Spunlace: Still Wiping Up?

By Ellen Wuagneux, Editor | March 12, 2007

overcapacity and pricing issues worry producers, but there is hope that product differentiation will lead the way

When we think wipes, we think spunlace, and that’s just what producers in this segment want to hear. For the most part, spunlace nonwovens have replaced airlaid fabrics in wiping applications, although in certain areas airlaid is still holding its own in comparison to spunlace. To the boon of the spunlace sector, while it may offer a lower price, traditional airlaid in general cannot match spunlace’s strength.
Now that spunlace has made a solid name for itself in wipes, ongoing differentiation is needed to open up new opportunities for this technology. “Differentiation is very important to consumer companies and private labelers that want to show a value-added product,” opined Karen Castle, Ahlstrom’s North American director of sales and marketing. “The benefits of hydroembossing, for example, are pattern definition and perceived thickness. Manufacturers of roll goods as well as capital equipment suppliers are still making efforts to differentiate wiping materials.”
Pieter Meijer, vice president, marketing and sales Europe for Fiberweb plc, also believes that most producers are trying to differentiate their products.  “However,” he warned, “end use markets are not particularly profitable, and differentiation and innovation need to be delivered cost-effectively.”
“The markets for spunlace continue to grow,” continued Mr. Meijer, “some segments grow faster, others are growing more slowly. And while the overall growth rate (in the mid-single digits) may not be as high as in the past, opportunities continue to exist for those companies that offer innovative products at the right price.” He added, however, that increases in raw material pricing, energy and transportation costs have made this business quite challenging for most market participants.
At Norafin GmbH—a member of Jacob Holm Group—differentiation is the name of the game. “Looking at the standard wipes market, prices are under pressure due to the existing capacity,” said André Lang, company president. “Therefore, we are focused on offering specialized, state-of-the-art wipes that help our customers differentiate and maintain their margins in their markets.”

Gauging The Globe

Spunlace has been facing oversupply in Europe for some time and now this situation is hitting North America. Three large lines have come onstream in the U.S. in the last 18-24 months, mostly targeted at the wipes market. As more competitors enter the market and add lines, what was once a premium product is becoming more commoditized on a global basis for the industry as a whole. “This underpins the need for producers to continue to innovate and find ways to differentiate from plain, flat spunlace producers,” observed Dennis Norman, vice president of strategic planning and communication at Polymer Group, Inc.
He added that PGI is applying its proprietary Apex technology in wipes and other niche products as a differentiator for its customers and has recently announced a brand new technology based on spunlace for the wipes market (see box below).“Companies that only offer basic, flat spunlace products don’t have a competitive advantage.”
Also focusing on new products for growth is Suominen Nonwovens. Henri Laitervo, sales director, pointed to his company’s launch of several new materials that have resulted from proprietary customer projects. “Growth is mainly in new applications, niche markets and task-specific wipes. There is continuous activity to differentiate products from each other. This activity has shifted to packaging and lotions, at least temporarily, but it’s still evident that spunlace substrates are quite similar to each other and therefore differentiation will certainly continue.”
For Ahlstrom, overcapacity is a more significant concern in Europe than in the U.S. “In Europe, capacity still far exceeds demand,” remarked Ms. Castle. “Older, higher cost assets remain in place and add to capacity issues. In North America, we are still seeing imports from overseas so capacity and demand are somewhat balanced.”

