For the past couple of years, the spunlace market has been all about wipes. As wipes have increased in popularity around the world, nonwovens manufacturers have eagerly invested in spunlace technology with the hope of capturing a piece of this high volume market. However, more recently, growth in the wipes market has slowed and the onset of new capacity has created a market focused strongly on price.
Take for instance, Europe, which has already seen the onset of several new lines during the past six years with new investments from Jacob Holm, Orlandi, Suominen and Sandler as well as acquisitions by BBA Fiberweb of Tenotex and Technofibra. According to reports, spunlace production capacity is approximately 20% above what the market demands, which has created some grim conditions for producers. While North America has trailed Europe in spunlace investment, new capacity coming onstream from Spuntech, Jacob Holm and Ahlstrom is expected to shift the supply-demand ratio, at least for the time being.
“There definitely is more capacity than the market needs,” said Mike Hale, group vice president of North American nonwovens for PGI Nonwovens. “This situation will require innovation and customer focus for value.”
PGI has had tremendous success applying its Apex technology in the wipes market, where imaging and other finishing capabilities have allowed it to add value to the substrate. But, executives are keenly aware of the importance of markets beyond wipes for a successful spunlace business.
“If you are involved in spunlace, making wipes is required, and if you want to be in the wipes business, you have to be in spunlace,” Mr. Hale continued. “But, if you strictly focus on commodity wipes markets, you will die a slow death. You have to look at markets outside of the box that are harder to get into, like automotives and filtration.”
In addition to wipes market growth, U.S. consumption of spunlace is expected to come at the expense of airlaid nonwovens, according to executives. Already, industry giant Procter & Gamble has converted its baby wipes products from airlaid to spunlace and its competitors are following. “We feel wipes will continue to grow through new product introductions, said PGI’s Mr. Hale. “Innovation will be a big driver. We are also seeing the cannibalization of pulp airlaid.”
While airlaid pulp has traditionally been considered a cost-effective alternative to spunlace, technological advancements have lowered the cost of spunlaced nonwovens and narrowed this price gap. And, wipes converters are favoring the more cloth-like feel and increased strength offered by spunlaced.
“Spunlace feels better, performs better and it’s more durable,” Mr. Hale said. “Consumers like that.”
Spunlace and Wipes: Perfect Together
That’s not to say, however, that opportunities don’t continue to exist for spunlace in the wipes market. Manufacturers continue to play with raw material mixes and finishing technologies to create new substrates that can offer their customers a way to differentiate their products. These efforts are expected to not only improve pricing for spunlaced nonwovens but also revive the consumer and industrial wipes segments, which have seen their explosive growth slow down in recent months due largely to fewer new product introductions.
“Product differentiation is becoming very important in spunlace and in the wipes market,” said Martin Davis, vice president and general manager of Ahlstrom’s global wipes business. “Different patterns, different fibers, value added capabilities are just a few examples of differentiation. With the onset of new capacity, spunlace manufacturers will need to be able to differentiate their offerings in order to be successful.”
Ahlstrom, which has contributed to the increase in North American spunlace capacity with a large-scale composite line in Windsor Locks, CT, as well as the current construction of a new line in its Green Bay, WI facility, has included cotton capabilities and hydroembossing technologies on its spunlace lines. “We are able to run different fibers, such as Tencel, which gives the material improved properties over standard viscose,” Mr. Davis added.
Like Ahlstrom, Israeli-based Spuntech Industries has proven its commitment to the North American market with the construction of a new line in Roxboro, NC, which is set to come onstream this spring. According to chief executive officer Gideon Krasny, the decision to build its first line in North America—the company’s third in total—was the result of favorable growth prospects in the region. In 2003, the U.S. market consumed 60,000 tons of spunlace but this is expected to increase to between 100,000 and 110,000 tons by 2008. In Europe, which Spuntech services through its two Israel lines, growth is expected but on a smaller scale. In 2003, European spunlace consumption was 120,000 tons; this figure is forecast to climb to 150,000 tons by 2008.
“While there are some newcomers, like ourselves, entering the U.S. market, when you consider the growth prospects, overcapacity is not a problem,” Mr. Krasny said.
In addition to higher growth levels, the onslaught of spunlace capacity in North America has been created by a need for companies based elsewhere to have a local manufacturing. Jacob Holm, for instance, reported that at one time North American business represented as much as 20% of its overall sales but currency fluctuations, among other factors, brought this percentage to as low as three before it started up its new line in Asheville, NC. “If you want to be in North America, the supply should come out of North America,” chief executive officer Peter Opperman explained.
And, Mr. Opperman predicts that the pricing problems in Europe cannot continue and will have to resolve themselves in the near term. “Pricing levels in Europe are not sustainable,” he said. “The levels we are seeing and the trends in Europe—not only spunlace but also in wipes converting—are not profitable and are making it tough to do business.”
A World Beyond Wipes
The wipes market has meant big volumes and attractive growth levels for spunlace manufacturers around the world. As this market matures and more players emerge to fight for this market’s business, manufacturers must look for new markets on which to rely. Already, many of the executives interviewed by Nonwovens Industry have indicated progress in such fields as filtration, automotives, protective apparel and other technical areas.
While the volumes offered by wipes make it impossible for anyone making spunlace to ignore this market, pricing levels are facing commoditization at the same time that new capacity is coming onstream.
“There is not a single spunlace manufacturer who hasn’t been thinking of potential areas other than wipes for many years,” said Henri Laitevo, sales director of Suominen Nonwovens. “Some small new business areas have been introduced such as panty liners but the big bang is still to be seen. Less dependence on the wipes market would make the industry healthier since it would be less dependent on fluctuations of one narrow segment.”
Spunlaced nonwovens, like these at Suominen Nonwovens’ Nakkila, Finland site, are targeting myriad applications.
“Since our history is strong in wipes, the focus will certainly be there,” Mr. Laitevo continued. “However, spunlace has great opportunities in other applications as well. Therefore we’re working closely with our customers as well as within our own research and development to find feasible solutions for spunlace. We believe that in the next couple of years, spunlace will have found its way to applications currently not ‘open’ for it.”
Jacob Holm has formed a separate division, Special & Technical Applications (STA), to examine new application areas beyond wipes. Areas of interest to this division include protective apparel, filtration and other specialty applications, and its new 4.6-meter spunlace line in Asheville, NC is reportedly equipped to handle of these applications. Able to process a range of fibers including Teflon, Nomex, PVA, metaramids and polyaramids and to produce fabrics in weights up to 150 gpsm, the new line is clearly not just for wipe substrate formation. “Our aim is to be a main player in the wipes market but we also want to have a business that is not reliant on just one business area,” Mr. Opperman explained. “We have developed several technical applications, invested in research and development strengths and formed a business division to help us grow in many areas.”
Meanwhile, PGI Nonwovens has used its expertise throughout the nonwovens spectrum to help promote its Apex technology beyond the wipes market. And, while wipes continue to hold the lion’s share of spunlace—three years ago PGI announced it would earmark 40,000 tons of the material for the wipes market—the company has made significant strikes in several areas for spunlace. Its Durapex filtration medium uses Apex technology, which combines advanced web forming and hydroentangling techniques, along with highly developed finishing capabilities, to create a filtration medium with superior uniformity and tightly controlled pore size. Likewise, the company’s Aquapex media, is also based on Apex technology to target the pool and spa liquid filtration markets.
Additionally, PGI has applied its Apex technology to making fabrics for the bedding and mattress markets. These fabrics resist grinning through facing fabrics and impart softness and comfort, according to the company.
“A lot of the benefits we have picked up examining durable replacement products have allowed us to focus on other markets,” Mr. Hale said. “If you look at durable products, anything with an extended lifecycle, we are able to introduce their attributes with the various phases of Apex, which include imaging and strengthening.”
In January, PGI received a Visionary Award from INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, recognizing advancements in nonwovens-based consumer products for its Chicopee Disaster Relief blanket, which is based on Apex technology. These products, which combine Apex technology with a spunbond process, were used following the tsunami in Southeast Asia, hurricanes the southeast U.S. and earthquakes in Guatemala and Pakistan, to protect survivors from harsh conditions.
Not one to ever rely on commodity areas, DuPont Nonwovens has by and large stayed away from the consumer wipes segment with its Sontara/
Softesse range of spunlaced fabrics. The company tends to focus on areas requiring innovation and differentiation, according to Lori Gettelfinger, marketing manager for medical fabrics at DuPont. Sontara, or Softesse as it’s known in the medical field, is widely used in single-use surgical gowns and drapes but the fabric is also used in high performance wipes, car covers and protective apparel applications, she added.
By far, the raw materials used most commonly in spunlaced nonwovens are viscose or rayon and polyester. However, recent rises in raw materials costs, as well as customer requirements for differentiated products, have opened the door for new raw materials in the spunlace market.
One material gaining a great deal of acceptance in spunlaced nonwovens is cotton. Price increases of petroleum-based raw materials have made the price of cotton less prohibitive and cotton’s purity, high absorbency rate and durability have made it attractive to converters in the wipes and medical markets. Many spunlace manufacturers have responded to this trend by equipping their lines to handle cotton.
