Sitting Pretty

By Ellen Wuagneux, Associate Editor | December 11, 2008

hygiene component suppliers prepare for pricing let-up

57.8 million. This is the number of baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) expected to be living in 2030, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections. That year, these boomers will be between ages 66 and 84 and nearly 55% will be female. Census figures also indicate that more than four million people will turn 50 in 2008. For makers of hygiene products, especially sanitary protection and adult incontinence items, these figures sound pretty good.

    There’s good news in the baby diaper market as well: a record number of babies were born in the U.S. in 2007, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, signaling an impending baby “boomlet.” The 4.3 million recorded births in 2007—the highest since 1957—give just a glimpse of what’s ahead in the nursery and point to upcoming steady sales of baby diapers, training pants and swim diapers.

    As if that weren’t enough, even more immediate happy news is coming from raw material markets where major Middle East capacity is set to come onstream for polyester and polypropylene. After hitting an all-time peak, resin prices are expected to see a substantial correction in the first quarter of 2009 and have already fallen by double digits on a per-pound basis. Needless to say, this relief is a welcome change for makers of both nonwovens- and film-based hygiene components who have been maxed out on cost structure and squeezed on all sides to deliver innovation at the same or lower prices despite record raw material costs.

    The raw material squeeze has been so severe, some suppliers say, that innovation has been nearly impossible. “The market is full of entrepreneurs but in reality few companies are innovating or investing capital in new technologies,” said Pantex International CEO Jim Cree. “I think everyone is scared to add new technology without a clear signal because raw material prices have driven value out of the market.”
Who Wants What

Where to start? In baby diapers, there is a shift away from side tab closure systems to larger diaper ears on stretchy side panels . Other new features include “cottony” softness and underwear-like waistbands. In feminine hygiene, requirements are similar to the baby diaper market—thinness, softness, fit and comfort continue to be priorities (and reducing environmental impact is a plus). San pro product innovations range from one-handed adhesive release to side protection zones, stay-put adhesives and quieter, individual wrappers.

     Meanwhile, in adult incontinence—a market with excellent retail potential based on the number of active baby boomers coming down the pike—the buzzword is still discretion, discretion and more discretion. Words like “silent,” “quiet” and even “dignity” are used to describe these products and their packaging. Here strand-based elastic laminates are being replaced by film-based laminates, and stretch components in waistbands and leg cuffs are boosting comfort and helping products appear more underwear-like.

Top That Topsheet

In topsheet, backsheet and coverstock applications, new hybrids offer the best of both worlds—the softness of nonwovens and the performance of film. In certain cases, their appeal, as well as their functionality, may also get a boost from the use of ingredients like aloe vera, vitamin E and even cotton.

    Apertured nonwoven specialist Pantex International has recently introduced several products for hygiene end uses including ultra-soft, zone-perforated airthrough nonwovens for newborn diaper topsheet applications. For premium sanitary napkin and pantyliner end uses, Pantex has launched full-perforated, premium airthrough nonwoven topsheets as well as a 3-D perforated laminate with aloe and cotton ingredients.

    Pantex’s Mr. Cree estimated growth in perforated nonwovens for baby diapers and sanitary napkins at 16% per year and said market demand can be split into two distinct groups. “Customers either want affordable, value-based topsheets that do a good job but are not expensive or they want ultra-premium topsheets that meet demands from elite, discriminating customers for comfort and fragrances.” He added that Pantex offers two interchangeable grades for each product it sells.

    Tredegar Film Products is also making strides in apertured topsheet technology for the hygiene market by combining the cotton-like look and feel of nonwovens with film. Designed to meet the market’s increasing demands for softness, comfort and protection, products include FreshFeel apertured film topsheets, ComfortFeel apertured film laminates, ComfortQuilt apertured nonwoven and ComfortAire activated laminates, which feature excellent stain masking, fast strike-through and high rewet performance.

    One of Tredegar’s latest premium topsheet concepts is SoftAire, which is an innovative film structure that reduces the skin contact area of the hygiene item, leading to optimal comfort and softness. “This product looks and feels attractive, and its acquisition, rewet and masking performance is exceptional,” said Stefano Lupi, general manager of personal care at Tredegar.

     For its part, Pliant Corporation has spent six years developing a line of apertured films that can be used for topsheets or acquisition/distribution layers (ADLs). Other efforts center on upgraded in- and off-line printing capabilities. “In-line printing can be a very cost-effective method to present a decorated backsheet to the end use customer,” explained Keith Brech­telsbauer, vice president and general manager, personal care and medical. The company has recently installed five 8-10-color state-of-the-art flexo presses and an additional 10-color press is planned for the future. On the packaging end—in addition to printed and compression packaging for diapers, feminine hygiene pads and wipes—Pliant specializes in printed embossed films and recently commercialized its Touch of Silk soft-touch film.

