Riding The Wave

By Ellen Wuagneux, Associate Editor | February 12, 2007

to stay afloat, producers of spunmelt nonwovens must balance high raw material costs, tough competition and overcapacity issues

With new lines continuing to pop up around the globe, adding new capacity at a steady clip, the spunbond sector of the nonwovens industry is no doubt continuing to grow. Today the range of spunmelt forming technologies represents more than 40% of the overall production of nonwoven fabrics. According to INDA, the North American Nonwovens Association, growth in this sector of the market is forecast at 8.5% per year until 2009 and is expected to replace carding as the main source of web forming by 2012.
Industry statistics pinpointed worldwide production of  spunbond/spunmelt fabrics (including SMS) at 1.84 million tons in 2004. In terms of raw materials, polypropylene represents the primary base of spunbond webs with hygiene ranking as the largest spunbond/spunmelt application area.
And, spunbond/spunmelt is the benchmark for efficiency in that it takes producers from base raw material in pellet form to finished fabric. In the case of other nonwoven technologies, there is an interim step to go from raw material to fiber and then to finished fabric. According to spunbond producers, with other technologies, even the process taking them to finished fabric isn’t as fast or cost-efficient.

In the recent past there have been a number of spunbond and SMS capacity expansions worldwide, which have led to a certain amount of overcapacity. Yet, due to the removal of older spunbond equipment and the continuing replacement of carded fabrics with spunbond, this overcapacity has not had as significant an impact as was initially expected. For the most part, suppliers offering innovative products who have established long-term relationships with customers are not experiencing significant capacity issues.
Considering the amount of existing and new capacity in this market, supply and demand is obviously among the chief concerns of just about everyone involved in the spunbond sector. Pieter Meijer, vice president, marketing and sales, Europe for leading spunbond producer Fiberweb described the capacity situation as manageable but declined to offer any details on the company’s plans to add any new lines. “We are continually evaluating the opportunity and need for new lines,” he said.
According to Ian Disley, general manager of Saudi producer Advanced Fabrics (SAAF), the significant amount of new capacity that came onstream in 2006 made it a buyers’ market for commodity hygiene products. “The large companies were able to negotiate lower prices on tender bids, despite the increases in polymer costs. Spunbond/spunmelt remains the most cost-effective way of producing fabric and the ability of the latest machines to produce high quality materials at low weights will increase pressure on those who have not continued to invest over the last five years.”  For its part, SAAF’s second spunmelt line is in the process of being commissioned with certain fabrics already being produced. This line will more than double SAAF’s capacity for its strategic markets of medical and hygiene fabrics.
Based in Jordan, Specialized Industries Co. (SPIC) holds a similar view of the worldwide capacity of spunbond nonwovens. “The market is doing a great job of absorbing the new quantities, especially in our region, for the time being,” observed Firas Haddad, SPIC’s marketing officer.
From the perspective of Fibertex, headquartered in Aalborg, Denmark, capacity readings, and especially new lines, vary across different world regions. “We feel new line start-up is clearly differentiated between geographies,” stated Etienne Ficht, director business development for Fibertex. “South America is growing the most; Asia also, but somewhat less. Europe and the U.S. have slowed in their capacity growth.” Mr. Ficht went on to say that the industry has done a decent job of absorbing new capacity; however, recent capacity increases are felt in the form of fewer non-contract orders.
Fibertex has no plans to install new lines in the immediate future and is concentrating instead on the new line the company brought onstream in Aalborg at the close of 2006. “Our growth has been five-fold since 1997 and we intend to aggressively pursue our search for growth opportunities in markets and applications and by means of organic growth or acquisitions,” Mr. Ficht said.
For leading producer PGI, Charlotte, NC, spunbond growth can be attributed to ongoing hygiene penetration, particularly in developing regions in addition to expanding use of spunbond in other applications. “When we look at the spunbond market on a global basis, there continues to be a shift toward spunbond in most categories,” opined Dennis Norman, vice president strategic planning and communication for PGI. “It’s a more efficient and cost-effective process from the end use perspective. When you look at where the most demand and growth is occurring, it really is on the spunbond side. We’ve seen continued growth, even in mature markets,” he said.
This may explain why the company is bullish about the growth plans it has in place, which include several new spunbond initiatives. At its Cali, Colombia facility, a new line, which was fully installed at the end of 2005, is now operating at capacity. In Mooresville, NC, a line was installed in May 2006 and is operating, as planned, at full capacity utilization. “Our new 2006 lines are meeting all expectations. In general we are seeing continued strength and growth in demand in the spunbond market in all of the regions where PGI is active,” commented Mr. Norman. He added that the company operates spunbond lines in the U.S., Latin America and Asia but, at this point, not in Europe.
The start-up curve on the new line in Suzhou, China was a bit different for two reasons. First, the line is geared toward medical applications, whereas our other two recent expansions [in Colombia and North Carolina] focus more on hygiene with some industrial components. Also, the line is larger; it’s a five-beam SMMMS system that took a little longer to come onstream. It came on in 2006, was ramping up through the second half of the year and will be in full swing in 2007.”
In addition, PGI is underway with plans to build a new line in its Argentinean facility. The new spunbond line will be under construction this year and is expected to be up and running by the end of the year. “So we are looking at continued new spunbond capacity growth going into 2008,” said Mr. Norman. He added that PGI currently operates 23 spunbond lines around the world, including its new Chinese line, and PGI’s upcoming Argentinean line is set to bump this number up to 24 when it comes online this year.

