Evolutionary Equipment

By Ellen Wuagneux, Associate Editor | January 19, 2009

Considering the current economic environment, maybe equipment suppliers' description of today's hygiene market as evolutionary (rather than revolutionary) isn't so bad after all.

‘Evolutionary’ might be a better term than ‘revolutionary’ to describe recent product updates in the hygiene machinery segment. Even if they’ve been a long time coming, modifications are being made to improve the design, fit and performance of baby diapers as well as adult incontinence and san pro products. Although such product enhancements may not be enough to take the pressure off machinery suppliers in this market, it is keeping them in business, and that’s more than many companies in the throes of a worldwide financial crisis can say.

    In general, North America and other developed markets are seeing more stretch components being added to baby diapers while many adult incontinence products are transitioning into brief or underwear styles to appeal to more active seniors. Feminine hygiene product updates continue to focus on thinner, more absorbent cores and lightweight products and packaging.

    In developing areas of the world, lower cost products are targeting a less experienced consumer base that’s looking to keep costs at a minimum. These markets are following the lead of more established geographies and   seeing a shift from film to cloth-like backsheets as well as diapers with stretch tapes and more advanced printing options, namely flexography.

    While a major change in the form of a fluffless product or a completely redesigned chassis may be a long way off, certain new product enhancements are being seen, including absorbent cores with higher SAP content and lighter weights, briefs with improved refastenability, lower waste diaper ear systems and renewed demand for light incontinence products. Whether they spur demand for totally new machines or just system retrofits, new hygiene trends are enough to keep suppliers afloat in a generally saturated market where heightened steel and aluminum prices have kept cost pressures high and margins low.  

Supply Shift

One ray of hope for all types of suppliers has come from shifts among producers in the “Hygiene Hierarchy.” Machinery makers are watching recent capital investments resulting from merger and acquisition activity among hygiene producers to see what growth opportunities may arise. One recent example of a hygiene market shake-up on the private label end is First Quality’s purchase of Covidien’s private label diaper business as well as its adult incontinence, swim and san pro products. Then, there is the acquisition of adult incontinence producer Whitestone by Germany-based Hartmann Group, a purchase set to strengthen Hartmann’s position in the nursing home and home care sectors.

    On the investment front, some hygiene producers are using what capital they have to boost capacities and expand their global reach, which is good news for machinery suppliers. SCA, for instance, is investing approximately €48 million in a new production facility in Russia, where it has seen rapid growth of its Libero baby diapers and Libresse feminine hygiene products. SCA is also bumping up its European adult incontinence capacity, including a new line for Tena pants in Hoogesand, The Netherlands, as well as a new line for Tena Flex at its plant in Gennep, also in The Netherlands. In the Middle East and Egypt, SCA has formed a joint venture with Jordan-based industrial group Nuqul.

    Meanwhile, market leaders K-C and P&G have made headlines in recent years with initiatives to streamline operations, consolidate production and raise prices. These efforts have left the world’s hygiene giants in solid shape to face current challenges in global financial markets—both P&G and K-C have reported increased volumes and slow but steady sales growth in the 8-9% range.

    Obviously equipment suppliers are being impacted by the current economic crisis as well and have a vested interest in how the hygiene market will fare. These suppliers face similar challenges to past years, although the pressure to reduce costs is more intense than ever. Their goal is as straightforward as it is challenging—to develop reasonably priced equipment offering better cost-effectiveness, higher speeds and compatibility with the latest product designs at reduced lead times.

    “We’re paying careful attention to how the current worldwide financial crisis will develop,” reported Ales­sandro D’Andrea, marketing manager for Fam­ec­canica.Data SpA. “If needed, we are ready to put adequate measures in place.” He added that the company’s global presence (operations in Italy, China and Brazil) will help manage any possible future scenario.

     According to Fabrizio Ferri, area sales manager for Diatec Srl, economic challenges have customers worried, which is impacting machine sales in certain parts of the world. “The global economic situation seems to have put some investors in standby mode, especially in Latin America, but we are confident in the market’s future.” Mr. Ferri said that the company’s major challenge has been market saturation in the U.S. and EU. “We have very few requests for sanitary napkin machinery,” he said. “We’ve seen more need for baby diaper lines or upgrades in Eastern Europe, Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East, and, fortunately, we’ve had increasing requests for adult incontinence lines.”

    Another equipment supplier GDM is also concerned about equipment investments budgeted for 2009/2010. “The world financial situation makes it difficult for new investors to obtain financing from banks,” said marketing manager Bruno De Michele. “Increased raw material prices and import/ transportation costs are other obstacles for a new producer who wants to invest in this sector. Frequently it’s preferable to import and resell finished products instead of venturing into managing one’s own production company.”

Machines, Modules...More

If the bad news is that customers are holding tight to their purse strings in anticipation of even worse economic times, the good news is that machinery suppliers are well equipped to respond to these concerns with more efficient, cost-cutting systems.

    In an effort to offer its customers both innovation and increased operating efficiencies, Fameccanica has unveiled systems for the manufacture of baby diapers with ab­sorbent core SAP levels up to 60%. The company has also patented machines for reclosable adult and baby pull-up products and a laser cutting system. Fameccanica has also rolled out machines for the production of ultrasonically bonded elastic laminates and, in the packaging segment, Paksis A-6 for counting, stacking and packaging adult incontinence items.

    Since its launch at IDEA07, Fameccanica has been promoting its BEST unit for baby diapers with zero-trim asymmetric ears, which answers a call for more comfortable, thinner and highly elasticized products. As they cut down on the amount of waste, the systems also offer the advantage of environmental friendliness.

    Diatec is making strides in this area as well and in 2008 launched a zero- or reduced-waste elastic ear module for baby diapers. The company also developed a new concept adult incontinence machine and a complete baby diaper machine with a new core formation module for improved performance.

    According to Fabrizio Ferri, area sales manager, “The new MACH baby diaper machine and the elastic ear retrofitting modules meet a consistent number of requests coming from the market, especially from producers who plan to redesign and renovate their baby product range while achieving higher savings.”

    Zero-waste elastic panels are a prime focus for GDM too. Launched at INDEX 08, GDM’s ESPert has already been installed in several key customers’ plants. According to Mr. De Michele, the company has successfully tested material from more than 10 elastic suppliers, certifying it at high-speed production levels (more than 1000 ppm) and providing a significant savings of raw material costs.

    Additionally, in the second half of 2008, GDM de­buted its AT Evo line. Part of the company’s Chroma platform, the new system produces diapers and hospital underpads. “The first line has already been in full production for a few months to the complete satisfaction of our customer,” he reported.

    Deamatic Lim­ited, international distributor for Delta Machinery, is also taking note of an increased use of elasticized raw materials for achieving better fitting baby diapers and adult incontinence products. Delta’s application system, which also made its debut at INDEX, offers a compact design, reliability, easy operation and control. Requiring only two meters of space, the unit can be placed within a line or on a platform on top of a converting system according to the type of application required. Meanwhile, the tape applicator is located outside of the main machine.

    “The function is purely mechanical,” explained Giorgio Bian­cardi, Delta’s managing director. “It is supported by a series of brushless motors and a set of cameras. Because it’s synchronized with the machine speed, it’s adaptable to outputs from 350 to 700 diapers per minute. Perfect positioning with both the nonwoven and the elasticized material—whether it is shaped or rectangular ears—and their corresponding tapes is guaranteed.” 

    When it comes to turnkey lines, Bikoma AG Spezialmaschinen offers baby diaper plants for different sizes, configurations and designs and rounds out its portfolio with additional packaging options. The new DEDE 500 can connect directly with the company’s DSP 40 packaging machine, providing a turnkey system from raw materials to packaging. “This is a beneficial concept for our customers as any potential critical interfaces will be eradicated and they have just one contact person for the entire line,” re­marked Bernd Goebel, general manager. “This means that our customer relationships will become stronger and solutions can be more easily sought when re­quired.”

   Bikoma is also active outside of the baby diaper sector, where it recently launched a nursing pad machine, type S-700. Designed to facilitate the universal manufacturing of nursing pads in different sizes, compositions and designs, the fully automatic production line offers servo-drive technology, long forming times and a production speed of 500 pieces per minute.

    Another system meeting top speed requirements is a new twin foam application system from Bicma Hygiene Technologie GmbH. Targeting light adult incontinence end uses, the machine covers product lengths ranging from approximately 270mm to 490mm. “With this design, suppliers of light inco products with short-cut foam in the product sides can cover a range of product sizes with minimum changeover time,” said Andrea Allar, sales manager. “Only the application segment is changed; no fine adjustment is required after size change and the system runs up to 300 m/min.”

    Bicma also offers compact and flexible solutions for the application of low-waste or zero-waste baby diaper elastic ears. The unit requires minimum space in the machine and is particularly applicable for upgrades to existing lines.

    In the up-and-coming Chinese hygiene sector, Hangzhou Creator Machinery, based in Zhejiang, is attracting attention as the country’s first producer to offer systems for the manufacture of pull-on adult incontinence products. “We’re the only Chinese company offering a compete line including production equipment, stacker and automatic bagger,” stated company representative Winnie Li. The company has recently expanded its portfolio to include a single production line for both under pads and SAP sheets, an automatic bagger and a pouch pad line, which can also be used for food packaging pads.

    In light of the financial pressures faced by companies in the hygiene equipment sector (and by suppliers across the board in all industries), the near-term world market forecast calls for very stormy weather. But by employing lean practices and concentrating on energy and raw material efficiencies, equipment producers should be able to ride out current economic challenges, And, while the future may be less certain than ever, by keeping innovation at the forefront of their marketing strategies, these companies will surely continue to evolve.