Sustainability And Value Creation
new product designs with reduced raw material usage
By Christoph Schmitz, Concepts 4 Success
An increasing number of consumers appreciates the security and convenience of diaper and pant products both for babies and adults. Meanwhile, aspects like sustainability are strongly impacting development plans for new products.
There are ways to develop, produce and market value-added hygienic products that support increasing awareness for the environment as well as changing consumer needs.
The absorbent product industry has delivered several major innovations over the last years, to the benefit of the end user of absorbent products, and the environment. Diaper and pant products are performing better despite being thinner than they were 20 years ago. The web materials used to make them have lower caliper today than they had years ago. So it is fair to ask the question: What do we need to change in the future? And what are the likely changes?
Each product generation on the market has its own life span, often described by a lifecycle curve that shows sales initially increasing andlater leading to a new product generation. This requires a major change—small improvement steps like making a product component slightly better or thinner—do not start a new product generation.
New product generations often come with significant benefits—mostly for the consumer, who ultimately decides whether or not the change is acceptable. Oftentimes, the new product generation provides a solution to a problem that the previous generation was unable to solve—sometimes one the consumer was not even aware of.
For disposable products, lifecycle curves could be drawn (e.g. for the rectangular products that were on the market in the 1970s) and were replaced by hourglass-shaped products. The latter ones had a much better fit, better leakage performance and were less bulky. The improvements were enough to convince consumers to switch to the new generation of products.
Another lifecycle curve can be shown for “fluff only” products, which were replaced by those that hold a core with a mix of fluff and superabsorbent polymer—like most products found on the market today. These have much better retention, significant benefits to the skin and higher capacity—just to name a few advantages that convince users to switch again because the product they used previously did not meet their expectations in these areas.
So, what benefits will the next generation of products bring? What are the problems for which current products do not provide a satisfying solution? And what is the “gold standard” of diaper and pant products that most of the parties engaged in this market would accept as a common goal to go against?
One statement frequently made in such discussions sounds like: “We need to provide underwear-like absorbent products.” However, the industry is far away from delivering anything that is close to underwear, although the target is pretty clear and obviously broadly accepted. In fact, there has not been any significant change toward this target in the last 20 years, as far as the overall design and construction of products is concerned.
If we want to deliver underwear-like products, what needs to change? How would “absorbent underwear” have to be constructed to deserve this name? And how would such changes impact the environment?
Let’s look at consumer-related aspects first—consumers are the key players in this big scheme. Any change in the product needs to be accepted by the consumer. But, consumers will also ask questions like: “How does this product impact the environment? Is it better than what I bought before?”
Sustainability of a new development can be claimed if the new product wins performance-wise, has less impact on the environment and is economically more attractive than its peer products. This article will discuss how a new family of products called Body Conforming (or BoCo) measure against these criteria.
In short, BoCo products are absorbent garments that fully encircle the legs and the waist of a wearer with flat, soft, concentric seal elements. They wear and almost look like boxer shorts.
There are a number of laboratory test methods by which the technical performance of absorbent products can be assessed. Most of these test methods are rather material-focused—they are very helpful to determine the performance of product elements and raw materials used. BoCo products are compatible with any kind of core structure and raw material–this is why the commonly used lab measurements will not show a performance difference versus current products. The focus of this article is instead on performance criteria such as:
• how does the product fit and seal around legs and waist?
• how does it impact the skin?
• how does it perform in terms of discreteness?
These criteria are primarily impacted by the way the materials and components used are arranged in the product—criteria current lab methods do not focus on.
How Does The Product Seal Around Legs and Waist?
While current products span elastics as sealing elements along the legs of the wearer (i.e. from crotch crease upward), the new products feature concentric seals around the legs— making a major difference in wearing comfort and seal performance.
This new arrangement of leg seals helps to improve product performance in two ways:
—sealing around the legs is now achieved by a wide band of material which gently touches the sensitive skin in the upper inner leg area
—the product does not contract in the front-to-back direction (i.e. it stays “long” and does not slip down in use as current products do). All contractive elements are now arranged such that they contract in concentric circles “around the body,” keeping the product up on the user
—leg and waist seals can be adjusted independently according to the wearer’s needs. BoCo products even work on wearers with a wide waist and thin legs.
