Call it a story of penny-pinching and pigs. In April 2009, two news items burdened the world. The first was familiar fare. The Great Recession had stretched past its second year and continued to dish out a steady stream of gloom and doom. The second, a torrent of H1N1 information, spurred a worldwide fashion trend in facemasks.
Disparate though they may seem, both serve as important symbols to the filtration industry. The first is a reminder of the tremendous challenges that have faced the filtration industry—and most other industries—during the past several years. A push to drive down costs and declines in previously strong end-use applications have had an impact on filtration suppliers. These struggles still resonate, even though the recession technically ended more than a year ago.
The second news story is a reminder that filtration media products are broad-reaching enough to offer areas of growth even during times of downturn. For a moment in time, facemask applications were one such opportunity. Although the window was particularly brief, there are other filtration markets bucking current economic trends to experience steady, sustainable growth.
Research from nonwoven fabrics trade association INDA highlights these two trends. The organization has revised its previous growth forecasts of 5% a year through 2012 for air filtration, assessing that actual market increases are currently holding at 3% annually. The sluggish growth is due to slow auto and housing sales and its ancillary industries.
Despite the current overall data, there are also bright spots within the filtration industry. For example, “High-end consumer HVAC furnace filters continue to expand,” says Ian Butler, director of market research for INDA. Introduced by 3M about a decade ago, “Their introduction was a successful hit.”
Not ones to rest on their laurels, suppliers in the filtration industry push forward with innovations and capitalize on current growth areas and trends. The future looks encouraging.
“Today, we are seeing some very positive signs of recovery and work very closely with our customers to monitor and act on these changes,” says Tommi Björnmann, executive vice president, Filtration, Ahlstrom.
New to Market
A global leader in engine and industrial filtration media, Hollingsworth & Vose (H&V) produces more than 400 grades of air and liquid filter media. Its diverse offering includes the design and production of air, lubrication oil and fuel filtration media for gasoline and diesel engines; substrates for hydraulic oil, aviation fuel and air/oil separators; as well as gas turbine applications.
The company emphasizes new product innovation, along with market focus and customer relationships, as a vehicle to drive growth and attain market leadership, says Jürgen Gaudry,
H&V’s product manager/new business development.
Among its latest new product offerings, H&V recently launched Capaceon filter media, a far-reaching automotive and heavy duty air application product designed to work within a diverse range of original equipment and aftermarket requirements. Offering greater dust-holding capacity, Capaceon represents a new category of filtration media that breaks the link between performance and basis weight.
In a nod to market demands for high efficiency, the company’s High Efficiency and Specialty Filtration business has introduced Technostat Plus, an electret media exhibiting low resistance at any efficiency. The introduction complements H&V’s existing line of high-efficient, low-pressure, drop filter media.
This year the company will also expand its Nanoweb line into the automotive air filtration market, a move that will “eliminate the problem of mass air flow sensor fouling associated with de-misting of oiled filters,” adds Mr. Gaudry.
Precision Textiles, a company focusing on the synthetic mechanical pleat media and needlepunch media categories, also fuels its filtration business through new product offerings and innovations.
Among them, Precision Textiles offers the new merv 8 and merv 11 mechanical media—products promising low pressure drop, as well as strong relative merv and good dust-holding capacity, according to David Reaman, Precision Textiles director-Filtration Applications.
This introduction is in response to a larger trend. As Mr. Reaman explains, “The market has seen efficiency levels, today defined as ‘merv,’ increase during the past four to five years. Merv 6 and 7 filter products have essentially been replaced by merv 8 performance filters. This trend will continue simply based on technology improvements and the need to reach greater performance as dictated by customer applications and filter manufacturers setting themselves apart from competition.”
Mogul Nonwovens, a supplier of meltblown and composites used mainly for liquid filtration, has also ushered in new products. Its recently introduced meltblown grade provides higher filtration efficiency and higher bacterial filtration efficiency. Although it is still exploring possible applications, the company has also launched spunlace fabrics it hopes to utilize in the filtration market.
With transportation filtration, advanced filtration and dust filtration business units, Ahlstrom Filtration has driven many new products and technologies to market. It is currently developing several new launches within bio-diesel and ultra low sulfur diesel applications. It has also developed specific filter media solutions for the gas turbine market, and has seen its Disruptor and Disrupter PAC technologies thrive within the water purification market.
Innovation within filtration comes in different forms. When bringing new innovations to the market, liquid and air filtration media supplier Fiberweb doesn’t only look at substrates. “We are also looking at additive technology that will alter nonwovens material to give a functionalized performance,” explains Dave Stockbower, Fiberweb’s product manager, filtration products.
With regard to air filtration, Fiberweb’s diverse product category range includes cabin air filtration, indoor air filtration and other air filtration products. Its liquid filtration expertise encompasses spunbond fabrics, carded fabrics and composite materials for a variety of chemical, industrial and pharmaceutical applications. A leader in pool and spa filtration, Fiberweb has also launched a product that offers anti-microbial properties.
