If the words needlepunch nonwovens conjure up images of thick stiff fabrics and heavyweight industrial applications, think again. A new needlepunch is emerging, offering thinner, softer fabrics, more efficient production lines. This is opening up doors for the technology into new markets on both the durable and disposable side of the spectrum.
Add to this the fact that needlepunch technology is extremely flexible, allowing manufacturers to achieve several goals with just one line, and offers a lower start-up investment that is more easily recouped than in other technologies, and it’s easy to see why needlepunch continues today to be one of the industry’s most sought-after technologies.
According to industry estimates, the needlepunch market is growing at a rate in the high single digits annually. In addition to finding growth in its established markets like automotives, carpeting, furniture and geotextiles, recent technological advances that have made needlepunch fabrics sturdier, thinner, more fabric-like and more flexible have earned it a place in a number of new markets.
The result of this growth has been new investment throughout the world as well as continued machinery advancements and new product development that combined make needlepunch one of the most active and diversified nonwovens markets available today.
“The major advantage of needlepunch technology versus other web forming technologies such as spunbond or other bonding technologies like spunlace is the broad application base in which needlepunch technology can be used,” said Stefan Schlichter, head of Oerlikon Neumags’ carding division. “The broad raw material base including natural fibers is in anticipation of increased raw material prices in the chemical fiber business is an additional argument for using carding/needling technology.”
Adding to its attractiveness is the fact that needlepunch carries with it a relatively lower investment versus spunbond and spunlace. This makes it easier to determine the risk in investing in the development of new products based on needlepunch technology in an era when manufacturers are more cost conservative than they’ve been in decades.
“Where market applications are mature, we see already many actors looking at new investments for 2010,” said Cristina Soares De Carvahlo, communications manager for needle loom maker NSC . “They have gone through the crises, they eventually restructured their company and now are looking at extra opportunities to become even more efficient.”
The past couple of years have seen a steady stream of needlepunch investments as some existing manufacturers have upgraded their lines to make them more cost efficient and others have added capacity to their operations to meet growing demand for the technology.
In some cases, companies are becoming more efficient by adding one large, efficient line to achieve what was previously done on multiple lines; in other cases efficiency comes through closer raw material management.
One of these companies is Fibertex, Aalborg, Denmark, which embarked on a reorganization plan in 2007 to better position its industrial business. This included the start-up of two production lines—one in Aalborg and another in the Czech Republic—which use fewer raw materials; price increases; the shutdown of older production lines including an entire older factory in the Czech Republic; streamlined production processes; innovation and product development.
Following this reorganization, Fibertex executives have indicated that the more efficient lines, combined with the other cost-saving measures, better positioned the company when the economic crisis, which was unexpected at the start of the plan, hit.
More, More, More
Most experts agree. One of the key demands of the needlepunch industry is modern and efficient machinery that offer a low investment cost and promise a quick return on that investment. Needlepunch manufacturers want their lines to make more nonwovens more quickly while offering them more choices for their customers. And, today’s lines are achieving this goal.
“The demand for more flexible machines has specially in the just-ended period of economic weakness been a focus of discussions with customers,” said Mr. Schlichter. “A lot of nonwovens producers have seen that competitors could survive in better shape when they were having a flexible product portfolio, allowing them to revert to market niches when the demand for their established products eroded.”
In response to this, Oerlikon has developed a completely new needleloom named Sylus, which can realize different drive scenarios from one machine concept (vertical and elliptical needling at the touch of a button) and features a draft optimized needle zone with new needle patterns, allowing modular setup of all necessary options and entering into a complete new world of maintenance and setting procedures. “This all follows the strategy of allowing the maximum flexibility in a new machine investment,” Mr. Schlichter added.
Meanwhile, Dilo’s response to new market needs have led to the creation of the AlphaLine, a cost-efficient production line for standard universal nonwovens which consists of AlphaFeed, AlphaCard, DiloLayer DLA and needle looms of the model series Di-Loom A. Additionally, Dilo’s HyperLine comprises a new card feeder type VentoFeed or MultiFeed, the DeltaCard, followed by a high speed crosslappers to Hyperlayer HL and Hyperpunch needle looms. This can be used for the production of lightweight needlepunched products that could be used in the fields of medicine, hygiene, synthetic leather, filter media, wall coverings, tablecloths and coating substrates.
“Generally, there is a trend toward products with reduced area weights which require new technical and technological approaches throughout the components which form a complete line,” said Dilo CEO J.P. Dilo.
For its part, NSC has been developing new models to meet heavier punching load requirements. “Achieving higher production levels and speeds creates a need for stronger needle patterns,” Ms. Soares De Carvalho said. “This challenge can only be met with stronger and more powerful needle looms like Asselin-Thibeau’s A.50-Rand A.50RS needle looms, which also meet the market requirement for flexibility.”
Adding this flexibility requires other system capabilities. “The need for greater production line flexibility has also requested the availability of flexible needle patterns. It must be possible to run products with good appearance—no diagonals, cross lines, which often are generated with older needlelooms or by machines which are not equipped with flexible needle patterns,” she said.
Automotives Get Some Action
Heard a tale of woe or two about the automotives market in the past 18 months? Well, they’re not dimming the needlepunch market’s optimism when it comes to growth in this market. In fact, it is the needlepunch market that the automotives industry is turning to aid in its recovery.
“Needlepunch allows automotive suppliers to lower fiber costs and increase production rates without sacrificing quality or uniformity,” said Ms. Soares De Carvahlo.
One of the automotive areas where needlepunch is making considerable headway is in interior carpeting where the material is displacing tufted and woven carpeting thanks to their lower costs and similar, if not improved, performance.
NSC Nonwoven customer Reiter Automotive North America, Farmington, MI, is the latest company to bet that this trend will continue. In February, the company purchased a needlepunch line to make velour carpet for the automotives industry.
The new line will reportedly include Thibeau Excelle batt formation with IsoProDyn completed
with Asselin needlepunching capabilities and the newest SDV Velour needleloom for finishing and the will offer high output while maintaining minimum weight variation and improved fiber orientation for consistent strength properties. The equipment will be installed in Rieter's Bloomsburg, PA location.
“The needlepunch market for automotives is increasing in North America and should continue to do so. The same can be aid for South and Central America and Asia,” she added.
With a good percentage of its needlepunch business tied to the automotives market, Foss Manufacturing, Hampton, NH is also bullish about this segment, crediting recent success to being in the right vehicles at the right time. Currently, Foss supplies several Ford Motor Company vehicles including Focus, Fiesta, Fusion and Tundra.
“Business is picking up dramatically for our company,” reported president David Rowell. “Our automotives business has really grown dramatically. Our success is really tied to the resurgence of Ford.”
In addition to flexibility and better cost performance, nonwovens’ expansion in the automotives market is tied to a need for lighter-weight materials to aid in reducing fuel mileage. This goes beyond carpeting and can also be seen in nonwovens role in the acoustics market, an area that needlepunch maker Texel has been involved with since 2004. Texel’s Thermofit technology combines thermoplastics and non-thermoplastic fibers to enhance acoustical properties. The material can be color matched and is expanding its role in the automotives market by replacing glass/polypropylene composites within the underbodies of the car.
Executives at Texel have continued to predict growth in automotives expanding its product line and expanding its support staff in the market, despite the economic crisis.
“Our automotive business unit has been affected by the global economic crisis, but the automotive market is an area where we see lots of growth potential and we have recently added a technical sales expert in this area to help us with smart growth for the future,” said Richard Faucher, director of sales and marketing for needlepunch manufacturer Texel.
Focus On: Filtration
Considered by some to be the fastest growing and most diverse market for nonwovens globally, needlepunch nonwovens have found their place in both wet and dry media applications and companies ranging from Hollingsworth & Vose to Lydall to DelStar to Ahlstrom are all relying on the technology to help them expand their filtration offerings.
At Ahlstrom, needlepunch technology—including its recently added Oerlikon line—is used in filtration market, namely in baghouse felts. While this market was hit hard by the general economic slowdown last year, which hurt a lot of users of these materials, like cement, asphalt and wood suppliers, executives are starting to see a recovery in many of these areas.
Despite the global recession, filtration suppliers have continued to invest in new technology. Southern Felt, a maker of needlepunch baghouse filters, has recently added a second line in China, and Lydall Performance Materials opened a new needled fiber product operations its Green Island, NY facility in mid-2009. The investment gives Lydall a new manufacturing capability to enhance its portfolio of high performance appLY Mat needled glass mat products. These products were developed by Lydall to expand its high temperature insulation product offerings to serve global appliance OEMs in many application areas ranging from premium residential ovens and water heaters to commercial boilers.
Meanwhile, DelStar Technologies has recently launched Alphastar triboelectric media made from a proprietary blend of fibers that are carded and needled into a homogenous felt. “It is designed to maximize air filtration efficiency with low resistance,” said communications manager Marjorie Wilcox. “The electrostatic properties attract both positive and negative particles which then enhances the media’s mechanical filtration properties.”
Compared to other nonwovens technologies, like spunbond, needlepunch nonwovens offered the uniformity and improved performance in terms of efficiency versus resistance, Ms. Wilcox added. “The high loft of the needlepunch also enhances the media’s dust holding capabilities.”
The electrostatic medium was designed specifically for air filtration applications but DelStar uses needlepunched nonwovens in other composite products. They provide an absorbent layer in Stratex medical wound care products where they are laminated with Delnet apertured films. DelStar also combines needlepunch with layers of its Naltex biplanar netting for fuel filtration media.
A focus on niche applications is central to Norafin’s growth strategy and its needlepunch operation is a huge part of these efforts, allowing the company to participate in filtration, protective apparel and even the cosmetics market. As needlepunch continues to achieve thinner substrates while maintaining the same level of quality, the technology’s expansion will continue.
“Over the years, we could observe that there is a tendency for needlepunch technology to move toward lighter weight materials in order to compete against other nonwovens technologies such as spunbond and spunlace to get into more lightweight markets. However, the quality of a needled product is decreased if its weight is too much reduced,” said Eveline Salem, marketing manager for Norafin.
Therefore, needlepunched nonwovens have made particular inroads in areas where volume—or fluffiness—is valued, like in some cosmetics wipes markets and automotive interior applications, to name a few.
In fact, Texel’s Mr. Faucher reported that wipes, off all kinds, have been one of his company’s largest areas of growth during the last three years. He credited increased throughput of lines as a major contributor of needlepunch’s growth in disposable products. “
Years ago, companies served multiple markets with one line. Today, production lines are market specific (due to width or configuration requirements by that market). In the future, we believe that needlepunch lines will become even more product specific as new higher-volume applications are identified,” he said.
Other areas of interest include the development of multilayered products, multifiber blends and even multinonwovens technology products as drivers for new line configurations and capabilities.
“Overall, the flexibility and versatility of the needlepunch process, combined with new advances from both equipment and raw material suppliers, are major factors in helping needlepunch expansion into new market applications—even those that have been traditionally served by other nonwovens technologies.”
As technology continues to evolve on the machinery front, surely expansion into new markets for needlepunch, described by some as the most universal bonding method available in nonwovens, will certainly continue to open up.
“All in all, many technical achievements to increase throughput, surface quality and regularity of the needled product and efficiency of the production line have transformed needling from a poor man’s technology for needling shoddy material to a modern high-technology, high-performance process. Today it is widely used in a vast array of application sectors as the most important bonding technology for staple fibers,” Mr. Dilo said.