Ms. Castle described growth in the wipes market as continuing to be strong as demand for convenience still outweighs the cost to consumers. “Organic growth among existing wiping products is showing a steady increase, which is expanding the overall market. Certain segments have enjoyed better growth rates than others but the largest volume remains in the baby segment,” she said.
The way PGI sees things, despite its large volume, baby wipes is a mature market with low single-digit growth. “Growth in value-added wipes peaked from double digits around the 2002 period,” stated Mr. Norman. “We’re seeing the current growth rate for value-added wipes to be slightly higher than baby wipes. While the growth rates have come down a bit, the volume is still there. There also is demand for spunlace in niche applications, although that represents a smaller market than wipes,” he said.
Speaking of niche markets, leading roll goods producer DuPont is concentrating on specialized industrial applications in emerging markets in addition to U.S. and European regions. “The global spunlace market continues to expand into emerging markets where the functionality and cost-effectiveness of spunlace materials are valued,” suggested Scott Gettelfinger, North American business manager, DuPont Nonwovens. “As emerging markets continue to climb the curve where unique and specific cleaning performance is valued, spunlace will continue to find new areas in which to participate.”
Another company offering a perspective on the industrial end of the market is Inotis S.A., which supplies low-lint wood pulp/polyester spunlace. “We believe that supply and demand are quite balanced in the high end of the business,” stated Bernard Kerstens, director sales and marketing. “The more basic the product becomes, the more supply exceeds demand. The barriers to enter the high end of the market are simply too big for many companies to overcome. It takes a much greater investment in terms of capital and process know-how to enter wood pulp/polyester technology than for other spunlace technologies. This is reflected in the supply/demand situation in the different markets,” he said.

Beyond Wipes

Producers large and small are continuing to develop products outside of the baby wipes segment, proving that innovation is alive and well in the spunlace market. One such company is Norafin GmbH, which has developed a range of specialty spunlace materials targeted at HVAC end uses. Thanks to the fabrics’ ability to self-support a pleat, Norafin spunlace offers improved dust holding capacity as well as improved uniformity of the web, the materials offer several product advantages compared to traditional HVAC media.
On the new product front, Norafin has introduced its 3D Performance spunlace fabric (pictured on this month’s cover), which is a hydroembossed web offering enhanced insulation properties thanks to the air trapped in the fabric. “This product innovation improves safety and comfort, not only for applications in the protective apparel and medical markets but also in construction as well as aerospace,” commented Mr. Lang.
Additionally, Norafin has been in the process of developing various fabrics for use in bag house filtration. Its spunlace filter media offer various performance advantages compared to more traditional technologies in air filtration such as a tightly controlled pore size distribution and improved dust holding. The media’s homogeneity leads to increased filtration efficiency.
“In order to meet customer requirements, Norafin aims at offering all-embracing product solutions that not only focus on the roll goods to be produced but also all aspects of the product concept—from the fiber to the needed end product. Internal as well as external business partners are thereby of prime importance,” stated Mr. Lang.
