Closing old lines. Starting new lines. Upgrading existing lines. It seems like anything goes in today’s spunlace market. A few years past the heydays of the wipes market—the technology’s largest user—the state of the spunlace market seems to depend on whom you ask with some bullish enough to add lines and others cautious over where new growth will come from.
Whatever their outlook, many of the technologies’ major players have a plan. Some are adding capacity, others are replacing old capacity with newer, more efficient lines and everyone is looking toward new markets for growth. While much of this activity continues to center around the wipes market, potential for spunlace continues to exist beyond wipes in a number of existing and new applications for nonwovens. “The versatility of the technology makes (spunlace) an attractive candidate when looking for expansion inside and outside the wipes markets,” said Jean-Marie Becker, executive vice president, Home and Personal at spunlace maker Ahlstrom. “Spunlace is widely used in other applications for the medical and automotives market.”
According to industry data, the spunlace market is considered to be mature in Europe and the U.S., registering about 3% growth per year. Higher growth rates exist in the world’s developing regions, namely Asia, which currently represents more than 33% of the world’s spunlace production, and grew 29% between 2008 and 2009, driven largely by the activities of major players including Dailang Ruiguan, Hainan Xinglong and Hangzhou Nbond. In fact, Western machinery producers report that much of their sales success has been in Asia during the past couple of years. At last year’s ANEX exhibition in Shanghai, both of the major spunlace machinery suppliers, Andritz Perfojet (then Rieter Perfojet) and Fleissner announced major sales in the country.
And, both companies have made additional sales since then. Fleissner announced in June that it had signed a contract—jointly with sister company Erko Trutzschler—for a full-scale installation at an undisclosed Chinese company. Earlier, Andritz Perfojet said it had sold a third spunlace line to Zhjiang Shaozing County Nonwovens to come onstream next year as well as a sixth line to Hangzhou Nbond, which will come onstream later this year.
According to André Michalon of Andritz Perfojet, this growth is largely being driven by the Chinese market becoming more oriented toward disposable nonwoven fabrics due to the growing standard of living. “Apart from China, further countries like India, Vietnam or Malaysia will become more and more active on the Asian market within the coming years,” he said.
In India, Ginni Filaments became the country’s first maker of spunlaced nonwovens in 2007 when it started a 12,000 ton line and has already been accepted as a reliable quality supplier, having received Rockline Industries’ Nonwovens Supplier Excellence Award in 2009. According to R.R. Maheshwari, director in charge of the nonwovens business, the company is now in the process of adding a second line, which will likely start up in September 2010. “This will put us in league with other major global spunlace producers,” he said.
Mr. Maheshwari added that Ginni has taken part in expansion of the wipes market in India by starting its own consumer business. “Before this, there was virtually no existence of wet wipes including baby wipes,” he said. “With the effort of this division, there is a huge interest and several dozen local and store brands have been launched during the last two years.”
Asian expansion has not meant the end of investment in the developed world regions. In recent months, new lines have been announced in Turkey, Germany and Italy, to name a few, and a large spunlace line is likely to be announced in the U.S. in the short term. Amidst this investment, however, the spunlace market has had to readjust itself in the face of market maturity, increased pricing pressures from private labelers and lower margins. Manufacturers have achieved this through a number of initiatives ranging from line closures, upgrades and technological initiatives surrounding lower basis weights and alternative raw materials.
At Ahlstrom, the world’s largest maker of spunlaced fabrics for the wipes market, efforts have centered around consolidating its global operations to increase efficiency and output throughout its business. In January 2009, the company said it would close a plant in Gallarte, Italy. This announcement was followed by the revelation in June 2009 that it would close a line at its Bethune, SC site, and move its production to Green Bay, WI. This past May, the company said it would further consolidate its European wipes operation, closing the Italian plant in Carbonate; however at the same time the company is rebuilding a line in Mozzate to increase efficiency and output.
“Ahlstrom has decided to consolidate the nonwoven wiping fabrics manufacturing platform in Italy,
aiming to increase capacity,” Mr. Becker said. “This action will increase Ahlstrom’s wipes manufacturing capacity in Europe by concentrating it into fewer, more efficient sites.”
According to reports, the European market, which dominates wipes, has recently returned to growth after suffering a slowdown in 2009. Ahlstrom’s new capacity hopes to serve this growth as does investment from other spunlace manufacturers including Sandler and Suominen.
Located in Schwarzenbach/Saale, Germany, Sandler announced in April it would add a third spunlace line to its operation to target global markets. Describing the market as strong and slightly growing, vice president sales, logistics and purchasing Ulrich Hornfeck said that Sandler is not interested in chasing commodity markets and will instead target specialty wipes and other, more technical applications. “This new line is set up in a perspective to find new opportunities, new markets and new customers for special products, not only for the baby wipes market but for a number of other areas,” he said.
