Hygiene Component Suppliers Provide Form, Fit and Function

December 8, 2005

pricing pressures, demands for innovation continue to define industry

Improving quality while lowering costs. This is the paradoxical challenge suppliers to the hygiene industry face daily. Particularly in the baby diaper market, where intense competition, pricing pressures and market maturity have created an unwillingness among producers to increase prices, leaving the makers of superabsorbent polymers, elastics and other product components caught in a balancing act between price and performance. Striking this balance continues to be harder as raw material prices skyrocket and intellectual property becomes more fiercely protected.

“The big challenge is ‘make it better and make it cheaper,’ which is a contradiction in itself,” explained Frank Priessdorf, director of sales at  films producer RKW. “The solution has been to reduce materials and reduce weights. The same pressure is on all suppliers throughout the industry.”

This intense rivalry in the market has actually driven down diaper prices. In 1990, the price of a standard disposable diaper was 22 cents. Today it’s 15 cents. Considering the remarkable technological advances witnessed by the market during the period, this trend is astounding. Within the past 15 years, diapers have become thinner, more absorbent, more textile-like, better fitting and are now an overall better product than ever before.

Also to blame for pricing issues in the diaper market is the ever-increasing dominance of Wal-Mart and other mass merchandisers in the consumer goods market. These retail outlets demand constantly lower prices from their vendors and, considering Wal-Mart alone is responsible for about 60% of diaper sales in the U.S., diaper manufacturers are extremely dependent on these chains for sales.

Despite these obstacles, in recent months, there have been some rumblings that diaper prices are set to rise. During the past six months, nearly every major nonwovens producer and raw material provider has announced pricing increases, blamed largely on rising petroleum costs brought on by tension in the Middle East and natural disasters in the gulf coast. And, in early November, Kimberly-Clark announced it would levy 6% increases on its consumer tissue businesses. While no mention has been made of diaper prices, many industry pundits feel increases in that segment will be next.

And, suppliers to the diaper and other hygiene markets are hoping this will give them more success in levying increases to their customers. “Tredegar was fortunate to have both global capabilities and strong supplier relationships in place to be able to meet customer needs.” said Rebecca Hoberland,  global market man-ager—absorbents of Tredegar Film Products, a major supplier of apertured, breathable, elastic and nonwoven laminates and films.

The Three Fs

In recent years, the hygiene market has ascribed to a three-point holy grail that defines product success—form, fit and function. The form has been achieved through the incorporation of superabsorbents, which make products thinner, and textile-like backsheets, which make them softer. Fit continues to be honed through the increasing use of elastics and other stretchable materials throughout the chassis of the diaper. Once found only in the leg cuff, elasticized material is now found in the waistbands, on the side panels and is even being incorporated into closure systems. Larger sized baby diapers as well as adult incontinence products are becoming more pant-like and less discrete, meaning more comfort for the wearer.

While form and fit are increasing in importance, they can never surpass function in performance. After all, what is the point of a disposable garment, if it doesn’t achieve its function? For baby diapers, this means no leaking and less frequent diaper changes; for adult incontinence, this means a more active lifestyle and for feminine hygiene, this means discretion.

What’s Inside

According to a diaper market sustainability report issued by EDANA, Brussels, Belgium, the average baby diaper is comprised 43% of fluff pulp, 27% superabsorbent polymer, 15% polypropylene, 7% polyethylene, 3% adhesives and 1% elastics.

Disposable baby diapers were first introduced in the early 1960s and since then have been marked by continuous product innovations including the addition of SAP, resealable tapes and elasticized waistbands. In fact, diapers today are much thinner and more absorbent than they were even a decade ago. Modern diapers have a layered construction, which allows the transfer and distribution of urine to an absorbent core where it is locked in. The top sheet, made from a soft nonwoven material, is closest to the skin. It transfers urine quickly to the layers underneath. The distribution layer receives the urine flow and transfers it to the absorbent core, which is made of a mixture of cellulose pulp and SAP. The backsheet, or exterior of the diaper, is made from a breathable polyethylene film, or more recently, a nonwoven and film composite, which prevents wetness transfer.

Comprising the largest portion of the diaper, fluff pulp, and its availability, has a large influence in the diaper market with leading suppliers including Rayonier, Koch Cellulose (Georgia-Pacific) and Buckeye Technologies. Because pricing of these materials is largely dictated by the market, success or failure for these suppliers is driven by economies of scale.

Meanwhile, the SAP market has been characterized by extreme shortages in recent years. In fact, run ups in SAP prices have presented major challenges for smaller and mid-tier diaper producers. According to one industry supplier, SAP producers have been able to name their price in the market, particularly with smaller and mid-tier hygiene producers.

Increases in petroleum and other feedstocks have driven up pricing of polypropylene and polyethylene, which have created ominous conditions for the nonwovens suppliers that use these materials to make products for the hygiene market. While all of these companies have levied pricing increases in recent months, industry observers wonder how accepted these increased have been.