DuPont is targeting the industrial sector with innovative wipe products. The company continues to expand its spunlace offerings into the critical cleaning market where presaturated products targeted at the automotive OEM and refinish segments are receiving positive responses. In the automotive market, DuPont has developed a line of presaturated wipes that employ specialty solvents used in the surface preparation of cars prior to painting. “This is a great example of how to combine value-adding functionality to spunlace wipes,” Mr. Gettelfinger said.
“We are also expanding our medical fabric offerings to meet the needs of both developed and emerging healthcare segments where the focus on infection prevention continues to grow,” explained DuPont’s Mr. Gettelfinger. “By increasing our offerings to include patient spunlace apparel in addition to specialized surgical gowns and drapes, we have seen positive market feedback to the unique attributes that spunlace can provide.”
Also in the medical sector, Inotis S.A. specializes in the production of Licial woodpulp/polyester spunlace for barrier fabric end uses. “Licial production began in mid-2005 with absorbent versions and in January 2006 we started the commercialization and production of liquid resistant versions of Licial,” said Mr. Kerstens. As base fabric for surgical garments, Licial barrier fabric offers a mix of barrier function, safety and comfort. “As Licial was a new product to the market, a program was set up to confirm the product qualities by external independent institutes in France and Belgium. This was a key element for the success and acceptance of Licial in medical markets. Meanwhile, many hospitals in the world are now using Licial as barrier fabric.”
At Fiberweb, efforts are focused on developing products with superior aesthetics that can be offered at acceptable prices. Examples include fabrics for baby wipes that substitute PLA fibers for PP, resulting in a soft substrate made from all renewable resources that can be thermally embossed with an attractive pattern. There are also new products targeted at the markets of wet toilet wipes that have dictated new constructions, capitalizing on Fiberweb’s capability to produce spunlace containing wood pulp.
Although Fiberweb has not recently initiated any capacity expansions, the company has announced the expansion of fiber-type flexibility at its Bethune, SC facility. “This will satisfy market demand for more natural fabrics in baby, personal care and home care wipes applications,” explained Mr. Meijer.
One company keeping extremely busy when it comes to both product introductions and expansions is Ahlstrom, which has developed and commercialized a variety of new spunlace products this year for specific customer needs and expanded its spunlace business through expansion and acquisition. “We have made multiple large investments in the past few years that have enabled us to develop new and interesting materials. Development continues with new fibers, equipment and processes and the industry should see further innovation in the coming year,” said the company’s Ms. Castle.
Among Ahlstrom’s recently initiated plans is a new spunlace line added to its Green Bay, WI facility last year. “The investment became commercial in December 2006, which was an earlier startup than expected,” commented Martin Davis, vice president and general manager of wipes, globally. “Also in 2006 we invested in cotton capabilities for our existing line, which was commercialized mid-year.” Later in 2006, Ahlstrom announced approval for a spunlace production facility in Brazil. “This will be the first investment dedicated to wipes in Latin America. The line will be commercialized in 2008,” explained Mr. Davis.
Most recently, Ahlstrom last month announced plans to acquire Orlandi’s spunlace nonwovens business (see sidebar on next page for more information). “The wipes segment offers significant growth opportunities and has a high innovation potential globally,” stated Claudio Ermondi, senior vice president, nonwovens.  “Ahlstrom has been consistently building its wipes business through adding technologies and expanding geographically. The acquisition of Orlandi’s business further complements our technology base and expands our product offering in the wipes sector,” he said.

