The Best Of Both Worlds

August 17, 2005

composite structures combine multiple materials to create products with more function, better value and increased versatility

In an industry that is inundated with commodity-type and me-too products, one area receiving a good deal of attention in nonwovens research and development labs is composites. Companies are looking toward these structures as a way to provide value-added, differentiated products to customers, but the trick is getting these customers to pay for the innovation behind composites.

Composites are generally structures comprising multiple layers of nonwoven and/or woven materials, made either by varying forming technologies or different raw materials. By combining these layers, composites are able to increase the functionality of more mature nonwovens technologies, such as spunbond or melt blown and subsequently open up new end use areas for nonwovens. The combinations, whether they be of fabrics made from different technologies or from different raw materials, create endless possibilities for manufacturers.

“We see composites becoming more important to our business, as well as the industry as a whole,” explained Edward Thomas, global vice president of research and development for BBA Nonwovens Industrial Division, Old Hickory, TN. “Combining different products and technologies allows us to better custom design products to meet customer needs, particularly in markets such as filtration, consumer care and construction.”

A Strong Beginning
The first true composites in the nonwovens industry were developed in the early 1970s by Kimberly-Clark, Dallas, TX, which combined spunbond and melt blown (SMS) nonwovens in a single structure. These materials originally targeted the hygiene and medical markets but later found application in filtration media, furniture, bedding, automotives and geotextiles.

While combinations of spunbond and melt blown opened the door for the composites market, these technologies were soon joined by a wide range of other structures containing two or more layers. In the climate of today’s nonwovens industry, in fact, no structure is safe from being turned into a composite. A look at the landscape of this market reveals composites containing airlaid, needlepunched, spunlaced, carded and thermal bonded nonwovens, to name a few. Whatmore, many manufacturers are experimenting with composites made of a nonwoven and another material such as a film, a woven or a piece of glass.

“As nonwovens companies manufacture an increasing share of their fabrics with off-the-shelf technologies, converters who use these fabrics, particularly those who market premium performing products, face an increasing challenge when its comes to product differentiation and attribute uniqueness,” explained J.C. Sneyd, director of marketing & sales for Kimberly-Clark’s Nonwoven Fabrics Business. “By combining component layers, K-C adds uniqueness to our fabrics and multifunctional value for our customers.”

Jacob Holm has put a great deal of effort into composite structures in an effort to differentiate itself from the competition.
As nonwovens producers grapple with the challenge of manufacturing products featuring the amount of innovation for which their customers are willing to pay, a few key end use markets have emerged as areas ripe for innovation. Among these are filtration, high end wipes, construction and even some areas of the hygiene market. However, success in this market requires more than just joining two layers of nonwovens together. Manufacturers have to innovate at every stage of the game—from raw material selection to web forming technology to the final lamination of the materials.

From Kimberly-Clark’s perspective, developing composite fabrics goes significantly beyond combining layers of commodity materials, nonwoven or otherwise. The company has been focusing its technologies to create composites that at a minimum include one component layer that markedly differentiates the appearance and, more importantly, the performance of the fabric. The unique layers are typically manufactured on one of K-C’s proprietary technologies and provide multiple advantages for the converter. “If the composite doesn’t contain at least one unique performing layer, it’s really just a more costly commodity product,” stated Mr. Sneyd.

In Mr. Sneyd’s opinion, one area ideal for unique, high performance composite structures is the filtration industry. “In general, filter converters and distributors are astute judges of the enhanced value composites can bring to the industry. The composite media we provide our customers allows them to separate themselves from commodity products by bringing enhancements in filtration efficiency, particulate holding and low pressure drop—all at the same time.”

Additionally, Mr. Sneyd sees the disposable wipes market, particularly in the area of household cleaning, as another prime area for composite structures to bring advantaged performance.

One company whose investment in composites has been significantly high is Ahlstrom FiberComposites, Helsinki, Finland. The company inaugurated a $50 million composites manufacturing facility in Windsor Locks, CT in November 2001. The 85,000 square foot facility makes Windsor Locks the largest of the company’s six locations for nonwovens manufacturing. The new line uses state-of-the-art technologies to produce a wide range of composite nonwoven materials, which reportedly complement existing customer products in Ahlstrom’s core nonwovens end use areas such as automotives, medical and wipes.

