Nice 2 B Niche

By Ellen Wuagneux, Associate Editor | April 14, 2009

small pockets like acoustics stay strong even in the face of unprecedented economic challenges

In the acoustics market, nonwovens are continuing to see steady sales despite slumps in the automotive sector and are taking advantage of two key opportunities. The first boon for nonwovens is that improved acoustic performance is something customers are willing to pay for. Secondly, nonwoven acoustic products offer several fundamental benefits—they are lightweight, cost-effective, recyclable and can, in many cases, out-perform competing materials like foam and fiberglass.

    Although the acoustic market is, and may always be, a niche area for nonwovens, it represents a potentially important area because suppliers can grow marketshare through value-added innovation, especially compared to competing materials. This is not necessarily the case in larger, commodity markets (say, hygiene or wipes) where tremendous cost pressure is forcing companies to cut back on R&D and new product development.

    Just the same, the current focus in all industries is cost reduction and the acoustics sector is no exception. The economic downturn has impacted the use of acoustic materials (particularly in the automotive industry where acoustic usage is closely tied to unit sales). However, industry experts agree that market opportunities still exist. 

     “As a global supplier, 3M is in a strong position even as the market faces some very tough challenges,” observed Bronwen Kleissler, portfolio manager for 3M Acoustic Solutions. “In response to the challenges of the current environment, we are more selective about the product development projects we take on. In the future, we will need to be even more selective and choose the projects that will have the most positive impact on our business. We also need to be selective in terms of our partners—both of us need to be successful.”

    At J.H. Ziegler GmbH, the main challenge is trying to reduce fixed costs without jeopardizing the future. “The trick is to not cut back on the essential things so that you are lean and ready when the recovery starts,” stated Peter Hartwig, managing director. “Fixed costs, like development and sales and marketing, remain essentially unchanged, but the quantities sold are lower. Every car not built means less nonwovens sold, but R&D costs remain unchanged. We have to turn the same wheel for less volume.”

    Detlev Käppel, technical nonwovens division director of eswegee Vliesstoff GmbH, also pointed to some hurdles to market growth as OEMs strive to drastically reduce costs. “In general, volumes have gone down as OEMs have cut back production. Some car makers and Tier One and Tier Two suppliers are in financial straits. They may cut back certain parts for cost reasons for certain car types regardless of the poorer quality and lower acoustic performance.”

Start Your Engines

Although they have potential in an array of end uses, the primary market for acoustic products has historically been automotives. Here, nonwoven components are used to keep noise down inside the cabin as well as to minimize exterior “passby” noise given off by the vehicle. While acoustic components are nothing new in high-end European models like Mercedes, BMW and Porche, they are increasingly making their way into lower-end, smaller vehicles as the idea of a quieter car becomes more appealing to consumers.

    “There is continuing demand to outfit smaller cars with high-quality materials,” commented Ulrich Hornfeck, sales director for Sandler AG. “This trend especially applies to sound insulation, where absorber nonwovens offer individual solutions for various applications.”

    The growing prevalence of cell phone, DVD and CD usage in all types of vehicles is also boosting demand for acoustics in cars. “Acoustics are here to stay,” remarked 3M’s Ms. Kleissler. “Today there are enough electronic devices being used inside the car to make improved acoustics a communication need rather than a frill.”

    One of the most obvious trends for automotive acoustic components in North America is the development of lighter weight products that answer a call from OEMs looking to meet recent CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) requirements. Created by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), CAFE standards were designed to regulate the sales weighted average fuel economy of passenger cars or light trucks manufactured for sale in the U.S. for any given model year. Here nonwovens play a key role because they can be designed to be lightweight and can therefore help vehicles meet higher fuel efficiency levels.

    As OEMs look to lower weights, companies like 3M are at the ready with new, low-density products to meet even stricter performance and weight requirements. The company has recently expanded its range of Thinsulate acoustic insulation to include new low-density products that focus on mass reduction in addition to high performance. “These are not entry level products,” explained Ms. Kleissler. “They have high acoustic value while also being low-density.” She added that the newly expanded Thinsulate range targets OEMs looking for a variety of products from a smaller number of global suppliers. “People are definitely looking to collapse their supply chain and want to work with fewer suppliers.”

    Another company that has introduced a line of lightweight nonwovens for automotive acoustic end uses is eswegee, a company that has been active in this sector for more than two decades. “Due to enormous cost pressure from OEMs for improved acoustics and lighter weights in the car, we developed a new product range of lightweight nonwovens to comply with these new ideas,” commented Mr. Käppel.

    He added that the new Zetajet spunlace products have been well accepted by many of the company’s Tier One customers and OEMs. “Many new cars launched within the next couple of months will use Zetajet spunlace nonwovens for all kinds of acoustic applications such as hoodliners, dash inner and outer, tunnel insulation, firewall, underbody shields, headliners and injection molding,” he said.

Lighten Your Load

A brand new player on the scene with a keen eye on lightweight acoustic components for the automotive market is Nonwoven Network (see sidebar on below). With about 85% of its business targeting this sector, the company works closely with OEMs and Tier One suppliers to provide lightweight, recyclable and acoustically superior products that will comply with CAFE and other requirements.

    “This is the next great arms race,” opined Don Bokshan, managing director. “Every car maker wants to produce the quietest vehicle cabin and the one who gets there first, wins.” In order for suppliers to participate in this market, he said, they must be able to meet extremely specific, numerical acoustic standards.

    Nonwoven Network specializes in supplying product for traditional acoustic components—from trunk liners to package trays to floors—but is also working on a variety of new components for automotive end uses. “One new idea is a small blockout or hush panel that goes between the firewall engine wall and the IP [instrument panel]. This is currently made of plastic with a small piece of Thinsulate but could be replaced with a nonwoven composite. The company is also investigating the use of nonwoven tape in the engine area as well as door shields with both moisture and sound control features. “Shields for underneath the entire bottom of the car that would reduce drag and improve CAFE ratings are a bit longer off but an up and coming area for us,” Mr. Bokshan said. Another interesting new area he mentioned is the use of lightweight, recyclable nonwovens in HVAC duct applications where nonwovens have not been used before.

    Considering the current state of the economy, can cash-strapped companies find the resources to explore such new acoustic applications? According to Mr. Bokshan, lightweight automotive components, including acoustics, is an essential area for development. “This is a key area that can’t be ignored. There’s still money in R&D budgets for priority areas and acoustics and CAFE are a couple of those strategic targets. The economy may be bad, but OEMs still have to surge forward. They can’t drop the ball.”

    Fine fibers are also being used to keep down the weight of acoustic components. Additionally, composites—both in the form of layered nonwovens as well as combinations of nonwovens and other materials—are being used to boost performance levels in acoustic products. Layered or laminated acoustic components featuring specialty assembling and bonding techniques are finding their way into automotive, appliance, marine, aviation and office applications.

    Two companies concentrating heavily on the use of smaller fibers in acoustic applications to achieve higher performance standards are Elmarco and Oerlikon Neumag. The partners have been working on the development of lines, processes and products based on nanofiber technology since 2007. Through the combination of Elmarco’s nanofiber know-how and Oerlikon Neumag’s nonwoven technologies, the companies offer complete technological solutions for nanofiber applications such as Nanospider AcousticWeb sound absorbent materials.

    “The advantages of nanofiber nonwovens lie in a considerable increase of the specific surface of the nonwovens through the nanofibers and hence the positive effect on the acoustic insulation,” stated Martin Rademacher, head of marketing at Oerlikon. He added that several projects are already in the concrete tendering phase and line deliveries are expected this year. 

Sound Sustainability

Environmental considerations for nonwovens in the acoustics market range from the use of recycled materials to the observance of government regulations for safe interior and exterior sound levels. Companies are also keeping track of the energy efficiency of the processes used to manufacture materials as well as the waste generated though production and converting processes. Some manufacturers—PGI, for example—are showing a commitment to sustainable practices by publicly measuring their use of energy, water and carbon emissions.

    For European producers, a new challenge is afoot—the European End-Of-Life vehicle regulation requires that, beginning in 2015, at least 95% of the weight of all car components must be recyclable. This requires unmixed raw materials, which will be an advantage for nonwovens suppliers whose products are based on a single polymer material, such as 100% PET.

    Beyond sustainability, producers are also facing demands for clean processing and low-emission materials and end products. “The issue of producing green products is becoming more important as nonwoven acoustic components account for a higher percentage of the material used in a car,” Sandler’s Dr. Hornfeck said. This was the motivation behind Sandler’s participation in the IPP (Integrated Product Policy) Project, which focused on the analysis of flow patterns of polyester and examined the lifecycle of a single-polymer, recyclable and lightweight headliner—from the production of the fibers to the recycling of the product.

    Computer assisted simulation technology was developed to reduce the use of raw materials and energy and also save time and costs involved in pilot productions. Software solutions were also developed that better coordinate the development of new products with OEMs and their suppliers. This facilitated cooperation and continually improved the product. Throughout the project, reducing environmental impact was a primary objective.

    For its part, 3M Acoustic Solutions’ efforts to reduce its carbon footprint have included lowering volatile content through partnerships with OEMs. “For the future, one solution would be to effectively utilize non-petroleum-based natural materials,” explained Ms. Kleissler. “The real challenge in going green is not necessarily cost but finding common definitions. There’s an opportunity in our industry right now—to write all of the definition of green. Does that mean recyclable, made from recycled articles, contains recycled components? As it stands today, it really comes down to what the customer wants.”

    According to Dr. Hartwig of Ziegler, agreeing on the importance of environmentally friendly materials and accepting their increased cost remain the biggest challenges. “Everybody wants to have a green product but nobody wants to give an extra dime for it. This may be a little exaggerated, but the problem is people like green products but, especially in the current environment, don’t want to pay for them.”

    As Mr. Bokshan of Nonwoven Network sees things, in today’s competitive marketplace, eco-friendliness is a necessity not an option. “Delivering economies and performance is important, but when products have green properties, the supplier has an even better story.” In illustrating his point, he pointed to car companies’ emphasis on the environment and the positive impact this has on consumers. “Look at the number of ads for cars that are touting the green story. They are all working hard to be that producer.”

    Mr. Boshan went on to say that Nonwoven Network uses exclusively recycled fiber, and with certain products can have the converter ship back scrap and reuse it in its products, lessening the amount of landfill waste. “Going forward, that’s what we need to bring to the party to be successful. Otherwise, we are just a ‘me-too,’ so why bother?”

Keeping Quiet

Outside of the automotive market, opportunities also exist for nonwovens. Manufacturers are seeing an increased focus on better performing acoustics within the appliance market such as dishwashers, dryers and waste disposal systems. “Consumers value quieter products in the home and are willing to pay higher prices for improved sound reduction,” remarked Rick Pearce, senior director of PGI’s Industrial Materials Group. “This is an area where nonwovens suppliers can deliver added value.”

    PGI has recently developed a spunmelt fabric that can be used with foam, insulation, meltblown, highloft or other sound absorption materials as the outside facing material that enhances the composite’s noise abatement. The thin, lightweight material can reduce noise by 40% without adding substantial thickness or bulkiness, according to independent laboratory testing results comparing it to materials without the additional sound barrier fabric layer from PGI.

     The company is expanding production of the material manufactured in Waynesboro, VA. PGI sees a range of potential applications for its acoustic nonwoven offerings—from subway floors to
office walls as well as in marine and airline applications. Current uses include ceiling tiles, acoustic blankets on appliances and package trays in cars.

    Sandler’s Dr. Hornfeck described applications for nonwovens in sectors beyond automotive as a growth market for the future. “Nonwoven materials offer various advantages compared to substances commonly used and producers are only beginning to exploit the possible applications. Highly efficient acoustic materials can also be applied as design elements, showing their versatility and functionality.”

What’s Next?

Looking toward the future, the innovation bar will no doubt be raised, but nonwovens should have what it takes to meet new performance, price and weight challenges as the industry moves ahead. Nonwovens have the advantage of being flexible, able to meet multiple design and performance requirements.

    “Producers require materials to be more versatile,” opined Sandler’s Dr. Hornfeck. “An absorber nonwoven, for example, should not only have excellent acoustical properties but it should also be easily processable. We are increasingly being asked for a combination of different properties like water-repellency, rigid trims and sound absorption in one medium that is adjustable to specific customer needs.” An example of Sandler’s response to such requirements is its line of absorber nonwovens that also work to regulate the temperature inside the vehicle, thus lowering the need for air conditioning and saving energy.

    PGI’s acoustic components are also doing their share of multitasking. The company’s LuxuryBac secondary carpet backing, for instance, is designed to act as a soft, durable backing and can also significantly improve sound acoustical performance within the home. “The biggest opportunity we see is in designing better acoustical performance into products where the primary application is not acoustics, such as carpet backing,” said the company’s Mr. Pearce. Another product offering, its Silonyx needlepunch material designed to silence interior vehicle noise, is being used in production vehicles by General Motors, Ford and Honda.

    From Mr. Bokshan’s point of view, future possibilities are endless with the right combination of materials and he believes it’s up to individual suppliers to do the research. “I don’t think we’ve done enough work to put together combinations of nonwovens. There may be a product that isn’t even in existence yet that could offer huge growth to the acoustics sector. It could mean a whole new product or even a whole new paradigm.”                        

Related Application:

Related Technology: