Fibers Fight Back

August 17, 2005

despite raw material prices, supply shortages, suppliers focus on innovation to secure a brighter future

Fibers Fight Back

The types of fibers used in the nonwovens industry are nearly as diverse as the end use markets they serve. Polypropylene, polyester, nylon, viscose, cotton and blends of these fibers. These are just a few of the many raw materials used by nonwovens producers to achieve their customers' requirements. The changing landscape of the nonwovens industry has predicated a greater variety of fiber styles in recent years as nonwovens companies look to penetrate new markets typically dominated by wovens and more traditional textiles.

Beyond application areas, the fibers market has been impacted greatly by raw material challenges, supply issues and other economic factors in recent months. As the prices of oil-based polypropylene continue to escalate, brought on by climbing oil costs, interest in alternative materials has been noted among key polypropylene users. For example, BBA Fiberweb this spring launched a polyolefin spunbond that imparts the softness, flexibility, abrasion and other qualities of polypropylene at more stable pricing levels. According to executives, unlike more typical polyethylene-based nonwovens, this material can be used in a number of hygiene products, particularly adult incontinence items.

Likewise supply and pricing issues in viscose or rayon are opening up new doors for cotton, a natural fiber, in other key markets for nonwovens, namely disposable wipes and medical products. As viscose prices rise, cotton has become less cost-prohibitive and its reputation for purity and softness make it a winner among consumers.

Beyond this, there are a host of bicomponent and specialty fibers emerging in the nonwovens industry responding to a need for value-added products. As the nonwovens industry tries to avoid commoditization, producers are turning to their raw material suppliers to impart new properties in their products and conquer new markets.

The absorbency of cotton makes it ideal for many hygienic and wipes applications.

Cotton Brings New Ideas

The market for spunlaced wipes has long been dominated by viscose and polyester fibers, particularly in North America. While cotton fibers have been used to some degree in European and Asian wipes markets, synthetic material has long been the favorite among manufacturers. For one, cotton can be expensive and its naturalness can make it less predictable than synthetics. Also, few spunlaced producers in North America are capable of running cotton through their machines.

One of the challenges in getting cotton used in nonwoven fabrics is the industry idea that cotton will not process on nonwovens equipment," said Chuck Allen, technical accounts manager of BBA Natural Fibers. "This is a myth because cotton can run very efficiently on the same equipment that is running synthetic fibers with some changes in machine settings and making sure that the fiber finish is appropriate for the processing system."

In fact, many suppliers of spunlacing systems, including Rieter Perfojet and Fleissner, have been strong proponents of cotton in wipes. While cotton producers had been successful in proving the benefits of cotton-absorbency, purity and abrasiveness-to most parts of the value chain, only roll goods producers were slow to catch on, according to George Hargrove, vice president of sales and marketing, for bleached cotton supplier Barnhardt Manufacturing. This, however, has changed in recent months for a number of reasons.

Leading cotton's emergence in the wipes market is consumers' overwhelming preference for cotton in their personal care products. In a study conducted jointly by Barnhardt and ACNielsen, more than half of 500 respondents incorrectly assumed that some brands are already made with cotton, and, when told that no major wipes brand uses cotton, more than half indicated they would like to see one become available. The consumer study further indicates that the majority (80%) view cotton's key attributes-soft, natural, absorbent and less irritating-as the appeal of baby wipes with cotton.

This appeal is driven by a perception that the product would be "soft," and to a lesser extent, "natural" and "less irritating." A majority of mothers (79%) indicated that "natural fibers" are preferred and 63% of the mothers said that they expect to pay more for baby wipes that contain cotton.

While this study, commissioned in early 2004, did start the ball rolling for cotton in the wipes market, other factors have played a role. Viscose pricing, for one, caused by supply shortages, has made the price of cotton less prohibitive. And, the arrival of some European spunlace producers, which are already cotton capable, on U.S. soil will create more cotton-capable production lines in the U.S. market. Currently, only PGI Nonwovens can make cotton spunlace but new lines announced by Israel's Spuntech and Europe's Jacob Holm will be able to run cotton, according to reports. Beyond that, other existing spunlace manufacturers are said to be incorporating cotton into their production lines.

"People have been gun-shy of running cotton in the spunlace market," Mr. Hargrove said. "There is a perception of higher costs or incompatibility with fiber preparation areas and a lack of the correct filtration systems, but that is finally changing."

While the purity of cotton will help its success in the baby and other personal care wipes market, it also features a unique scrubbing feature that makes it attractive to the household cleaning market. Meanwhile, in medical the absorbency of cotton is shaping its role in woundcare, gauze and sponges.

Pakistani cotton supplier Ihsan Sons, in fact, is so confident of cotton's spot in nonwovens, it has announced plans to install a Fleissner spunlace line, capable of producing 3000 tons of material annually for the wipes and medical markets in Europe and North America. The new line will come onstream during the second half of 2005.

The benefits of making wet wipes with 100% cotton spunlace fabric compared to synthetic nonwovens is the cotton materials feature biodegradability, environmental friendliness, absorbency, natural feel, wet strength softness and flexibility, according to executives.

No one has welcomed this buzz on cotton in the wipes market more than Cotton Incorporated, the U.S.-based research and marketing organization dedicated to cotton's advancement. "I couldn't be happier with the convergence of the market for wipes, stimulated by a need for more absorbent materials, interest from roll goods makers and consumer preferences," said Janet O'Regan, director of nonwovens marketing for Cotton Incorporated. "Many market forces have truly come together to give cotton a better presence in the nonwovens industry."

Cotton Incorporated has been working with end users and roll goods makers to establish a cotton seal of approval program where wipes containing a certain amount of cotton would be branded with the cotton logo. Ms. O'Regan said that even when combined with other materials, cotton can provide value to the end product. For instance, at 15%, improvements include improved softness, better retention and improved wet strength. "Requiring the level to be 60% might be too high. Just including some cotton can help create a whole new mindset on both the technical and economic side of things," she added.

Viscose: A Supply Situation

A global shortage of viscose or rayon fiber has been caused by a number of factors. One was the departure of key supplier Svenksa, in Europe, last year, as well as the financial troubles of Liberty Fibers (formerly Lenzing AG's U.S. arm); another is the increasingly voracious appetite of China and other Asian countries, which have been absorbing a great deal of capacity in recent years; and finally continued growth in the wipes market, a large consumer of the material, in developed regions.

"We have noticed that supply and demand are more in balance," said Nick Hrinko, company representative of Lenzing. "Last year, Chinese consumption was a big problem but a lot of companies have increased production to meet this demand."

Following its acquisition of Tencel last year, Lenzing is now the largest supplier of cellulosic fibers in the world, and 2004 was a record year for the company. Production levels are set to increase further with the installation of a new production plant in China, scheduled to come onstream in the fourth quarter of 2006.

"Debottlenecking at Tecnel and South Pacific Viscose, the second line starting up at the Heligenkrenz site and strong overall demand for our products has been gratifying," Mr. Hrinko said. Key growth areas for Lenzing include spunlaced wipes, diversified wiping products, medical products and delivery systems.

For Kelheim, formerly a part of Acordis, a large market segment has been tampons, where it is a leading supplier worldwide with its Galaxy trilobal fiber but more recently the company has been targeting the wipes market. Its Viloft fiber features a flat cross section for improved moisture management, improved softness and better disintegration. According to regional manager Stefan Suzmaier, Viloft, introduced this spring, is serving a market need for wipes that are flushable.

Cross-sections of Kelheim's Galaxy and Viloft cellulosic fibers show a marked difference in structure.

"The nonwovens industry often has a reputation as a low-priced commodity market," he said. "But, we see ourselves as a specialty fiber producer with the goal of adding value to our customers and, in the end, adding value for us."

The P's of the Business

Probably the most commonly used fibers in nonwovens are polypropylene and polyester. Valued for its softness and durability, polypropylene is a huge raw material component in hygiene products such as baby diapers and feminine hygiene items where it is used to make spunbond and spunmelt nonwovens. Meanwhile, more rugged, polyester is seen in household fabrics, construction applications and even some wipe and hygiene products.

During the past 12-18 months, suppliers of these fibers have had to resort to pricing increases to deal with escalating raw material prices, a practice that has not always been met with approval by customers. However, the rapidly rising cost of oil and other petroleum feedstocks have created a situation where these suppliers have had no other choice and nonwovens producers have accepted that, according to executives.

Jon McNaull, business director of fibers for polyester supplier DAK Americas, noted an increase in the consumption of polyester staple, which can be attributed to basic economic growth as well as the attractiveness of polyester in many markets. However, amidst all of this growth, DAK, and its competitors, have been challenged by raw material prices.

"All chemical products have been impacted to some degree by resin prices and currency prices," said Horst Lemback, managing director of polyester producer Advansa, formerly DuPont Sabanci. "Raw material prices are affecting all producers. Wherever you have synthetic products, you will feel the effects."

Luckily, in Europe the strength of the Euro is compensating for inflated raw material prices but strong competition from the U.S. and Asia continues to threaten. This has led some polyester producers to phase out fiber production and instead only make the resin that goes into polyester. (Growth in resins continues to be fueled by the plastic bottle market.)

Also impacting polyester manufacturers is the large amount of apparel-the fiber's key consumer-being made in Asia. This has led to a surge in Chinese polyester capacity as well as a decrease in North America and Europe.

Back in the nonwovens industry, Asian demand continues, led by rapid investment in new machines. However, the type of products being made in China differs from what is being made in the West, requiring different fiber types.

"The products that we are looking into are custom-tailored for specific customer issues," Mr. Lembach explained. "This is difficult in nonwovens because the nonwoven material is normally a base material for a coated material. Still we are focusing on developments to create more benefits."

The rapidly increasing popularity of polypropylene has been ongoing for several years in the nonwovens industry and has only slowed recently by that material's supply and pricing issues, also caused by increased demand and escalating raw material prices. As the industry waits for additional capacity to come onstream and pricing levels to sort themselves out, suppliers, like in other fiber areas, are relying on a mix of innovation and lean manufacturing practices to survive.

Industry leader ExxonMobil, for example, has charted considerable success with its Vistamaxx line of specialty elastomers. This line, made at a new plant in Baton Rouge, LA, has allowed ExxonMobil to enter the realm of stretchable nonwovens. ExxonMobil has most recently been able to offer the material in lower basis weights, making it ideal for hygiene products. According to the company's George Vacine, the Vistamaxx line of elastomers is a perfect example of how his company is relying more on specialty products. "You need to bring benefits to your customers if you are going to demand higher prices," he said. "What we are doing is providing big opportunities for customers who can innovate."

FiberVisions is another fiber supplier relying on diversification. Five years ago, the company supplied fibers to carded and thermal bonded nonwovens manufacturers for hygiene products. Today, the company has staple fibers for all types of nonwovens applications including spunlaced, wetlaid, needlefelts and custom-made products. "The driving force behind these extensions is a FiberVisions strategy to broaden the know-how base and thereby be able to speed up innovation in the industry," said Erik Gammelgaard, marketing manager.

Recent developments from FiberVisions include a polypropylene fiber capable of soaking up water and lotion. This product offers manufacturers the ability to made a 100% polypropylene nonwoven with an absorbency capacity more than six times its own weight. Additionally, FiberVisions has been working with its customers to create new fiber types that are more in line with future market demands, from both a marketing and economical standpoint. "Customers have responded (to raw material price increases) constructively," Mr. Gammelgaard added. "Both fiber and nonwovens producers are in a difficult situation and therefore, the combined efforts will increase our chances of success."

And, fiber manufactures, eager to capitalize off of a market like nonwovens, which is still in growth mode, will surely cherish their relationships with roll goods producers. "Nonwovens will definitely see further growth worldwide," said Advansa's Mr. Lembach. "Not only is the market growing, we are still seeing substitution of other materials. For instance, there is more spunlace coming onstream in the U.S. everyday."