As far as a waist seal is concerned, the new products can be equipped with different versions of waistbands, either closing on the side of the product, or—for better ease of application—in the center front and back areas, with different closure systems, such as tape or hook and loop closures.
Product Performance—How Does The Product Impact The Skin of a Wearer?
The new architecture of the BoCo product chassis has significant impact on its interaction with the skin.While current products are more or less discrete articles on the body of a wearer against which the legs move and which are fixed by a waistband around the torso of the wearer, BoCo products surround the legs like tubes. The tube-like elements move with the legs (i.e. there is hardly any relative motion between tube and leg). This is a great benefit, particularly for active people with sensitive skin.
Skin health is not only impacted by friction but also by the kind and the level of skin contamination. Undoubtedly, the less the skin is contaminated, the better it is. And, the skin benefits a lot if contaminants are less aggressive. One way an absorbent hygiene product can contribute to reduced skin contamination and reduced aggressiveness of skin contaminants is by separating stools from urine. This desire has been expressed in numerous approaches and publications, but so far there has not been a reliable concept with the potential for effective stools/urine separation. Current products fall short here for two main reasons:
• they do not provide an opening in the body side layer of the product that stays in a registered position relative to the anus of the wearer
• they do not provide the void space needed to lock the stools in underneath the body-facing layer of the product
Due to their different way of anchoring on the body, BoCo products can provide both, the accurate positioning of an opening in the body-facing layer of the product, and the void space needed to lock feces in.
Product Performance and Discreteness
People beyond toddler age suffering incontinence often feel more discriminated against due to the reaction of those around them than from the actual disease. This is why discreteness in wearing such products is almost as important as good performance of the respective product.
Unfortunately, current products do not fulfill this need. They show severe core bunching, for several reasons:
• the gap between leg cuff elastics and core lets the center crotch part of the core hang down
• the front to back contraction of the elastics pushes the core down
• the greater the width of the center chassis, the more bunching of the core happens
In contrast to this, the same center chassis and core, modified according to the BoCo design principles, shows no bulging/bunching. Such boxer shorts-type products can be worn discretely, like normal underwear.
Fit For Everyday Use
Wearing absorbent garments can make sense already when the first signs of incontinence show up. People in this situation would like to have a product that works reliably if a toilet is too far away—and that can easily be opened if a toilet is close by. Current products with side closures make it rather difficult to open the front part and provide access. For male wearers, this problem can be solved easily. Unfortunately, an equivalent solution for female wearers is somewhat more difficult to execute.
As previously noted, products need to perform, but they also need to be acceptable from an environmental point of view.
Several studies from various sources have confirmed that absorbent diapers and pants for babies and incontinent adults impact the environment as much as alternative systems (i.e. there is no specific advantage for one or the other system).
This statement may have to be changed if the factors impacting the carbon footprint of one of the systems change. For the articles discussed here, material and energy usage may be among those factors.
As noted earlier, current products lose a significant part of their stretched length when they contract to form the cup-shaped “bowl,” which, however, is a prerequisite for them to work. Unfortunately, this extra length needs to be added to the stretched product to make it fit in use.
A typical size four baby diaper has a length of around 500 mm, while the front and back waists are only around 370 mm apart. The materials to cover the extra 130 mm not only cost money, they also make the product bulge, as noted earlier.
In contrast to this, the length of BoCo products can be dimensioned close to the front-to-back waist distance of the wearer. A size four product would thus be 390 mm to 400 mm in length, which means a 20% material saving versus current products.
In terms of center chassis width, BoCo products benefit from the fact that they do not need front-to-back contracting elements placed at a distance aside the core to form a cup shape. This translates in a savings in chassis width.
The BoCo product needs significantly less chassis material, although it provides more coverage around the wearer’s hips.
Another aspect impacting material utilization is related to shaping—oftentimes, trims are cut away to make a product fit better or improve its aesthetics. Many versions of BoCo products—diapers and pants—can be made without any cuts for shaping (i.e. without any trim that needs to be removed) to be either recycled, or even end up in a landfill. One of many examples is shown below.
BoCo products are “smaller” in process than current products. They have a smaller number of different materials (i.e. they need fewer unwinds, fewer combining operations, less glue, less bonding energy, to name a few aspects). There are no “corrective” process steps on those lines—no components are made one way and then turned to orientate them correctly for further processing. All this saves energy—on top of the energy saved by using less chassis material, which does not need to be produced, in the first place.
As far as transportation is concerned, BoCo products hold square cores that form square stacks. Much of the storage capacity is located where it is needed—in the center crotch area, partly wrapping the inner thighs. This allows the use of cores with reduced profile ratios, giving straight stacks rather than “banana-shaped” stacks in a pack. The products are free of wrinkles because there are no elastics pulling in the front-to-back direction, making the core—and in particular the cores with very little or even no fluff—collapse and fold over, like often seen in current products.
Besides the fact that the product is smaller than current products, all these factors also lead to reduced volume of a BoCo shipping unit, hence to lower energy usage for transportation.
There have been various examples of new products in the market that provided benefits for users and the environment but failed in the end. A common reason was pricing: consumers were not willing to pay the premium, although they were concerned about the environment and liked the product.
For a number of reasons, BoCo absorbent garments can be less expensive for consumers than today’s products—or more profitable for the supplier, or a combination of both. As described earlier, BoCo products are made of smaller amounts of material, which undoubtedly saves costs. Other aspects are of similar importance:
• BoCo products use less complex materials
• BoCo products use a smaller number of different materials
Once again, the absence of front-to- back contracting elements makes a big difference: the “pulling down” effect of leg cuff elastics in current products needs to be compensated by more and stronger waist elastics to reduce product sagging to an acceptable level. Consequently, the fastening systems of such products need to be bigger and stronger and the materials supporting these fasteners need to be designed for higher tear strength. In other words, the undesired side effects of one product element—here leg cuff elastics— needs to be compensated by adding more complex materials. Isn’t it better to avoid the problem in the first place, rather than solving it?
The simplicity of its design makes BoCo products good candidates for conversion of pre-manufactured components. The square center chassis holding a thin square core may be made offline and fed from rolls or out of boxes to the BoCo final assembly line. Such approaches can save capital and operating costs and improve the overall flexibility of the supply system, benefiting the consumer or the manufacturer—or both. More information about different process and equipment options to make BoCo products will be published separately.
Outlook—Can the Product Design Sustain?
This question can only be answered on the basis of assumptions regarding how absorbent garment products will evolve in the future. The often-cited move toward “underwear-like” products needs to be dissected to define actionable improvement steps, leading to the defined end point.
There seem to be two aspects that position underwear way above absorbent diapers and pants as marketed today:
• thinness/softness/suppleness of the fresh product
• ease of application
Product caliper has been significantly reduced over time, but many products —particularly for adults—still hold rather big quantities of fluff material. One reason may be that a thinner core may not be compatible with a front-to- back contracting chassis, as is the standard today: Thin cores do not provide the stiffness needed to help form a cup-shaped bowl by contraction of the elastic leg cuffs. The core would rather collapse and form big folded-over areas. One can only push a rope if it is rather thick. And, “solving” the problem by adding “stiffness” seems to be counterproductive to the overall objective of providing an underwearlike product.
BoCo products avoid the problem: their cores are kept under slight tension in both the front-to-back and cross direction. A BoCo chassis even works without a core, which illustrates how close the concept is relative to underwear.
Ease Of Application
One reason why many people like boxer shorts is easy access. The leg openings are wide and do not contract when the legs are pushed through. Current absorbent products are different in this respect: their leg openings contract strongly, as the waist does. Even open products will not stay flat when they are prepared for being put on an adult patient or a baby. The real challenge is for mobile people to change diapers without the help of a caregiver.
The industry has tried to solve at least some of these problems by adding belts that allow the products to be “anchored” around the waist before it is closed by means of the main closure systems.
BoCo products avoid this problem. They do not contract in their front-to-back direction. They will stay flat and non-contracted, even if they are open, (e.g. when prepared for being put on a wearer). Some versions of the product allow temporary “pre-fixation” of the product via a waistband before the non-contracted chassis is pulled forward for closing.
It is possible to do more with less. It is possible to make products better and less expensive at the same time. It is possible for consumers to satisfy more of their needs while reducing their environmental footprint at the same time. We just need to creep out of the box—in our thinking, in the way we act.