Currently all of the trial and commissioning work on the new facility has proceeded smoothly and the final stages of commissioning and commercial sales of product have already begun. Ahlstrom will use composites from the new line to enhance components within its existing products and will eventually supply multilayer and multifunctional composites using nonwovens and other materials.

“The $50 million investment in Windsor Locks demonstrates Ahlstrom’s commitment to the development of its nonwovens business as part of the FiberComposites division. Ahlstrom’s FiberComposites division also manufactures glass fiber and woven and specialty composites for reinforcement applications,” added Alistair Brown, director of marketing for Ahlstrom FiberComposites. “There are also multiple layer composites utilizing manmade and polyester fibers within the engine filtration product range. Composites are at the heart of the FiberComposites division, and we are committed to its continued growth.”

According to Ahlstrom’s research, increasingly complex composite structures will continue to grow in many market sectors. This trend will be driven by the need for increased functionality, decreased overall weight and other features affecting production efficiency. Additionally, the ability of composites to provide such benefits as structural reinforcement, permeability and aesthetics contributes to many manufacturers’ goal of minimizing the total cost associated with the fabrics.

“Customers are looking to fabric producers to deliver even more features and benefits with the materials they provide, and composite structures offer a way to achieve this,” Mr. Brown explained. “While looking for composite fabrics to do more, customers are also looking to manage cost out of the total value chain. Composite producers can help shorten the value chain by reducing complexity and improving overall efficiency in the manufacture of industrial and consumer products.”

Help From Your Friends
The beauty of composites is that it is an industry that knows no boundaries. The only rule that applies when forming these structures is to be as creative as possible. Some composites, such as SMS, can be produced on a multifunctional production line; others are manufactured by introducing different materials via unwinds. Additionally, material handling systems or off-line manufacturing steps such as adhesive, thermal or extrusion laminating, ultrasonic bonding or hydroentangling, are used to make composites. Furthermore, manufacturers are combining different types of nonwovens, nonwoven layers made from different raw materials and a layer of nonwoven with virtually any other material to provide solutions to their customers’ ever-changing requirements. This has created a market that is constantly growing and evolving with new end use areas and applications.

“We try to combine different nonwovens or materials so they will be worth more than on their own,” explained Michael Lunde, vice president of Jacob Holm Industries, Soultz, France. “To get the value in these products you need to focus on markets where they can afford these products.”

Jacob Holm typically targets the cosmetic, household and industrial cleaning wipes segment as well as the medical market with its composite structures. Currently, a great amount of the company’s research and development efforts deal with composite structures. In fact, the company recently introduced several new products containing multiple layers. For instance, the company’s Bi-activ product is a melt blown nonwoven that can be combined with either a needlepunched or spunlaced material. The needlepunched/spunlaced side of the material provides benefits of absorption and bulkiness while the melt blown side offers roughness.

While wipes is a key focus for Jacob Holm’s composites business, the company does realize that many segments of the wipes market are commodity-oriented. Therefore, the company has saved its more sophisticated composite structures for more specialty areas and is leaving the commodity-type markets, such as baby wipes, to simpler materials. “When you’re not selling to the baby wipes market, it allows you to do more exciting things,” Mr. Lunde explained.

The increased segmentation of consumer markets, particularly wipe products, has raised the bar for nonwovens professionals by demanding multifunctional materials that will lure consumers. Because your typical consumer knows nothing about the nonwovens technology behind the wipe, manufacturers need to offer products that speak for themselves with multifunctionality and performance benefits.

“Three or four years a go it was okay to offer a plain product.” explained Bruno Guyomard, Jacob Holm’s research and development manager. “But today’s market is challenging the nonwovens supplier. Customers want to bring something to the market with real benefits that can’t necessarily be achieved using only one product.”

In addition to offering composites made from different types of nonwovens, Jacob Holm has recently developed a product consisting of a spunlaced nonwoven laminated to a polyethylene film. Named Duplex, this product targets the medical, hygiene and cosmetic markets, according to executives. Also targeting these markets is the company’s Triplex product, comprising a three-layered “sandwich” construction made of a film between two layers of spunlaced nonwoven.

“Nonwovens combined with other materials are generally performance-driven,” said Mr. Guyomard. “They have a target market where people are looking for an effective product and they are willing to pay for it.”

Ahlstrom’s Mr. Brown agreed that nonwovens paired with other materials are a strong source of innovation for the nonwovens industry. The unique properties of nonwovens, combined with properties of the partnered substrate, have combined to equal great success in many applications. Not only has this practice created a host of innovative new products, it has also contributed to advancing technology in nonwovens manufacturing.

