Bridging Technical Innovation & Market Applications

By Sandra Levy, Associate Editor | November 10, 2010

the industry gets a RISE out of the latest ideas in nonwovens technology

Innovation was at the forefront of a recent conference sponsored by INDA. “Bridging Technical Innovation And Market Applications,” was the theme of the first Research, Innovation & Science For Engineered Fabrics (RISE) Conference, held Sept. 20-23 at the Hilton Baltimore in Baltimore, MD. The event attracted 130 attendees.     

 “The focus of the conference was on innovation,” noted Rory Holmes, INDA president. “RISE sessions offered current developments that are actionable so that attendees could take these ideas back to their companies, laboratories and manufacturing plants and implement them.”
One of the conference highlights was an innovation workshop led by Karl-Michael Schumann, a former senior executive with The Procter & Gamble Company. Dr. Schumann instructed attendees on how to develop an innovation program to drive profitability. He outlined the behaviors needed from management and R&D teams to create exciting new concepts that can be brought to market efficiently.

When it comes to commercializing innovative technologies, Dr. Schumann said there are many key questions to answer including:

• Which technical or experiential problem solutions can be demonstrated reproducibly under which circumstances?
• What potential fields of application can we envisage?
• What are the unique points of difference versus alternative means of doing the same job or delivering the same effects/benefits/experiences?
• What IP strategy exists, and what is the status of the patents?
• What do we know about scale-up feasibility?
• What do we know about potential cost comparisons of our invention or technology idea versus today’s or alternative future solutions?
• What is the status of contact/collaboration with potential customers?
• What is the status of contact/collaboration with potential commercialization partners?  

International business consultant Jerry Fan provided advice on how to “Get Your Share of the Chinese Market in the Right Way.”

Noting that China’s population is close to 1.4 billion and the size of the middle class will increase 50% by the year 2030, Mr. Fan said that in 2009, China became the number-one producer in the automotive industry.

The future looks bright for nonwovens, too. The Chinese nonwovens industry markets are expected to grow 25% annually. High demand markets include automotive, filtration media, medical and health care, hygienic, geosynthetics and consumer products such as household wipe cleaning materials.

With living, industrial and environmental standards rising, China is an attractive market, but it is also a tough market, according to Mr. Fan. If you are questioning whether it is too late to enter the Chinese market, Mr. Fan said, “The biggest mistake is not to enter.”

Before entering the Chinese market, it is important to have a thoughtful feasibility study and be prepared to manage culture shock. There are differences between Chinese culture and western culture. For example, China is:

• Group-focused versus individual-focused;
• Mixed business and personal relationships;
• Long-term oriented versus short-term oriented;
• Harmonious versus confrontational;
• Relationship-based rather than relying on a legal signature.

Finally, Mr. Fan urged entrants into the Chinese market to target mid-end markets and luxury consumers, noting that China is a status-based society.

“Expect a realistic profit margin in China; you are competing with the local quality players,” he warned the audience. “Modify the old cost structure at home, use quality local equipment and raw materials when possible, reduce operating cost and learn from your quality local players.”
In her presentation, “Adult Absorbents: Growing, Changing and Hardly a Commodity Market,” Nancy Muller, executive director of the National Association for Continence, discussed how the aging American population can energize opportunities for the nonwovens industry in the adult absorbent products sector.

“Multiple demographic and technologic trends are driving demand for products for managing adult incontinence,” said

Ms. Muller. “There are multiple reasons that disposable absorbents will be an important part of the mix. Suppliers need to do their homework throughout the chain of distribution and target their audience. Success depends on building value and delighting the customer.”

According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, 57.8 million Americans will be between the ages of 66 and 84 by 2030. To accommodate this sector, nonwovens have moved beyond a one-size-fits-all mentality for adult absorbents.  

“Consumer choices are now gender specific for improved fit, comfort and performance. Are we ready to address body types?” asked Ms. Muller. She proposed that adult incontinence products expand beyond light, moderate and heavy product offerings to “The Lane Bryant in sizing absorbent underwear or at least A, B and Queen size.”

When it comes to strategies for product differentiation and added value, Ms. Muller told companies to focus on odor elimination instead of merely odor control. She also recommended reclosable fasteners that add to fit by adhering anywhere on the garment as well as packaging that has a strap to facilitate ease of transport. To help consumers, Ms. Muller advised companies to add a 800 telephone helpline and provide skin care instructions on packaging.

At the same time, she urged attendees to meet with state Medicaid directors and buyers on staff, gain familiarity with retailers who have strong private label programs and build bonds to meet their product parameters.

“Recognize that the buyer may not be the end user,” she cautioned. “The buyer may be remote from the end user and may have entirely different needs from the user as well as different priorities among needs.”

Finally, Ms. Muller asserted that value and product performance are more important than offering the lowest price. “If you are a supplier of a raw material or even an element such as packaging, know the relative importance of the characteristics you deliver to the ultimate buyer/user of the final product,” said Ms. Muller.

In her presentation, “Meeting Hygiene Market Needs Through Innovation,” Pricie Hanna of John R. Starr Inc. contended that the pace and success rate of innovation can be increased by collaborating with equipment suppliers.

“Understand customers’ priorities and focus your development activities on innovative solutions to customers’ unmet needs,” said Ms. Hanna.

Ms. Hanna instructed attendees to set progress benchmarks for development activities and to seek opportunities to gain early learning about customer or end product consumer reactions.
“Be objective and decisive in cutting development programs that do not meet benchmarks and show timely progress in response to customer feedback,” she concluded.