Driven by government regulations on worker protection and an overall increase in personal safety awareness, protective apparel continues to be one of the more quickly growing markets in nonwovens. According to consulting firm John R. Starr, Inc., Osterville, MA, the U.S. protective apparel market is expected to grow at a rate of 5% per year through the year 2000. The firm also predicts the value of garment manufacturers' sales will approach $300 million this year alone. But, as with every expanding market, there are areas for improvement and leading the list of challenges for this growing market are absorbency, breathability, comfort and heat stress.
Market Growth And Negative Impacts
Despite the challenges they face, most roll goods manufacturers anticipate a bright future for the protective apparel market. "We are very optimistic about the growth of the protective apparel market because personal safety has a very high priority in our culture and it is becoming more and more evident," said Ross West, director of marketing, American Felt & Filter Co. (AFFCO), Newburgh, NY. "Customers are driven to make sure they have the best protection for their workers."
Jim Blose, category manager-protective apparel for Kimberly-Clark's Away From Home Sector, Roswell, GA, agreed. "There are many liability issues," he said, adding, "Companies don't want their workers to become ill or harmed because proper protection was not available."
James Zeigler, a research associatee at DuPont Nonwovens' Division in Richmond, VA, said greater occupational safety awareness and an increase in SuperFund cleanups will also aid growth in the protective apparel industry. In a recent article, "The Dangers Of Chemical Weapons," he cited civilian emergency response teams working to protect the public against toxic chemical warfare agents as an additional reason for a possible increase in protective apparel.
A significant increase in demand is also expected due to aggressive clean-up efforts at former nuclear weapons manufacturing and research sites of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). According to a presentation given at IDEA98 by Pricie Hanna of John R. Starr, remediation activities may be needed for more than 130 sites in 33 U.S. states for a combined area of 3300 square miles.
In addition to various aspects of market growth, factors having a negative impact on the market also exist. One factor that can negatively impact U.S. market growth is increased imports from Asia. "In the last five years several new nonwoven lines—both spunbond and SMS—have been installed in Asia and the number of low cost finished goods being imported is on the rise," said Dr. Ronald Smorada, VP-business development, BBA Nonwovens, Bloomfield Hills, MI, adding, "End users are often using price as the key selection criteria rather than fabric and garment quality. In many cases the user may be using an inappropriate garment for the job."
A second example is what Mr. Blose calls "the moving of jobs off shore." "GM and Ford have both moved plants out of the U.S., for example, over the Mexican border. While this subtracts from U.S. and North American potential for products like protective clothing it may not mean that consumption is reduced within the industry. Recognizing this, Kimberly-Clark strives to work with companies to cover any of their plant locations, leveraging its own global presence," said Mr. Blose.
Another concern is raw material costs. "All manufacturers are affected in some way by price increases," said Michael Jeziorski, product manager, new business development for Amoco Fabrics & Fibers, Atlanta, GA. Amoco produces a microporous polypropylene film—"Aptra"—which is used in composite form for the disposable apparel, construction and furniture and bedding market segments. "Microporous film composites are generally used in areas where protection is required, so we believe the demand for this type of product will remain consistent," he said.
"Raw materials are a factor but they are not the driver," said DuPont's Dr. Zeigler, adding, "These are specialty products and there are many other services that comprise the total offering."
A final problem can be in the regulatory area. Although government regulations have played a major role in market growth, the lack of more specific guidelines in terms of the various types of protective apparel needed for different applications has made the situation more difficult. "Government regulations and the emphasis on worker health and safety will have the most significant impact on market growth of protective apparel," said Dr. Smorada. "Unfortunately many of the regulations are not strictly enforced. The guidelines are not specific as to the type of protective apparel that is required and the users may not be adequately protected," he added.
Growing Market Segments
Hand in hand with the continued growth of the protective apparel industry comes the rise and fall of individual market segments. Mr. West of AFFCO predicted growth in chemical apparel with increased awareness of civilian emergency response teams. "Soon every major city will have a plan that involves chemical biological warfare," said Mr. West, reflecting on the 1995 terrorist attack in a Tokyo, Japan subway with lethal gas devices.
In Dr. Zeigler's article, he mentioned an occurrence in January 1993 when 72 homes in northwest Washington were evacuated for 25 days while the military removed 141 World War I unexploded artillery chemical shells.
In addition to garments used for chemical applications, Mr. West anticipated growth in the sporting apparel safety market, specifically for use in flame protection suits for race car drivers. AFFCO's stitchbonded nonwoven fabric—where fibers are mechanically bonded by stitched threads to create strong versatile fabrics—are thermal, flame, chemical and abrasion resistant. One of the company's major markets, said Mr. West, is turnout clothing for fire fighting apparel.
Another opportunity for growth is the area between the dirty job market and chemical protection apparel, such as the agricultural and automotive markets, said Mr. Blose of K-C. In the automotive industry, he said, the mist from clear coats of paint applied to cars, which can be carcinogenic, may pose a health hazard to workers.
Dr. Smorada said dirty jobs in manufacturing, nuclear power plants, agricultural, environmental remediation and cleanroom are all major protective apparel growth segments. "Moderate growth is expected for the dirty job/general protection markets, which are the target markets for BBA's 'Securon' and 'Celestra' fabrics," he added.
A Heated Problem
Although the overall protective apparel market is expected to continue its growth into the future, there remain many areas for improvement. According to several roll goods manufacturers, solving the difficulty of heat stress, while at the same time maintaining high levels of barrier protection, is one major challenge under continuous experimentation.
"Heat stress is a common problem and people need to begin dealing with it as an issue," said Dr. Zeigler, who conducted a study of the average temperature of 120 U.S. cities. In the month of July, he discovered, at least 88% of U.S. cities have the potential for heat stress problems.