    Mr. Brechtelsbauer described the transition from plain to decorative film on baby diapers as an “overnight sensation,” which he joked, took three years. “Premium branded products came out with prominent storybook icons on printed breathable film backsheets and now private label (PL) makers are rolling out similar products.” He added that, because it follows closely on the heels of brand leaders, private label product quality is on the rise. “PL is driven by top brands and offers a similar but lower cost look.” In addition to its in-line assets, Pliant offers off-line process printing and vignettes and is underway with new embossing and elastic capabilities.

Doing More With Less

Beyond softness and comfort, achieving faster and more effective absorbency while optimizing raw material usage remains a key performance requirement for all types of hygiene products. When enhanced liquid retention is the goal, the obvious starting place is the core—and a shift toward innovative core design to achieve enhanced comfort and discreteness is definitely underway.

    One recent change to core design came earlier this year when market leader P&G unveiled a new pad design featuring an intuitive tapered core and form-fitting channels to help the pad achieve three-dimensional body fit. The launch, said to be the biggest innovation to hit the feminine care category in years, is being compared to the introduction of ultrathin pads in the 1990s.

    Under the Always Infinity label, the pad is based on Infinicel, a new material that absorbs 10 times its weight while remaining light. Infinicel offers “über-absorbency” levels and a slimmer pad featuring an ultra-soft coversheet, microdots engineered to guide fluid deep within the pad, a revolutionary wing design for secure protection and a wider back to provide increased coverage where it’s needed most.

    “Infinicel provides a level of absorbency that was once inconceivable,” said Lisa Lennon, P&G’s associate director, R&D, Always femcare. “The development of Always Infinity is a prime example of scientific breakthrough merging with design innovation to impact everyday lifestyles.”
    In contrast to current cellulose core materials, Infinicel has an integrated two-layer structure that removes fluid from the top of the pad and transports it into the bottom layer, where it is distributed and stored. This allows the pad to continue absorbing fluid away from the source for a lighter fluid mark on the pad surface.

    Another recent core upgrade comes from SNS Nano Fiber Technology (sister company to Schill and Seilacher), which received a patent last month on its pulpless, stretchable hygiene core. Described as a nonwoven superabsorbent composite, the core offers softness, drape and stretchability. Consisting of a sodium polyacrylate superabsorbent sandwiched between two nanofiber polyurethane spunmelt nonwoven layers, the new material boasts a thickness that is one-tenth that of traditional designs containing wood pulp and SAP mixtures.

    The material may be combined with other nonwovens and films for a variety of disposable absorbent hygiene product applications. The elastic nonwoven structure with high SAP is designed to replace bulky SAP and pulp-based composite absorbents with a material that provides cloth-like wearing comfort, thinness-based discretion and technical performance. Simplification of the product converting process is also achieved since there is no need for a pulp and SAP former and one or more construction materials such as a core wrapping layer may be eliminated in certain product designs.

    On the other end of the superabsorbent spectrum is  Technical Absorbents Ltd. (TAL), which is underway with a  development program to expand the use of superabsorbent fiber (SAF) in the hygiene market through enhanced performance grades and ongoing collaboration with product development partners. The company is looking into manufacturing expansion options in order to address demands for specific absorbency grades. These include capacity expansion linked to the optimization of cost competitiveness against other existing superabsorbent options.

    “Our goal is to exceed industry standards of absorbency, fluid management, re-wet at minimum dosage levels and provide a cost-effective basis for new, enhanced product design,” offered Dave Hill, business development manager. The advantage of SAF, as he sees it, is its ability to be incorporated into discreet product designs, negating the need for containment systems required by non-fibrous superabsorbents. The fiber is designed to be integrated throughout fiber-based feminine hygiene, adult incontinence and baby diaper hygiene products, resulting in excellent conversion, minimum waste and consistent performance.

All About Elastomers

A quick look at what leading baby diaper, training pant and adult incontinence products are touting these days proves that elasticity, stretch and recovery properties are now standard in today’s branded hygiene products and quickly making their way into the private label realm as well. Huggies Pull-Ups offer “easy-to-grasp stretchy sides” to encourage learning how to take them on and off like real underwear. Huggies Snug & Dry diapers have “all-around stretch for a super-snug fit.” Depend’s “latex-free elastic design” allows them to be “pulled on and off just like regular underwear.”     

    Beyond comfort and on/off ease, stretch is also associated with freedom of movement; for instance, Pampers Cruisers contain “flex” to help baby move freely and feature new, 60% stronger “Go Baby” grips for improved fastening and “the freedom to move, whether baby is sitting, crawling or walking.” P&G’s EasyUps Trainers offer “super stretchy sides” and Luvs have Bear Hug Stretch premium elastic sides that stretch to fit. Splashers swim pants feature “easy-to-tear-away sides” and on Attends underwear, a “soft, elastic waist design provides superior comfort” while “tear-away sides offer an easy option for removal.”

    All this talk of stretch is music to the ears of specialty elastomer suppliers such as ExxonMobil Chemical. The company is responding to emerging hygiene market trends such as design simplification, fewer components and better cost. ExxonMobil expects increased elasticity in nonwoven fabrics to continue in response to demands for improved end use product performance. The company offers a portfolio of Vistamaxx specialty elastomers as well as ExxonMobil SFT315 polypropylene, ExxonMobil PP3155 polypropylene for spunbond applications and Achieve 3854 polypropylene and meltblown grades for a range of nonwoven applications.

    Based on its proprietary metallocene technology, the Vista­maxx products target hygiene absorbent products such as diapers, as well as personal care, medical, filtration and in­dustrial applications. Benefits for hygiene products include elasticity, toughness, the ability to bond easily with other materials for design flexibility, ease of processing, compatibility in polyolefin systems and a high coefficient of friction for slip-resistant applications.

    “By using Vistamaxx specialty elastomers,” explained Olivier Georjon, manager, global nonwovens market development, “nonwovens producers are able to make an elastic fabric in a single step using a variety of spunbond equipment. In the past, this was possible only in a multistep process. Eliminating steps in the process can reduce total system costs while still achieving the required performance.” Vistamaxx specialty elastomers also allow increased capability in multi-beam processing lines to include elasticity in multi-layer fabrics.

    To support growth in Vistamaxx, as well as increased demand for polypropylene, ExxonMobil is building a second, world-scale steam cracker complex in Singapore, which will include a 450,000 ton-per-year polypropylene unit and a 300,000 ton-per-year specialty elastomers unit. Also, the Chinese government has granted a business license for ExxonMobil’s joint venture in Fujian province that will produce a range of products, including polypropylene and polyethylene. ExxonMobil Chemical is a 25% owner of the joint venture along with Sinopec, Saudi Aramco and the Fujian government.

    Tredegar is also paying close attention to elastic component upgrades in the diaper and adult incontinence markets. The company’s new FlexAire elastic laminates offer softness and high stretch for large area applications such as baby diaper ears, side panels and adult incontinence briefs. Available in several new grades specifically designed for stretch ear applications, FlexAire is offered in different levels of stretch to fit specific uses. As the market continues to evolve, Tredegar plans to launch a new elastic laminate for diaper ears in January 2009. “This elastic laminate will provide new dimensions of softness, comfort and stretch,” said Todd Skochdopole, R&D director for personal care.

Spandex: Super-Stretch

Spandex suppliers are also busy keeping on top of heightened demand for stretch in hygiene products while doing everything they can to reduce SKUs and boost production efficiencies. Spandex specialist Hyosung (America) has invested $1 million in new winding equipment and capacity expansions to improve the performance of its spandex offerings as well as boost global sustainability efforts. “The performance of our spandex roll has increased greatly during running performance,” reported Greg Hearn, global business manager, personal hygiene market. “We have also been able to combine the attributes of a rolling take-off package with an over-end feed package, which has helped to reduce overall SKUs for our customers.” The changes also contribute to sustainability efforts by reducing fuel emissions and landfill waste through the new packaging.

     RadiciSpandex, another key player in the area of stretchable hygiene components, has renewed its focus on colored stretch fibers for baby diaper and adult incontinence products. Last year the company made a concerted effort to prioritize its product development and customer service initiatives and introduced an over-the-end feed delivery package with transfer tails. RadiciSpandex now offers customized deniers, lusters and colors produced in flexible quantities to meet customer requirements.

    Used by diaper manufacturers for gender and front-back identification, the company’s S17 fiber for nonwovens can be colored to add a decorative touch to baby diaper elastics. “To date we have spun green, pink and blue fibers but have the capability to spin any color for which the pigment can be purchased,” explained Frank Nickerson, technical sales representative.

    In an effort to remain price competitive, RadiciSpandex has invested in capital expenditures, including an upgrade to the industry-standard, three-kilogram format to improve efficiencies. The company has also invested in state-of-the-art spinning equipment at its Tuscaloosa, AL plant, which enhanced its winding capabilities and produced a more robust, stronger fiber with better performance and yields. S17PC now runs at increased elongations in excess of 325%.

     With its line-up of elastic closures and stretch side panels, Avery Dennison is making the most of the baby diaper market shift from traditional elastic hook tapes to full elastic side panels with hook closure attachments. In the adult incontinence sector, the company is seeing the introduction of nonwoven backsheets to enhance softness and noise reduction for the consumer, a trend that has spurred a change from traditional three-piece adhesive closures to four-piece adhesive/hook combi-closures.

    In response to these market dynamics, Avery Dennison recently unveiled ESP (Elastic Side Panel) materials for baby diaper and adult incontinence product uses, which are designed to enhance fit and comfort. The products feature unique elastic properties, enhanced softness and a variety of product configurations, such as all-in-one designs with a hook element incorporated in the elastic side panel.

Around The World

From a global perspective, many companies are looking to redesign products to take advantage of local manufacturing sources and available resources. With growth in western markets basically flat, the focus of worldwide leaders such as P&G, K-C and others is directed at markets where economic standards are on the rise and growth is driven by cost, such as China, India, Vietnam, Eastern Europe and Brazil.

    Although growth in emerging markets may not yet have made its way to the end product level, ongoing equipment investments in these regions point to increases in future demand. Pantex’s Mr. Cree sees China as an area ripe for a boom and described the appetite for hygiene components there as insatiable. “Chinese producers who have secured strong business in China are now considering setting up shop in the Middle East and Africa to further target the hygiene market of Europe.” Pantex has joined forces with Chisso Corp. to sell topsheet material from a new line in Gangzhou, China and, at its UAE facility, Pantex has launched a Taiwanese-made perforation line.

    Considering its recent expansion in the region, it’s not surprising that ExxonMobil—considering its recent investment there—is also optimistic about the future of nonwovens in China, as well as other markets in Asia. “The consumption of products in China made with nonwoven fabrics continues to show strong growth,” stated Mr. Georjon. “For example, over the next three years, we expect the growth rate of baby diapers in China to be three times greater than the global average.”

    In other more saturated areas, ongoing product upgrades show that there is still room for growth as more sophisticated components make their way into the mainstream. For example, Avery Dennison’s Mr. Van Hooijdonk cited a shift in the European private label market from traditional X-shape diapers to rectangular diapers with elastic side panels, offering consumers a performance-equal but lower cost alternative to the large baby diaper brands.

    He pointed to another upgrade in the Middle East and North Africa region, where a move from traditional adhesive tape closure systems to hook and loop closure systems gives consumers the benefit of a contamination-resistant closure system. “Also in this region,” he added, “the adult incontinence market has started to grow with several recent investments in manufacturing capabilities.”

    Tredegar’s global product marketing manager Ilaria Ramalli also pointed to Latin America as a geographical region that is upgrading from basic-level components to higher end offerings. “Our customers are adding elastic features to diapers; such as side tabs and ears. Also, in China we are seeing that elastic features such as waistbands are being added to diapers. “

Future Challenges

With resin prices set to fall and the industry’s massive drive to reduce costs expected to slow at least slightly, what will component suppliers do with their free time? For many, that answer is easy: innovate. Efforts to down-gauge and reduce raw materials, lower energy costs, improve efficiencies, scrutinize supply chains and emphasize lean manufacturing tools have been necessary no doubt, but they have also taken their toll on the overall push toward innovation.

    That said, how much more innovation do hygiene products require at this point? If they are meeting or exceeding performance expectations from consumers, do consumers want premium hygiene products to be even thinner, softer and more absorbent than they already are? And if so, would these innovations translate into growth in highly penetrated western markets?

    Tredegar’s Mr. Lupi feels that, in areas such as feminine hygiene where performance has leveled off, environmental efforts should trump performance or aesthetic innovation. “When it comes to performance, current feminine hygiene products are where they need to be. In fact, in some instances, they might even be over-engineered. So future feminine hygiene innovation will most likely be in the areas of comfort, additives, design and cost efficiencies—and they’ll focus more and more on green qualities.”

    Mr. Brechtelsbauer of Pliant does not feel the same way about adult incontinence; instead, he sees it as an area where there is huge potential for future innovation. “AI trends migrate from the baby diaper segment, which has seen a lot of innovation, but there is a lot of work to be done to improve fit, thinness and discretion in adult incontinence products.” These changes, he said, would require not only redesigned equipment but also a costly platform change. “This is where our industry has to finish. Institutional products are one thing, but retail is another. Today people want to play golf in their 80s and we must make our products fit the lifestyle of a population that is living longer.”