Nonwovens Offer Win-Win Solutions for Car Makers

By Karen McIntyre, Editor | December 4, 2012

Lower costs, lighter weights give nonwovens a clear advantage in today’s automotives market.

Two key drivers are pushing nonwovens forward in automotives, a market that has the added advantage of being in recovery mode after the economic slowdown of 2008-2010. One is increased sophistication, allowing nonwoven fabrics to target more areas of the car than ever before; the other is price, giving them an advantage over competing woven, knits or foams.

The two main applications for nonwovens in the automotives market are interior fabrics and acoustical materials, both within the passenger cabin and within the underbody and wheel liners of the car. Manufacturers serving both areas are reporting success in getting automotive manufacturers to use their product.

“The comfort of drivers and passengers is a vital concern to vehicle manufacturers. Nonwoven absorber materials reduce engine and driving noise, allowing for a quiet journey and conversations to be held at a normal volume—even at high speeds,” explains Gerhard Klier, sales director of technical products for Sandler, Schwarzenbach/Saale, Germany. “These fibrous absorbers are used throughout the car, from the headliner to the seat pan, from the dash panel to the parcel shelf to create a pleasant atmosphere.”

Sandler’s nonwovens supply a diverse number of automotive parts ranging from engine covers and cabin air filters to seat upholstery, wheel house liners and boot floor trims to underride guards to headliners.

“With the automobile no longer just being a means of transportation but a living space, using high-performance materials becomes of paramount importance. OEMs are looking for lightweight, temperature-stable, recyclable materials with low emission rates,” he adds. “The exceptional versatility of nonwovens opens up a new range of possibilities and improvements for OEMs.”

Good Design

At Nissan, the color team is responding to demands for more cost sensitivity with increased use of nonwovens, particularly in headliners and floor carpets, where they are replacing tricomponent fabrics and tufted knits, respectively. While nonwovens have been universally accepted in some areas of the car, like trunk carpeting, until recently, they have only been used in the interior of lower end and smaller cars. However, car designers have more recently been challenged with using lower cost nonwovens in higher end cars, honing the materials to make them plusher and more luxurious than previous generation nonwovens.

“There are some areas where we are seeing nonwovens gaining ground,” reports Francois Farion, color and interior manager for Nissan Automotives’ design team. “Nonwovens have always been there but mostly in lower end and smaller cars. Now they are slowly making their way up the food chain into higher end vehicles.”

While the movement to nonwovens has been cost driven—and most designers would prefer the plusher feel of tufts or knits—advancements in nonwovens have made them more aesthetically pleasing, Farion adds. “We have been seeing some nicer nonwovens—the fibers are a little more heathered and there have been some nice improvements in printing, especially in headliner materials, to give them a more ‘woven’ look.”

Still not a material considered “top of the line” in the automotives market, nonwovens have benefitted from collaborations between nonwovens producers and automotive designers who have come up with solutions to improve their look and feel.

“Everything has its challenges and we have come up with some solutions with the manufacturers—like printing or embossing or treating the fibers a little differently—and have come up with some good results,” Farion adds.

The world’s largest nonwovens producer, Freudenberg Nonwovens, recently introduced Lutraflor, saying this composite of spunlaid and stable fiber fabric sets new standards for carpeted products in the automotives market. The product is said to offer a luxurious appearance along with high wear and other performance characteristics such as abrasion resistance, lower weights and recyclability. The product is made from recycled polyester materials.

In 2011, Lutraflor was awarded the Innovation & Sustainability prize from EDANA, the international association serving nonwovens and related industries, at the INDEX exhibition. In addition to allowing customers to address key performance metrics like cost, weight and recyclability, Lutraflor does not have to be made with back coatings such as latex or polyethylene to maintain shape or performance values after the product has been molded to keep the design in tact.

According to Arnold Weghmann, director of corporate business development for Freudenberg Nonwovens, nonwovens are able to fill OEM specifications at lower costs than traditional materials but these nonwovens must first meet market requirements to gain widespread acceptance. “Nonwovens have to show additional added value to the customer,” he says.  “Major trends include reducing weights without sacrificing performance, sustainability, recycling production waste and using advanced nonwovens manufacturing technologies to gain marketshare versus traditional technical textiles.”

The Driving Force

According to market data, automotive builds continues to increase as the industry continues to recover from the economic challenges from a few years ago. By the time 2012 is done, builds are predicted to reach 12.5 million, up considerably from the 8.6 million reported in 2009, meaning that nonwovens manufacturers are not only benefiting from increased adoption of their materials in more parts of the car, they are also enjoying a market that is in growth mode.

Experts say lower costs and lower weights have aided expansion both within and outside the car. This is particularly true on the acoustical side of the business where nonwovens are being favored over extruded products because they oftentimes offer a higher absorption coefficient at lower weights.

“The exceptional versatility of nonwovens opens up a new range of possibilities and improvements for OEMs,” Sandler’s Klier explains. “Therefore the market for automotive applications still holds growth potential. Individual nonwovens can already offer a combination of various properties and are thus a stand-alone-solution for parts which previously had to be assembled from different components.”

Sandler’s new sawawsorb premium product line of absorber nonwovens is ideal for applications in small installation places, which make high demands on the materials, both within and outside of the vehicle. The flame resistant nonwoven meets all of the requirements for absorbers in the automotive, Klier adds.

Similarly, V-Lap, from Teijin Ltd., Tokyo, Japan, is a vertically oriented nonwovens structure that performs as well as conventional sound-proof materials yet weighs only half as much. Executives say the lower weight helps automotive companies meet growing demand for improved fuel efficiency. The product was recently used by Mitsubishi as the sound absorber material for the carpet’s backside in its Outlander crossover vehicle. 

Rie Mashiba, public relations officer at Teijin says V-Lap, like Elk, a nonwoven polyester cushioning material, is a great substitute for urethane. The absence of cyanogen gas during incinerations also makes this product a more environmentally friendly choice than urethane. The company is now working to expand the use of V-Lap into various sound-absorption auto parts, including ceilings and doors.

“Polyester nonwovens have long been used in automotive applications such as floor mats and ceilings and Teijin has been supplying various nonwoven polyester materials to the market,” Mashiba adds.

Foss Manufacturing’s Mudguard is a nonwoven pad that is molded to fit the exterior of the car underneath the wheel wells to lessen the noise of pebbles and other road debris hitting the car. The company, which also manufactures needlepunch nonwovens for a number of car interior applications, reports more companies adding this product to abate noise within the vehicle. The Hampton, NH-based needlepunch manufacturer recently expanded its operation with a new line in New Hampshire and a new production facility in Georgia, in part of meet demand of growth in the automotives market which has been growing in the double digits for the company during the last couple of years thanks to contracts with key automotive manufacturers such as Chevrolet who has used Foss products in the floor carpeting for its Malibu cars.

Some of the efforts made by Foss—to make its products more attractive to automotive companies—include the removal of latex coating and the use of low melt binders to reduce weights and make the products more recyclable. Additionally, advances in needlepunch technology has improved the materials’ aesthetics.

Canadian nonwovens manufacturer, Texel continues to expand the use of its Thermofit product in the car. The proprietary substrate blends thermoplastic and non-thermoplastic fibers for achieved acoustical properties and can be color-matched to customer specifications. First launched in the early 2000s, the product line has more recently been expanded to include acrylate blends and other areas that meet the need for recyclability. Recent generations have been aimed at replacing glass and polypropylene composites within the underbodies of cars and are targeting other areas of the car in need of acoustics like door liners.

“Lately we have seen a growth in underbody development, in demand for natural fiber products and in attempts to make lighter weight products with the comparable properties of the heavier weight components,” explains automotives sales representative Gale Shipley. “It’s a growing industry and as a result more and more parts of the car are being made from nonwovens as opposed to other technologies.”

Other efforts within Texel’s automotives business have focused on the expansion of its scrims business. The company offers a large portfolio of B and C scrims unique to the function and unique to the customer. Through the selection of deniers, polymer types, needling energy and after processing, Texel engineers scrims to meet and exceed the needs of the application whether for barrier, for handability, for draw, for anti-slip, for resiliency and for acoustics. Unlike spunlace, which is manufactured with a directional elongation, Texel’s needlepunched scrims exhibit multidirectional stretch for enhanced wrinkle-free moldability.

Good on gas

Government directives—not to mention consumer demand—to make vehicles more fuel efficient are having a huge influence on vehicle design. Lower weights are the one thing that car manufacturers and their Tier one suppliers will pay for because it will mean savings somewhere else down the line. With acoustical materials making up a decent portion of the vehicle, nonwovens’ lighter weight construction have allowed them to all but dominate this application area.

“When you talk about price, the car makers always want to save money but weight reduction, compared to other materials, is something they always are willing to pay for,” says Peter Hartwig, managing director of the Ziegler Group. “Weight reduction and fuel efficiency are the driving force in the automotives market. The two go hand in hand.”

A maker of foam nonwoven acoustical materials, Ziegler counts automotives as its most important market serving customers around he world from its sites in Germany and Hungary.
With the amount of textiles—including nonwovens and other materials—clocking in at about 40 kilograms per car, replacing heavier weight materials with a lower weight nonwoven, can reduce the weight of that component up to 40%, or 10 kilograms.

