North American producers of industrial wipes are in an unusual situation. Business is good, often great. Still, they see potential threats all around. From the strong wovens, reusable laundered-towels lobby to foreign threats of invading economy towels—North American manufacturers are monitoring the climate for their businesses.
To their credit, these same producers have weathered a lot to get where they are. Nonwoven wipers for industrial usage have undergone steady growth, taking share from “shop towels” and wovens. Estimates of the last few years had nonwovens up to a 40% share, and now there are some estimates that the number is closer to 50%. One industry participant put it this way, “It will not surprise me if nonwovens has made the ‘crossover’ this year to slightly more than a 50% share.”
According to Steve Pouliot, director-global marketing and sales for Tredegar, Richmond, VA, “Nonwovens are gaining share even as overall North American industrial wiping is contracting as an industry due to increased overseas manufacturing.”
Wet Versus Dry
To many in the industry, industrial wipes are dry wipes. However, surface wiping with wet wipes has gained its own strong place in manufacturing. Some approaches to wet wipes “systems” have garnered particular attention. A combination of strategy, training and total cost-in-use have led automotive and factory users to realize improvements. Wet wiping impacts their factory processes and employee attitudes. Products they make have better in-process cleanups, saving re-work in later steps. Additionally, employees are free of contamination that occurs when old, solvent-laden or grimy towels are reused.
There is a lot of quiet “buzz” regarding new potential with water-activated wipes for industrial and cleaning applications. It is an area being studied, prototyped and planned. Some janitorial and industrial wipers with cleaning additives have been around for years, with producers in this arena having a ready comfort level. Branching out and committing more resources will be a natural evolution.
Four to six wiper types generally comprise the basic industrial lineup. “We offer hundreds of variations of industrial wipers when you consider product weight, size, color, folding type and package put-up,” said Robert Cohen, president of Four Star Converting, Milwaukee, WI. “However, the top categories consist of four basic fabrics for varying tasks, at different price points.” The main four are:
• Airlaid with various textured emboss patterns, an economy choice
• Double-recrepe paper, for all purpose wiping, a mid-price point
• Scrim reinforced tissue or reinforced airlaid, a mid-price point
• Spunlaced, for softness and high strength, a premium wiper
The Rub On Wovens
While marketers all want to promote “cloth-like” features in terms of strength, softness and a certain level of durability, increasingly they turn to nonwovens to deliver performance. Wovens don’t lend themselves to fabric design in nearly as many ways as nonwovens.
When it comes to industrial wiping, from water to oil and grease cleanup, solvent and abrasion resistance, absorbency on contact and many other features—nonwovens can be targeted to the application.
Whether product developers choose a particular nonwoven; blend webs as in hydroentangling; or select from fibers and additives—the have a formidable arsenal of choices. The rub on wovens is that they just are not evolving to meet the latest niche-specific needs.
Driving nonwovens sales for industrial wipers are price/value, functionality, convenience, safety and regulatory aspects. Overall, industrial wipers used in North America are undergoing an evolution in all these areas. Price is linked to value-in-use, functionality and convenience, plus increasing attention on the safety and regulatory fronts.
To return to the example of the automotive industry’s use of nonwoven disposable wipes, total value in-process is everything. According to Carla Kalogeridis of Automotive Industries, “A new range of advanced nonwoven fabric technologies is gearing up to challenge the market dominance of conventional textiles in the automotive interior supply chain.”
According to reports from Robert Eller Associates, Inc. (www.robertellerassoc.com), “Nonwovens are gaining momentum in the automotive marketplace either as a direct substitute for wovens and knits currently used in face fabrics or as layers in the construction of most interior modules.
Beyond the automotive world, the latest nonwovens fabrics take specific task wipers well beyond the four primary categories previously cited. “We are rolling out additional wipers to meet customer niche needs constantly,” said Four Star Converting’s Mr. Cohen. “Some are beginning to move to significant volumes as our customer-distributors introduce them in factory and janitorial markets.”
Nonwoven abrasives are another developing industrial specialty in MRO (maintenance, repair and operation) settings. “Hand pads” are used to scrub work surfaces without gouging or altering the finish, for example, in the metalworking industry. According to Michael Armitage and Julie Meldrum of Arc Abrasives, nonwovens represent roughly 4% of all abrasive products sold in the U.S. market, “but as advances (occur), these percentages will rise substantially.”
A closer look at the emerging abrasives category shows a partial list of the ways nonwovens are used, according to MROtoday.com:
• Removing corrosion on steel parts
• Polishing cutlery or pots and pans
• Cleaning steel and aluminum
• Imparting decorative finish on stainless steel
• Removing weld marks
• Blending scratches and marks
• Removing paint from boats
• Deburring of industrial molds
Industrial niche needs taking full advantage of designed nonwovens include geotextiles, landscaping and spill control products. In the geotextiles category, nonwovens have been used everywhere from highway development to stabilizing runways in Baghdad. Spill control products line sharps containers in medical settings, serve as haz-mats in factories and as liquid pickup, high absorbency pads.
According to Alan Fankhanel, president of Mercantile Development, Shelton, CT, “Textiles have held their own and certain segments such as food service are still heavily textile-based.” Mercantile was one of the first to focus on spunlaced nonwovens to demonstrate high-performance features, according to Mr. Fankhanel.
Nonwoven substrate producers could drive sales further, said Mr. Fankhanel, by moving to add more pulp in spunlaced structures, for economy. Producers point out that the lack of “squareness” with one-way stretch works for baby wipes, but a better quality spunlaced product is needed for tough, industrial wiping.
Planned spunlace machines with three webs in the hydroentangling process and designed for comparable multi-directional features are expected to change this picture, according to Mr. Pouliot of Tredegar. New machines coming on line worldwide will bring about a new generation of nonwovens.
Project Performance Corporation, an environmental consulting firm, describes disposable wipers as the preferred choice. Utilizing three parameters—energy used, water used and waste produced—a life cycle analysis was conducted. To be consistent with EPA guidelines, the life cycles of both disposable wipers and laundered shop towels spanned raw material acquisition, manufacturing, industrial usage and post usage.
Project Performance Corporation concluded (according to www.americantex.com) that disposable wipers are preferable in at least two of three parameters analyzed. Disposables often cross-over to reusability, so their versatile range also favorably extends the comparison with laundered towels and wipers.
“These findings are similar to a Lockheed Martin life cycle analysis that was commissioned by EPA a few years back,” noted Peter Mayberry, director of government affairs for INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry. “A key finding of the Lockheed Martin review was that laundered shop towels actually produce more solid waste going to landfills in the form of laundry sludge than would be generated if the same amount of disposables were allowed to be thrown away as regular trash.”
This has been a frustration for producers of nonwoven wipers who believe that laundered shop towels have a market advantage largely due to the “powerful laundry lobby” that helps maintain the status quo in which laundered and non-laundered industrial wipes are regulated by two different divisions of EPA.
“What has been going on for decades,” Mr. Mayberry explained, “is that EPA’s Office of Water is responsible for overseeing industrial laundries, and has adopted a policy that allows state and local governments to make up their own rules on what these laundries can discharge to public water works. But non-laundered wipes are regulated by EPA’s Office of Solid Waste, which maintains a national policy that prohibits disposal of soiled wipes as anything other than hazardous waste anywhere in the U.S.”
The result is that industrial laundries have a tremendous market advantage because facilities that use disposables have to pay to have them treated as hazardous waste while those that use laundered shop towels do not.
EPA estimates, in fact, that laundered shop towels account for approximately 90% of the industrial wiper market. “And the crazy thing about this dichotomy,” Mr. Mayberry continued, “is that EPA’s only concern should be controlling the environmental release of material that is on the wiper, not the treatment or disposal of the wipers themselves.”
Indeed, minimizing the environmental release of used solvent is the stated goal of a proposed regulation that EPA’s Office of Solid Waste published in 2003, but is not expected to finalize until sometime in 2007. Another goal of the proposed rule is to ensure that laundered shop towels and non-laundered wipers face similar regulations when it comes to treatment or disposal.
“The final ruling by EPA will ultimately determine how much of the market disposables will eventually be able to obtain,” said Jeff Slosman, president, National Wiper, Asheville, NC, a producer of wipers across a number of markets. He also noted, “The EPA has been working to level the playing field and regulate laundered shop towels and disposables equally, but it is frustrating that the new rules are continually being delayed.”
On the industrial employee side, workers are increasingly conscious of contaminants that may be on reusable “rags.” They prefer disposables, and reportedly are requesting that they be used.
“Imports are a challenge when you can buy a canister at an auto store for $0.99; U.S. products go for $3.95 with much better quality,” said Mr. Slosman. “I see more and more imports coming from the Far East at rock bottom prices while our costs are increasing.” Despite foreign competition, National Wiper’s industrial wiping business is currently strong on its more than a dozen converting lines serving markets ranging from aerospace to military supply.
Also commenting on this issue was Mr. Cohen of Four Star Converting. “U.S. producers are holding their own and even growing because they are staying ahead of foreign competition with niche-targeted, high-performance wipers.”
Ian Butler of INDA noted strong growth in the electrostatic category. It’s a segment hard to keep up with and track because of its high growth rate, which is above 6%.
Industrial wiping crosses lines with other major wiping segments when some of the same wipers are used for both consumer and industrial applications. Segments include: industrial-factory-shop cleaning; maintenance-repair-operation; janitorial-commercial cleaning; food service; automotive-military-aerospace; geotextiles-landscaping and spill control-absorbent mats.
Task applications include: general and surface cleaning; skin cleansing; tough task, scrubbing; dusting and electrostatic; critical task-controlled environment; polishing and glass cleaning.
A number of converters specialize in serving industrial wiping markets and many serve multiple markets. In addition to Four Star Converting, Mercantile Development and National Wiper, there are: Atlantic Mills, Lakewood, NJ; Converting Specialists, Green Bay, WI; Midwest Towel, Winneconne, WI; Tranzonic Companies, Cleveland, OH; and large corporations including Georgia-Pacific, Kimberly-Clark and SCA.
Emergency uses of disposable wipes have grown significantly. They are packed in medical/ambulance kits and used in military postings around the world and in disaster relief actions.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, clean-up in the form of absorbent products, antibacterial wipes and every type of disposable wiper will be used to help the region get back to normal. Specialty spill and cleanup wipes will play an important niche role.
Industrial wipes are impacting general cleaning procedures in factories, offices, restaurants and every type of institution. The advantages of targeted features, from high-absorbency to superior scrubbing strength, are projecting a substantial future for nonwoven wipes.