Customized Requirements

Helping to spur all of this growth in the spunbond market are new requirements from customers for lighter basis weights, improved strength and softness and better barrier performance. As always, the optimal value/performance equation is key.
“Producing spunbond and SMS has become an art,” commented Mr. Haddad of SPIC. “Meeting customers’ expectations with an acceptable product is a basic service. The challenge is to produce a premium product and provide excellent service. Strength and softness are both part of the product’s specifications, so they are key requirements and will always be.”
“Lower basis weights are mostly driven by cost reductions,” said Mr. Ficht of Fibertex. “Runnability at the converter as well as at the nonwoven producer are limiting factors, better distribution and improved performance per gram allow possibilities that were unheard of only a few years ago.”
On the hygiene side, PGI has witnessed a continued ramp-up of technical specifications toward stronger, lighter fabrics. “At some point, some of the much older technology reaches limits where it can’t keep up,” said Mr. Norman. “This has been going on for a while but what’s new are applications on the industrial end (outside of hygiene, medical or wipes) that were either using older technology or not nonwoven fabrics and are now starting to use spunbond. We continue to see spunbond used in composites with other nonwovens and traditional fabrics.”    
Mr. Norman added that even the newest spunbond hygiene lines have their limit. “You tend to be reaching some of the physics limitations of being able to produce the lightest weight fabric at the right commercial speeds to gain the efficiency that you need. The incremental step changes on basis weights probably aren’t going to be as dramatic as what we’ve seen over past five years. We’ve seen some pretty dramatic drops—from 17 to 13 to 10 gsm.”
Leading spunbond machinery specialist Reifenhäuser GmbH has also witnessed a continued trend toward lighter fabric weights. “The major trend for all high volume markets (such as hygiene, medical and wipes) is toward lower fabric weight but keeping the same performance,” observed Bernd Kunze, managing director. “Resin prices as the main cost factor will drive this further. Modifications that allow spunlaid to offer more loft, variable MD/CD, higher barrier properties and softness are available and will penetrate the market,” Dr. Kunze forecast.
In the building and construction market, Helsinki, Finland-based Ahlstrom has seen demands for increased strength, which are being answered by unique fabric combinations. “Composite products made of nonwovens laminated with a reinforcement layer (scrim, net or film) is an ever-growing trend in building markets,” observed Christian Glaenzer, Ahlstrom’s general manager nonwovens, development and technology. “Softness remains a key requirement as soon as the product is going to be in contact with human skin (as in baby hygiene, feminine care, adult incontinence, protective garments, surgical drapes and gowns).”
In addition to strength and softness, other properties are also being demanded by customers, particularly in the hygiene market. In response to these requirements, Fiberweb has developed a range of spunbond fabrics that also deliver high elongation, extension and even stretch and recovery. “All these features need to be delivered at an acceptable price to the markets that use these fabrics,” pointed out Mr. Meijer. “ In addition to these products, he indicated that more environmentally friendly products are in increased demand. This can be in the form of spunbonds made from polymers that are based on renewable resources, recycled polymers and lower weight fabrics that reduce the usage of scarce resources. “However,” Mr. Meijer said, “this new trend for environmentally friendly fabrics and the need for the best value and adequate cost can be in conflict with each other.”

More & More Medical

Beyond personal hygiene, another growing market for spunbond and spunmelt fabrics is medical, where applications for these fabrics range from isolation garments to fully treated alcohol repellent/anti-static surgical drapes and gowns. “The medical market is still increasing its use of spunbond/SMS but with the emphasis on boosting quality and standards without increasing price,” noted SAAF’s Mr. Disley. “There is also a trend toward combining spunmelt fabrics with other nonwovens to combine the best properties and economics of different substrates.”
Another prominent player in the medical market is Ahlstrom, which has seen increased SMS demand driven by medical market growth. “The average medical market growth is approximately 6% where 45% is projected to be polypropylene spunbond/SMS,” noted Mr. Glaenzer. A year ago Ahlstrom formed a strategic alliance with SAAF and additional plans to add more spunmelt capacity are under study.
“Global opportunities continue to arise in the spunbond/SMS area due to product quality and technical capabilities. Product characteristics such as higher fluid barriers, lighter basis weights and cost-effectiveness drive the growing popularity of quality spunbond/SMS fabrics,” Mr. Glaenzer added.
Mr. Ficht of Fibertex characterized the medical sector as being at a turning point. “We feel that the ‘shake down’ between suppliers and technologies is still not complete. Spunbond clearly has the upper hand. Logistical considerations and compatibility between hygiene spunbond lines and medical requirements remains a challenge. The hygiene industry tends to approach the medical market with a focus on technology,” he said.

