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NIRI Drives Innovation in Nonwovens

By Sean Moloughney, Managing Editor | August 2, 2012

University spinout develops new technologies while helping companies enhance products and reduce costs.

Given the current economic climate, many businesses have faced challenging prospects, but U.K.-based Nonwovens Innovation & Research Institute (NIRI) continues to grow, specializing in the commercially focused research and development of nonwovens and engineered textile materials.

NIRI was formed as a University of Leeds spinout company in 2005. The University has been a key contributor to the research and development of technical textiles since the late nineteenth century. Its headquarters and extensive textile pilot lines and analytical facilities are housed in the Clothworkers’ Central Building, which dates back to 1879. More than 130 years later, NIRI is seeing business increase as its clients look to enhance products, improve efficiency and reduce costs.

“This is a great time to invest in product development and innovation,” says Chris Fowler, NIRI’s managing director. “Successful innovation provides increased business opportunities without expensive outlay on new facilities or capital equipment.”

The company has benefited from the fact that nonwoven technology underpins the performance of products in such a diverse range of applications. “It’s a fascinating area,” Fowler says. “We’ve worked on everything from wet wipes, to new building materials, to blood filters, to protective armor. NIRI offers a unique combination of academic rigor and industrial knowhow and we have successfully helped many clients develop enhanced and novel products, but as our consultancy is operated under the strictest confidentiality we never disclose details of our clients or the projects on which we work.”

The firm works with many of the world’s leading companies and organizations, helping them to strengthen their product portfolio, reduce costs, improve processing and resolve quality issues. “We have a proven record of success,” says Fowler. “Clients appreciate the fact that NIRI is an independent company providing the focused expertise to improve their nonwoven product performance. More than 75% of our projects are repeat business from existing clients.”

Although the majority of NIRI’s work is consultancy (with intellectual property remaining with the client), the company is also developing its own technologies in partnership with other organizations.

Such technologies include a fabric designed to kill insects without the use of chemical insecticides (InsectShield); a nonwoven “fuse” (EcoProtect) that detects small leaks in oil tanks, fuel tanks and pipelines; and a nonwoven-containing door push plate (SurfaceSkins) that instantly disinfects itself on use, preventing the spread of “superbugs” in hospitals and other high-traffic buildings. NIRI also recently developed and launched RollaStop Secure, a flexible, slash-proof, roller-blind fabric. This product is currently being trialed by large retailers as a secure, retractable cover to protect valuable merchandise.

The company is also developing its own technologies internally, such as Hydrospace, an economical means of adding functionality to fabrics. Hydrospace fabrics contain cavities inside the fabric structure that are injected with powders, granules, waxes or gels during continuous manufacture. The cavities may be configured to either store or deliver the contents in a controlled manner. The patented technology is being developed commercially for blood filtration, baby-care products and protective body armor, but NIRI is also on the lookout for licensees in other applications, including cosmetics application and removal, wipes, and feminine hygiene.

According to Professor Stephen Russell, NIRI’s technical director, “Hydrospace is a versatile technology relevant to a broad range of sectors, whether it’s delivering medicaments in a wound dressing or capturing target pollutants as part of a filtration system, we configure the fabric accordingly using the same basic production process.”

Last year NIRI doubled the size of its premises to accommodate its increasing nonwoven development team and additional nonwoven prototyping equipment. The new labs house a meltblowing line and a state-of-the-art Elmarco electrospinner, to complement NIRI’s existing carding, airlaying, hydroentangling, needlepunching, thermal bonding, chemical bonding, hotmelt and other pilot equipment. Extensive analytical and characterization facilities are also on site.

As NIRI continues to grow, more new fabric developments are on the horizon. These include a water-activated cleansing fabric based on Hydrospace, and new packaging materials that increase the shelf life of fresh food. 

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