Fiber Producers Search For New Ideas

By Karen McIntyre, Editor | June 14, 2006

with pricing still high and demands for diversity increasing, fiber manufacturers are focusing on research and development for the nonwovens industry

Fibers. Whether you are talking cotton, polypropylene, polyethylene, rayon or some type of high performance variety, fibers are what is at the core of the nonwoven, and it is the type of fiber that ultimately lends much of the nonwovens’ performance attributes. For instance, cotton allows a nonwoven material to be stronger when wet and more absorbent while polypropylene offers softness and uniformity and a high performance aramid can provide increased strength or protection.

That said, tt is no wonder why nonwovens producers are continuously demanding more from their raw material suppliers, and whether that demand relates to cost efficiency or improved performance, fiber suppliers are responding.

Take Basell’s new Mopen RP1669 grade of polypropylene. This resin offers advantages in the production of ultrathin meltblown fibers by combining low crystallinity for softness with high crystallinity for tenacity. “We have developed Moplen RP1669 to address increasing demand for nonwovens with an improved soft touch and cloth-like feel for use in a variety of hygienic, personal care and medical apparel applications,” said Franco Sartori, technical manager for textiles.”

Another example of new product innovation shaping the role of fibers in nonwovens is ExxonMobil’s Vistamaxx line of specialty elastomers. This line, made in Baton Rouge, LA, combines lower basis weights with stretchability, making it ideal for hygiene products. Executives say this new line signifies ExxonMobil’s increased reliance on specialty products.

While these products, and others like them, demonstrate the nonwovens industry’s need for diversity, reliance on standard grades of fibers, both natural and synthetic alike, continues. Polypropylene continues to play a huge role in the hygiene market where it is valued for its softness and durability while polyester continues to be strong in household fabrics, construction applications and many other durable areas where it is valued for its ruggedness. And, cotton and viscose continue to enjoy considerable growth brought on by the strength of the consumer wipes market.

Nonwovens Makers Prepare For Fibers

Products using Ingeo’s renewable fibers, like 100% natural baby wipes from Eco, are filling a need for renewable products in the nonwovens industry.
Last month, Ahlstrom announced plans to make its Green Bay, WI spunlace lines cotton capable by installing the necessary filtration and other systems needed to run cotton smoothly and effectively. In making this announcement, Ahlstrom executives said the addition of cotton spunlace output to this facility responds to the market’s demand for differentiated products. “By adding the new cotton capability to Ahlstrom’s spunlace line, the company will be able to run different fibers that offer the material many improved properties,” said Karen Castle, global director of marketing, wipes. “Product benefits derived from the investment include softness, increased tensile strength, improved absorbency, and better liquid retention. Demanding applications for cotton-containing spunlace products include baby wipes, personal care and cosmetic applications.”

Ahlstrom joins a number of other roll goods manufacturers, including PGI Nonwovens, Jacob Holm Industries and Unitika in Japan, who are already able to produce cotton-based spunlace materials. Beyond this natural fiber, which is seeing increased usage in the wipes market, the ability to process a range of fibers continues to be an important growth strategy for nonwovens manufacturers.

With its new line in North Carolina, Jacob Holm is relying on the use of many fibers—including Teflon, Nomex, PVA, metaaramids and polyaramids—to help it expand its business into new areas. Largely invested in the wipes segment, Jacob Holm last year reorganized its business by adding a Special & Technical Applications area, which will focus on filtration, protective apparel and other specialty areas. The use of specialized fibers will certainly help it penetrate these new businesses where customers are more willing to pay for product differentiation and performance than they are in the wipes arena.

Performance is not the only area where roll goods manufacturers are focusing when looking at new fiber choices. Last year, BBA Fiberweb announced it would create spunbond nonwovens from polyolefin that imparts the same softness, flexibility and abrasion as polypropylene at a lower price point for the hygiene market. And, with the cost of polypropylene continuing to follow the chaotic levels of petroleum prices, many more nonwovens makers are examining alternative materials for the hygiene market.

Choice = Cotton

The emergence of cotton as an important raw material in spunlaced nonwovens has been well documented in recent months and experts said this trend is only beginning.

“Over the past year and a half or so, what has been most important  from our perspective is the development of a lot of interest in using cotton in nonwovens and the ability to process it in nonwovens plants,” said Janet O’Regan, director of nonwovens marketing at Cotton Incorporated said. “That would be from my view, the most important progress that we have seen.”

Basell’s Moplen RP 1669 polypropylene addresses customer needs for more demanding resin performance in meltblown applications.
Her colleague David Clapp, director of fiber processing research, attributed the level of interest to a number of things including an increase in the number of nonwovens lines capable of running cotton. Also contributing to cotton’s popularity is the creation of a Cotton Enhanced seal by Cotton Incorporated, which can be placed on products containing 15% cotton, a level at which experts say the benefits of cotton are apparent. Already, at least one major manufacturer has taken advantage of this new designation—previously a product had to contain 60% cotton to bear the seal—and others are expected to follow, according to Ms. O’Regan.

Through a collaboration among PGI—with its Apex spunlace technology—private label wipes supplier Nice-Pak and big box retailer Costco with its Kirkland private label brands, the first baby wipe carrying the cotton-enhanced seal was launched nationwide in Fall 2005. Nice-Pak executives said the inclusion of cotton was a good way for Costco to differentiate and add value to its baby wipes, which is a key element to the retailer’s strategy of fending off competition and adding value in this commodity product. While Costco executives were not available for comment on the product’s performance, Cotton Incorporated executives said they have heard nothing but positive reports on the performance of the product, which is being positioned as a premium private label product.

“If you look at the wipes market and what is happening with the growing market for incontinence products, then you are seeing a lot more adults with disposable incomes joining this segment,” Ms. O’Regan said. “They are making their own product choices so there are still a lot of opportunities for this market.”

In 2004, a study conducted by cotton supplier Barnhardt Manufacturing and AC Nielsen showed a clear consumer preference for cotton-based wipes.
Wipes are not the only nonwovens markets where Cotton Incorporated is promoting the use of cotton. Among the areas where cotton can present advantages are acoustics because cotton is a naturally good insulator. Already a few U.S. companies are successfully using cotton in home insulation and this trend is expected to continue as “green” building initiatives continue to grow. Additionally, cotton is becoming more relied upon in medical and hygiene markets, across the board.

“Cotton has a lot of potential to influence the nonwovens industry,” said Moeen Naseer, marketing manager of Pakistani cotton producer Ihsan Sons. “Previously, companies had been reluctant to use cotton in the spunlace market due to the perceived higher cost of using cotton compared to manmade fibers but now things are changing and the visible benefits of cotton over manmade fibers are forcing the market to change its course of action.”

Ihsan Sons, in fact, is so confident of cotton’s role in nonwovens that last year the company forward integrated into spunlaced nonwovens production and now can make 3000 tons of cotton-based spunlace for the wipes and medical markets globally. Since ramping up, the new plant has attracted interest from key wipes manufacturers around the world.

Nature’s Way

Finding a way to find renewable, biodegradable products has been a challenge facing the disposable side of the nonwovens industry from the get-go. Diapers, feminine hygiene products, wipes and other disposable items have long been chastised for their contribution to landfills despite studies deeming it insignificant, and the whole “disposing of disposables” debate has been a hot one among nonwovens stakeholders.

Ingeo Fibers, with its NatureWorks PLA, has been making considerable strides in the area of sustainable, renewable products involving nonwovens and other textiles in recent years. The company’s biopolymer NatureWorks PLA is the world’s first greenhouse-gas neutral polymer and forms the basis for Ingeo fibers, which has replaced polypropylene-based on oil, a limited resource-in some disposable applications.

“The nonwovens industry needs new polymers for the sustainable society of the future and is therefore at the forefront in creating products that surround every aspect of the way we live, from skin care, to apparel, to bedding and furniture,” said Eamonn Tighe, business development manager, European Home and Nonwoven Applications. “All these products literally touch our lives and therefore are being required to satisfy not only the practical and performance needs of the modern consumer but also their emotional and environmental concerns. Important issues relating to waste management, renewable raw materials, recycling and the need for innovative disposable solutions are being demanded today by an ever more critical consumer.”

Love ‘N sanitary products feature Ingeo fibers are among several nonwoven-based products to use the renewable fibers.
Because NatureWorks PLA resins and  Ingeo fiber are derived from 100% sustainable agricultural resources, they are bio-degradable and fully compostable in the correct conditions. Ingeo has uniquely positioned the products to replace existing oil-based polymers and fit perfectly with both the consumer and legislative demand for a sustainable approach to handling disposable products.

Among the nonwoven products already made with the material are W.I.P.’s biodegradable Love ‘N feminine hygiene products and eco baby wipes developed by Healthquest. Other key areas where Ingeo would be perfect for furniture and mattress waddings, short life industrial applications, diapers and many more nonwoven products, according to Mr. Tighe. “These materials contribute to critical waste management issues and Ingeo fiber is an easy drop-in alternative that offers a competitive choice from all perspectives—performance, economics and not least, ethics.”

Ingeo fiber and NatureWorks PLA resin is produced in a comprehensive range of resin and fiber types designed to fit with standard nonwovens technologies ranging from spunbonding and spunlacing to thermal, chemical or resin bonding, calendering, needlepunch and wetlaid processes.

Cellulosic fiber supplier Lenzing also recognizes the need for sustainability in the nonwovens industry. “The full biodegradability of our fibers is further ensuring a safe and natural disposability of final products,” said Heinrich Jakob, marketing and sales nonwovens. “In addition to the performance of a product containing Lenzing fibers, this will give a clear conscience to every consumer about the usage and disposability of nonwovens, which will be a growing issue and sales argument in the future.”

This trend, combined with the continued growth of the wipes market, has helped increase growth for viscose blends in the industry. To satisfy this growth, which has caused some reported shortages in the viscose segment, Lenzing is debottlenecking existing plants and setting up a new 60,000 ton-per-year plant in Nanjing, China.

Another viscose supplier Kelheim, formerly a part of Acordis, has been diversifying its product range for growth. Its Viloft  fiber features a flat cross section for improved moisture management, improved softness and better disintegration.

“ViLoft was introduced into nonwovens as an excellent solution for flushability claims. New regulations are coming from INDA and EDANA and this fiber is an excellent way to solve this,” said marketing manager Stefan Sulzmaier. “The fiber allows that when a spunlaced fabric is flushed in a toilet, the fabric breaks up but it still has enough strength.”

The fiber, which is set to launch in the short term, is allowing Kelheim to position itself as a specialty fiber specialist. “Basically we are looking at all nonwovens areas to introduce specialty fibers because that is our focus. We want  to be seen as providers of specialty rayon fibers so we are currently working in many directions to introduce new products.”

Industry Stand-Bys

The most commonly used fibers in nonwovens—polypropylene and polyester—have been the victim of rapidly fluctuating costs in recent months, due primarily to their dependence on petroleum pricing. While manufacturers across the board have had to resort to pricing increases—for more on DAK America’s latest price increase, see in Nonwovens News, page 18—providers of these materials have been working on trimming costs.

FiberVisions, for one, has developed a polypropylene fiber capable of soaking up water and lotion. The material allows manufacturers to make a 100% polypropylene nonwoven with an absorbency nearly six times its own weight, allowing for lower basis weights in many key applications.

“FiberVisions believes in the value that the inherent properties of polypropylene bring to the marketplace,” said CEO Stephen Wood. “Polypropylene’s ability to be embossed and its excellent chemical resistance, low specific gravity, moisture control, softness and drape afford innovative opportunities for use in nonwovens.  Its versatility and demonstrated performance in nonwovens processes such as high speed carding, hydroentangling and needlepunching will continue to drive polypropylene staple fiber growth in the nonwovens industry.”

And, with prices of petroleum-based raw materials continuing to rise, suppliers have no choice but to continue the development of cost efficient suppliers to help their customers keep costs down. Otherwise, these customers will find a way to make do with other materials—whether they be natural or renewable fibers or high-performance, value-added products that offer more bang for their buck.