Filtration Attracts A Crowd

By Karen McIntyre, Editor | November 8, 2006

high volumes, high margins make filtration a winning bet for many nonwovens producers

The filtration market is expanding. Not only is the segment offering perhaps the most promising annual growth rates of any end use market for nonwovens, it is attracting a host of newcomers eager to cash in on this growth in a segment that values innovation.

In the past 12 months alone, several key nonwovens industry participants have announced plans to increase their focus on filtration. Among these are DuPont, the world’s second largest nonwovens producer and a proven technology leader, and Jacob Holm’s Norafin division, which hopes to tout the benefits spunlaced nonwovens can bring to this segment. In addition to newbies, nearly every major supplier of filtration media is proving their commitment to filtration with added investment, acquisition and new product development, proving how important this segment is becoming to nonwovens.

“People should be paying attention to filtration,” said Jerome Barillon, global director of marketing for Ahlstrom’s filtration division. “But, it’s not like you can just start a line and enter the market. There are a lot of qualification processes and a lot of knowledge necessary to be successful in the market. It takes a lot longer to get into filtration than into some of the more commoditized markets.”

According to PGI’s director of filtration marketing Christine Murray, there are a number of reasons why filtration is becoming more important to nonwovens producers. For one, as nonwovens continue to replace paper, wovens, glass and other types of media, the market is requiring more engineered, higher value-added, innovative nonwovens, which allows nonwovens producers to achieve a better return on their investment. For instance, PGI is replacing standard nonwovens with higher technology nonwovens. “Traditional commodity-type nonwovens are being replaced by more skillfully engineered and composite-style nonwovens in response to the marketplace driving toward higher efficiency. Part of this is regulatory; part of it is the result of a more educated filter customer.”

“These more sophisticated nonwovens are being engineered to achieve new functionality,” she continued. “It used to be that higher efficiency could sacrifice life or lower pressure drop but some of these recently engineered nonwovens are able to offer everything as well as attractive cost levels.”

And, as more players enter the filtration field, lured by the general public’s increased need for cleaner air and liquids, executives are noticing changes in the market in general. While companies with less sophisticated products are entering the lower end of the market in residential or even commercial applications, companies with more sophisticated technologies are targeting typically less demanding markets as consumers are willing to spend more on their home filtration needs. For instance, the average consumer can now purchase a furnace filter that would perform at a level previously seen only in cleanroom or other high end filtration markets.

“People are more sensitive to filtration needs,” said Patrick Apfeld, vice president of marketing and business development for Lydall. “There is a greater awareness and part of this has been driven through education. And, it’s a relatively cost-effective way for a consumer to cleanse the air. Instead of spending several thousands dollars on a high efficiency filtration system, they can spend $15-20 on a new filter change-out a few times a year.”
In response to this trend, Lydall, a world leader in high-end, high-requirement filtration markets, is extending its technology into the higher end residential markets where consumers have become more willing to invest in efficient filtration. Dr. Apfeld said in these markets he is witnessing a crowded playing field. “Some of the people who used to play in the lower end are trying to better their technology to meet more stringent demands, whereas we already had the technology. We are just targeting a new market,” he said. “What’s happening is we are meeting in the middle. The battleground is in the middle.”

Ahlstrom’s Focus

Expanding the scope of filtration has been a major push for Ahlstrom. The roll goods producer has made several investments in recent months to expand its traditional role in engine media to cover the whole filtration segment.

“The strategy of Ahlstrom is to maintain and grow engine filtration but to also grow in air and liquid filtration,” Mr. Barrillon said. “Ahlstrom wants to maintain its role as the largest and leading roll good supplier to filtration but not be only leveraged on the transportation side.”

 A long-time supplier of wetlaid media to the engine filtration market, Ahlstrom’s first major investment beyond this subsegment was Hollinee LLC’s filtration business, which added mainly heating, ventilation and air conditioning media to its portfolio. Then, in December 2005, Ahlstrom announced it would purchase Lantor Inc.’s U.S. and Chinese operations to reinforce its position in the air filtration and automotive filtration markets by adding additional needlepunch production capacity and expanding its product portfolio with high temperature dust filtration and other specialty filtration products. The purchase included facilities in Bellingham, MA and Wuxi, China, which will help Ahlstrom tap the high growth air filtration market in China.

