Coming Clean

By Ellen Wuagneux, Associate Editor | November 10, 2008

can nonwoven filters answer the call for better air & water quality?

What do filtration customers want? Clean air. Clean water. How can roll goods producers meet those requirements? Through increased performance, technological innovation and improved
cost efficiencies. This may sound straight-forward, but nonwovens producers in the filtration market are being challenged to offer cutting-edge technology for air, gas and liquid filtration applications while keeping costs down (in a world where costs keep going up). This  may be a tall order, but it hasn’t slowed activity in the filtration sector; in fact, more roll goods producers are entering this arena and bumping competition up to new heights.

    Having more players in the game has meant two things: filter makers have more alternatives and filtration customers are demanding more from suppliers. Confirming an overall in­crease in strategic focus from the nonwovens supplier base was Christine Murray, director of filtration at PGI. “Nonwovens producers recognize the rapid dynamics occurring and recognize significant opportunities,” she said.

    Turkish producer Mogul Nonwovens has witnessed the growth trend going both ways. “On one side you have nonwovens manufacturers seeking product and market diversification,” said Serkan Gogus, commercial director. “On the other side is the growing filtration market that’s at­tracting them.” As he sees it, in the end, if companies can’t be innovative and compete in the same areas with the same type of products, the profitability and attractiveness of the market will decline.

    For most producers, new market entrants aren’t a major concern be­cause products are specified and validated. This makes the cost of changing products expensive for the likely cost savings, especially when the margins and prices are already very competitive. Another boon has been the fact that the filtration market has typically been fragmented, with a range of raw materials and nonwovens technologies used across all segments.

    Still, manufacturers can’t rest on their laurels—quality and consistency is sure to continue to play a critical role in filter manufacturers’ buying decisions. Marjorie Wilcox, marketing manager of DelStar Tech­nologies Inc., pointed to the high level of sophistication in­volved in filter manufacturing and said that although high capacity producers have have been looking at the filtration market for a long time, filter manufacturers are more sophisticated than some other markets. “They will not move quickly, or just for a low price,” she said.

    Another consideration is the strong value component inherent in highly technical nonwoven filters. While this is an advantage for nonwovens, they still face the challenge of differentiating high value products from lower content alternatives and seeking new markets and applications for core technologies. Patrick Apfeld, vice president of marketing and business development at Lydall Performance Materials, characterized nonwoven filtration products in general as “loaded with technical content providing high levels of value to the filter producers and end users.” 

    The higher technical content of specialized filtration products has raised the barriers to entry in filtration, and new market requirements are expected to continue to keep these barriers high. According to Jerome Barrillon, director of marketing, filtration for Ahlstrom, “The field of roll good manufacturers is quite stable and most large names are present. Smaller players have a tendency to come and go based on demand in other industries,” he said.

Economic Crisis?

As fuel and energy costs climb ever higher—and as the economy continues to worry consumers—nonwovens makers are keeping a watchful eye on just what the impact will be on the filtration market. While industry insiders certainly don’t seem hopeful with regard to the current economic climate, they are staying surprisingly positive.

    Barry Kellar, general manager and vice president of Freudenberg’s North American filter business, said there are pros and cons to the current economic dilemma. “The downside is that people are using filters for a longer period than they should in an attempt to squeeze out more time. The thought here is that ‘time is money,’ but actually people are choosing a short-term cost advantage rather than overall best value. Right now there is a lot of focus on short-term costs.”

    “On the other hand,” he continued, “as energy costs go up, people look to protect their asset and use less energy to put air or liquid through a filter. They are after better efficiency and pressure drop.”

    Manufacturers agree that the key is to find a balance between short-term  costs and energy costs. While there is a  dynamic where consumers feel they can’t afford to upgrade to a more expensive filter, what suppliers are banking on is the question of whether they can afford not to.

