The Great Divide

By Ellen Wuagneux, Associate Editor | March 20, 2008

spunlace manufacturers point to a widening gap between low-cost commodity offerings and high-end niche products

“Market Polarization.” These are the two words producers are using to describe current conditions in the spunlace market. This trend is being reported by spunlaced producers across the board—from high-end specialty products to lower cost commodity offerings. Despite this gap, the baby wipes segment is still showing the largest volume in the market and is expected to continue to drive spunlace growth in the 8% range in coming years.

    “There is a tendency in the industry to split the market into two different segments,” commented Jos van Hattum, business unit manager of Norafin GmbH. “On the one hand, low cost offerings are needed in high volume/commodity markets and pressure on prices is heavily increasing; on the other, high performance niche market applications and customized product concepts gain ground where innovation plays a decisive role.”

    Dennis Norman, vice president of strategic planning and communications for Polymer Group Inc. (PGI) predicted that the split between commodity and specialized products with specific performance requirements will continue to widen in the next five to 10 years. “We see new technologies that can meet the performance and pricing requirements emerging and growing,” he observed.

    Suominen Nonwovens’ vice president and general manager Sakari Santa-Paavola agreed, attributing this divide to tight pricing and raw material costs that are still on the rise. “Spunlace manufacturers are choosing their competitive arena more specifically: bulk or niche, brands or copy,” he said. “Fully adjusting the cost structure by improving efficiency and saving on fixed costs is a very challenging task for everyone in the market. We are seeing both market polarization and rather cruel copying of the latest innovations.”

    Also pointing to the impact of pricing issues on the spunlace market was Bernard Kerstens, director sales and marketing at Inotis S.A. “The whole of 2007, but especially the last few months, were characterized by a very strong upward pressure on prices for spunlace. This is a result of the increase in both polymer-based fiber material and pulp prices as well as rising energy costs. Together with a strong decrease in availability of second choice material, this has pushed up prices for woodpulp/polyester spunlace in many markets.”

If Prices Go Up, Costs Must Come Down

Although there is no clear-cut answer to the question of when pricing problems will abate, one thing is certain: as raw material and energy prices continue to soar, producers must do everything they can to keep their processes as efficient as possible. “Over the last 12 months, we have seen unprecedented raw material price increases,” reported Ahlstrom’s Nataraj Gosavi, general manager, wipes, North America. “This is causing manufacturers and our customers alike to look for innovative ways to utilize unique raw materials such as cotton, PLA and other sustainable, cost-effective ingredients.”

    At PGI, this has meant focusing on differentiating its offerings through proprietary and new combination technologies that add greater value and separate its materials from standard spunlace. These include PGI’s proprietary Apex technology and its new Spinlace offerings. “The market wants stronger, softer, highly absorbent materials that are also cost-effective,” remarked Mr. Norman. “PGI developed its highly efficient Spinlace manufacturing process specifically to bridge the gap between price and performance, and deliver what customers require.

     “We have developed a highly efficient manufacturing process to produce the Spinlace fabrics,” he continued, “which eliminates the carding step and uses hydroentanglement to combine continuous filaments and pulp. Spinlace also incorporates our Apex technology, which provides enhanced dimensionality and allows three-dimensional images to be imparted directly into the fabric.”

     Originally targeting wipes applications, spunlace is in line with PGI’s strategy of offering new-to-the-industry technology to achieve performance and cost-effectiveness. “The traditional methods of manufacturing spunlace materials cannot meet these demands. This is why new solutions, such as Spinlace, are needed and we believe they hold the future for high-volume wipes.”

Cotton Takes The Stage

Producers have not only been underway with efforts to differentiate their manufacturing process and products, they have also looked to improve fiber costs by searching out more affordable raw materials. “With the raw material challenges that the nonwovens market faced in 2007, Ahlstrom’s reaction was to find materials that provided either the same properties or better at affordable costs,” explained Karen Castle, director of sales and marketing, wipes. “Also, we developed the ability to run cotton on multiple lines in order to improve the product performance and reduce the dependency on other raw materials such as rayon.”

    The company has also witnessed continued emphasis on sustainability, biodegradability and eco-friendliness among not only wipes manufacturers but consumers as well. “Over the past year, Ahlstrom’s wipes product line has extended our product portfolio to include more materials that meet the environmentally conscious consumers’ needs,” said Ms. Castle. “We have expanded our biodegradable materials and strengthened our dispersible wiping materials.” The company has added cotton capability to existing spunlace assets at its Green Bay, WI and Bethune, SC facilities.

    One innovative offering from Ahlstrom is its SPC (spunbond pulp carded) material. “We have worked significantly with this technology since our acquisition of the Orlandi spunlace business and can now offer an extensive product range,” stated Mr. Granfors. Another extension to the company’s product range is a spunlace containing pulp from its Alicante, Spain facility.

    For its part, Suominen Nonwovens has been a pioneer in the area of sustainability. In April 2007 the company launched Biolace, a new, more sustainable fabric that is produced solely from renewable raw materials. There have also been several launches of new wiping materials in Suominen’s Fibrella-range, the majority of which have been successful results of proprietary customer projects. Other launches have concentrated on visually differentiating materials, one example being pulp-containing spunlace  with a texture.

    In other eco news, as part of Suominen Nonwovens’ ongoing commitment to efficient resource usage, it has invested in advanced water treatment systems to reduce water usage and waterborne emissions. “Thanks to the new water system,” said Mr. Santa-Paavola, “we also improved our cost efficiency, were able to extend both raw material and product portfolio, and downsized our environmental impact.”

    Sandler has also been keeping an eye on the environment and has recently introduced its newest sawatex generation with a focus on “Less is Best to Nature.“ The new wiping substrates feature very similar properties but have 10% lower basis weights. “We can reduce basis weights in substrates at similar or even equal functionality,” said sales director Ulrich Hornfeck. “Substrate performance is not impacted and tensile and caliper are actually improved.”

    Additionally, Sandler offers substrates based on renewable materials including cotton, bamboo-viscose and more flushable viscose fibers. According to Dr. Hornfeck, “Environmentally friendly products are gaining importance; they allow our customers to enter new markets, applications and products.”

    Ihsan Sons’ marketing manager Moeen Naseer couldn’t agree more. “Currently the market trend has started shifting toward 100% cotton nonwovens as consumers are preferring environmentally friendly and natural products to be a part of the Green movement, which is growing due to global warming concerns.”

    The company began production on its cotton spunlace line in 2006 and can produce approximately 3000 tons per year of Belcot brand 100% cotton spunlaced nonwovens. “We can produce plain, perforated and structured fabrics with weights ranging from 30-70 gpsm and fabric widths from 5-200 cm, meeting all international standards of WSP, EDANA, BPC and ISO,” said Mr. Naseer. “Our bleached absorbent cotton and cotton spunlace facilities have been audited by IMO for GOTS certification, which we expect to receive by March 2008, enabling us to start supplying organic cotton bleached and organic cotton spunlace.

    Ihsan Sons is the first non-U.S. company to earn the “Seal of Cotton” trademark from Cotton Inc. certifying use of 100% cotton in its products.

     Mr. Naseer confirmed that capacity currently exceeds demand for 100% cotton nonwovens, but he predicted that consumers will become more aware of the advantages of a natural product. “The transition process is slow and will take time. This type of fabric is 100% biodegradable, environmentally friendly, dust- and lint-free, soft and bulky, air permeable and has excellent absorbency and high wet strength. It can be used for dry and wet wipes, gauze, sanitary napkins, panty liners, diapers, swabs and cosmetic pads.

Slow, Yes, But Growing Still

Although some players warn that supply remains higher than demand and capacity investments are slowing, there is still evidence of growth. Ac­cording to Ahl­­­strom’s Kari Gran­fors, general manager, wipes, Europe, “The global spun­lace market continues to grow, through the launch of innovative products in all wiping categories, but it remains a very price-sensitive market.”

    Ahlstrom will begin production on a new spunlace line in Brazil in the second half of 2008. “Up to this point we have supplied to Latin America from our plants in the U.S. and Europe,” commented Helen Viazmensky, Ahlstrom’s business director, Latin America, wipes. “Now, the economy in Latin America, specifically in the disposable wipes area, is strong enough to support local spunlace production.”

    She added that the nonwovens industry in Latin America continues to grow and the wipes market in particular is expected to grow 8% per year from 2006 to 2012. “In addition, high duties on incoming nonwoven materials prevent profitable sales to South America from the U.S. and Europe,” said Ms. Viazmensky. “These factors, coupled with its large population and dramatic economic growth, made Brazil the perfect location for our new production line. Domestic production of wipes will allow Ahlstrom to offer less expensive, better quality nonwoven materials to our customers in the region.”

    Another recent initiative from Ahl­strom is the addition of a €30 million production line at its facility in Green Bay, WI last fall. With its strategic location close to North American customers and converters, the new line offers innovative and technically sophisticated solutions for a range of end user wiping products.

