A number of diaper manufacturers and marketers “really like” the super thin core made out of the most advanced air laids. Yet, to shift the major brand of diaper in that direction, the air laid volume required is not available.rn
The technology is here. Both principal equipment suppliers have the super-capacity machine on their engineering drawing boards. The courageous one, a company with deep enough pockets and marketing savvy, will be rewarded for its move with the tool, tailored to a specific product type (diaper, of course) and will enjoy unbeatable economics of scale and the industry will be changed forever.rn
About the author: Ivan Pivko is the ex-CEO of Merfin International Inc. He is currently writing a book on air laids and keeps his consulting firm, NotaBene Associates Inc., focused on air laid nonwovens affairs. He can be reached at 597 Yawl Lane, Longboat Key, FL 34228; 941-383-8404, Fax: 941-387-8924; e-mail: email@example.com