When it comes to protective apparel, nonwovens bring to the table benefits such as top performance, comfort, breathability, softness and lighter weights—all for a comparatively economical price. To keep nonwovens in the forefront, producers continue to make strides in the manufacturing and converting technologies used to create protective garments. However, with cost issues still looming large, manufacturers are struggling to keep price points as low as possible.
Take for example DuPont’s ProShield disposable garments, which offer a lightweight barrier against nonhazardous dry particles at an economical price. Made using the company’s proprietary Advanced Composite Technology (ACT), ProShield garments are resistant to rips and tears, providing both durability and comfort for tough jobs.
“ProShield garments bring together a proprietary fabric and a roomy garment design with an elastic waist and storm flap, to increase range of mobility,” commented Dale Outhous, global business director, DuPont Personal Protection. He added that ProShield is anti-static treated to prevent build-up of nuisance static. Designed for workers in a range of industries for nonhazardous applications, they are available in a variety of garment styles in both white and blue.
“DuPont’s ACT technology uses a bicomponent formulation whereby each individual fiber has two different polymer components,” Mr. Outhous explained. “More than 20 patents have been filed to date. This innovative technology enables DuPont ProShield garments to take advantage of the best properties of two different raw materials to create fabrics that meet a range of worker needs.”
In the area of chemical protection, Lakeland Industries recently launched ChemMAX, a line of protective garments that provide progressive levels of chemical protection at competitive prices. ChemMAX 1, the company’s entry-level garment, is a nonwoven laminate with good barrier to acids and alkalis. ChemMAX 2 offers chemical barrier against a broader range of chemical classes and utilizes a nonwoven substrate that provides exceptional strength. The final product in the line is ChemMAX 3, which is a barrier to a broad spectrum of chemicals and is considerably softer and lighter in weight than incumbent materials.
Continuing Cost Crisis
As is the case in every corner of the nonwovens industry, the protective apparel sector is feeling the squeeze to reduce costs as global demand for oil continues to drive prices higher. Meanwhile, polymer suppliers are beginning to successfully pass their cost increases through to their customers. “Large manufacturers look to overhead and logistics to achieve the necessary cost reductions,” reported Charlie Roberson, Lakeland’s international sales manager, “but many of the less sophisticated manufacturers are beginning to challenge the lower limits of substrate weight and/or are reducing the gauge of their films in addition to reducing the sizing of their garments.”
Outside of intense cost concerns, there are other issues impacting producers in the global marketplace. “We are witnessing a decline in manufacturing employment and an influx of low cost imports,” stated DuPont’s Mr. Outhous. “In terms of worldwide growth,” he said, “we see opportunities in emerging regions such as China and India.”
Indeed, many protective apparel manufacturers are making the most of growing demand in developing markets as well as less expensive labor and manufacturing costs in the Far East. In China, protective fabrics generally fit into two categories—SMMS and polypropylene spunbond/polyethylene laminates—which are exported to overseas countries.
One company well underway with expansion plans in the Chinese market is Korean spunbond specialist Toray Saehan, Inc. (TSI), which has established a new subsidiary called TPN, Toray Polytech Nantong. The company is building a $60 million SMMS plant in Nantong, Jiangsu Province, near Shanghai, which was expected to reach commercial production levels this month.
The state-of-the-art line will be capable of meeting strict requirements in the protective apparel, hygiene and medical sectors. The high barrier, specialty SMMS fabrics will target infection control applications. “The facility will provide multiple solutions to Chinese and other Asian clients,” said TPN sales team leader H.B. Lee. “The Asian region’s economic growth will be a positive factor for this new capacity.” He added that the plant is forecast to house four lines in the future.
The move represents TSI’s first foray outside of Korea. “China’s per capita GDP grew to $2000 in 2006,” said Mr. Lee. “As living standards improve, the marketshare of nonwovens is increasing.”
Also having an impact are standards, which continue to become more challenging as existing regulations are revised. For instance, chemical barrier requirements are currently being re-evaluated and significant changes are being considered. Additionally, more and more standards are incorporating ensemble testing in addition to bench-top testing.
Ensemble testing differs from bench-top testing in that it requires that an entire garment (seams, closures and materials) and its interfaces with ancillary equipment (such as gloves, boots, respirators, etc.) be tested as a unit to ensure efficacy of the entire ensemble. Bench-top testing can only guarantee the performance of ensemble components or component materials. According to Lakeland’s Mr. Roberson, ensemble testing has increased the complexity of new product development and reduces some of the flexibility that manufacturers have used to tailor designs to specific customers. “However,” he said, “the net effect is that the end user is better protected.”
For its part, DuPont has taken note of a change in the level of focus on Health, Safety and Environment regulations as a result of governmental changes. “Priorities and emphasis on these regulations may change based on events or situations that draw attention to a particular area of need or on the priorities of those who influence or make decisions within our government,” explained Mr. Outhous. The company also reports an increasing focus on new hazards, including hexavalent chromium and nanoparticles. “There is now an awareness of the need for disaster preparation and relief,” he observed.