Making a better nonwoven with technology

June 16, 2005

tips to avoid commoditization and add value using raw materials

Attention nonwovens brand owners, product managers and salespeople. Take the nonwoven product that you make, market or sell, hold it up and examine it. Think carefully about how all of its parts�unique fibers, layers, finishes, elastics or adhesives�work together to provide the end user, the consumer, with a valuable, trustworthy product. That is precisely what raw material suppliers must do everyday.

In order to improve the performance, functionality and marketability of nonwovens, it is helpful to think as a raw material producer would. This can not only help enhance an existing product offering and innovate new ones, it can help you better understand the benefits and features of nonwovens to better market and sell your nonwoven materials and brands.

These goals are particularly important as nonwovens applications begin to compete more closely with those of traditional textiles. Raw material providers and nonwovens producers have to continue to work together to make a better, more affordable product with greater performance and functionality.

Do Not Underestimate The Value of Adhesives
In the nonwovens industry, hot melt adhesives have a public image problem to overcome. Because very little of the adhesive is visible to the product end user, and as their purpose is largely internal to the end product, adhesives are often viewed as commodity ingredients by nonwoven goods producers. In reality, the picture is quite different: there is real value in an adhesive�s ability to bond dissimilar substrates under a wide range of process conditions�and to keep them together afterward. Imagine a diaper that falls apart on a child as it comes into contact with baby lotion, or a car mat that softens and becomes sticky in the excessive heat of the noonday sun. Adhesives formulated with the right tackifier resins and polymers can help overcome these challenges.

New tackifiers and polymers for adhesives are set to revolutionize the production, structure, look and disposability of nonwoven products. Formulated into low viscosity adhesives, they enable adhesives to be applied at lower application temperatures than before. This enables the use of thinner, softer substrates, helping the nonwovens producer to develop innovative designs with improved customer appeal. Using tackifiers with better thermal stability improves the appearance of and reduces odor in the final product, reassuring the end user of its sterility and integrity.

Novel polymers for adhesives are leading to the development of readily disposable products such as diapers, adult incontinence and feminine hygiene products. These polymers are engineered to hold together when in contact with bodily fluids, but to break apart in tap water. In an age where convenient, environmentally friendly products are key selling points, adhesives matter.

Understand the Function and Value of Polymers
Polymers are the basic building blocks of a nonwoven, affecting the key properties brand owners seek in a finished nonwoven. They can impart softness, absorption, elasticity, strength, elongation, drapability, moldability and rigidity to a nonwoven product. Yet the choice of polymer for a nonwoven is generally removed from the brand owner. In most cases, a brand owner goes to a roll goods supplier for a sheet of pre-fabricated nonwoven material and handles the assembly of the complete product in-house.

In medical gowns and drapes, for example, the choice of polymer in the base structure can provide several benefits to the end user. A low-melt viscosity polymer will create a nonwoven with finer denier fibers, offering enhanced water and viral resistance to medical nonwovens. At the same time, the breatheability of these fibers helps to keep them comfortable. Certain polyesters and co-polyesters are engineered to better handle hospital sterilization processes, such as gamma radiation. Others may more readily accept certain dyes, which will enable them to maintain their color through launderings and UV exposure. The right polymer will enable the product to last and look better longer.

In choosing a polymer, brand owners must also consider polymer adaptability and suitability to specific processing technologies, such as staple fibers, spunbond and meltblown polymer fabrics. Raw material suppliers can work with fiber and roll goods manufacturers and brand owners to select materials that balance production and performance needs, such as processibility and ease-of-assembly with fabric softness, temperature-resistance and sterility.

Distinguish Yourself with Fiber and Surface Enhancements
The addition of additives in polymer or topical treatments can be a cost-effective means to enhance the performance of nonwovens without a significant investment in new equipment.

The addition of an antimicrobial to a polymer fiber, fiber blend or nonwoven can help to retard odor, maintaining fabric freshness. Such treatments offer huge, marketable benefits to the makers of bed linens, worker uniforms and sportswear. By retarding body odor, antimicrobials keep fabrics smelling fresher for longer.

Nonwoven wipes treated with cellulose esters also have enhanced product delivery capabilities. This benefit helps end users get more from each wipe, offering a real sense of value to end-users. For example, a medical wipe treated with cellulose esters can better transfer a sterilizing cleaner from the wipe to a surface. Less of the cleaner stays in the wipe and more is transferred to a surface, actually improving the ability of a single surface wipe to do its job.

