The year 2001 may be called the year of the snake in Chinese astrology, but as far as nonwoven roll goods producers are concerned, it should be called the year of the wipe. Over the last year, retail store shelves have been inundated with nonwoven wiping products of all shapes and sizes in application areas ranging from household cleaning to skin care to pet care. While in the past consumers could purchase liquid-based products only in pourable or sprayable bottles, they can now find them impregnated in wipes. “Where before somebody would have had to buy a liquid and then apply it to a cloth to apply it, manufacturers are coming out with complete systems that avoid that change. You just pull out a wipe and you have a ready applicator,” stated Keith Lauritsen, vice president marketing and purchasing for Green Bay Nonwovens, Green Bay, WI.
Steven Barrington, marketing director for BFF Nonwovens, Somerset, U.K., agreed. “There is no reason why anything you can get in an aerosol can or bottle can’t be put into wipe form for convenience. Instead of two processes with spraying and then wiping you would have just one,” he said.
Manufacturing products with the user’s convenience in mind is a sweeping trend both on the consumer and industrial ends of the wiping category. Manufacturers want to deliver products to customers that meet their application needs with added benefits such as a two-in-one system. This concept’s realization, however, begins with the nonwoven roll goods producer whose job it is to make a material that can meet these demands. “The major change that wipes are experiencing right now is the movement to more value-added products,” explained James Schaeffer, president of PGI Nonwovens, Dayton, NJ. “Using nonwovens for wiping products allows for more innovative ways to enhance performance characteristics. Whether it is incorporating a cleaning solution directly into the wipe for household cleaning, skin care additives for cosmetic use or designing an electrostatically-charged wipe for dusting, innovation has opened a whole new arena for nonwoven wiping products. It’s this type of convenience and value that nonwovens are able to accomplish that traditional textiles cannot.”
Serkan Gogus, commercial director for Mogul Nonwovens, Gaziantep, Turkey, expressed a similar idea. “Nonwoven products are quickly replacing conventional textiles and you can see this on the shelves of supermarkets. All the wipes you see now are nonwoven,” he said.
Due to the high level of growth some of these new wet wipe application areas are experiencing, some roll goods producers are predicting a change in volume leader at the top of the wet wipes hierarchy. “Easily baby wet wipes are the largest volume category in wet wipes, comprising 60-80%,” stated Douglas Reid, director of sales and marketing, wipes products for Ahlstrom (formerly Dexter), Windsor Locks, CT. “Non-baby wet wipe product applications, however, are growing much faster than baby wipes, particularly in consumer applications such as household cleaning, but also in the areas of adult, cosmetic and other personal care niches.”
Keith Beddingfield, global business manager for industrial and specialty absorbents, DuPont, Wilmington, DE, expressed a similar sentiment. “The household cleaning category is an important, emerging subcategory of consumer wipes. These are all products that are relatively new within the last couple of years and my sense is it won’t be very long before the household cleaning category is larger than the baby wipes market for nonwovens, if it’s not already,” he stated.
At Milyon S.A. de C.V., Canela, Mexico, the company has recently invested in new converting capabilities to manufacture make-up removing wipes due to growing customer interest, according to general director Salvador Rojas. “The wet wipes market is growing and continues to grow. Because of this, we have installed new machinery to cater to new customers interested in wet wipes. Additionally, we have bought machinery specifically for the manufacture of make-up remover products. That area is growing,” he added.
Spunlace Vs. Air Laid
Although the consumer wipes category may be unified in its thoughts on the growth of the market, it remains split as far as which nonwoven material—spunlace/hydroentangled or air laid—is most suited toward wiping applications. While spunlace is touted as a more textile-like material, air laid manufacturers see their product as more effective during wiping procedures. The final say in this case comes from consumers and their preference.
For air laid and carded nonwovens producer Georgia-Pacific Nonwovens Group (G-P), Green Bay, WI—which was most recently known as Fort James—air laid nonwovens offer wiping applications a strong, soft, clothlike product that is embossable and offers value for performance.
“In North America, hydroentangled wipes are at the premium end and air laid plays in every category, but not as much in the premium end,” explained G-P’s marketing director Susan Stansbury. She went on to say that much of the current competition within the market stems from the amount of spunlaced and air laid material that is being imported and exported from country to country, due to a certain areas’ preferences. “There is still a lot of hydroentangled material being imported into North America and that may impact fabric choices and which fabrics are selected,” Ms. Stansbury added.
On the European front, there has been a partial move from spunlace to air laid as the fabric of choice for wiping products during the last couple of years, according to Per Johannesson, marketing director for Duni AB, Bengtsfors, Sweden. “Air laid wet wipes are a bit better for actual wiping because they have a rougher surface that gives them better wiping properties,” he explained. “Spunlaced wipes might be softer, but some customers like air laid’s wiping properties better.”
With the European wet wipe market being dominated by spunlaced over air laid materials—and with the opposite being the case in the U.S.—some roll goods suppliers to European markets are required by customers to produce spunlaced materials. According to Milyon’s Mr. Rojas this is true for his company, which has currently undertaken a large project to acquire spunlacing technology. “This is a newer technology that we will use to make wipes because it produces a much softer wipe and customers are looking for wipes with a softer touch,” Mr. Rojas explained. The project calls for a new production facility, which is scheduled to open by the end of this year. The new plant will be entirely devoted to the production of spunlaced nonwovens for the wipes market and will cover demand for spunlaced products in Europe and the U.S.
Some European manufacturers, however, are concerned about the number of competitors that have added capacity in the spunlacing market. According to Mario Saldarini, commercial director for Orlandi SpA, Varese, Italy, there are a lot more competitors within the market compared to 1999 and all have installed new lines that have already come onstream or will come onstream in early 2001. “In spunlace, this has become a problem area,” Mr. Saldarini detailed. “The production capability in Europe is now almost double the demand. This is a huge problem that will only become bigger.”
Walter Hofmann, sales director for Jacob Holm Industries, Soultz, France, believes the number of suppliers of nonwoven substrates has decreased due to competition, however there is still an overcapacity problem in the converting area. “In Europe today you have an overcapacity in converting and a small overcapacity in the production of spunlace, which will go on at least during this year,” he explained. “We have a total market growth projection this year of 20-30% so a lot of converters have increased their capacities dramatically.”
The Battle Wages On
While the consumer side of the nonwoven wipes market is concentrating its energy on numerous new applications, the industrial area continues to fight for marketshare. Although most roll goods producers would agree that nonwoven wipes have continued to take marketshare away from other types of materials, such as wovens, rags and rental shop towels, some believe there is still territory to be won. Although some woven materials may offer cost advantages and hold a certain familiar degree to users, nonwovens’ customizable and disposable qualities are turning out to be upperhand strategies.
According to DuPont’s Mr. Beddingfield, the intrinsic value of nonwovens is its best battle tactic. “Nonwoven wipes have continued to take marketshare from wovens due to their customizability benefits versus wovens and rags,” he explained. “With a nonwoven, you have more knobs to change and customize it to a particular application. Wovens and rags can’t readily do that. Nonwoven technology gives us the ability to customize and develop engineered solutions rather than just take something off the shelf and find another use for it.”
To this end, DuPont offers a variety of nonwoven wiping products that are engineered for a specific task. Products such as “Sontara SPS (Surface Preparation System)” automotive refinishing wipe system, “Sontara AC (Aircraft)” aerospace/aircraft wipe and the “Chef Towel” food service wipe show that designing nonwoven wipes to meet the needs of specific applications can give nonwovens an edge in the market over wovens. “The secret is being willing to invest and exploit what is still probably under-utilized potential in the customizability of nonwovens technology,” Mr. Beddingfield added. “We can develop new products by combining existing technologies in creative ways. That requires a commitment on the part of the manufacturers and requires a level of investment rather than just continuing to offer what we’ve already sold in its present form. It’s really up to us.”
In the war against wovens and rags, customizability is just half of the battle. Manufacturing products that fit the needs of certain applications is one thing, but making them attractive from a regulatory standpoint to potential buyers and users is another. For this reason, the Wiper Focused Interest Group of INDA, Association of the Nonwovens Fabrics Industry, Cary, NC, has been working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the last few years to level the playing field between nonwoven wipers and laundered shop towels, according to Ralph Solarski, manufacturing market manager for Kimberly-Clark, Norcross, GA, and chairman of the wiper group.
Mr. Solarski explained that many states do not currently consider rental shop towels a hazardous waste when they come in contact with a hazardous solvent, such as acetone. Nonwoven wipes, on the other hand, are deemed hazardous when they come in contact with a hazardous solvent. “The federal EPA recognizes that the shop towel and nonwoven wiper should both be treated equal. If one is exempt, they both should be exempt and if one is hazardous, they both should be hazardous,” he reported. EPA plans to have a proposed rule published in the Federal Register some time this year that will tackle this problem and put nonwoven wipes and rental shop towels on level ground.
It’s A Wiping World
Although the consumer and industrial segments have certain similarities, from a global market perspective there are differences between the two. While on the industrial end, both Europe and North America are nearly equal in terms of demand, in the consumer area, sales of wet wipes are reportedly much stronger in Europe and Asia than they are in North and South America.
“In the industrial area, the needs throughout the world—especially the industrialized world—are similar, but there are a lot of differences in the distribution infrastructure that services those industries,” Mr. Beddingfield of DuPont said. “These differences in infrastructure between regions have had a marked effect on how successful nonwovens have been in getting into those markets.”
Expanding on this topic was Randy Kates, director of marketing North American wiper business for K-C, who stated that Europe and North America tend to have very similar needs and opportunities. At the same time, he also sees South America and Asia as potential hot spots in the future. “South America and Asia are still both rapidly developing industrial markets and offer tremendous future growth potential,” Mr. Kates explained.
Another section of the industrial wipes market are sorbents, which are heavy duty products used to clean up spills, leaks and drips in industrial and environmental applications, according to Mark Johnson, sales manager for roll goods producer Sorbent Products, Somerset, NJ. This highly competitive area has slightly different global dynamics than the overall industrial wipes market. “The U.S. market is the largest market and is continuing to grow,” Mr. Johnson said. “Europe is beginning to show signs of growth in industrial segments, while Asia and Latin America are still largely environmentally focused with regard to sorbents.”
On the consumer side of the wipes market, some roll goods producers are reporting an Asian market that is quite developed and growing. According to BFF’s Mr. Barrington, Japan is a well developed country and in some ways the true market leader in terms of innovative ideas for products. “Japan is very developed in terms of its wipes market and tends to be a world leader in terms of the number of differences in wiping applications,” he assessed. “A lot of these applications start in Japan and then come to Europe, with the U.S. sometimes behind Europe in receiving new wiping applications.” In China, however, Mr. Barrington stated the market is getting more dynamic but there is a large domestic supply of wiping products making market penetration difficult.
On the consumer side of the European wipes market, there is a global split in terms of what type of material is used. “With wet wipes, spunlace is very strong in Europe, stronger than in the U.S,. and I think that is just the way the market developed,” suggested G-P’s Ms. Stansbury. She also mentioned that in Europe there are more players in the European wet wipes market, making more leaders for others to follow. In North America there are a few key brands that the private labele companies are trying to emulate. This can be difficult as some of the North American manufacturers utilize unique fabrics that they manufacture inhouse.
Mr. Hofmann of Jacob Holm also agreed that the market for spunlace wipes is greater in Europe where both South and North American producers are favoring air laid material, especially in the baby wipes arena. “A lot of market leaders are still using air laid due to the cost issue,” he added. “Consumers like spunlace, but they want it for the same price as air laid, which is hardly possible. On top of that, there is not enough spunlacing capacity in the U.S. to cover the demand. This is why I suspect big companies are hesitating to introduce something when they have to import it from other countries. But it will change—I’m convinced that America will sooner or later turn to spunlacing.”
For Eastern European-based Novita SA, Gora, Poland, the company describes the wipes market in Western Europe as mature but is also seeing the implementation of wiping products in Eastern European countries. “This stage is not only connected with awareness of the product, but also with style and standard of living, which we hope will keep growing,” stated sales manager Radoslaw Muziol. “There is the potential for growth and of course there is a difference in volumes and percentage increase.”
For The Future
While it is obvious that there is still a good deal of global growth for nonwoven wipes on the horizon, roll good manufacturers agree that growth for the market as a whole depends both on innovative ideas and consumer acceptance of them. “The wipes area is one of the more interesting areas open to nonwovens because there is a great deal of innovation possibilities and a great deal that has happened,” explained BFF’s Mr. Barrington. “There is still a lot to come and I see it playing a big role, but it’s going to be more demanding and is going to require the markets to be more specialized and technically demanding. The wipes markets will probably change more quickly, so it’s not going to be just a matter of turning on machines; it’s going to require a lot of marketing and a lot of thinking.”
Duan Tao, import and export executive for Hangzhou Advanced Nonwoven Co., Hangzhou, China, agreed. “With new performance levels and new materials, the nonwoven wipes market is expected to grow a great deal in the near future. Nonwoven wipes are expected to represent 80% of the wipes market in the future,” he added.
One issue that many nonwovens producers are saying could possibly having an effect on the future of the wipes market is the environment. Although the industrial segment of the market is currently trying to resolve this issue on a governmental scale, as the consumer wipes market expands it will probably begin to raise a few eyebrows over how “environmentally friendly” disposable wipes are.
At Orlandi, the company has yet to see a great deal of concern among customers over this matter but it is predicting a possible problem in the short term future, according to Mr. Saldarini. “It is not a true problem now but we know that we have to think about it because one day, very shortly, we will have to solve this problem. We are currently producing products using viscose and polyester, which are not recyclable or flushable and we have to think about this,” he said.
Environmental concerns were also on the mind of Mr. Lauritsen of Green Bay, although he predicted that consumers will not begin to totally move toward environmentally friendly products until the price is right. “There has been a lot of talk about the landfill problem, but people don’t seem to be taking action accordingly. I think people are aware of it but when it comes down to supporting it or not, they are really looking at dollars and cents first. If the economics are right and environmentally correct, then they will take advantage of it. If it’s more expensive, I don’t see people moving toward environmental products.”
While the nonwoven wipes market might experience some hurdles in the future, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the market is poised for growth in all of its current market areas, as well as those that have yet to be discovered. “Nonwovens are and will continue to be effective in the wipes market,” concluded Ahlstrom’s Mr. Reid. “The key objectives of convenience, better hygiene, affordability and superior cleaning are achievable with nonwoven products.”