    Another new line on the scene was added in 2007 by Sandler AG. Representing an investment of more than €20 million, the spunlace line is Sandler’s second for the wipes market and measures 150 meters long and 30 meters wide. Since entering the spunlace market earlier this decade, Sandler has made great strides to offer differentiated products for wipes markets by using special fiber blends and finishing techniques such as embossing, structuring and printing. One example is sawatex TriLace, a wipe with good dust and dirt absorption rates that dries quickly and is ideal for a number of household cleaning applications.

    Other lines were brought onstream this year from Indian producer Ginni Filaments Ltd. as well as Poland-based Lentex, which built a second spunlace line. Targeting technical applications such as automotive and filtration products, Lentex’s system produces lightweight nonwoven fabrics. In the Far East, Taiwanese nonwovens producer Nan Liu Enterprise Co. purchased a Rieter spunlace machine, which is scheduled to come onstream during the second quarter of 2008. The line is set to become the widest hydroentanglement line ever installed in Asia and will serve wipes and surgical markets.

    Meanwhile, Textilgruppe Hof made its first foray into spunlace technology with a new line in Reichenbach, Germany. Hof’s 12,000-square-meter plant, which came onstream in January 2007, represents an investment of €25 million and has a capacity of at least 70-100 square me­ters depending on the product mix.

    On the ac­quisition front, last summer RKW AG, Worms, Ger­many, ac­quired Ger­man nonwovens producer Hydro­spun Non­woven GmbH in Hal­berstadt to further consolidate its position in the nonwovens sector. By ac­quiring Hydrospun Nonwoven GmbH, the company ex­panded its product range to include spunlaced continuous fiber nonwovens and expects to develop new areas of application and tap into new markets.

    In addition, RKW is building a spunlace line at its Gronau site. The new line will have an annual capacity of 5000 tons and is scheduled to start operating in the second quarter of 2008.

    Also boosting capacity is PGI, which ramped up production on a new line in Benson, NC last fall to produce high-volume consumer household cleaning wipes using its Spinlace technology. The company is also forging ahead with R&D efforts in this area, which continues to be a new platform for nonwovens that can be expanded into other end uses.

The World Beyond Wipes

Speaking of other end uses, innovations in spunlace are beginning to earn these fabrics a place outside of the wiping arena. Norafin, for instance, has introduced a variety of spunlaced fabrics made of aramides that target the composites industry. “Thanks to the material’s isotropic behavior, its smooth texture as well as its impregnation advantages, these spunlaced fabrics meet our partners’ requirements,” said Mr. van Hattum.

    In addition, Norafin has launched its spunlaced PTFE filter medium, which is either used to dedust exhausted gas from municipal, industrial or hospital waste incinerators or to help process the production of titanium dioxide, chlorate or fluoride-derived chemical products. Also new from the company is a self-pleated filter medium with integrated metal scrim that can be pleated without additional treatment.

    Meanwhile, PGI is continuing to explore opportunities for its spunlace products with Apex technology in automotive, medical and filtration uses. Some examples include the company’s long relationship with Donaldson Co. Inc. in industrial baghouses and other applications as well as PGI’s new flame-retardant fabrics and automotive trunk and wheel well liners that incorporate part of the Apex process.  

    Inotis, a company that concentrates on low-lint, woodpulp/polyester technology and markets, introduced its Licial apertured–S fabric in mid-2007. The strong, dual-sided spunlace fabric offers a three-dimensional, apertured structure with two distinctive sides. “On one absorbent side the apertures create a scratch surface ideal for when wiping requires some scratch/abrasion in order to perform its adsorption and absorption functions,” explained Mr. Kerstens. “The other side is soft and bulky, making it easy to manage, and it has a comfortable hand-feel.” Licial apertured–S targets low-lint industrial wiping applications such as automotive substrate coating and the printing industry.

    Launched in 2006, the medical versions of Licial spunlace have been improved during 2007 in order to meet more than just the EN 13795(3) requirements.

    Commenting on global demand in industrial wiping markets, Mr. Kerstens said that demand continues to grow. “However,” he added, “there is also increased competition from other types of materials, especially continuous filament products (e.g. for cleanroom wiping). Also, in some industries, industrial wipe clients have an increasing need for low-linting fabrics but also become more efficient and economic in their use of it. This seems to balance out the two (e.g. automotive).”                       

Related Application:

Related Market:

Related Technology: