Many Shapes And Forms

By Karen McIntyre, Editor | December 11, 2008

no matter how you define it, composite technology is allowing nonwovens to penetrate new markets.

What are composites? The answer really depends on whom you ask. Some describe them as the marriage of two different technologies in one process line—as is the case with your standard multi-beam spunmelt line—while others rely on a post-production processing step to develop a substrate with multiple capabilities. Other composites contain multiple substrates, made on entirely different lines. These substrates could be different types of nonwovens or combine a nonwoven with another type of fabric like a film or a woven. Whatever the means, the combination of multiple technologies is allowing nonwovens to penetrate areas once unheard of while helping users of nonwovens simplify their businesses.

    One example of new market area being penetrated through composites is wall coverings. Nonwovens producer Ahlstrom has been using multilayer wetlaid technology to create wall coverings with ease of pasting and removal, printing and converting and visual properties. These enable countless design opportunities. “In this business, our technology platform is additionally enriched by the surface coating technologies deriving from our specialty papers business,” said company spokesman Marco Martinez.

    Ahlstrom—and fellow nonwovens producer Hollingsworth & Vose—has been reporting strong sales of composite-based wall coverings—a market long dominated by paper—for the past several years. Other areas of success in composite technology have included hygiene, medical, construction, wipes and filtration—to name a few. In fact, nearly every market out there has been relying more on higher tech composite technology as customers are demanding more sophisticated products to differentiate themselves.

    “In today’s world, the requirements of different industries are too complicated and sophisticated that no one nonwovens technology alone is capable of meeting them,” said Serkan Gogus, commercial director of Turkish roll goods producer Mogul. “This has created a need for composites, or the marriage of different nonwovens technology, which is an important step.”

    In wipes, Mogul is selling a new composite technology, combining spunbond, airlaid and spunlaced nonwovens. Heavily invested in spunmelt and meltblown technologies, Mogul has turned to alternative technologies to help diversify itself and wipes is one of the key growth areas it is pursuing, according to Mr. Gogus. Mogul’s Asterion pulp-based nonwovens are based on proprietary technology developed with a technical consulting firm. Like Kimberly-Clark’s Coform technology, Asterion combines the strength of polypropylene with the absorption properties of pulp.

    “The composite products are mostly value-added products as they fulfill needs that others can’t,” Mr. Gogus added. “So usually profit margins are better and competition is less, but you have to consider that investment costs can be high and usage is lower compared to commodity products. Considering that, the economies-of-scale costs are higher as well.”

Medical Madness

Composite nonwovens have played a role in the medical market’s quest to achieve a balance between comfort and protection. As medical personnel seek to retain the comfort of traditional cloth materials but also look for the protective and disposable benefits of using a nonwoven gown or drape, several makers of spunmelt nonwovens and other materials have expanded their technology base to help out. Ahlstrom, for one, offers several multi-layer materials for the medical market. “Each of these are designed to provide a different function,” said Mr. Martinez. For example, an external layer for liquid repellence, a middle membrane for strength barrier and breathability and an internal layer for soft touch and comfort on the skin. This is the case with our top-of-range BVB (breathable viral barier) but also our mid range SMS also falls into the composites category as it alternates layers of spunbond and meltblown webs to provide at the same time strength and barrier properties respectively.”

    Composite technology, Mr. Martinez added, is particularly important in Europe where regulations for drapes and gowns have driven the growth of these multilayer structures.

    Rather than a multi-layer structure, DuPont technology offers the benefits of multiple polymers in one seamless process. The company’s Advanced Composite Technology (ACT) nonwovens, which combine the benefits of polypropylene—softness—and polyester—was developed about five years ago and since then has made significant inroads in medical applications. ACT, which is sold under the Suprel brand name in medical applications, bridges the gap between nonwovens and film and more recently has been making inroads in the protective apparel market where it is also valued for its combination of comfort and softness.

