At that time, airlaid was thought to be on the verge of an explosion with new lines being added around the globe—Buckeye was adding a huge, 50,000-ton line in North Carolina, Concert was adding two side-by-side lines in Canada, Fiberweb was building in China and Rayonier (now EAM) was starting a Novathin absorbent core line in the southeast U.S.
Surely, everyone thought, this new capacity was responding to at least one major diaper manufacturers’ conversion to an airlaid core, which had the potential to turn airlaid into one of the nonwovens’ largest technologies.
Needless to say, such a conversion never happened. Instead, what followed was a bleak period for airlaid where lines shut down, companies filed bankruptcy and new investment came to a screeching halt. Airlaid did not penetrate diapers in any major shape or form. While it found its way into a couple of specialty diaper applications, like swim pants, the new capacity had to make due with existing markets for airlaid like wipes, feminine hygiene and tabletop, none of which were strong enough to support such a surge in capacity, at least not quickly.
A decade later, most airlaid manufacturers are reporting health and some have even invested in new capacity but everyone is moving forward with cautious optimism as they plan the next step in their expansion plans. The current rate of low-to-mid-single digit growth in the market has allowed existing lines to slowly fill up but the market is not yet ready for a full-sized line, most experts will say.
While the market might have trouble absorbing new capacity, it is ready to reap the benefits more modern and sophisticated airlaid machines can bring to the market. Many existing lines are old and don’t offer the technology necessary to chase new markets and create new markets while maintaing attractive pricing levels. It’s a difficult conundrum facing the airlaid industry today. New machines are needed to target new markets, but it is hard to justify the new machines without the new markets already in place.
In the past year, Concert/Glatfelter added a line in Falkenhagen, Germany, but that capacity is nearly all contracted with major multinational customers, according to reports. Lacell, a new Finnish producer, is in the process of coming on board with binder-, thermal- and combibonded nonwovens material but time will only tell if this new outfit—or any other airlaid firm—can survive the challenges of the market and be what airlaid nonwovens need, a company with the technological mojo and market acumen to expand the technology’s role into new burgeoning markets.