At last month's TechTextil exhibition in Frankfurt, Germany, NONWOVENS INDUSTRY had the opportunity to get an exclusive interview with Wolfgang Plasser, the newly appointed vice president of the Lenzing nonwoven fiber business unit.
By education, I am an engineer specialized in plastics. I have been with Lenzing for a number of years and worked in many different functions in development, production, business development, and most recently as a managing director for the Plastics Division. One of my earliest assignments was the development and production of the Polyimide fiber P84 that is now being used for filtration and protective clothing. This business was later spun off to Evonik. In the Plastics division we expanded the business from a turnover of €20 million in 1993 to €100 million in 2006, solely by organic growth. Since then the division has continued its expansion by the acquisition of four companies. In 2008, the division was separated in two business units and I headed one of these.
What do you think about the nonwovens industry and Lenzing's position in particular?
As you know, Lenzing has a solid position as the leading cellulose nonwoven fiber supplier in the world. Our strategy is to provide both niche and commodity products. For example, fibers for textiles and nonwoven wipes represent stable routes. We are continuously looking for ways to diversify and grow our business and meet the demands of our customers. Therefore we are looking for synergies across the business units to find ways to broaden our portfolio.
Another route is to move upwards in the supply chain. By identifying new product segments we can bring innovative product solutions to the market. We see several opportunities in the medical field, for example in wound care, that are interesting. A third route is to develop new products in cooperation with strategic partners such as Weyerhaeuser.
Has the financial crisis impacted the nonwoven fiber business at Lenzing? If so, how?
I think most companies in our industry have been impacted by the financial situation one way or another. For Lenzing, the fourth quarter of last year was at a weak level. However, already at the beginning of this year a stabilization could be seen. Now we are experiencing high demand. Although we could switch between Viscose and Tencel, this is not a realistic option. Tencel is not a commodity product but is mainly supposed to be used for specific higher range products.
In addition, Lenzing is in a favorable situation because we have production facilities on three continents. This has been a strategic development and because of our plants in China, Indonesia, UK, the U.S. and Austria we can manage the currency developments in a favorable way.
A couple of weeks ago, you announced that you are building a pilot plant to develop TencelWeb meltblown fabrics together with Weyerhaeuser. What are your expectations with this new venture? And, how does this fit with your overall business strategy as a fiber supplier?
As I mentioned before, we are always looking for new opportunities and products. TencelWeb is a cellulose meltblown fabric that has unique properties. The pilot plant will give us the possibility to further exploit these properties. The joint efforts together with Weyerhaeuser are in line with Lenzing's strategy. As a technological leader we want to be forward thinking and the first results look promising with new materials and new properties.
We do not aim to cannibalize our existing market routes but we see completely new potentials which can not fulfilled actually by existing technologies.
At TechTextil you have also introduced another new product Tencel Powder. Can you explain this?
One application of Tencel Powder, which is commercialized at the moment, is improving moisture management in mattresses and beds. This means that moisture is drawn to the powder in the mattress during sleep resulting in a drier sleeping climate. Here we have created cooperation with an Austrian mattress maker, Eurofoam, a specialist in polyurethane foam for beds.
Where do you see the growth potential for the Lenzing nonwoven fiber business?
We believe that growth continues in nonwovens, both as a fabric and in composites. Interestingly, consumer buying power per capita can also be measured in how much nonwoven has been bought. In developing as well as in developed countries, opportunities are rising for private label products. That said, we are an independent supplier and are working with our customers to meet the needs of the supply chain.
During the years, Lenzing has invested much in more environmentally friendly processes and products. How do you view the issues on sustainability in the future?
We view sustainability and environmental issues very seriously. That's why we have invested so much in this area over the years. I will give you some examples:
Lenzing was the first fiber producer worldwide to be awarded the Nordic Swan, which is the Nordic eco label. At present the certification comprises the site in Grimsby in the U.K., as well as the sites in Heiligenkreuz and Lenzing, both in Austria. An expansion to incorporate the Tencel production site in Mobile, AL is already in the final stage and will be completed within the next weeks. In addition, the EU Ecolabel certification will be expanded to the production site in Mobile also within the next weeks.
We are also aiming for FSC certification, which we already successfully have reached at our production site in Grimsby. FSC, Forest Stewardship Council certification, is an important label as it requires pulp suppliers to be certified as well.
Today, we recognize that consumer behavior is more and more affected by "green" aspects. Therefore we are developing sustainable solutions to issues like disposability, biodegradability and flushability. While Tencel is a new and environmentally friendly technology by definition Lenzing has made huge efforts to turn the 100 year old viscose process into an environmentally-sound technology by implementation of sophisticated recovery systems.
In 2008, the University of Utrecht conducted an LCA (life cycle assessment) of Lenzing's manmade cellulose fibers in direct comparison to synthetic fibers and cotton. The study is based on a "cradle-to-factory-gate" approach and evaluates twelve different environmental indicators coming to the conclusion, that Lenzing Viscose and Tencel have the lowest environmental footprint.