“When polyester nonwovens can achieve the same acoustical performance as, for example, mixed fiber nonwovens, the low weight of our polyester nonwovens contributes to reducing the fuel consumption and CO2-emissions,” Sandler’s Klier says.

This particular goal can also be achieved through the use of nonwovens for the insulation of the engine, the transmission and connected subassemblies. They efficiently insulate heat, thereby slowing down the cooling of these components during a standstill, reducing cold starts and contributing to lowering the fuel consumption.

The issue of producing “green” products also remains important, as nonwoven components account for a high percentage of the material used in cars. Taking account of environmental laws and regulations, producers demand materials which can be processed cleanly and have a low emission level, but also unmixed materials, which can be recycled at the end of their operating life. Therefore nonwovens that are single-polymer polyester materials and can be integrated into a cycle of reusable materials are more attractive than ever before.

Ziegler’s Hartwig says he is seeing a growing interest in natural fibers in the automotives market. In 2010, the company acquired Quadrant Natural Fiber Composites GmbH, a manufacturer of natural fiber nonwovens based in Lambrecht, Germany. At the time of the acquisition, executives said it was intended to strengthen Ziegler’s role in the automotives market and so far that strategy has been a success.

“We are very happy that we bought that plant and the market for this type of material is developing very quickly,” Hartwig says. “These materials—compared with injection molded products—have a clear advantage.”

In addition to increased demand for natural products, Hartwig  is seeing growth in nonwovens used in wheel house insulation applications. These new products are being developed on a case-by-case basis in response to specific customer demands.

“When you are replacing foams and other areas within automotives, you always have to customize products for the customers. There are no standard nonwovens being used so the challenge is meeting the needs of each individual customer.”

Freudenberg’s Weghmann also describes keeping up with the varied needs of the automotives industry as a challenge.

“In a positive way, Freudenberg is challenged with an annual growth rate of the world car production that is 5% and by the growing trend to use nonwovens for interior applications,” he says. “It is sometimes difficult to follow the different product design strategies of the OEMs which require high flexibility and high investments of the machine configurations at the Tier one level. Freudenberg, as a Tier two supplier has to follow fast to keep up.”

Sandler responds to this challenge with aggressive research and development and investment programs. “The most important tasks ahead will be to further improve the product‘s performance, to develop products from new technologies, which are not available today,” Klier adds. “Moreover, sustainable products and product strategies will have to be created and, last but not least, we will have to communicate the value and significance of these products. A further challenge will be to demonstrate the possible applications even more clearly to the OEMs and also to have new products that measure up to the coming electro mobility.”       

Ziegler received GM honor

Nonwovens supplier Ziegler was awarded the newly created General Motors Supplier Quality Excellence Award in a ceremony in Rüsselsheim, Germany last month. The German nonwovens manufacturer is one of General Motors’ top suppliers in Europe. Ziegler supplies acoustic insulating materials to GM’s European factories and Ziegler products are used in various seat applications of GM Group brands around the world.

Peter Hartwig, Ziegler’s managing director, was very pleased to accept the award and the recognition: “We are very proud to receive such an award from this leading automobile manufacturer. It reflects our uncompromising commitment to quality. My thanks goes to all our employees, whose professional work enabled us to win this award. We wish to continue being one of GM’s preferred suppliers in coming years.”

Nissan choose Teijin fiber for Leaf

Teijin Ltd.’s Eco Circle Plantfiber bio-polyester has been selected for use in the seats and interior trim surface within the 100% electric Nissan Leaf car, which was updated in November. It is the first time for Eco Circle Plantfiber to be used for the interior of a mass-produced vehicle.

The seat and interior trim surface were co-developed by Teijin, automotive seat manufacturer Suminoe Teijin Techno Co., Ltd. and Nissan Motor Company Ltd. Specifically, Eco Circle Plantfiber is used for the seats, parts of the door trim, headrests and center armrest.

More than 30% of Eco Circle Plantfiber’s composition is made with biofuels derived from sugarcane. Teijin’s bio-polyester fiber conserves fossil resources and lowers greenhouse gas emissions due to its carbon neutral effects, yet still offers the same characteristics and quality of oil-derived polyester.

Teijin has been expanding Eco Circle Plantfiber’s global market for applications ranging from apparel, car seats and interiors to personal hygiene products. The company aims to increase sales to more than 50% of its total polyester fiber sales for automotive seats and interiors by 2015.


Related Application:

Related Technology:

Related Other: