Up to Snuff?

By Ellen Wuagneux, Associate Editor | October 15, 2008

increased performance capabilities boost industrial wiper growth

Let’s say you are a factory manager. Your employee has a messy spill to clean, and you have a choice of purchasing paper towels, rags, shop towels or nonwoven wipers. What would you choose? They may all be handy and cost-effective but the choice over which substrate fills your canister, tub or box comes down to performance. At the end of the day, which material will do the job most efficiently and effectively?

    The steady growth levels being re­ported by suppliers and converters of nonwoven wipers indicate that the scale has been tipping in nonwovens’ favor recently thanks to ever-improving cleaning performance, durability and good cost-per-use ratios. Recent innovations that boost convenience and better dispensability have also helped.

    The industrial/institutional wipers business is made up of three distinct sectors—reusables, rags and nonwovens, with nonwovens making up less than half (42%) of the total. In terms of value, the North American market for industrial/institutional wipers was worth about $2 billion in 2005, according to Ian Butler, INDA’s director of market research and statistics. “This does not include paper wipers,” he pointed out.

    The largest segment, reusables, includes food service wipers and towels, shop wipers and restaurant napkins and is valued at approximately $900 million. Just slightly smaller at $880 million is the nonwoven wipers market, which includes food service, industrial and healthcare applications. The industrial sector covers general purpose cleaning and specialty wipers, such as low-lint wipers. Rags, which are usually made of cotton for single-use purposes, are the smallest sector, totaling about $290 million. Rags are used by painters and in jobs where oil, dirty water and grunge must be sopped up.

Nonwovens Can Do It…All

Increased demands from the industrial sector have been a boon for producers of nonwoven wipers as they are able to outperform low-cost, imported rags or even paper towels. Spunlaced, chemical bonded, needlepunched and meltblown are the leading nonwovens technologies targeting the industrial wiping sector. Key advantages offered by nonwovens are cost-efficiency, performance, disposability and, depending on the application, advanced technical properties.

    “Industrial wipers have evolved into high-performance delivery systems capable of multi-task cleaning events,” observed Nick Hrinko, marketing director Americas for Lenzing AG. The company supplies fibers for the production of disposable nonwovens, including industrial wipers and is currently focusing on the performance, cost effectiveness and eco-friendliness of its products.

    Mr. Hrinko stressed the importance of a wiper’s ability to perform its function. “This means developing strong, durable substrates that can stand up to and be used with the new power cleaners being developed for hard surface cleaning and yet be kind to the environment.” Such nonwoven fabrics must be able to last through the entire cleaning task without creating dust or tearing while facilitating the cleaning task. “When it is all done, the product should be easy to dispose of and gentle on the planet.”

    Luckily for nonwovens, process versatility allows them to respond to a full range of requirements with different technologies performing more effectively in different applications. While airlaid and double recreped materials are recommended for general purpose cleaning wipes where absorbency is the main requirement; in applications where strength, low-linting and multiple usage is important, a spunlaced wipe may be preferred.

    According to Jeff Slosman, president of National Wiper, a converter of dry industrial wipers, “For each application, it’s important to know the environment in which the wiper will be used to be able to recommend the most appropriate wiper, i.e. basis weight, fiber content, etc. It’s also important to know what chemicals the wiper may come in contact with before making the recommendation as to which wiper to use. Once the appropriate wiper is selected, consideration as to the optimal packaging for a specific job is then determined. For example, does the customer require portion control, a static dispenser or something that is mobile and can easily be moved around?”

Biodegradability, Sustainability Key

Mogul Nonwovens is also taking advantage of opportunities for nonwovens to show their stuff in the industrial market. Characterizing growth as steady for industrial wipers, Serkan Gogus, commercial director, said that nonwovens are being used to replace other materials and break into new application areas. “Nonwovens are being chosen over textile-based wipers on a price and performance basis,” he said. “Market trends are evolving as demand continues for more technical and environmentally friendly products at lower price points.” He confirmed that environmental concerns are impacting product development trends and predicted that natural fibers and biodegradable products will gain more importance.