Also in December, Ahlstrom acquired FiberMark’s North American absorbent materials business and integrated this operation into its existing product offering supplied from its Mt. Holly Spring, PA site. At the time of purchase, Ahlstrom executives said the transaction would strengthen the company’s role in the specialty filtration market.

The next month, Ahlstrom expanded its drylaid media offerings to the HVAC market with the acquisition of HRS Textiles in South Carolina.

Beyond acquisition, Ahlstrom’s filtration business is benefiting from a new fine fiber line in Turin, Italy, which came onstream in June 2005. Based on custom melt-spinning technology, this line can use multiple polymers and create multilayer and calendered products to serve multiple applications, particularly filtration. Where traditional meltblown technology produces most fibers above one micron, Ahlstrom’s fine fiber technology produces a much higher preparation percentage of fibers in the sub-micron range opening up possibilities to increase filtration efficiencies while maintaining performance.

While Ahlstrom has made significant investment in technologies beyond its core wetlaid base, Mr. Barrillon said he sees that there is still a great deal of growth potential for cellulose-based wetlaid nonwovens in the filtration segment. “We are seeing more 100% synthetic products because that’s what the market is requiring to meet lifecycle requirements,” he said. “In many higher end applications, people are looking for products with a longer lifespan and at the same time these products offer higher efficiencies. They cost more but the increase is more than recouped with the extended life and performance. Even though synthetics are a growing trend in the higher end markets, cellulose-based media are definitely there to stay.”

Ahlstrom is also expanding its capabilities in the synthetic realm within its Tampere, Finland site and adding a nanofiber line in Madisonville, KY.

New Kids On The Block

As the world’s second largest nonwovens producer and a recognized technology leader, DuPont’s entrance into filtration brings a whole new type of media to the segment. The company’s Hybrid Membrane Technology (HMT) combines submicron fibers and high surface area to deliver an optimal balance of flux-barrier performance. DuPont is producing the new material, which it purchased in 2005, on a new line in Korea. DuPont executives said they feel that HMT will present strong growth opportunities in filtration because of its ability to uniformly trap submicron particles, such as bacteria, while maintaining high flow rates.

According to Tucker Norton, global technical manager, new business development for DuPont, the company sees opportunities for HMT within both air and liquid filtration applications because it introduces a new level of performance that doesn’t exist with competing materials. “We see reduced contaminant levels driving the use of tighter media but tighter media usually reduces flux. However, HMT is able to achieve high throughput with submicron media while still allowing for double digit increases in flux and comparable or even better efficiency. HMT occupies a performance niche between traditional nonwovens and membranes. Nonwovens typically contain larger pore sizes and are not able to achieve really fine filtration whereas membranes have smaller pore sizes but there is flux penalty and a productivity penalty in using them.”

Dr. Norton said the attractiveness of this new technology combined with increased respect for filtration encouraged DuPont, which already sold its polypropylene-based spunbond as support systems in a number of filtration formats, to sharpen its focus on filtration. “All of the filtration segments (in liquid microfiltration/ultrafiltration and analogous air filtration) are quite attractive to us,” he said. “The perception around the need for pure air and pure water is driving a lot of increased interest in better performing media and at the same time there is recent scientific evidence that smaller air particles are responsible for respiratory illnesses (less than one micron) and this brings an awareness of filtration that was not there before.”

This awareness was also behind Norafin’s decision to target filtration, a market it first approached nearly three years ago but has more recently earmarked as a strategic growth market. “We have seen a lot of the bigger companies investing in this field so we have decided to pay much more attention to this segment,” said Vincent Lorentz. Norafin, which is a part of the Jacob Holm group of companies, has established marketing, sales and research and development teams exclusively for filtration and has been touting the benefits of needlepunched and spunlaced nonwovens in this segment. “Spunlace can bring many advantages to filtration,” Mr. Lorentz said. “It brings a better entanglement of the fiber because of the high pressure water jets so it’s a naturally three-dimensional entanglement. The water naturally fills the hole by going where the holes are and naturally sealing all of the holes. This creates better homogeneity, density, entanglement and means thinner and smaller pore sizes.”

Norafin began its business in dust collection applications but has since expanded into other air filtration segments such as tubal compressors and air intake filters and eventually to liquid filtration. “We feel that nonwovens can bring more flexibility and benefits to the final user so there are definitely bigger opportunities there.”

On The High End

Perhaps the two nonwovens manufacturers offering the most technologically advanced media substrates are Hollingsworth & Vose and Lydall, whose products span a number of different areas. On the air side, H&V targets engine and industrial filtration areas such as heavy duty air, passenger car cabin air segments and gas turbine and dust collection as well as high efficiency and specialty filtration areas such has electronic equipment, HEPA, ULPA and cleanroom, HVAC, room air cleaner, respiratory protection and vacuum cleaner. These areas have been increasing demand for synthetics and multilayer composites, according to director of new markets Angelika Mayman. “Media are continually expected to provide increased efficiency with reduced pressure drop,” she said. “Products also must be designed for greater value, meaning the same or better performance at reduced costs.

In response, H&V has introduced a number of new products including pleatable synthetic composites for HVAC and appliance filters, synthetic long-service interval media for engine filtration NanoMelt media for HVAC concerns and adsorptive composite media to capture acid gases.

Meanwhile, on the liquid side, H& V is active in fuel, oil, industrial, analytical/medical/biotech, coalescers, drinking water and pool and spa filtration. Composite media are also important in liquid filtration applications such as fuel or cartridge filtration applications. H&V’s products include meltblown/cellulose composites for engine filter applications and calendared meltblown for liquid cartridges, which provide the durability and efficiency required for high performance end uses. H&V is also leading the market with advanced cure resin technology to reduce energy consumption from customers offering pre-cured media.

Lydall breaks its filtration business into three segments—air filtration, engine and industrial and life sciences-where the company supplies microfiberglass wetlaid media as well as meltblown and meltblown composites. “Most of the markets we are targeting are higher end but we are very committed in the long term to wetlaid glass microfiber media,” Dr. Apfeld said. “We believe that this is going to be the material of choice for many decades.”

Meltblown, which can be enhanced through a number of techniques such as increasing its efficiency by applying an electrostatic charge, is often the preferred choice for appropriate filtration applications, according to Dr. Apfeld.

One area where Mr. Apfeld. is seeing a number of changing needs is in engine filtration media where differences in engineering requirements as well as in fuels and fluids being filtered are posing more challenges to the filter. This is helping Lydall achieve increases, not only through GDP growth, but also by rising to more demanding requirements such as tighter tolerance designs, which require the removal of smaller particles in the engine. Lydall has developed new glass media with better compatibility to these fluids.

“For many years, offerings in engine filtration were basically just rebranded air filtration grades,” Dr. Apfeld said. “Now what is being required to be successful are products that are very specifically designed for engine applications.”

And, while companies like H&V and Lydall have long dominated the higher tiers of the filtration market, this segment is undoubtedly set to become more crowded as a number of roll goods companies increase their efforts here. One of these is PGI Nonwovens, whose broad technology portfolio gives it the ability to meet a number of different needs. These include liquid process, cartridge, water, air, industrial (dust bags, HVAC), scrim support for a variety of filtration composites, air and liquid applications.

“Filtration as well as the overall industrial market has become more focused for PGI,” Ms. Murray said. “A lot of nonwovens producers have earmarked filtration as a growth area so there are more focused resources there. There are more specific development programs that are out there targeting filtration rather than taking existing products and fitting them into the filtration market. They are engineered specifically for the market.”

PGI has been responding to this trend with a number of new product introductions on both the air and liquid side, often taking advantage of its Apex forming technology, which creates an ideal surface area for filtration. While these products have been quite successful for the company, raw material prices and competition are not a non-issue in the filtration segment. “Cost is certainly an issue, especially in the past 12-18 months with raw material pressures being the way they are,” Ms. Murray said. “I think there is some perception that price is not an issue in filtration but this is not really the case. My strategy is to develop demanding products to meet new areas, while expanding existing offerings with new technology and redefining cost structure. You have to find that right balance between cost and performance.”

For Elk Performance Fabrics, filtration represents just a small portion of its business—about 15% of its total sales compared to 85% for roofing—but the company’s strategy of targeting higher technology, higher margin businesses has made filtration an important market for the company. Elk entered the coolant liquid filtration market 19 years ago and has since expanded into a number of other areas with its wetlaid nonwovens. “Wetlaid is a rather new player in air filtration,” said Susan Bailey of Elk Performance Fabrics. “We are capitalizing on what wetlaid brings to filtration compared to other nonwovens.”

Among wetlaid’s advantages are its ability to be self-supportable when pleatable, eliminating the need for wire mesh under the right conditions. “For lack of a more technical term, wetlaid is stiffer than some of the media used in the past,” Ms. Bailey explained. “You have to have a stiffness so that when they make the pleats it can withstand the process. There has been a lot of interest in that. It’s different because it’s not what has always been done but folks are looking for that.”

Filtration’s dependence on a more sophisticated substrate also has made it attractive to Elk. “In filtration, the media is a much more integral piece of the puzzle than in roofing,” Ms. Bailey said. “In some of our other industries, our product is just a base product. This is very exciting because of  the benefits nonwovens can bring and because of the overall growth of the market.”

China’s Contribution

While the need for cleaner air and liquids is increasing throughout the world, creating filtration market growth beyond GDP growth in many world regions, China is emerging as a very important market for many companies doing business in this segment. As China industrializes and works to clean up many of its environmental mistakes of the past, demand for filtration systems is ramping up.

H&V is preparing for Asian growth with the installation of a new wetlaid microglass manufacturing line at its Suzhou, China facility to serve filtration and battery separator markets. The investment is part of H&V’s Asia-Pacific strategy, announced in November 2004, to capitalize on market growth in this region. The machine will produce high quality filter media for HEPA, ULPA, HVAC and appliance applications as well as valve-regulated lead acid (VRLA) battery separator substrates. H&V’s materials are designed to meet demanding industry standards.

In announcing the new line, H&V CEO Val Hollingsworth said customers in the region will benefit from reduced lead times thanks to localized production with the same high quality materials. Site construction in Suzhou should be completed by year-end 2006 with the previously announced machine for engine filtration markets to be commissioned in the first quarter of 2007. Engineering for the glass machine is underway and the line is expected to be operational in early 2008. Slitting, converting and warehousing operations complement the manufacturing capabilities.

Meanwhile, Ahlstrom’s Chinese filtration business is already benefiting from the Wuxi, China site it acquired with Lantor. According to Mr. Barrillon, among the key markets for filtration in China is dust filtration, which is linked heavily to power generations. The Wuxi site began production in May 2005. Combined with Ahlstrom’s facilities in Korea, this site will provide Ahlstrom with a strong platform in the region. While his company has not yet announced major plans within China, Lydall’s Mr. Apfield said he sees a lot of growth potential within Asia as well as some potential competition. “We are seeing some smaller companies adapting their technology in China itself and they are facing a steep learning curve when it comes to targeting high end applications in the local market,” he said. “Now the question is whether they will be able to compete on a global scale.”

The movement to China, along with the entry of new market participants and existing companies’ renewed interest in filtration, will certainly shape the market in years to come. As larger companies have identified filtration as a strategic focus, the result has largely been new, more innovative products and increased competition, according to PGI’s Ms. Murray. “The real driver will be filter makers looking for more value-added products without increased costs,” she said. “They are looking for more innovative media and suppliers are responding.”

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