“By combining different materials into composite structures, the potential applications for nonwovens are greatly extended. The distinction of applications as solely nonwoven, textile, film or paper markets is blurring,” Mr. Brown explained. “This provides a whole new customer base to consider how nonwovens could benefit their markets. More and more the answer is a composite of what they have been using with other materials to provide additional features. Ultimately, the customer gains from this by getting fabrics uniquely suited to their specific needs.”

Not only does the marriage of nonwovens with other technologies pave new roads for composite structures, it is beneficial to the nonwovens industry as a whole. Working with materials related to nonwovens, such as films, paper or wovens, allows manufacturers to more closely study related technologies and hopefully improve their own nonwovens manufacturing techniques. “Working closely with related technologies provides new ideas on advancement in manufacturing techniques. For instance, current manufacturing problems in nonwovens may have already been solved in other industries,” Mr. Brown added.

BBA Nonwovens works closely with its customers to produce nonwoven materials that closely meet the requirements of custom designed composite materials as well as producing composites themselves. “We are seeing an increased demand for nonwovens being used as a layer in composite structures in multiple industries,” Mr. Thomas explained. “These constructions allow the exploitation of the key attributes of each material resulting in an optimized design.”

Mason Daniel, of American Nonwovens, Columbus, MS, views nonwovens’ partnering with other materials as a way to rid the industry of the stigma of being disposable. Although more than 40% of nonwovens applications are durable, the dominance of hygiene applications in the industry has led many to associate nonwovens with short-life products. “The combination of these products gives better response to the desired life expectancy in terms of reusability or limited reuse of nonwovens,” Mr. Daniel explained. “In the past, the words nonwovens and disposables were synonymous but not any longer.”

American Nonwovens has been combining its needlepunched, chemical bonded and resin bonded technologies as well as other nonwoven materials, nets and films, purchased externally, to add value to its products in terms of both performance and price points.

This is also the case for roofing and construction specialist Johns Manville, Denver, CO. The company combines glass scrim and spunbond matting in roofing substrates to improve the dimensions of the spunbond material. “This allows lighter weight spunbond materials to be used,” explained Marvin Mitchell, vice president and general manager of JM’s Engineered Fabrics division. “This allows us to offer improved performance at the same price.”

Additionally, the company’s CombiMat product, which is marketed primarily in Europe, features polyester spunbond material needled to a glass layer to offer such properties as stability, flame retardancy and the absence of binders in one superior product. “The roofing market is extremely performance-driven,” remarked Luc Mechelaere, vice president and general manager of Johns Manville Europe, Bad Homburg, Germany. “This has made composites a bigger part of the market every year.”

Atex, Settala, Italy, entered the composites market in 2000 and is now involved in both laminated composites and formed composites. “Thanks to improvements in technology, polymer science and the evolution of final products, there is a strong demand for more and more multifunctional products, which offer not only mechanical performance but also advanced multifunctional abilities such as higher absorption, better liquid retention, abrasiveness, softness and biocidal benefits,” explained Guni Schiller, spokeswoman for Atex.

And, experts agree that the demand for multifunctional products such as composites will continue to shape the nonwovens industry in the future. This will be driven by the demanding needs of the many markets served by nonwovens as well as by new application areas created by innovative composite structures.

“The composites market is going to accelerate, driven by the actual benefits these structures provide,” Jacob Holm’s Mr. Lunde predicted. “More and more companies will look for nonwovens combined either with other nonwovens or with materials from another industry to realize these benefits.”

In the future of the nonwovens industry, the companies that will be the most successful are the ones that are willing to invest in developing differentiated products. This is a fact agreed on by nearly everybody in the industry. Because composites, for now, seem to be an area ripe for innovation, manufacturers will certainly continue to invest heavily in the development of multilayer structures, and this will undoubtedly lead to a host of interesting new products on the market. Hopefully, these new products will contribute to the future proliferation of nonwovens into both established end use markets as well as new application areas.

“The combination of composite raw materials as well as technologies does create unique products and as we see it, the sky is the limit,” American Nonwovens’ Mr. Daniel said. “You will see both multiple composites and multiple forming technologies taking shares of the market. A company’s technology base will determine the approach that company takes. A few of the driving forces are better performance, cost competitiveness and unique structures.”