    Also heavily invested in medical is DelStar Technologies whose core composite technology is a medical-grade lamination. In another twist on what makes a composite, DelStar’s technology combines an apertured film with and absorbent material to a wound care product. “Most of our composites business has involved combining multiple nonwovens—generally layers of different nonwovens technologies,” said the company’s Marjorie Wilcox. “For instance, we have combined our own products together as well as with coarse fiberglass, foams, nets and films. We can slo combine a mixture of synthetic materials.”

    While medical comprises the bulk of its composite technology, new developments—like new ultrasonic bonding capabilities—have allowed the company to introduce unique composites to the air and liquid filtration industries that combine multiple layers of nonwovens with structured nets to create interesting pleatable alternatives for fuel and hydraulic applications. DelStar’s new ultrasonic bonding line is 2.3 meters wide and has five unwind stations. Additionally, the company currently has three ultrasonic dot patterns in-house and plans to add more in the near term.

    Also making investments to create more multifaceted structures is Hollingsworth & Vose, another company heavily focused on the filtration market. According to executives, H&V’s broad array of web-forming technologies and lamination processes has enabled this group to respond to customer demands for products with longer service intervals, lower emissions and flame retardants. In addition to machinery technology, H&V has been working with a varity of exotic fibers to produce technically demanding composite materials. “H&V is a specialty player so we end up playing in different markets and figure out the specific needs of those markets,” said Nate Burns, business manager for Advanced Fiber Nonwovens at H&V. “We end up doing a lot of development work with our customers to push the envelope with our products to meet their business needs. Often this takes us into new markets for nonwovens.”

    Meanwhile, a tried and true market for nonwovens—hygiene—has been the focus of composite technology research for companies looking to diversify in this market. Italy’s Pantex International is offering zone-perforated airthrough nonwovens to newborn diaper topsheet applications as well as a fully perforated, premium airthrough nonwoven topsheet and a 3-D perforated laminate with aloe and cotton ingredients. Growth for perforated nonwovens for baby diapers and sanitary napkins is expected to be 16% per year. Other companies investing in this technology include Tredegar Film Products, which is combining nonwovens with film to meet the market’s increasing demand for softness, comfort and production, and Pliant Corporation, which has been working on technology in this area for the last six years. (For more information on technology impacting the hygiene market, see Sitting Pretty, page 26.)

    In the wipes market, Ahlstrom—the world’s leading maker of substrates for this area—is reporting increased usage of composite technology. Here, marketers are requiring webs made from a combination of synthetic and natural fibers such as pulp or cellulose through hydroentangling, needlepunching, thermal bonding or other technologies. Furthermore, the use of natural fibers is favored to increase the eco-friendliness and sustainability of the final product while multialyer technologies can add benefits such as controlled absorption and release of lotion. “The addition of a surface layer featuring a particular property might open up new opportunities in some specific applications,” Mr. Martinez explained.

Make It Simple

The search for new markets has been key to many nonwovens producers growth strategies. However, some find it difficult to get customers to try out untested technology in their products. “It is always difficult to gain acceptance for new technologies,” explained Mogul’s Mr. Gogus. “The idea can be bright and the product can be good but in most cases to develop end uses takes time. Cost is also critical. There are many good and exciting ideas that wait on shelves because they are not feasible. The best way to proceed is to act on the needs of customers and to develop things that meet a need instead of developing things and looking for end uses. We mostly base our developments on the needs of customers to minimize time and effort.”

    However, once they are convinced of their benefits, consumers can use new substrates  to simplify their businesses and streamline their raw material and supplier base.

    “We have found that our composite technologies have allowed us to help our customers be more efficient in a number of ways,” said DelStar’s Ms. Wilcox. “First of all, the composite products combine advantages from multiple technologies. Further, the multilayer roll goods allow our customers a one-stop shopping experience, not only reducing the number of suppliers for them but also required warehouse space and secondary converting them and expense. Further, the new products often can increase their production rates due to their built-in processing advantages.”

    Ahlstrom’s Mr. Martinez agreed. “Converters and end users do  and will appreciate materials that provide them benefits. If composite technologies provide them with multiple benefits at affordable prices, then they will gain easy acceptance and even clear preference.”