Imagine how important that benefit is in a hospital setting where patient safety is paramount. Similarly, facial wipes treated with cellulose esters can ensure that more of the skincare product reaches a consumer�s skin in each wipe, reducing product waste.

Advancements in bicomponent fiber technologies can further extend the benefits of nonwoven substrates. The latest in these technologies actually increases the surface area of the unique fibers in a nonwoven, enabling a household wipe, for example, to pick up more dust in a single wipe. That is a powerful selling tool in the competitive market for household cleaning goods.

Think in Terms of Layers
The use of multilayered materials in a single nonwoven item can provide significant moisture management attributes. Such an approach can wick moisture away from the skin in one layer, absorb it in another layer, and, if need be, release moisture into the air though yet a third layer. For example, consumers demand a thin diaper that is dry next to a baby�s skin but also retains moisture to prevent messy leaking. In athletic and active wear, the ability to manage moisture is of critical importance. Athletic socks, head bands, ski wear and running gear can all be enhanced by new nonwoven fabrics that pull perspiration away from the skin and then slowly release that moisture into the air to keep skin dry and comfortable.

While polymer selection, discussed previously, can help provide these performance attributes, varying the extrusion techniques of nonwovens within one single item can also help. In SMS fabrics, a single layer of material extruded using meltblown (�M�) methods is sandwiched between two spunbond (�S�) layers of material. The spunbond layers provide strength and durability and encase a more fragile, but tighter-woven melt-blown layer. SMS fabrics are ideal for medical and surgical gowns and masks because the spunbond support layer holds the item together and prevents splattering blood from absorbing into the gown or mask, while the meltblown layer, engineered for smaller pore sizes, actually traps viral germs. Such an item might help prevent the spread of viruses in emergency rooms or surgery, freeing up staff to treat patients while reducing the threat of the spread of disease.

The challenge for raw material suppliers and nonwovens producers is to engineer and combine these materials in the most efficient, cost-effective manner. Today, researchers are actively working on developing extrusion systems that will enable the varying layers of a nonwoven to be produced simultaneously in-line, leading to significant increases in production speed and making these moisture management technologies more affordable.

Add Value by Combining Multiple Polymer, Adhesive and Film Technologies
During the past 10 years, the nonwovens industry in North America has gone through considerable consolidation, which has led to the commoditization of many nonwoven goods. Commoditization in the industry has opened the door for inventive producers and brand owners to innovate in order to gain a competitive advantage. Engineered, multilayer composite fabrics can help nonwovens producers and brandowners de-commoditize their product offerings.

Think of it this way. The addition of each value-added feature to a nonwoven product increases the return on investment in that product. The more value-added features in its nonwovens, the more a company can distinguish its products from the competition, and the more product it will sell.

For instance, in athletic wear, as discussed earlier in this article, the padding on a baseball cap can be engineered to manage perspiration. In addition, polymer fibers in the padding can be extruded to add acoustical properties that dampen or sharpen sound. Or, a lightweight ski jacket can be made with enhanced insulating properties, while offering absorption properties and remaining breathable. These are serious value-adds to downhill skiers, who may perspire coming down the mountain but otherwise sit cold in wet skiwear riding the ski-lift back up to the summit.

This philosophy can even be applied to something as simple as a household sponge. You can adhere a rougher, scrubbing side of a sponge to a softer layer extruded for better breatheabililty, then treat the entire sponge with an antimicrobial to prevent food odors from holding in the sponge. The sponge scrubs better and lasts longer.

With the increasing complexity of needs, the best raw material suppliers continue to work to ensure that their materials are compatible and stable under an array of manufacturing processes and end use applications. They work closely with nonwovens producers and brand owners from product development, manufacturing and assembly to ensure that the materials that are used can be manufactured affordably and efficiently and to enable brand owners to deliver the best performing product possible to the marketplace.

About the author
Robb Lovegrove, global business segment manager for Eastman�s nonwovens group, has been working in consumer and industrial marketing for more than 15 years. He works with a team of scientists and material engineers at Eastman, many of whom have more than 35 years of experience serving the nonwovens industry.

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