The solution to this problem is more breathable and comfortable garments. "Increase in wearer comfort has been one of the most important factors in protective apparel," said Daniel Fratini, technical and marketing service representative, Cleaver Associates, Paoli, PA, which represents roll goods producer Avgol, Holon, Israel. "This applies to all segments from dirty job to medical barrier fabrics. We have even seen the trend for more breathable fabrics extend to typically low-end types of products such as shoe covers," he added. In the area of barrier protection, Avgol has developed a material with extremely high barrier properties at low levels of melt blown in its SMS fabrics. Avgol currently uses spunbonded, melt blown, SMS and extrusion film coating technologies to produce nonwoven materials for the protective apparel market.
Known worldwide for its family of "Tyvek" and "Tychem" protective apparel, last year DuPont developed a new, more breathable product—"Tyvek ProtectiveWear" Blue Label—to tackle these heat stress and comfort issues. This latest improvement incorporates a nonwoven structure that produces a more breathable fabric without sacrificing barrier protection or durability, said Dr. Zeigler. "Allowing air flow through the fabric has a greater effect on thermal comfort," he added.
Mr. Blose of Kimberly-Clark also commented on the high temperature/ breathability issue for workers. "When you have a summer with temperatures in the 80-90° range without an air-conditioned environment, that can start to affect you," he said, adding that K-C's SMS material's multi-layer design helps alleviate this problem. "Our products were developed for the breathability and barrier performance that you can get out of a multi-layer fabric," said Mr. Blose.
Also in the multi-layer field, BBA Nonwovens' Securon, which utilizes SMS technology, offers a balance between performance, cost and comfort. "Securon fabric offers liquid repellency and barriers to small particles," said Dr. Smorada.
The introduction of microporous film composites is a recent development in disposable protective apparel. While providing a barrier to a wide range of liquids and particulates, these film composites also allow moisture vapor transmission away from the wearer, thus providing increased comfort. "In developing this product with our major partner in industrial apparel—Kappler Safety Group—we have found a need for microporous film composites which are breathable barriers," said Amoco's Mr. Jeziorski, adding that he has seen significant growth in this technology over the past five years. Both Amoco and Kappler expect this growth to continue, he said.
Mr. Blose also commented on the use of microporous film technology. "An interlining layer with films provide virtually 100% protection, but also allows water perspiration through the fabric for breathability," said Mr. Blose, adding, "I think the industry recognizes that as a great move in protective clothing." K-C entered the microporous film arena in 1996 with the introduction of its "Kleenguard Ultra" line of protective apparel, a three-layer fabric construction of spunbond/microporous film/spunbond.
BBA Nonwovens has also made inroads in the microporous film area. "BBA Europe is focusing on the development of products for the CEN norms for category three up to type three." said Dr. Smorada.
Although many roll goods manufacturers in the industry agree that microporous films have a positive affect on the industry, others take a different view. "I don't see that they are delivering the value," said Dr. Zeigler of DuPont. "They are not revolutionary products. There's still a ways to go." After conducting numerous tests late last year, DuPont claims that Tyvek is more durable, breathable and has greater barrier integrity than microporous film composites.
Disposable/Limited Use Versus Reusables
When comparing the advantages and disadvantages of reusable and protective garments, the majority of roll goods manufacturers say the overall difference lies in the application. "It's a matter of cost balance and what they need to do," said Mr. Blose.
"It's about price performance," said Mr. West of AFFCO. It depends on the application, he said, but for garments that won't get worn as much, such as the emergency response segment, disposables are a better selection.
Dr. Smorada agreed. "The vast majority of the garments used for protective apparel are disposable or limited use garments. The expanded product offering in disposable protective apparel allows users the necessary level of comfort and protection at the desired cost," he said. "Reusable garments are used for a very limited segment of the protective apparel market. Additionally, there are environmental concerns regarding water contamination when washing reusable garments."
Mr. Jeziorski added his opinion. "It certainly could depend on the environment where the garment is worn. You must take into consideration not only the hazard, but the level of exposure as well," he said.
According to John R. Starr, Inc., limited use chemical garments are also preferred over reusables because they eliminate the need for record-keeping and quality assurance related to reusable apparel contamination.
In the cleanroom arena—where disposables as well as reusables are worn—DuPont conducted a study of its Tyvek compared to reusable garments. According to the study, Tyvek—which is bonded together under heat and pressure—is substantially more effective than high-density taffeta and herringbone wovens at blocking particles as small as 0.5µm. Results also concluded that Tyvek generates less lint, is more wearer friendly—weighing less than half the weight of most woven polyester cleanroom fabrics—and has a higher microbial barrier performance.
Other Trends In The Business
Aside from major improvements in heat stress, comfort and barrier protection, other trends and issues are evolving in the protective apparel industry. For example, the market is moving toward a variety of choices in protective apparel, which emphasize comfort, cost and protection, said Dr. Smorada. "There is a move away from the philosophy of one-product fits all. The end users are optimizing what is most important to them," he added. "For example," he continued, "Kappler, a key BBA customer, offers a complete system for choosing the right industrial protective apparel for the job. As part of the 'Proshield' system, Kappler uses Securon SMS in their 'Proshield 1' product, which offers higher comfort at a lower cost than traditional general protection garments."
Another trend, said Cleaver's Mr. Fratini, is a shift away from film coated materials. "We have seen the market moving away from traditional film coated materials toward more performance oriented fabrics such as SMS, SMMS and breathable films," he said.
Added to the list is the area of composites. "There is room for major growth there," said Dr. Zeigler adding, "Through mixing and matching, you can achieve many different opportunities." Mr. Jeziorski agreed. "New applications for Aptra are continuing to emerge. We are experiencing significant growth in other market segments in addition to industrial apparel. I see this trend continuing," he said.