Stretch is nothing new to the hygiene market. Makers of diapers and their suppliers have been using spandex threads and other means for years to provide a better, more comfortable fit in their products. In the past couple of years, however, a new crop of stretchable options has emerged, resulting in diapers that easily combine stretch with breathability, performance, aesthetics and many other concerns at an affordable pricing point.
It was only about four years ago Advance Design Concepts, then a joint venture between BBA and Dow, launched the technology behind a product that was being billed as the first truly stretchable nonwoven. Fast forward a few years and companies have their pick of technologies when determining how to incorporate more stretch into the design of their diapers and other hygiene products.
The year 2007 alone saw the launch of stretchable nonwovens from DuPont Nonwovens, Ahlstrom and Invista as well as increased offerings from film makers such as Pliant, Tredegar and Clopay.
According to industry observers, the increased use of stretchable tabs and panels in diapers is in sync with the market’s quest to create products more similar to regular underpants. Recent upgrades from most major diaper suppliers—both at the national level and among store brands—almost all have to do with stretch. In mid-2006, Kimberly-Clark upgraded its Huggies Supreme line, now called Natural Fit. The new premium products have a stretchable panel across their entire backsheet for the utmost in fit performance. Meanwhile, K-C competitor Procter & Gamble has made upgrades, in the form of stretchability, across its entire baby line. At the premium level, Pampers Cruisers contains accordion-style stretchable tabs, a feature widely replicated in the private label arena. In its Pampers Baby Dry line, P&G recently added the “caterpillar stretch” innovation, allowing the diaper to stretch and expand with a baby’s movement. Additionally, in its value Luvs brand, P&G added “Bear Hug” stretch to improve the fit of these diapers.
All of these improvements have created the need for larger pieces of stretchable fabrics within in the diapers. In response to this, film supplier Tredegar Film Products has created a brand new line called FlexAire, a composite material containing a film and a nonwoven, which has already been successful in the hygiene market for both traditional open diaper and pull-on style designs.
“We achieved this by looking at the elastic engine, the nonwovens, and how we process those nonwovens—some of the steps are proprietary, some are patented,” said Matt O’Sickey, global elastic products leader for personal care. “Essentially the product is a combination of technologies achieved by stepping back and looking at the need and asking how do we make a better product.”
According to Mr. O’Sickey, Tredegar’s hygiene customers have really been raising the bar when it comes to improved fit that has been achieved through a combination of elasticity, appearance, performance and breathability. “From what I see in the market, it seems that all of the baby care and adult hygiene products are continually moving toward a more underwear-like solution. The more it looks and feels like an actual garment, the more acceptance our hygiene customers have from consumers.”
Meanwhile on the nonwovens front, stretchable products have been launched by nearly all of the major suppliers in the hygiene market. These nonwovens are generally combined with a stretchable film to improve the tactile feel as well as the overall cost of the product.
“When the elastic film is the engine and it’s laminated to a typical carded nonwoven, the nonwoven takes a way the ability for the panel to stretch , unless activated,” explained Jose Pina, global market director for Dow’s health and hygiene business. “By using an elastic nonwoven in place of a standard nonwoven, you bypass the need to activate the stretch.”
The ability of nonwovens and films to incorporate stretchability has largely been achieved on the polymer level. ExxonMobil has had considerable success in the hygiene and personal care markets with its Vistamaxx technology, which can allow a nonwovens producer to make a truly elastic fabric in a single step. “In the past this was possible only in a multistep process. That is the biggest advantage, eliminating steps in the process (to reduce total system cost while achieving required performance,)” said George Racine, market development manager of ExxonMobil.
Another key player Dow Chemical has been making strides both within its internal business as well as through its Advanced Design Concepts joint venture with Fiberweb. According to Mr. Pina, technology efforts are focusing on simplifying the process of incorporating stretch in disposable products. “In a lot of cases you can achieve the same performance level with materials that may not be as cost-burdensome as some of the specialty elastomers and that’s where we have been focusing a lot of our polymer development efforts internally. In addition, ADC has been focusing on bridging the gaps between cost and what the customer wants through unique elastic nonwoven technology.”
Where once stretchable components were only a small component of the total cost of manufacturing a diaper, today elastic features can represent as much as a third of the total cost of the diaper. With this significant cost impact, the drive to optimize the cost of this component has grown significantly.”
Dow recently addressed this through the launch of its Infuse Olefin Block Copolymers, which it has billed as a breakthrough in olefin elastomers. “You basically get best in class polyolefin processability combined with the recovery of a block copolymer,” Mr. Pina explained. “That combination is very unique. Competitive with everything in the marketplace.”
All of these technological improvements have allowed private label manufactures to better replicate innovations first offered by national brands. The challenge of juggling costs and intellectual property concerns has created the need for more options as store brands look to compete on the national level.
And, a survey of premium-positioned private label diapers sees several innovations in the form of elasticity. Toys R Us recently added an accordion style stretch tab, similar to what can be found on the Pampers Cruisers premium line, to its Especially For Baby line (reportedly manufactured by Arquest), and Wal-Mart’s White Cloud boasts “Active Fit Tabs for babies on the move” on its packaging.
Tredegar’s Mr. O’Sickey also cited the importance of cost effectiveness when developing elastic materials for hygiene producers. “Had you asked me three years ago about stretch, cost effectiveness was hard to achieve, but with our recent developments we have been very conscious that it was going to be used in a larger area of stretch so cost efforts were built into the product. We understand that customers want the cost per diaper to remain the same.”
Beyond hygiene products, all of the focus on stretch has created new markets for nonwovens. K-C, for example recently introduced its SpaSensials moisturizing socks and gloves using an elastomeric nonwoven material. This technology was reportedly used in other K-C consumer products, like hygiene, and adapted for the SpaSensials line, which is the company’s first foray into the home spa market, according to executives. The nonwoven is designed of multiple layers that hold the deeply moisturizing formulation against the skin for quick absorption, but without leaking through the outer layer, according to Jack Elliot, general manager of the SpaSensials brand team. “It’s absolutely, ultimately comfortable and completely form-fitting thanks to the biaxial stretch of the laminate,” he explained.
Likewise, the makers of polymers, films and laminates are looking at their elastic offerings to see where they can expand this technology.
“When we participate in international events, we continue to see an increase in demand for more elasticity in nonwoven products and we expect that trend to continue as we see end users continue to improve the performance of their products and offer more elastic features,” ExxonMobil’s Mr. Racine said.