Ahlstrom Continues Its Focus On Wallcoverings

By Karen McIntyre , Senior Editor | February 7, 2013

Technology developments, consumer preferences drive growth forward in the wallcoverings market.

Over the past couple of years, wallcoverings has emerged as an important business for Ahlstrom. The company makes both wall coverings and backing materials based on wetlaid technology and is about to finish up a large-scale investment to expand this business in Asia.

Reporting that its range of materials extends across all types of customer needs and all budgets, Ahlstrom’s products include EasyLife digital print materials, EasyLife wallliners, EasyLife wallcover backings, EasyLife wallcover facings, Paintover walliners and wallcover base papers.

Largely based on wetlaid technology, these offerings feature benefits including direct printability, dimensional stability, good print definition, ease of hanging and ease of removal.

Recent developments within Ahlstrom’s EasyLife product range include new embossable materials and additional 3D capabilities, which will enhance the design possibilities in wall coverings, as well as the use of certified pulp making them more sustainable than previous generations.

Of particular focus within this business is China, where Ahlstrom is currently finishing up a new production line in Banzhou. This €30 million investment plays a significant role in the company’s growth strategy in Asia, according to president Jan Lang. “Ahlstrom has a strong presence in Europe and the Americas, and we continue to grow our presence in Asia as well. China is expected to be the world’s largest market for wallcovers in a few years time, offering a significant growth potential in the coming years.”

China is the biggest and fastest-growing market for premium wallcovering products. According to Strategic Analysis Inc., the demand for nonwoven-based premium wallcoverings will increase by an annual rate of 39% (CAGR) from 2010 to 2015. Ahlstrom is one of the leading suppliers of nonwoven substrates to China and the company has been present in this market for 10 years. Ahlstrom recently announced plans to invest €30 million in a new wallcover substrates production line at its Binzhou plant.

Nowovens Industry talked with Ahlstrom’s Calum Mayland to learn more about the company’s wall coverings business.

Nonwovens Industry: Please describe Ahlstrom’s offerings to the wall coverings market? How is this offering evolving?

Calum Mayland: Ahlstrom’s EasyLife wallcover range continues to evolve in a number of areas. Our portfolio offers extensive materials with three-dimensional appearances, helping create new design opportunities. All materials have a luxurious, textile-like feel.

The use of natural fibers gives the covering a fibrous appearance obtained through the use of sisal and flax. The coverings’ unique textures feature lined appearances and a structured look and their embossability gives them the ability to create a wide range of surface effects.

The offering is quickly expanding into the digital arena and is positioned as one of the key substrates for nonwoven digital wallcover applications. In addition we are strongly entering the backing market where there is a strong substitution of paper products.

NWI: What factors are helping nonwovens grow in this market? What advantages do wallcoverings have over competing substrates?

CM: Ease of use continues to be the key factor why nonwoven substrates are replacing paper substrates. Nonwoven materials are so much easier to get onto the wall, as well as remove from the wall. The job of decoration and indeed redecoration is quicker, easier and cleaner.

In comparison to other products utilized within the wall decoration market, such as paint, EasyLife by Ahlstrom offers a much greater opportunity for three-dimensional appearances and attractive designs. Consumers are generally looking for more in their home design than plain painted walls.

NWI: How has your investment in China helped grow your wallcoverings business there? Why was this geographical location chosen for growth?

CM: We have been growing the business in China with products manufactured in Europe. As the market has been evolving in a very rapid way we took the decision to invest in China. The startup of the line will be in third quarter of 2013. The wallcover business in China has been growing strongly throughout the last years, but has also been effected by the world crisis. Today the nonwoven part is growing and the traditional paper part is stagnating. Nonwovens are having growth, because Chinese designers like the opportunity to use the structure of a nonwoven facing to be a design element.

NWI: Do you have any plans to expand your production beyond this?

CM: In 2013, we focus as well on increasing the business of coated nonwoven backings as we are investing in a large machine in Germany. This machine is an ideal machine to produce such products as it is a wallpaper machine and is being refocused to nonwoven backings. First products have been launched and during the year several other products are in the launch pipeline.

NWI: How important is green or sustainability in the wallcovering market? How is Ahlstrom responding to this?

CM: Like most businesses in the world today, the wallcover business is not alone in examining how to reduce its environmental impact. Ahlstrom has put in place a sustainability framework to ensure that the business is successful and sustainable, not just economically, but also socially and environmentally. This has also been taken in account with the two investments mentioned above.

Additionally, Ahlstrom is a member of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development Materials. All of our fibers are sourced from sustainably managed forests and we use recycled polyester when possible. All wallcover manufacturing plants are Chain of Custody certified (FSC and PEFC) and the wallcover is made in plants with ISO 14001 certificates for environmental management.

NWI: Are you seeing more interest in antimicrobial or antibacterial technology to be added to wallcoverings?

CM: It is not only antibacterial or antimicrobial. This is relevant for some specific markets or sub markets. Actually, there is a trend to add features/benefits to substrates. It is also specific shielding, acoustic or thermal insulation.

NWI: What are some other trends you are seeing in the wallcoverings market?

CM: Bold geometric patterns, metallic, novelty designs/customization/digital print, environmentally focused materials, both in materials and designs, a move to reduce or eliminate PVC or any harmful substances

The increasing number of paste-the-wall materials, which are easier to apply, has meant that not only are more consumers choosing wallcover but they are also changing it more often.

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