    Unfortunately, what many customers are looking for—higher efficiency and better performance with a lower pressure drop in less expensive filters—are diametrically opposed requirements. To lower prices, producers need an economy of scale in manufacturing, which is not an option for many high-end filtration products. As is the case in many nonwovens sectors, the higher the level of innovation, the more difficult it is to keep costs down.

    Despite current economic woes, the filtration sector has been steady for the first half of this year, but many companies report signs of an impending slow-down and expect the market to  remain sluggish until the middle of next year or longer if conditions do not im­prove.

    Danny Grover, president of ne­edlepunch specialist Southern Felt, described both the in­dustrial air and liquid filtration markets as challenging due to ever-in­creasing prices for raw materials and energy. “Tur­bulence in the economy is causing end users to re­think or put off purchases of filter products. The market is also demanding that any development work that goes on has value for the performance.”

   If the downside to offering premium products is cost, the upside is that such items are more immune to economic twists and turns than are com­modity products. Al­though raw material prices have an im­pact on costs, in most cases filtration products have better yields and may be less affected than other, lower cost applications. The good news for nonwovens is that these products are less influenced by the purchasing decisions of consumers when the economy is down because they are often viewed as essential.

   Overall, the driving forces in the filtration sector are similar to other nonwovens segments—raw material prices, volatility in petroleum-based raw materials as well as reliable media supply are all key issues. “Filtration is not immune,” remarked Ms. Murray of PGI.

   She went on to describe the current position of suppliers in relation to customers’ demands for better performance and lower prices as a tough balancing act but one that is achievable. “It is virtually impossible for suppliers to focus on innovation for im­proved performance without channeling the same amount of effort into optimizing cost and overall system economics. The entire marketplace has reached a new level of sophistication, and customers are demanding more performance at the same or lower price. With customized media designed for specific applications, we can meet this demand. With customers and suppliers working together to optimize the media, the processing and the filter systems, we can achieve that optimized balance for superior customer value.”

    Fiberweb employs a similar strategy, working with individual customers in innovative ways to mitigate some cost in­creases. “Our customers see the value in nonwovens,” said Kim Rolman, director—Filtration at Fiberweb. “They continue to invest in the development and design of new applications utilizing nonwoven com­ponents.”

    Just how severe are recent raw material price increases? Severe. Keith Hay­ward, managing director of Monadnock Non-wovens, pointed to a 40% jump industry-wide over the last 12 months and described pricing as still volatile. “Price increases have changed the sweet point for cost benefit,” he said. “In some cases it encourages lighter material to reduce costs at the expense of reduced efficiency. Often the low basis weight means that the impact of increased material costs are not so significant, but 40% increases do make a difference.”

    Up until the recent financial crisis, in general, filtration markets (with the exception of the automotive filter segment) had been holding up well. Today, things are different. “Raw material increases in synthetic and glass fiber, binder and almost every other component of filtration media are having a huge impact on filter media costs,” observed Lydall’s Mr. Apfeld.

    Often, increasing energy costs drive companies to reduce the total energy consumption of filtration systems by designing longer-lasting, more efficient filters. Customers are in­creasingly concerned over pressure drop in air and liquid filters and are pushing for more environmentally-sensitive filters capable of re-use or recyclability. DelStar’s Ms. Wilcox stated that, in response to demand for cleaner filters within the semiconductor industry, DelStar is investigating the use of high-purity resins, as well as improving the surface of its existing products, to create technically superior components for process chemical filters.

    Another response from companies has been to reexamine the product development lifecycle while incorporating scrap material without negatively impacting the end product. H&V’s director of business development Angelika May­man said that escalating and volatile raw material prices are challenging filtration manufacturers to rein in costs and improve profitability. “While there has been some short-term moderation in energy costs, pulp prices remain high and certain raw materials such as specialty pulps, resins and synthetic fibers continue to increase.”

