After facing severe overcapacity issues in the late 1990s and early 2000s, spunmelt nonwovens are now facing a supply shortage that has left manufacturers scrambling. While ups and downs, in terms of capacity, are not unusual in the fickle nonwovens industry, the speed with which spunmelt went from overcapacity to undercapacity is unprecedented.
This rapid turnaround can largely be credited to a conversion in the disposable baby diaper market from thermal bonded coverstock to spunmelt coverstock. While spunmelt nonwovens have long been used in this application, at least one major diaper producer, until recently, continued to use thermal bonded materials. When that diaper producer converted its stock to spunmelt, a squeeze was felt throughout the industry.
�There is a shortage of fabric today,� said Anders Moller, senior vice president of Ason/Neumag. �This has dramatically changed in the past eight to 10 months. We have gone from an oversupply to an undersupply that quickly.�
The spunmelt market has responded to this shortage by planning for a great deal of new capacity to come onstream in the next several years. Much of this new capacity will specifically target hygiene markets with standard spunmelt nonwovens. However, many of the smaller players in spunmelt, particularly on the machine side, are targeting markets beyond hygiene in the hope of untapping a smaller, more profitable area. Because of the high level of competition within spunmelt, the technology unfortunately has become extremely price-sensitive and often the sale goes to the company willing to move its material at the lowest price. This has eroded margins and made conditions tough in the market.
When you add to this situation the rising price of polypropylene�the main component of spunmelt nonwovens in hygiene�it�s clear that times for spunmelt producers doing business in hygiene are tough, but that has not diminished the segment's appeal. New players are appearing in the market regularly announcing new lines and new partnerships, proving that vitality must exist in the market.
Vanilla, Chocolate or Strawberry
Spunmelt nonwovens feature a combination of spunbond and meltblown technologies usually in a two to five beam configuration. This technology represents the largest segment of the nonwovens industry in both North America and Europe. The explosive growth in this segment in recent decades can largely be attributed to the rise of turnkey machinery.
Leading the way with this technology is Reifenhaeuser, Troisdorf, Germany. This machinery specialist has been offering turnkey spunmelt technology through its Reicofil production lines, which can lower produce production costs for nonwovens by making a mulilayer nonwoven in a single process.
Reifenhaeuser�s success in spunmelt cannot be overstated. Its customer list reads like a who's who of the nonwovens industry including such big names as BBA Fiberweb, PGI Nonwovens and Avgol. This is not to mention the companies that don't reveal their suppliers.
Reifenhaeuser�s recent development, the Reicofil 4 spunbond technology, allows the independent control of filament laydown. A line featuring this technology is currently being added in PGI's Cali, Colombia facility (see sidebar, page 46).
According to company literature, much of Reifenhaeuser's recent developments surround spunbond-pulp-spunbond technology, which offers high strength and low linting in wipe applications.
While Reifenhaeuser has long been a major force in spunbond and meltblown nonwovens, it is not without its competition. Plenty of machinery makers are trying their hand in this segment, and several are finding success.
One such company is Reiter Perfojet, traditionally a spunlaced machinery manufacturer, which entered the spunbond market with its Perfobond 3000 technology in 1999. This system features modularity, high performance and a process stabilization system that allow it to have high productivity, up to 300 kg/h/m/bm, web uniformity and flexibility. After installing or rebuilding a few lines in Europe, Rieter has more recently been successful in Turkey, where it has secured orders with at least two nonwovens producers.
This fall, Rieter held an open house at Eruslu's Gaziantep site, where it showed off its new line. Around this time, the company announced it would install a line at another Turkish company, Akinal, a company that started out producing spunlaced nonwovens for leather and shoe backings. When its core market began facing stiff Chinese competition, Akinal decided it was time to develop and meet a growing demand for hygiene products in Turkey and neighboring countries such as Iran and Syria.
The company's strategy is reportedly to provide an added value to its roll goods.
The new spunbond line will be housed in a new building adjacent to its existing premises. The line is expected to be operational at the end of 2005. Further development projects include the construction of a third building.
Rieter�s expertise and know-how are playing a major role in Akinal's development strategy, according to executives. The supplied line will enable the company to customize its own products.
According to Rieter executives, its success can be attributed not only to its technology but also to a recent shift in the spunbond market. �Today, there is a new standard for hygiene launched by big players,� said Andre Michalon, sales director. �The nonwovens have to invest in updating spunbond lines to produce high quality of nonwoven fabrics. These new investments started two years ago and a lot of spunbond producers should invest in new spunbond lines in the coming years in order to offer spunbond fabrics with high characteristics.�
While hygiene is attractive for the large volume opportunities it presents, spunmelt is also branching into other, more specialty areas. These new areas allow smaller players to compete more effectively on the global market. For Ason Neumag one such opportunity is in the field of spunbond polyester for roofing and other markets, which present smaller volumes and smaller lots but also higher profits.
�As an industry, the spunmelt market needs to get away from being mass producers of cheap material,� Mr. Moller said. �If the industry wants to see more profits, it has to come back to old textile-thinking machines that are capable of making many, many things so manufacturers don't have to focus solely on price.�
Because hygiene suppliers are looking for very straightforward spunmelt nonwovens, there is not a lot of room for added-value features. Because Reifenhaeuser has a stronghold on offering high-speed, turnkey lines, Mr. Moller feels it makes more sense for the little guys to look elsewhere. �Of course, there is still a big outlet for plain vanilla fabrics. It's just that we need more than that,� Mr. Moller said. �A company like ours can't compete with just the plain vanilla.�
�There is life outside of hygiene and that is precisely why Nordson has spend so much time, money and development efforts on bicomponent machinery technology,� said Nordson Corporation's Mark Snider. �The uses for wipes (personal care and cleansing), filters, roofing, geotextiles and medical nonwovens assure us productive opportunities for machinery suppliers.�
The Global Picture
While shortages in spunmelt supply can largely be blamed on the diaper industry's conversion to the material in coverstock materials, raw materials prices can be blamed on a variety of factors including the emergence of China as a nonwovens-producing nation.
China is not yet a self-sustaining country and its recent development has strained world resources, particularly natural fuels. As the hygiene market continues to grow there, so has its need for polypropylene and other basic raw materials. Until China becomes able to produce its own material, this situation is expected to continue.
On the flip side, however, China's growth has been a boon for machinery suppliers who have been partnering with local companies to sell equipment in the region. While much of the equipment currently being used is made by local suppliers, all of the machinery suppliers interviewed by Nonwovens Industry reported some growth in the area. Despite this growth, however, China's nonwovens industry is not expected to impact the West. �I don't think that China will impact the nonwovens industry the way it did the textile market,� Mr. Moller predicted. �For one, the labor costs are much smaller when it comes to nonwovens and many of the main users of the material don't want to deal with Chinese suppliers.�
Beyond China, growth in spunmelt output is rapid around the world. In fact, most of the new lines set to come onstream are being built outside of North America and Europe to fuel the growing disposable markets of developing regions.
Latin America, for one, has been a hot-bed of activity in recent years, and currently no fewer than four lines are coming onstream in South America. Some of the largest nonwovens producers in the world have tapped this region as a key growth area.
China, Latina America and many other developing regions will continue to grow in importance to the spunmelt market as consumers in these areas continue to increase their usage of disposable diapers and other items using these substrates. �These markets are very interesting because they are so large and are experiencing disproportionately high growth,� explained Nordson's Mr. Snider. �While there may be some economic corrections in the years ahead, we do not see a fundamental change in this growth. China, India and other countries are also becoming more sophisticated in their demand for more product features and higher product quality.