Though not as aggressive, Finnish spunlace maker Suominen has also recently completed an spunlace investment—a modernization project to improve overall efficiency through a rebuilt production line. In addition to that, the upgrade will cut energy and water usage and save on transportation costs, which are all sustainable benefits in line with Suominen’s environmental concept, said Paul-Erik Toivo.
“It is vital for every business to try to further develop the capacity of the ‘installed base’ of machinery,” Mr. Toivo. “New technology and operator skills develop, resulting in cost-effective capacity additions. Since the demand for spunlace is increasing, we decided to secure our piece of the market by modernizing one of our spunlace lines.”
Adding that there is clearly an overcapacity situation in Europe, Mr. Toivo said that the excellent properties of spunlace will continue to drive demand for the technology in wipes and other markets. In the short term, however, he expects to see some pressure put on price.
In addition to beefing up efficiencies on their lines, spunlace makers in Europe are seeking stability by offering more diversified product ranges. Sustainability, fiber innovation and alternative raw materials are all buzz words in the European market, where spunlace has been the material of choice for wipes for quite some time. Other efforts include new product development and expansion into Eastern Europe and the Middle East; however eastern expansion has been challenged by a high level of expansion in Turkey and Israel.
Mogul Nonwovens, Gaziantep, Turkey is the latest nonwovens producer in its country to diversify into spunlace technology. With its roots in spunbond and meltblown technology, Mogul decided to add spunlace to its arsenal to help it target the global wipes market, said commercial director Serkan Gogus.
The new line, capable of making 6000 tons of 3.2-meter, 30-80 gsm nonwovens, started commercial production in early July and is so far meeting expectations. In addition to wet wipes, target markets include cosmetic applications, fem care and baby diapers, dust wipes, hair towels used in coiffeurs, medical bandages/gauzes and, to some degree, filtration and automotive.
Meanwhile, Eruslu, a well-known Turkish converter of baby diapers and wipes, last year purchased a 12,000-ton spunlace line, and in Israel Albaad has reportedly approved the purchase of a third spunlace line.
A Victory For Value
Back in the U.S., wipes and non-wipes markets continue to opt for value-added spunlace products, driving growth in the region, where currently Ahlstrom, Jacob Holm and Israeli Spuntech operate lines.
Jacob Holm, for one, has reported considerable success in this market since building its large-scale line in North Carolina five years ago. According to president Stephen Landon, the continued growing interest among manufacturers will likely lead to further North American expansion in the next 12 months. The company is currently shipping spunlace made in France to meet demand in the North America.
“In North America Jacob Holm has largely succeeded in maintaining margins due to continued operational efficiencies and the launch of a number of new innovative product versions/editions, allowing us to focus on our competitive advantages,” he said. “There has been significant innovation in staple fiber selection/substitution on the new products, which has kept final total cost down while largely maintaining margins and in most cases enhancing physical properties.”
Karen Castle, vice president of key accounts for Home and Personal, Ahlstrom, agreed with this assessment. “There is always a constant demand for innovation in the North American wipes market and currently there is a growing need for innovation regarding environmentally friendly products,” she said. “The initial drivers of the sustainable development in North America have primarily been the major retailers and their efforts to make a step change in the products that they sell.”
To achieve this, Ahlstrom has developed a range of environmentally friendly wipes including products based on natural or recycled raw materials including products that are biodegradable, dispersible and reusable.
Sandler has also taken a stand on sustainability and credits much of its success in the wipes market to its “Less is Best to Nature” initiative, through which it has developed a number of products that offer unchanged functionalities at lower basis weights. The product range has been enhanced with improved tensile strength as well as innovative designs and structures for new cleaning and technical applications,” according to Dr. Hornfeck.
However, when it comes to true raw material diversification, Dr. Hornfeck thinks this evolution will take time. “There are special fibers, being used in smaller quantities, but it will take time for the industry to be ready for new fibers and raw materials on a larger scale,” he said. “More and more people are asking but price can be a problem.”
Probably because it already considered itself a more niche-oriented spunlace maker, Suominen has considered its foray into sustainable spunlace—sold under the brand name Biolace—a success. The product, launched three years ago, combines raw materials from renewable resources with Suominen’s unique energy saving production process—plus providing nonwovens able to fully biodegrade fully in available municipal compost facilities. Among the materials used to make Biolace are viscose, cotton, pulp and PLA.
The whole sustainability concept plays into the customers’ need for target-oriented innovation, which allows them to withstand competition. In fact, it is innovation—like green benefits—within private label that some describe as the biggest change shaping the market for wipes, particularly in Europe. As retailers focus more heavily on responding to their customers’ needs—either for sustainability or other value added features—brands have to work hard to remain a step ahead. “In general private label products are challenging brands, resulting in slowly eroding retail value per pack, the subsequent need for cost engineering and very target oriented innovation,” Mr. Toivo said. “One could almost say that there is a kind of polarization in the market, whereby premium products are doing well, as are low cost ones, but products positioned somewhere in the middle are facing difficult times.”