In fact, the popularity of cotton in spunlaced nonwovens is so great that one of the world’s largest suppliers of bleached cotton, Ihsan Sons, recently forward integrated into spunlace production. “We already were the biggest producer of surgical bleached cotton in Pakistan for the last couple of decades and have earned substantial experience in producing the same,” said company spokesperson Moeen Naseer. “Our fabrics can be used to make swabs, wipes, diapers, sanitary napkins etc., and our target customers are the manufacturers of medical and healthcare applications throughout the globe including the major markets of Europe, the U.S., South America, Middle East, Far East and South East Asia.”
Increased interest in incorporating cotton into spunlaced nonwovens for wipes and other markets is being reported.These wipes, produced through a collaboration between PGI Nonwovens and Nice-Pak for Costco contain 15% cotton content for increased absorbency and strength.
Cotton allowed PGI and Nice-Pak to offer Costo a means to differentiate and add value to its baby wipes, which has reportedly become an important strategy for fending off competition in this commodity market, according to executives. The cotton-enhanced wipe is significantly stronger and more tear-resistant than other national brands.
Like Ihsan and PGI, many manufacturers such as Jacob Holm and Ahlstrom, have made their spunlace production lines capable of running cotton—as well as a wide range of other fibers—as part of their efforts to offer customers as many options as possible.
For instance, Ahlstrom’s Hydraspun technology uses pulp and polypropylene to significantly lower costs, according to director of marketing of marketing for Ahlstrom’s global nonwoven wipes business, Karen Castle. “The technology can manufacture biodegradable products as well as address the environmentally friendly demands of Europe and Asia,” she said. “Dispersibility is another feature that Ahlstrom has developed with this technology and we are seeing more and more requests for this.”
In fact, many believe that flushability will be the success story for wipes in the future but, to be sure, flushability will be just one of many substrate differentiators—created either through process or material-that will help spunlace manufacturers get ahead in wipes, or whichever markets they look to conquer.
“The spunlace supply is very healthy right now with companies continuing to invest in the technology,” said Ahlstrom’s Ms. Castle. “Not only are companies investing in the base technology for capacity but they are innovating with value added capabilities such as cotton, hydroembossing and printing.”
Ahlstrom FiberCompositesTwo Elm Street
Windsor Locks, CT 06096
Plant Locations: Windsor Locks, Green Bay, WI
Brand names: Hydrospun
Applications: wipes, medical,
AS NonwovensOrg., Sanayi boelgesi 6 Cad. No. 4
TR-Baspinar, Gaziantep 27120
BBA FiberwebPlant locations: Bethune, SC; Italy
Daiwabo CompanyMidosuji-Daiwa Building 3-6-8
Chuo-ku, Osaka, Japan 541-0056
Contact: H. Katsuki
Ginni Filaments Ltd.8th Floor, Padma Tower-II, 22, Rajendra Place
110 008 NEW DELHI
91 -11-25 73 58 52
Fax: 91 -11-25 75 10 76
Jacob Holm IndustiresLeeten weg 188, Allschwil, 4123 Swizterland
Plant Locations: Soultz, France, Mildenau, Germany, North Carolina
Fibers used: viscose, tencel, polyester, cotton, plyvinyl alcohol, polypropylene, bicomponent, natural fibers, splittable fibers, PTFE, PPS, flame retardants, meta-aramid, para-aramid, polyimid
Ihsan Sons8th floor, City Tower A., Main
Boulevard, Gulberg I FB/5, III Floor
Awami Complex, Usman Block, New G
Contact: Sarah Tayyib
Plant Location: Pakistan
Applications: medical, hygiene, cosmetics, wipes, sanitary, healthcare..
Milyon S.A. de C.V.Canela 480
Mexico DF 08400 Mexico
Plant Locations: mexico City
Fibers used: rayon, nylon, PET, PP, cotton, acrylic
Orlandi SpAV. LE XXIV Maggio 3
Gallarte 21013 Italy
Contact: Mario Saldarini
Plant Locations: Gallarate, Bolgare, Cressa Italy
Polymer Group Inc.
PGI NonwovensP.O. Box 5069
4055 Faber Place, Ste. 201
North Charleston, SC 29405
Sandler AGP.O. Box 1144
Schwarzenbach, Saale 95120
Contact: Ulrich Hornfeck
Plant Locations: Schwarzenbach, Saale
Spuntech IndustiresP.O. Box 3328
Upper Tiberias, Israel 14133
Plant Locations: Israel, North Carolina
Fibersed Used: cotton, viscose, pulp, PET, PP
Applications: wipes, hygiene, medical, industrial, filtration
Suominen NonwovensP.O. Box 25
Nakkila, FI 29251
Plant locations: Nakkila, Finland
Fibers used: viscose, polyester, polypropylene, pulp
Primary applications: wipes, hygiene, medical