Technology Advances Open Up New Doors For Nonwovens In Medical Market

By Karen McIntyre, Senior Editor | August 14, 2014

Nonwovens continue to displace other materials globally.

The market for medical nonwovens was worth $1.6 billion in 2013 and will reach $2 billion in 2018 on increased demand for wound care, adult incontinence and healthcare wipes, according to a report recently issued by research firm Smithers Apex. According to the UK-based research firm, nonwovens are favored in medical applications because they demonstrate reduced cost to use in highly cost-sensitive hospital and institutional environments. Similarly, they routinely outperform textile and fluff pulp-based products in comfort, barrier properties, absorbency and resistance to contamination. This should lead to continuing replacement of reusable medical fabrics by disposable, nonwovens-based fabrics around the world.

The largest sector of traditional nonwoven medical products is surgical gowns, drapes and instrument wraps, and both reusable and disposable variants are used in different regions around the world. In North America, more than 90% of these materials are disposable while the European rate currently stands at 70-75%. The remainder of the world is varied, with one commonality: disposables continue to gain share over reusables. Particularly in developing markets like South America and Asia, annual growth is expected to continue at 6.6% and 7%, respectively, according to Smithers Apex.

John Marks, director of corporate communications at Medline, one of the largest privately-held manufacturers and distributors of healthcare items in the U.S., affirms that nonwovens play a significant role in the medical industry.  “As the pressure increases on cost containment in hospitals and other healthcare facilities, nonwovens provide a lower cost alternative to woven products both in surgical applications like gowns and drapes, as well as in nonsurgical applications like bathing products and patient care items,” he says. “Nonwoven producers are also moving the market forward in surgical applications with technology improvements that are offering more protection and more comfort at lower basis weights.”

With healthcare providers under more cost pressure than ever before with the changes in healthcare policy, Medline’s customers have set reduction goals that are higher than their total spends, Marks adds. “In addition to looking for ways to save facilities money on the cost of our products, we are also helping them to look at ways to save cost through operational efficiencies with lean thinking. Nonwovens can offer increased protection at lower weights to improve comfort, protection and help facilities with cost containment.”

These growth prospects have influenced continued growth by nonwovens producers, particularly spunmelt manufacturers who have sought to diversify outside of the hygiene market. These include PGI Nonwovens, SAAF, Gulsan and Pegas, who have all announced a commitment toward medical—in addition to hygiene growth—in announcing state-of-the-art investments.

Spunmelt measures up

About 75% of nonwovens used in the medical market are going into surgical drapes and gowns. While spunlace continues to play a minor role in this market, spunmelt continues to make inroads into new areas. While in the U.S., the market has nearly completely converted to disposable gowns, new advancements in spunmelt have allowed it to replace other disposable materials, like films.

During the past couple of years, global spunmelt capacity has expanded rapidly as customers seek lighter weight, more sophisticated products. While the bulk of this investment is surely looking to capitalize on growth in the global hygiene market, opportunities in medical have also contributed to this technology’s popularity. As spunmelt fabrics have increased in sophistication, they are able to possess barrier properties that rival films while retaining the comfort and tactile properties associated with reusable fabric gowns.

David Parks, vice president of global healthcare segment at PGI Nonwovens, the world’s largest maker of spunmelt, says healthcare continues to be considered a growth area for his company as it continues to improve its material to open up more doors in this market.

“We are constantly pushing the envelope on delivering the highest level of barrier performance in the most cost effective way. As we are challenged with raw material pricing we look for ways to push the envelope to deliver equivalent or higher performance materials in more cost efficient ways. The fabrics meet or exceeds barrier standards at lower basis weights.”

These efforts are allowing PGI to better penetrate level four AAMI standards, which provide the highest liquid barrier protection levels.

“We also continue to push the envelope on the tactile and aesthetic part of nonwovens from a softness, breathability, drapability standpoint, which drives comfort and appeal.”

During the past two years, PGI has doubled the size of its business with two major acquisitions, Fiberweb and Companhia Providencia. While Fiberweb expands its role in industrial segments, Providencia opens doors for PGI in the Brazilian healthcare market where it had about a 30% marketshare in Brazil and provides it access to state-of-the-art assets in North Carolina capable of making medical grade fabrics for North Carolina and Europe.

Before the acquisition, PGI had a considerable presence in the medical market prior to this acquisition, particularly in China where a great deal of medical garments are converted. “As healthcare migrated to China, it was important for PGI to make the investment, to be in close proximity to the converting facilities, but if you look at the big regional players they are now looking to drive penetration in other areas and Brazil is an area with a lot of potential.”