    Lenzing’s Mr. Hrinko also feels that biodegradability is a major trend in the single-use wipers market. “This makes it necessary for the nonwovens industry to concentrate not only on the performance of products but also on their environmental impact. In a time of increased pressure on landfill sites, it is becoming more important to use biodegradable materials.” He added that in­dustrial wipers made from 100% Lenzing viscose and tencel support the environment as they compost completely within 12 weeks.

    The Lenzing Group describes its environmental policy as “forward-looking” and one that en­compasses the re­sponsible use of resources as the central feature of sustainability. “Lenzing fibers are based on wood, a renewable raw material de­rived from sustainably managed forest areas,” commented Mr. Hrinko. “Many years of experience and continuous improvement of environmental performance enable Lenzing to set global benchmarks in the production of high quality fibers. This allows us minimized use of water and energy during production.”    

    Sustainability is also an area of interest at Mogul, a company that is active in spill control applications, such as plant cleaning and maintenance, where it sells meltblown wipers. “We have quite a big range in both roll and sheet forms,” said Mr. Gogus. Products range from single-layer pure meltblown to multilayer composites of meltblown and spunbond meltblown. The company also offers the Q-wick brand of special embossed melt­blown wipers and abrasive wi­pers. Mr. Gogus pointed to pulp-based hydroentangled spunbond grades as an up-and-coming eco-friendly alternatives. “These fabrics are less ex­pensive, offer better technical properties and are more sustainable, which is driving demand.”

       For its part, National Wiper continues to get requests for “green wipes.” “Unfortunately, this is one of the most over-used terms today and does not really offer a specific definition,” Mr. Slosman said. “Customers know they need to be environmentally friendly but do not fully understand what this means as to wiper options.  Some use the term to refer to something that is made from recyclable raw materials while others use it to refer to a wipe made from renewable resources.” He added that the one caveat most customers have is that they want a green option but at the same price they are paying for their current one.

    On the end product side, K-C Professional has made a commitment to exploring greener options across its entire family of products—including its high-quality quarter-fold wiper options. By reducing the sheet size to cut back on waste, the company is hoping to reduce its impact on the environment without sacrificing product performance. The company has introduced Wypall wipers in new Space-Saver packaging designed to save time and space with optimized handling, delivery and storage. K-C’s goal is to reduce its footprint while offering customers greater benefits. The Wypall wipers have a reduced sheet size, which results in smaller cases and more cases per truckload. Easier handling of the product results in less time spent unloading orders and lowered service hour unload penalty fees. The new packaging is also designed to better utilize valuable warehouse space and improve dock door utilization due to an increased number of cases shipped per truck.

Print It. Package It.

Beyond performance, cost and environmental advantages, printing is another way suppliers can differentiate their wiping products in this sector. Press Color, Inc. manufactures water-based printing inks and provides ink solutions for printers whose clients want to add print to nonwoven substrates. According to the company’s Dennis Curtin, “Our greatest challenge is to provide inks that withstand product resistances, such as alkaline cleaning solutions and allow the printer ease of use.”

    Packaging innovations are another means of differentiating wiper products and offering improved benefits such as increased convenience, protection from wetness and better hygiene through dispensing systems designed to avoid cross-contamination.

    “Innovation is slowly but surely moving into the industrial wipers arena,” said Susan Stansbury, director of Converting Influence. “Converters and marketers are rolling out ideas for more applications, more performance factors and new levels of convenience. For example, take-along containers for truckers are featuring easy-to-grab containers that feature one-at-a-time pull wipers designed something like large drink containers with a handle on the side.”

    Heading up the trend toward more convenient wiping products is market leader Kimberly-Clark, through its K-C Professional division, which sells wiping solutions for cleanroom, food service, healthcare and laboratory applications in addition to rag and shop towel replacements and general purpose and single-use wipers. New from K-C Professional in the North American market are Wypall wipers packaged in a bucket. The new product offers convenient, one-at-a-time dispensing in a high capacity, refillable bucket featuring an easy-to-carry handle. With 220 wipers per bucket, the new format is weather- and crush-resistant to keep wipers clean, dry and ready to use in tough environments—from muddy construction sites to grimy plant floors and rough-and-tumble truck beds. According to K-C, Wypall wipers absorb more water than rags on a pound-for-pound basis with one bucket of 10x13-inch wipers replacing 25 pounds of rags.

    Georgia-Pacific offers a similar product—Brawny Industrial Professional Cleaning Wipers—which are also available in a tub with a handle. Georgia-Pacific’s calls its disposable wipers safer, cleaner and more efficient than rented shop towels. The Brauny Industrial Bucket is a new format designed to combat clutter, overconsumption and waste in industrial settings.

    Another offering from Georgia-Pacific are Brawny Industrial Wet Shop Towels, which are offered in a new portable pail that offers one-at-a-time dispensing and ad­ded wiper protection to help reduce waste and control costs. The wet shop towels are designed to easily wipe and clean greasy, grimy hands on the spot. Touch-free, one-at-a-time towel dispensers help reduce cross-contamination and minimize usage and waste, and high-capacity models help keep refills to a minimum. The company touts the disposable towels as safer, cleaner and less costly than shop towels or rags. They are designed to handle a variety of jobs from tough industrial cleaning to light wiping and dusting.

    Also targeting commercial dusting applications is K-C Professional’s new Wypall dusting system. The convenient cleaning solution offers an innovative approach to cleaning under, over and around furnishings, even up into ceiling corners. The system includes short and long reusable handles, disposable duster heads and a convenient dusting mitt.

    Additionally, the company sells Kimtech brand wipers, which are part of a full line of glove, wipers, mask and apparel needs. Each product is de­signed to work together and is manufactured using rigorous process controls and sampling plans to ensure lot consistency, from raw materials through processing. For the cleanroom environment, the company offers Kimtech Pure brand; for laboratory applications, K-C sells Kimtech Science brand and for disinfecting and clean manufacturing environments, Kimtech Prep brand is available.

    Another big player in the market is SCA Tissue North America with its Tork brand of nonwoven wipers. The company targets food service, commercial, automotive and industrial segments, with tasks ranging from bussing and cleaning tables and bars to assembling electronics and painting cars.

    In the food service sector, SCA offers Tork Cuisine nonwoven food service wipers, which are color-coded to improve hygiene programs and prevent opportunities for cross-contamination. Tork automotive wipers are designed to meet rigorous requirements in the automotive market for light, medium, heavy and specialty tasks.

    In commercial and industrial applications, Tork wipers are used in general cleaning and wiping as well as specific tasks such as in-line assembly from gearboxes to electronics, polishing lenses, painting cars and printing. Tork specialty nonwoven wipers are designed for sensitive and high-end cleaning and polishing applications for automotive, commercial and industrial customers.

Where To?

With recent product and packaging innovations helping to boost performance and add environmental, cost and hygiene advantages, sales of nonwoven wipers in the industrial sector are expected to remain steady. Just the same, similar to other nonwoven sectors, this market faces precarious economic trends, soaring raw material costs and global market concerns.

    Mogul’s Mr. Gogus suggested that the future of the industrial wiper market depends on what happens in terms of production. “’Where is production headed?’ is the real question. If the trend is toward less production in North America and Europe and production continues to move to China and the Far East, the structure of the market will change. Also, the declining usage of petroleum-based products can affect wiping applications in industrial areas,” he said.

    National Wiper’s Mr. Slosman believes that the U.S. manufacturing base remains strong despite  concerns to the contrary. “Though we continue to hear that there is less manufacturing in this country, it will always exist, especially in higher-end and less labor-dependant areas,” he opined. “With the increase in transportation costs, many companies are looking to move operations back from abroad. The days of using domestic textile byproducts as a source for wiping cloths are gone. Wiping cloth companies have to knit rags in other countries and import them to meet the demand. Nonwoven wipes produced from domestic roll goods are the best and most economical solution for industrial wipers now and into the foreseeable future.

    Looking forward, migration of companies within the overall wipes market is another trend expected to impact the industrial sector. “Cross-overs between producers of industrial wipers and producers of wet wipers is increasing as manufacturers and brand marketers look to expand their reach,” remarked Ms. Stansbury of Converting Influence. She added that wet and water-activated wipers are moving into segments formerly dominated by dry wipers. “And dry wipers are stronger or softer or offer other nonwoven updates to appeal to industrial and task-specific niches.”