The role of elastics in the baby diaper, now only 1%, has been steadily increasing in recent years, as manufacturers try to achieve better fit. Whether it be elastic strands, films or netting, stretchable nonwovens or a composite material, stretch is being added to landing zones, waist bands and other parts of premium diapers, in addition to more traditional areas such as the leg cuffs, to minimize leakage and achieve better fit.

Supply Shortages

The hygiene market is constantly characterized by the struggle between supply and demand. A market can experience an oversupply one year that turns into a shortage the next year. Most recently, the hygiene market had to respond to rapidly changing conditions in the superabsorbent polymer business. “Two years ago, there was a glut in the market and now there’s not enough,” explained Jim Cree, CEO of topsheet maker Pantex. “In any segment, it can just take one company to enter or leave a market to dramatically change conditions.”

Conwed’s Rebound netting can stretch up to 10 times its original size.
Caused by a shortage of acrylic acid, which can be attributed to increased demand from China as well as an overall failure among manufacturers to bring more capacity onstream, this shortage has impacted the global diaper market, the largest consumer of SAP worldwide. While capacity expansions are underway in all of the world regions, small and mid-sized hygiene producers are feeling the pinch of short supply. “The balance (of supply and demand) is returning to the industry in the medium term,” said Frithjof Netzer, business director for BASF’s Superabsorbent and Acrylic Monomers business in the Americas. “BASF is monitoring the demand growth and will strive to align its capacity with the long-term market trend.”

A major supplier of SAP, with plants in North America, Europe and Asia, BASF is also a maker of acrylic acid, making it well poised to serve the hygiene market. The company is currently consolidating the capacity of its two North American plants which will be closed, in Virginia and Mississippi, into one single plant of equal capacity at its Freeport, TX, facility, near BASF’s acrylic acid operation. Dr. Netzer said that increases in BASF’s SAP capacity would coincide with  market growth.

As the SAP market awaits new capacity, component suppliers are working to lessen the diaper market’s reliance on the  material. Tredegar’s AquiDry family of products can reduce SAP use by as much as 25% without compromising performance, according to third party test reports. The AquiDry transfer layer family covers a full range of specialty needs from a full brief’s high void volume to bladder control pads with AquiDry Lite and new AquiSoft  to meet needs for extreme softness.

Likewise, superabsorbent producer Lysac Technologies has introduced Lysorb for feminine hygiene items and Actofil for baby diapers. Both products enhance the diffusion of superabsorbents in hygiene items to reduce SAP levels by up to 20%, according to Vladimiro Nettel, business development executive for Lysac Technologies.

Lysac is well positioned to benefit from another problem facing the hygiene industry—its dependence on petroleum-based raw materials. Founded in 1999 to explore the use of natural-based materials in superabsorbents, Lysac’s starch-based ingredients are receiving attention from companies eager to cut their raw material costs, which have been driven up as much as 30% in the past 12 months alone. “Two years ago, people saw us as dreamers,” Mr. Nettle said. “Now companies that we tried talking to years ago are knocking on our door. This is because two years ago, they didn’t see any reason for a change.”

In fact, research into non-thermoplastic fibers is permeating the hygiene market. While spunbond nonwovens lines can only handle polypropylene—a plastic—other materials like thermal bonded or carded nonwovens, as well as films, can be made from alternative fibers. “This has been receiving more attention recently as raw material prices have escalated so sharply,” said Pantex’s Mr. Cree. “It’s still at its infancy but once a major producer makes a commitment to support these types of fiber, resin prices would immediately stop their spiraling out of control.”


Economies of Scale

Rapid raw material increases have forced hygiene suppliers to cut costs creatively. While their customers want costs to be minimal, they don’t want to sacrifice on performance, aesthetics or any other feature visible to the consumer.

For many hygiene suppliers, costs have been cut by lowering basis weights and lowering the overall amounts of raw materials consumed per unit. “The solution demands less expensive, better performing products is often reducing weights or the amount of material used,” RKW’s Mr. Priessdorf explained. “The same pressure is on everyone in the market.”

Even hygiene producers themselves are cutting costs. One trend being witnessed in the diaper market is manufacturers moving away from laminated backsheets. Instead, the companies are buying films and nonwovens separately and then putting them together during diaper production, according to executives.

Tape closure specialist Koester has responded to the need for economy with a new budget-friendly line called ECO-Line. “For this range we  defined raw materials in a close cooperation with our suppliers,” one executive told Nonwovens Industry. “Despite the cost savings these product line still meets the requirements of our customers completely.”

Koester has been able to create this cost-effective product  by using proprietary machine processes that have been optimized continuously, according to executives.

Make Way For Comfort

Tredegar continues to focus on consumer-noticeable innovations that differentiate themselves from competitors’ offerings in the hygiene market. Most recently, the company added ComfortAire to its line of coverstock products. Designed for the feminine hygiene market, ComfortAire is a high loft nonwoven laminate. The result is more like a fabric than a film.

Launched in early 2005, ComfortAire has successfully targeted the feminine hygiene market because of its ability to offer comfort with the required performance, according to Ms. Hoberland.