Fine Things

A continuing trend in both air and liquid filtration is the need for finer particle size removal for reduced emissions, cleaner water and reduced energy costs. This has driven fine fiber, nanotechnology and membrane technologies into the forefront of filtration demand. New developments in fine fiber products are in turn spurring the need for higher performance support substrates and pre-filtration layers.

    According to Lydall’s Mr. Apfeld, the move toward finer fibers marks an important shift. “The market is being inundated with discussion about nanofiber, nanoparticles and nanotechnology; smaller and smaller particles require smaller and smaller fibers for capture.”

    With three key technologies in this field (fine-fiber meltblown, electrospun nanofibers and Disruptor nano-alumina), Ahlstrom is also seeing developments in nanotechnologies and the use of smaller fibers in the manufacturing of filter media. “Finer fibers are a recognized solution to address higher and higher requirements,” said Mr. Barrillon. “The trick is the industrialization of the process to manufacture products competitively.”

     Ms. Murray acknowledged a similar trend, explaining that PGI Filtration is responding with tailored designs to provide solutions through combinations of different raw materials, media design and processing technologies. “Historical scrim offerings are no longer adequate to meet the demands of the high-performance, fine-fiber composite structures, and prefiltration is becoming more essential for overall system efficiencies,” she said.

    Norafin also acknowledged the growing need for finer particle filtration and offers filter media with fine fibers, microfibers or even microsplit fibers that enable the filtration of finer particles. The company reaches high filtration efficiency by combining spunlace technology with fine micro or sub micro fibers.

The Future of Filtration

Looking ahead, industry experts expect to see a continued focus on improving air quality, more consumer awareness, a desire for higher efficiency products and a push for energy savings and green products. Additionally, Mr. Kellar of Freud­enberg predicted increased diversity in applications and industries in the near-term future. “What I don’t know is which industries will look for filtration, but I guarantee we’ll see filters built into more products than we do today.”

    Sandra VanWormer, president of DuPont’s Hybrid Mem­brane venture,  foresees education as a significant trend in air filtration in the next decade. “This includes raising the awareness and importance around good air quality and energy savings and how the proper air filtration system can achieve these goals efficiently, raising the standard of living and im­proving the sustainability of the planet.” In addition, in targeted liquid filtration segments, the company is looking to significantly raise performance expectations in the 0.2 - 2.0 micron range of retention, creating a tailored, optimum balance of retention, flow and filter life for each end use segment. 

    Mr. Kellar of Freudenberg also acknowledged the need to continue to raise consumer awareness with regard to air quality. “People are smarter about air quality today but producers still wish they were more aware,” he said. “For us, the biggest challenge in cabin air quality is awareness, not competition. Consumers now understand the need for better performing air filters in the home but many don’t realize that the air in a car has a tunnel effect and is six times dirtier than outside. The bottom line is educating the consumer.”

    No doubt, the future of filtration will be shaped by several factors, one of which is a changing global financial setting. Many companies expect the most significant contributor to growth to be the emergence of the Chinese and Indian industrial and consumer economies. Increasing demand on energy supply across the globe is expected to spur development of lower pressure drop filtration technologies.

    “In the established markets and in emerging markets such as China, we will see escalating efficiency requirements for existing applications as well as the adoption of filtration in new applications, particularly those related to ‘quality of life,’” predicted Mr. Apfel of Lydall.    

    Overall, heightened global competition should be a prime driver for better efficiency and innovation in filtration products. As for China, it  may turn out to be not only a competitor but a formidable market opportunity. According to Ahlstrom’s Mr. Barrillon, the Asian region as a whole will continue to grow, but the local markets will consume a large part of the local production. “Many western in­dustries are locating plants locally, mainly to serve the local markets rather than manufacture off-shore for western markets. Local quality by local com­­petition will ob­viously improve to much higher levels and this will push the industry as a whole to continue to develop smarter and efficient solutions to stay ahead.”                                              

Related Application:

Related Market:

Related Technology:

Related Other: