Wipe Products Change The Way We Work And Play

August 17, 2005

a look at the market for nonwoven wipes

These days, it seems everywhere you look, you find a wipe. Where once the word wipe brought images of mothers cleaning their baby’s bottoms, now wipes are found for nearly every application under the sun—from floor cleaning to laundry stain removal to personal cleansing. And, experts say this proliferation of wiping products is far from complete. In fact, new applications loom on the horizon that are currently unthinkable to the consumer.

“As you look at what has happened, you see the consumer is looking for two-in-one or three-in-one products, and a lot of opportunities still exist for convenience,” said Paul Farren, vice president and general manager of nonwovens and consumer products for Georgia-Pacific, Atlanta, GA. “You are only limited to your imagination.”

While the wipes category is segmented into consumer and industrial as well as wet and dry applications, the bulk of growth recently has been seen in pre-moistened wipes for consumer applications. These disposable wipes, which are impregnated with a solution to replace the use of a reusable textile and separate solution, target today’s busy consumer. Whether the act is washing a kitchen floor, removing makeup or dusting furniture, these products are designed to save their users’ valuable time in completing daily tasks.

These disposable products tend to be more expensive per use, but their ease of use and convenience benefits make them a bargain for their targeted consumers—active people with high disposable incomes. “We are only targeting a certain percentage of people out there who are willing to pay a price for the advantages and conveniences offered by wiping products,” explained David Yalenti, vice president of sales and marketing for Chicopee at PGI Nonwovens, N. Charleston, SC. “They aren’t blanket products.”

The rapid growth in the nonwoven wipes segment proves that a great deal of consumers are willing to pay extra for convenience. While many of the nonwovens executives interviewed by Nonwovens Industry estimated the segment’s annual growth at 10-15%, figures released by INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry are more conservative, at 6-7% per year. However, when examined by segment, even the INDA data suggests a booming future for consumer wipes. The trade association estimates growth in the moist tissue and makeup removal wipes categories at around 17% per year, and, in the household cleaning segment, antibacterial wipes are growing 14-15% per year while hard surface wipes are growing 20%.

This growth has not only provided a boost to the wipes category but to the entire nonwovens segment as a whole as more and more consumers are incorporating these nonwovens-based materials into their daily lives. Where once nonwovens were found only in the baby care and feminine hygiene aisles, now they are penetrating more and more end uses.

“The consumer market has been exposed to a considerable number of new products recently,” remarked Martin Davis of Ahlstrom FiberComposites, Helsinki, Finland. “There has been a number of tremendously successful launches, although these introductions have not been for the faint hearted. The many new introductions lately have predominantly been associated with the increased desire for improved convenience. This trend is expected to continue as long as product costs are not prohibitive.”

Consumers On Top
According to data generated by INDA, the consumer wiping segment represents about 70% of the total category and includes both dry and pre-moistened wipes. Consumer applications are generally split between baby and non-baby uses. While baby wipes still comprise the largest segment of the wipes market, industry observers expect the average annual growth of 5% in this area to slow down and become more reflective of activity in the baby diaper market as alternative wiping products become more available. That is to say, that a large part of the historic growth in baby wipes was caused by the use of baby wipes for other purposes such as personal, household and makeup. This trend is subsiding as new applications hit store shelves.

Among the two subsegments seeing a great deal of attention in recent years are the personal care and household cleaning segments. In the personal care segment, Kimberly-Clark, Dallas, TX, raised the bar for innovation last year when it launched “Cottonelle RollWipes,” the first pre-moistened toilet paper available on a roll. What made this product so groundbreaking was its ability to disperse in water, making it the first personal care wipe that could be flushed regardless of its size. While initial sales of the product have been somewhat disappointing—largely due to sluggish economic conditions, many companies are interested in the technology behind the product’s dispersibility benefits.

“There is a difference between flushable and dispersible,” explained Howard Cannon, vice president of nonwovens sales at airlaid producer Buckeye Technologies, Memphis, TN. “Flushable has to do more with the size of a product while dispersibility allows a product to actually disintegrate in water. This dispersible technology is now in the marketplace, and everyone is trying to make a comparable product.”

In addition to moist tissue paper, the personal care wipes category comprises makeup removal and personal cleansing applications. Introductions in this category are expected to continue as manufacturers pinpoint consumer needs in the segment.

“The consumer wipes business has the most potential for wipes because it is more driven by a need for value-added products, while industrial tends to be repetitious. The needs of the consumers aren’t even identified until they see these new products,” said PGI’s Mr. Yalenti. “To me that’s the crux of the consumer market—providing a solution to an unknown need. The nonwovens industry better addresses these needs than anything else because of its ability to produce a substrate.”

Of course, these needs are also being seen in the household cleaning segment where applications can be found for floor cleaning, furniture polishing, antibacterial applications and glass and window cleaning, to name a few. These products are replacing the use of reusable textiles in cleaning applications by offering two-in-one or three-in-one products in the form of pre-moistened substrates. Already all of the major household cleaning companies such as Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, OH and SC Johnson, Racine, WI, have extended their popular brands to include wiping products (see related story on page 42).

“Everybody is trying to do a brand extension,” remarked Hank Hall, North American sales manager for Buckeye. “If you are not offering a wiping product to expand the breadth of an existing household cleaning product line, you are definitely behind in the game.”

As is the case in the personal care area, manufacturers are scrambling to fill unmet needs in the household cleaning segment. While roll goods producers doing business in the wipes segment were reluctant to discuss what these needs are or how they will be met, they all agreed there is still a lot of room for growth, in terms of both penetration and diversity, in the wipes market.

“Any consumer product that is applied with a cloth is a candidate for a wiping product that is available as a system,” explained Keith Lauritsen, vice president of marketing/purchasing at Green Bay Nonwovens, Green Bay, WI. “People are more ambulatory today and they want products they can take with them.”

The Cost Of Convenience
In consumer segments ranging from automotives to personal computers to home appliances, technology does not come without a price, and this is also true of the nonwoven wipes segment. These products typically cost considerably more per application than a bottle or jar of the solution they are impregnated with. While these higher costs have traditionally kept some consumers from trying wiping products, now roll goods manufacturers and end use suppliers are working together to drive prices down in the segment.

Buckeye, for one, has contributed to bringing down the cost of nonwoven wipes through the start up of its new airlaid machine in Gaston, NC. Boasting an annual capacity of 50,000 tons, this new machine is reportedly the world’s largest airlaid machine, and its massive size allows Buckeye to produce its material at lower costs than previously seen in the industry. “The price of convenience just went down,” said Buckeye’s Mr. Cannon. “As these prices continue to go down, a lot more applications will open up in the wipes category.”

While other companies targeting the wipes category may not have the luxury of a “supermachine” like Buckeye, they are still honing technology to drive these costs down. “The value equation is critical to the successful growth of the wipes market,” explained Ahlstrom’s Mr. Davis. “The product must deliver on its promise to be better in order to support repeat sales. Nonwovens technologies are evolving to create truly value-added wipes products. Cost per use is also a strong factor in the purchasing decision of consumers. Consequently, combining innovative nonwovens with an affordable cost creates successful wipes products.”

Another recipe for success is ingraining the use of wipes into consumers’ daily lives. “Consumer education is necessary,” said Green Bay’s Mr. Lauritsen. “We have to get more people accustomed to using these products and embracing them.”

Instead of just focusing on driving down costs, DuPont Nonwovens is looking toward driving up value in its consumer wipes segment. The company is using its strong technology background to develop more sophisticated materials to target the wipes market. “If you walk into any grocery store, you can see what’s happened to nonwovens in terms of the explosive growth, but there are still many potential developments in the consumer market that are not out there today,” said Keith Beddingfield, global business manager of DuPont’s critical cleaning and consumer businesses. Rather than limiting the value to consumer convenience by simply saturating the wipe, Beddingfield believes that additional value can be added by producing intelligent nonwoven fabrics.

Airlaid Versus Spunlace
In terms of technologies, the key nonwovens processes found in the wipes market are airlaid and spunlaced. Airlaid seems to be preferred more in the North American market, while spunlace dominates in Europe. This consumer preference is most likely a trickle-down effect of the baby wipes market. Leading baby care manufacturer P&G contributed to Europe’s propensity toward spunlaced fabric by launching the material into its baby wipes business several years ago. Since then, however, airlaid pulp has remained the key ingredient in North American wipes, leading to a preference among North American consumers for airlaid.

Deciding which of the two materials is more suitable for wiping applications depends largely on whom you ask. Spunlaced producers tout the benefits of their material for wiping applications, including softness, strength, three-dimensionality and a close similarity to a textile. “Spunlaced is ideal for the wipes market because it is an advanced technology offering three dimensionality for enhanced performance characteristics,” said PGI’s Mr. Yalenti. “Spunlaced offers performance characteristics that are more often requested by the consumer. These include reusability, scrubability and absorbency.”

DuPont’s Mr. Beddingfield emphasized spunlaced nonwovens’ ability to incorporate a wide range of ingredients to create more niche-oriented products. “Spunlaced is a completely different animal because you can choose so many different materials to create spunlaced materials,” he said. “That gives us more ways to tailor the product and makes spunlaced fabric more than just one thing.”

On the other hand, airlaid producers emphasize the value-oriented benefits of airlaid materials which are typically about 15% less expensive than spunlaced. Either way, both materials are vying hungrily for shares of this dynamic growth market.

Airlaid is much more value-oriented,” said Michael Brown, corporate accounts sales manager for Buckeye. And, as a result of our research and development efforts we can now produce premium airlaid wipes that have the same characteristics as higher priced substrates, at a lower price point. These technologies can make Buckeye’s products softer, stronger, three-dimensional and more absorbent, he added.

Still, spunlaced producers challenge the airlaid producers’ claim that airlaid is more cost efficient.

“When a product doesn’t have unique features, there is always a question of cost performance,” explained Aldo Ghira, managing director of Tenotex, Terno d’Isola, Italy. “We believe that our choice of a hybrid process, staple-pulp provides wider flexibility to engineer the product according to the customer requirement and bridges the wipe features of the all-staple with airlaid solutions.”

Tenotex plans to enter the disposable wipes category this spring when it completes its new spunlaced venture in Benehama, Spain. The company’s “TenoLace,” material is produced by a hybrid, staple fiber/wood pulp process and features enhanced absorbency, softness and isotropic properties. Targeted end use applications include consumer household wipes.

One company able to see the merits of both technologies is BBA, who recently entered the airlaid market through the construction of a new plant in Tiamjin, China and operates a strong spunlace business as well. “Airlaid nonwovens make excellent wiping cloth products where absorbency, low cost and light-duty wiping are the principal requirements,” said Steve Thress, director of packaged and specialty products at BBA. “Spunlaced nonwovens, although higher in cost, offer products that are softer and stronger than airlaid nonwovens. In addition, spunlaced products provide true textile feel and performance. We believe that spunlaced products will grow faster than airlaid during the next five years, particularly in the consumer wipes market.”

Either way, as the wipes industry continues to grow, both technologies will see their share of increased penetration. According to INDA data, spunlaced will see its greatest growth in the heavy industrial and high-end consumer segments due to its excellent absorption, durability and decreasing price. Meanwhile, airlaid technology will see significant growth in the low- to medium-grade consumer and industrial segments.”

Airlaid producer G-P is also examining both technologies for its wipes business. While traditionally an airlaid specialist, G-P has recently begun focusing on spunlaced substrates to help grow its business. “Both airlaid and spunlace have properties and characteristics that make them better suited for different applications,” Mr. Farren said. “One won’t take precedence over another. It depends on the application and which one suits its requirements.

In addition to spunlace and airlaid, some other nonwovens technologies are finding a place in the wipes market. For instance, melt blown supplier Mogul Nonwovens, Gaziantep, Turkey, recently began targeting the wipes market. “We’re introducing a three-layered melt blown product for sorbent wipes,” said commercial director Serkan Gogus. Also, a new pulp product made through a melt blowing process with special embossing is under development.

Innovating For Industry
The recent surge of wipe products to hit store shelves has left many manufacturers concentrating heavily on the consumer segment, but others are still recognizing the viability and sustainability of the industrial area. Comprising approximately 30% of the total wipes market, industrial applications include dry and pre-moistened wipes for all industrial, institutional and commercial purposes such as high technology manufacturing, food service, medical/surgical applications and clean rooms.

DuPont is one company focusing heavily on the industrial segment by carving out niche applications with technology-rich products. “We don’t believe that one size fits all in the industrial market,” said Mr. Beddingfield. “There is not really one wipe in the industry that fits all of the needed applications, and we are creating differentiated products to fill these needs.”

Most recently, DuPont has targeted the automotive aftermarket industry with a static-control wipe that is used in the refinishing of cars as the last step prior to painting. Made from a special spunlaced material premoistened with isopropyl alcohol and deionized water, this wipe is able to reduce levels of paint defects in automobiles by eliminating residual static.

Additionally, DuPont has recently launched a production and maintenance wipe that can replace cheesecloth in many aerospace applications. This spunlaced material is up to three times more absorbent than cheesecloth and doesn’t leave threads or dust behind, according to Mr. Beddingfield.

“One of the key advantages of nonwovens in wipes is that the material gives you the absolute ability to customize and tailor your products,” Mr. Beddingfield added. “We are targeting markets that require very specific products, and you can achieve this with nonwovens.”

Another company looking to carve out its niche in the industrial segment is Foss Manufacturing, Hampton, NH. A relative newcomer to the wipes industry, Foss launched its “Fosshield” wipes last year. These durable wipes use Foss’ antimicrobial fiber technology and are targeted toward both consumer and industrial applications. “Something like this can really gain acceptance more quickly on the industrial side as manufacturers are more concerned about environmental and waste issues,” remarked Al Bobst, director of sales and marketing of Foss’s technical products division

The advantages of this needlepunched wipe lies mainly in its durability, Mr. Bobst continued. “This is a product that is made for cleaning surfaces. We can throw it into a dishwasher or washing machine, and it won’t harbor bacteria.”

While industrial applications will be key to the success of this product, the company is also focusing on consumer applications by targeting end users who don’t feel comfortable with a product they use once and throw away.

Whether or not they are designed for multiple uses or to be thrown away immediately after first use, wiping products are transforming the way consumers clean their homes, wash their bodies and even their cars. What is next for the wipes market is not certain, but most manufacturers agree that the possibilities are endless for new applications designed to save consumers time and aggravation.

“The market continues to show signs of growth and demand for those products that offer value and performance,” explained Ahlstrom’s Mr. Davis. “New segments will develop, and current segments will subsegment. Differentiation, cost per use and disposability will become more important during the next five years, and new product introductions will need to focus on these trends if they are to be successful.”

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