Tredegar had been combining nonwoven and film technology since the  early 1990s and market research conducted in 2002 found that women want softness and protection in a marriage of two products.

While the bulk of Tredegar's film-based hygiene business is conducted  in the feminine hygiene market, the company sees the need for a hybrid  product like ComfortAire throughout the hygiene segment. As the need  for active-lifestyle adult incontinence products continues to rise, so is the need for soft, smooth products that materials like ComfortAire, can provide. “There is a need for products to be more garment-like,”  Ms. Hoberland continued. “New coverstocks can create products that are thinner, lighter and more comfortable to the skin  that are designed for increased volume and can be worn every day.”

She continued, “The products need to let (their wearers) feel as if they are going about a normal life.”

A Stretch, For Some

In recent years, much of the hygiene market’s innovation has centered around stretch and 2005 is no different. The incorporation of more stretchable materials—in the leg cuffs, at the waistband or even through the overall chassis of the diaper—has been ongoing and component suppliers have been eagerly coming up with their own solutions to adding stretch.

The challenge here is adding stretch to the diaper in both the machine and cross directions. While the use of spandex fibers has contributed to improved stretch in leg cuffs and waist bands, now manufacturers are examining ways to add stretch into the entire diaper, particularly in the topsheet or backsheet, to not only make the diaper more comfortable but also to better control leakage. While there have been some developments in stretchable spunbond nonwovens, the costs of these materials have been prohibitive to date. Still, there are a number of other options out there for diaper manufacturers looking to add stretch.

Tredegar’s Comfortaire product combines comfort with effectiveness in one topsheet.
Conwed Plastics, for example, has used its experience in providing netting solutions to industrial markets to develop Rebound, a stretchable netting that is ideal for baby diapers and pull-on style training pants. Among this product’s attributes are its breathability and its ability to stretch in all directions. “It can replace single-strand spandex fibers, which break and impact the appearance of the diaper,” said Keith Misukanis, strategic business manager. “Appealing to the aesthetics of the diaper is very important.

“This product has really allowed private label suppliers to find something that works without stepping on other patents,” Mr. Misukanis added. Additionally, netting, in place of individual strands can be more efficient for machines because rethreading is not needed after breakage.”

And, the breathability of nettings has made them more attractive than films and they are more stretchable than recently developed stretchable nonwovens, Mr. Misukanis said. Rebound is capable of stretching up to 10 times its original size.

Also incorporating stretch are film producers who are hoping these efforts will increase the amount of film used in each diaper.

All of this interest in stretch could eventually expand the use of pull-on style diapers. Similar to training pants, pull-on style diapers are already popular in Asian markets and already K-C is offering a product that can be pulled on or side fastened, Huggies Convertibles. As this type of product gains popularity, expect to see fewer traditional training pant products and more hybrid items that can serve the purpose of both diaper and pant, industry observers predict.

That’s not to say that there is no more room for standard spandex threads in the diaper market. Invista, formerly DuPont Textiles & Interiors, continues to dominate the diaper market and RadiciSpandex, a Gastonia, NC thread maker, has been honing its product line to make it more attractive in hygiene. Once targeted only at apparel applications, RadiciSpandex’s Dry Spin product has been made stronger and more robust to better handle the riggers of diaper machinery, according to Radici’s  Marty Moran. “The challenges are to make threads stronger and smaller,” he said. “The smaller the fiber, the more customers can save on poundage costs.” Of course less poundage means less volume but spandex manufacturers have no choice. “If we want to be successful in the business, we have to lower our customers’ costs.”

Also optimistic is Hyosung. The Korean maker of Creora spandex called the market “very competitive in general.” “We are able to remain competitive through our inherent competitive advantage in manufacturing and technology and our constant drive for innovation, product and research development,” said Greg Hearn, global business manager personal hygiene.  For future growth, Hyosung is increasing its capacity, seeking out new Greenfield opportunities, expanding global staffing and launching new brand campaigns.

Stretchable side panels respond to customers’ continued need for more stretch in their hygiene items.
Beyond threads, elastication is also being added to closures. Tredegar’s products include StretchTab laminate, a combination of elastics, nonwoven and hook-on-one roll for closure systems, and ForceField and UltraMask surface protection specialty films. And, Aplix is offering a mechanical fastener with an elastic hook. “All of our new products are designed to import comfort, softness and aesthetics while reducing costs,” said David Keough, vice president, global marketing and sales. “We are seeing new opportunities for growth by increasing the penetration of stretchable products. Only premium products have stretch in their systems.”

The premium-tier products is where innovation lives in the hygiene market. But, what is one year new and exciting for the premium market become de rigeur in mid-tier products the next year. For instance, once textile-like backsheets were considered a frill in diapers, but now they are standard on most diapers. Today, the newest thing to hit premium diapers is stretchable closure systems, but these features, like ones before them, will likely become standard before long.

And, this constant upgrading has kept hygiene producers constantly looking for new ways to wow consumers, decrease costs or, preferably, both, and their suppliers are finding a way to help them.