The Providencia business has about a 25-30% marketshare in Brazil, a market that is in the process of converting from multiple use gowns to single use. Parks says he feels PGI’s technology will allow it to grow in both developing and developed markets.

“Every market in which we compete has formidable competitors but my view is in the healthcare market, there are still a lot of opportunities to differentiate,” Parks adds. “The big needs of our customers in the healthcare arena is preventing hospital acquired infections (HAIs) and our value proposition it to be the global supplier of choice for infection prevention solutions by providing the highest performing medical fabrics.”

HAI prevention a priority

In fact, the focus on HAI prevention is also opening up doors for nonwovens in the medical market. With about one in every 25 hospital visits resulting in a HAI, these are not only contributing to reinfection and even in some cases deaths, they are costing the medical community billions of dollars every year.

Medline’s Marks  says that reducing HAIs and helping its customers tackle this issue is a priority as the company develops new products and considers new product areas. 

“Over the last several years we have introduced several innovative clinical programs to help customers reduce HAIs, including the areas of pressure ulcers, catheter-associated urinary tract infections, and ventilator-associated pneumonia,” he says. “We are constantly talking with our customers to learn their biggest issues and challenges. HAIs and preventing readmissions are serious issues and we are developing effective solutions, products and services to help our customers reduce them and deliver quality care.”

Ahlstrom Tenderguard is a soft SMS for surgical gowns that offer an ideal combination of comfort and safety.
Ahlstrom’s new offering, Trustshield, is one solution helping reduce the risk of HAIs. This expansive high performance surgical drapes range offers protection and performance. Including both absorbent and repellent drapes in varying technologies, this range of  superior quality surgical drapes help ensure better surgical outcomes by providing a barrier to viral and bacterial particulate and fluid during a surgery, according to the company.

“In March, we kicked-off a new medical campaign, ‘Dress for Surgical Excellence.’ The campaign focuses on our range of high performance single-use fabrics for high-risk surgeries,” explains communications officer for Ahlstrom’s medical business Bethany Schivley. “High-risk surgeries demand a higher caliber of dress-surgical gowns to protect the surgical team, surgical drapes to protect the patient, and sterile barrier systems to guarantee sterile instruments and aseptic presentation.”

Another new Ahlstrom product is TenderGuard, a soft SMS for surgical gowns that offer an ideal combination of comfort and safety. “We have not compromised the safety of the surgical gown,” Schively says. “Tenderguard offers better proection than spunlace gowns, passing 1379 tests and AAMI level three standards.”

Outside of the drapes and gowns category, Ahlstrom has expanded its Ahlstrom Reliance range for Sterile Barrier Systems. The extended range now includes SMS grades designed for light to heavy medical instrument trays. The SMS grades range in basis weights from 35 to 85 gsm in four main colors: green, light blue, medium blue and deep blue. This expansion complements Ahlstroms existing SMS, wetlaid and crepe offerings.

Also, Ahlstrom VaporCool is an advancement into the world of smart medical consumables. VaporCool is a dynamic fabric designed for conversion into single-use scrub suits. The fabric works as an extension of the wearer’s body to help regulate their body temperature.  When hot, evaporation creates a cooling affect. When cold, the scrub suit holds in moisture to provide a warming affect.

“We are continuing to see global growth opportunities for single-use medical fabrics at the end-use level,“ says Schively. “Emerging markets continue to transition over from reusable linens to single-use nonwovens.” 

This growth is being driven by sustainability, which has been and continues to be a major trend in the medical nonwovens market.   “Single-use nonwovens are still displacing traditional reusable linens in many of the emerging markets,” Schivley says. “Based on studies we’ve reviewed over the years, we strongly believe that nonwovens are more sustainable than reusable medical fabrics. The extended life of reusable items strains the environment through the use of harsh chemicals and detergents, contaminated water needs to be treated before reentering our water systems and the sanitization process required after each use continually degrades material performance over time.”

K-C spins off medical business

As it prepares to be spun off from its parent company, Kimberly-Clark Heathlcare, which will be known as Halyard Health after the spin off continues to focus on maintaining a leading market position in both surgical and infection prevention products.

Kimberly-Clark chairman and CEO Thomas J. Falk says, “The planned spin-off of our health care business continues our focus on creating shareholder value. When the spin-off is completed, Halyard Health will be able to take advantage of its leading positions in several key categories to drive its performance and pursue its own opportunities. This move will also allow Kimberly-Clark to further sharpen our focus on growing our consumer and K-C Professional brands around the world.”