Must-Have Machinery

Speaking of technology, when it comes to spunmelt machinery, several important technologies are leading the way. From Rieter Perfojet SAS, Montbonnot, France, the PERFObond 3000 produces uniform, polypropylene-based, high quality spunbond fabrics. The machine can create finished fabric weights between 9 and 150 gpsm and offers productivity up to 300 kg/h/m/beam.
Recently the PERFObond 3000 has been adapted for processing polyester and PLA polymers, a move that is expected to allow producers to expand into areas such as filtration, geotextiles and automotive.
Rounding out its spunmelt product range, Rieter also offers the Emblo meltblown system, which can be integrated between spunbond towers to produce SMS webs. Due to its unique design, the system reduces cleaning time and installation costs and offers quality benefits. The company also offers the SPUNjet system, which  combines spunlaid and spunlace technologies and features the advantages of softness and bulk.
Also specializing in spunbond/hydroentanglement is German machinery supplier Fleissner GmbH, which is now part of Trützschler Group. According to the company’s Alfred Watzl, director of sales and marketing, this combination of technologies is gaining ground. “As a manufacturer of bonding and finishing lines for spunbond, we see growth in spunbond/spunlace technology. (Fleissner just recently supplied a new five meter-wide line.) As spunbond /spunlace technology just became available, the market is absorbing all of these products with enthusiasm. Spunbond/spunlace technology will offer excellent opportunities to open up new markets even if not all of the fields of application are identically suited for this technology. New applications, especially for composites, will certainly be developed instead so that hydroentangled spunbonds will gain a leading market position,” he said.
Another interesting development on the machinery end is Nordson Corporation’s sale in October of its Fiber Systems Group to Saurer Ltd.’s business unit, Neumag, which offers a range of turnkey systems for the production of spunbond  nonwovens. With Nordson’s meltblown technologies, Neumag strengthens its position in spunbond and composite structures by integrating the spunbond technology and adding stand-alone meltblown solutions.

Fast Forward

Moving forward, producers have generally high hopes for the spunbond and spunmelt market and expect growth to come from a variety of drivers. By 2010, production of these materials is expected to be in the range of 2.8-3.0 million tons, with a trend towards replenishable raw materials such as biopolymers and pulps. “We believe that spunbond and SMS fabrics will find further applications in new disposable and durable applications,” predicted Fiberweb’s Mr. Meijer, “either alone or in combination with novel bonding techniques and in composites. Fiberweb is investing in the appropriate product and technology development.”
As Fibertex’s Mr. Ficht sees things, critical challenges to overcome as the market moves forward are raw material supply, cost control and maintenance of current profitability levels. Despite these obstacles, he foresees a solid position for spunbond and its variants, continued growth and, most probably, the emergence of a strong competitor to Reifenhäuser.
SAAF’s Mr. Disley agreed, suggesting that due to the economics of spunbond/spunmelt, this market will continue to grow but the key will be continued investment. “It is likely alternative machinery suppliers will become credible alternatives to the Reifenhäuser ‘default’ option of the last few years and technologies will probably merge to produce hybrid products. Each time excess capacity becomes available, it is likely to be taken up by moves into alternative markets as fabric producers leverage the economic advantages of spunbond/spunmelt over other nonwovens, and possibly conventional textile technologies.”
Fleissner’s Mr. Watzl sees potential for spunbond fabrics beyond traditional markets and fibers. “Today mainly polypropylene spunbonds dominate, but other polymers such as PET, PLA and viscose-spunbond have gained attention in technical applications as well as hygiene, medical and hospital end uses (PLE, viscose: biodegradable and flushable). Spunbonds with or without pulp and other fibers (staple) in composites as two- or three-layer products will dominate the future wipes market. Other market segments such as building, roofing, geotextiles, household, filtration automotives and coating substrates will be positively influenced by the new bonding technologies.”
Wrapping things up, PGI’s Mr. Norman said that, moving forward, a key focus for PGI is differentiation and process flexibility. “Our focus has been on developing proprietary processes on the medical and industrial sides. Everybody with the same assets shouldn’t be competing on an even level.” According to Mr. Norman, differentiation has become increasingly important as a result of heightened “asset standardization.”
“If you look back five to 10 years ago, there were a number of different lines out on the market. Reifenhäuser (Reicofil) is the market leader from a vendor perspective, obviously, so as more people are buying similar lines, they end up being able to make very similar fabric,” Mr. Nordson said. “That’s why we’re focusing on our own capabilities rather than relying solely on vendor capabilities. As more people are putting in more lines,we are focusing on  innovation toward trying to extend the asset life because if your asset is only good until the next generation comes along, then the value equation for the industry turns sour pretty quickly.”
Is there a possibility of increased process flexibility as a result of more aggressive equipment vendor competition? According to PGI, the answer is yes. “There is a lot of development going on at Neumag (Sauer). They are one of the leading vendors that is trying to develop to compete and we’re all for it. We’ve got a very strong relationship with Reifenhäuser (Reicofil) and they are critical to our strategy going forward; however, asset pricing continues to go up and the value equation continues to get more challenging. So, if there are other alternatives in the market from a technological basis, we have better opportunities to look at what flexibility we might have in processes, to focus more on differentiation and become less dependent on just one vendor.”