At PGI, product development efforts in the spunlace area continue to be focused on its proprietary Apex technology. Using this spunlace-based platform, PGI has provided differentiation for customers in wipes and other products with three-dimensional imaging. PGI’s focus has been on value-added wipes, such as cotton-containing wipes, and on utilizing Apex in niche applications, such as industrial filtration, home furnishings and flooring.   
When it comes to new technologies, PGI plans to unveil Spinlace, a new hydroentanglement-based technology to serve the wipes market at the IDEA07 show in Miami in April. “Our message to the industry is that we remain the industry leader and have led the market when it comes to innovation. We are very much committed to serving the wipes market, and customers can expect to continue to see innovative solutions coming from PGI.”
Mr. Norman went on to say that the leading trends in spunlace are performance and price. “There continues to be the desire for higher performance at lower price points in the wipes arena. For industrial applications, there continues to be a drive for highly engineered products, both spunlace and other technologies, to meet specific performance criteria. We have been successfully developing solutions using not only spunlace, but also incorporating our Apex technology.”

Trend Talk

As the technological and market evolution of spunlace continues, several new trends are drawing the attention of producers and consumers alike. Although new product trends vary across different end use sectors, one thing is clear—adding value is of primary importance across the board.
“A leading trend for spunlace offerings today is the expansion of value-adding functionality,” opined Mr. Gettelfinger of DuPont. “These additional properties are being achieved through the inclusion of new fibers, specialty finishing applications and unique presaturated offerings.”
Also on the radar is flushability. “A new requirement is for flushable or dispersible wiping products,” said Mr. Meijer. “A globally-coordinated testing scheme has been established through EDANA and INDA that is designed to guarantee global standards. There is also interest in new fiber sources such as cotton and bamboo.”
In the area of cotton, Pakistan-based Ihsan Sons—a fiber supplier that forward integrated last year—started up a cotton spunlace line that can produce approximately 3000 tons per year. The 100% cotton bleached nonwoven fabrics are available both in plain and perforated constructions with weights ranging from 30-70 gpsm and fabric widths from 6-215 cm.
“The cotton spunlace fabrics meet all international standards of WSP, EDANA, BPC and ISO,” stated Moeen Naseer, marketing manager for Ihsan Sons. “Right now we are working to develop non-absorbent cotton spunlace, which we hope will be a big success in this field.” Mr. Naseer added that the company is the first non-U.S. company to receive the “Seal of Cotton” trademark from Cotton Inc., certifying the use of 100% cotton in its products. In response to demand from customers, Ihsan Sons is working to develop non-absorbent spunlace fabrics as well as organic cotton spunlace fabrics, for which the company intends to receive plant approval.
Commenting on the use of cotton by European spunlace producers was Mr. Laitervo of Suominen Nonwovens. “Cotton has certainly hit the markets in the Americas. However, the interest in Europe is not as strong due to the lower awareness of the benefits of cotton.”
Ihsan’s Mr. Naseer admitted that the shift to cotton might take some time in areas such as Europe. “European prices are still on the lower side and the European market is not yet fully prepared to replace synthetic with cotton nonwovens mainly due to price issues,” he said. “However, the change is taking place gradually, especially due to the fact that rayon prices have increased considerably in the international market and consumers are getting ready to pay extra for cotton as the natural fiber. As consumers as well as converters become more aware of cotton’s advantages, it is likely that demand will exceed capacity in the next few years.”
European producer Norafin GmbH sees cotton as a means of differentiating its product offerings and standing out in a highly competitive arena. “Thanks to the specialty fibers we use such as cotton, a better homogeneity of the products as well as embossing clarity, we have the chance to add value to our customers’ products; not only in the wipes market but in other hygiene markets such as femcare as well,” said Mr. Lang.
In the U.S., one manufacturer involved in the production of cotton spunlace fabrics is Ahlstrom with its recent investment to make its Green Bay site cotton capable. This capability is also included in Ahlstrom’s new spunlace line that started up in December 2006. “Cotton products appear to be doing very well in the marketplace and more new product developments are including this natural raw material,” stated the company’s Ms. Castle. “All-natural fibers are considered important and are being investigated as companies are interested in sustainability and renewable resources.”
Also keeping a close eye on this application area is DuPont, according to Mr. Gettelfinger. “We have seen a resurgence of interest in cotton-based spunlace and, as a result, we are investigating market opportunities,” he said.
For its part, PGI continues to hone its skills in the area of cotton spunlace and has worked hard to address issues of cost and processability since working with Nice-Pak on a baby wipe with 15% cotton content a few years ago. “We were the first to bring to market cotton-containing materials for baby wipes on a large commercial scale,” said Mr. Norman. “In the past, the technology was always too costly for disposable uses because of the processing of raw materials. But definitely it’s a capability that requires specific expertise that PGI has brought to the industry.”
Beyond cotton, spunlace manufacturers are investigating different fibers as well as fibers with new finishes in their processes. New investments at Ahlstrom’s Green Bay facility are geared to add value and lower the costs for these differentiated products. “Last year, hydroembossing techniques showed a significant increase in demand,” commented Ahlstrom’s Ms. Castle. “Flat products are losing share over these embossed, differentiated products. Hydroembossing allows consumer companies and private labelers to project their logos or desired look with ease onto the wipe.  Another area of interest is renewable materials and sustainable products. PLA, cotton and pulp have attracted a great deal of attention in 2006 and will continue to do so in the future,” she said.

Where To?

Looking ahead, spunlace nonwovens face many obstacles and chief among them are capacity and cost issues. Offering a forecast for the future was PGI’s Mr. Norman, who pointed to a gap between performance and price in the wipes market that makes the competitive environment extremely difficult. “However,” he said, “wipes still represent the largest volume opportunity. The company that can come up with an innovative solution to this problem will be the winner.”
“There needs to be a step change in the cost to produce the material for wipes in particular, given where the markets’ pricing requirements are,” he said. “We believe our brand new Spinlace products begin to address that change and are focused on further development along this line. Your innovative leaders and your market leaders are going to be the ones who are going to come out with something that meets that need instead of just accepting extremely low margins or doing the same thing that they’ve always done.”                 

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