Robert Abernathy, future chairman and CEO of Halyard Health says, “We are pleased to be one-step closer to completing the spin-off and are excited about what our new name represents. Halyard is a nautical term that refers to the line that raises the sails of a ship as it embarks on a voyage. Our new direction as an independent company is focused on advancing the health of patients and our industry by delivering clinically-superior solutions for preventing infection, eliminating pain and speeding recovery.”

One recent deal that will help the new company continue its strong track record in the medical market is an alliance with 3M Infection Prevention Division to deliver best-in-class surgical and infection prevention solutions to hospitals and healthcare facilities in the U.S.

“At Kimberly-Clark, we have long admired 3M’s track record of innovation. This relationship presents the opportunity to offer a more extensive surgical product portfolio with the latest healthcare technology to help customers tackle their foremost challenges including infection prevention and hospital readmissions,” says Chris Lowery, global vice president, health care sales and marketing, Kimberly-Clark. “Together, Kimberly-Clark and 3M will leverage our respective expertise to bring forward solutions that address our customers’ most critical needs in the operating room.”

With the launch of the collaboration, Kimberly-Clark Health Care nows offers 3M Steri-Drape fabric and plastic specialty drapes, featuring drapes with and without 3M Ioban 2 Antimicrobial Incise Film, which provides excellent adhesion throughout the surgical site and helps reduce the risk of wound contamination. The addition of the 3M drape line rounds out Kimberly-Clark Health Care’s surgical and infection prevention offering. All 3M Steri-Drape surgical drapes will be available through the same distribution and surgical pack manufacturing channels as they are today.

Freudenberg focuses on Medical

Freudenberg’s main contribution to the medical market is its staple fiber carding technology with multiple bonding options as well as composite materials combineing several different types of nonwovens like a spunlaid layer, a staple fiber layer etc. Freudenberg Nonwovens was also the first company to market a combination of hydroactive fibers and nonwovens made of chitosan fibers. Chitosan is a biopolymer derived from the shells of sea crustaceans which helps wounds to heal and stems blood loss very swiftly. This shortens treatment time and cost quite substantially, particularly with reference to chronic wounds.

Comprising about 5% of Freudenberg’s nonwovens offerings, executives say major drivers are demographics and diseases like diabetes and obesity. Not a maker of spunmelt, the company does not participate in drapes and gowns but instead focuses on innovative materials for the wound care and ostomy industries.

In advanced wound care, Freudenberg is trying to develop smart materials to treat chronic wounds. Being a significant supplier to the traditional wound care industry as well as the advanced wound care industry, Freudenberg says it will focus also on the active wound care industry where it is already able to produce bioresorbable nonwoven technology. The innovative technology enables it to convert highly sensitive or atypical polymers into bioresorbable 3D scaffolds. In addition, this technology allows the incorporation of other sensitive bioactive materials (e.g. peptides, proteins, antibiotics, growth factors etc.) into the bioresorbable nonwoven. Therefore, active wound care will be a very important market for Freudenberg in the future.

The company adds that customers in the wound care industry always want to have a so called regular product as well as an anti-microbial (AM) product, the latter of which can offer a value add.

Jacob Holm to acquire DuPont’s Sontara business

DuPont and Jacob Holm have signed a definitive agreement for Jacob Holm to acquire DuPont Protection Technologies’ Sontara business. The sale is expected to be completed in the third quarter of 2014.

Sontara is a global nonwovens business that produces products used in a variety of medical and wipes applications. Jacob Holm is a leading company for spunlaced nonwoven fabrics. 

“We are grateful to the current and past employees of Sontara for their contribution to DuPont over the last 40 years and we are pleased to see the business well-positioned for success in the future as part of Jacob Holm, a world-class organization dedicated to the nonwovens industry,” says Marc Doyle, president, DuPont Protection Technologies.

“The combination of Jacob Holm and Sontara complements two strong players and creates a new industry innovation leader for spunlaced nonwoven fabrics. The broader range of technology know-how results in higher innovation capabilities in product development and offers promising business opportunities to the benefit of our customers and our employees. We very much look forward to working with our new colleagues and partners who will undoubtedly contribute to the successful development of our group,” says Martin Mikkelsen, CEO of the Jacob Holm Group.

In January 2011, DuPont sold another medical related technology.  The company’s ACT (advanced composite technology), combining the softness of polypropylene and the barrier protection of polyester in a single filament process, was launched in 2002. DuPont marketed the material under the brand name Suprel but has ultimately faced difficulties competing with lower-priced technologies.

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