Antimicrobial properties are one area of interest among suppliers, despite different end-use applications. Providing woven filter cloth predominately for liquid filtration and air slide fabric, as well as felts for fabric filters used in pollution control and industrial dust collection, Filter Media Services, LLC has recently been chosen to represent Italy-based Testori in North America.
“Testori has always been at the forefront of new product development,” says Clint Scoble, principal of Filter Media Services. “There are a number of special treatments, felt finishes and new felt constructions designed to meet end user needs.”
Within dust collection felts, for example, Testori offers numerous value add-ons, including anti-bacterial properties, spark blockers and PTFE bath treatments. Liquid filtration capabilities include a wide range of woven fabrics for rotary drum, horizontal belt and automatic press applications, to name a few.
Proliferation of new filtration products and technologies should come as no surprise to the industry. The filtration media market is a “progressive market” that is “constantly searching for new fibers and new methods of manufacture,” explains Michael Konesky, vice president, sales and marketing for Southern Felt Company.
Southern Felt Company, a needlefelt nonwovens manufacturer, offers a diverse range of liquid filtration products. On the air filtration side, its core business is industrial baghouse filtration media utilized mainly by power companies to filter outgoing air.
Citing strong filtration performance, efficiency and capture rate, Mr. Konesky predicts the emergence of a trend in epTFe laminated filter media. Despite new technologies, he says, this market sector’s growth is dictated more by economics.
As was the case in most industries, the filtration market was affected by the recent economic downturn. Mr. Stockbower of Fiberweb reports that his company’s business edged up slightly from 2009, but notes that 2009 “was pretty weak overall.” He also states this is “following the trend of the industry.” Despite this overall trend, what’s interesting to note is the shifting of profit mixes.
Filtration media manufacturers are heavily influenced by the health of the sectors they serve.
Breaking down individual segments, Mr. Scoble explains, “Filtration related to automotive and housing were especially weak as was big steel, which has had several ups and downs in the past five to six years. Solid industries have been related to food, power, pharma, most chemicals and secondary refining of metals. However, even power dropped off as financing and uncertainty over the future of energy needs and methods hit that area.”
H&V notes that HVAC markets and clean room applications—the latter fueled by overseas growth in Asia—has remained strong. Personal protection filter media, however, “has slowed to historical levels as concerns over flu pandemics have eased,” says Mr. Gaudry.
Not all filtration markets are undergoing dynamic changes. Mr. Reaman from Precision Textiles states that the pleated air filter market for residential, commercial and industrial applications has historically proven resilient, remaining stable even in economic downturns.
No matter what the market sector, some economic-related trends are felt across the board. Mr. Konesky notes that “most of the filtration market is a cost item; it’s an expense.” In the case of industrial filter bags, if manufacturing slows in a bad economy, a bag can last longer than the typical lifespan of two to four years. When times are tough, end-users will also push the limits of usability to delay the cost of replacement, he adds.
“Typically, OE filter markets are more sensitive to economic conditions than replacement markets. Filter replacement cycles are becoming longer but eventually the filter has to be replaced to ensure proper operation,” adds Mr. Gaudry.
Despite noting the ups and downs, H&V’s overall outlook for the future is a positive one. “The global filtration market has been trending upward. On the mobile side, our engine filtration business is benefitting from an improvement in filter replacement business associated with increases in personal vehicle and commercial truck mileage, as well as modest improvements in construction, agriculture and mining. On the non-mobile side, the gas turbine and dust collection markets are strong,” explains Mr. Gaudry.
Another supplier is optimistic concerning the recovery of previously hard-hit markets. Mogul Nonwovens executives report a plunge in the car filter business, but “there’s been a general recovery,” says Serkan Gogus, commercial director for the Turkish company.
The economy hasn’t put a damper on the exploration of new opportunities, with a number of manufacturers planning facility upgrades and expanding into new markets. Interestingly, many of these companies are choosing the U.S. and Western Europe as places to grow and enhance their businesses.
Testori has already made its mark within China and other markets in Asia. It was only in July that it partnered with Fiber Media Services, LLC to claim market share in the U.S. and Canada, “which are very much commodity and price-oriented,” adds Mr. Scoble.
Even for those who have had presence in the western marketplace for awhile, U.S. and European locations are still benefitting from a number of internal initiatives to upgrade and enhance space. While Southern Felt Company’s parent corporation, Andrews Industry Ltd., has also pursued growth opportunities in the Asia Pacific region, operations in the U.S. have not been ignored. “We’ve recently expanded our production facilities here in South Carolina and are also expanding into greater warehousing,” says Mr. Konesky.
Similarly, Fiberweb has invested heavily in its operations, ramping up capability for new product development. “We are installing a research and development line as well as utilities in the United States that will generate products in 2011 and beyond,” says Mr. Stockbower. The company also states it is planning expansion into Asia.
H&V has unveiled a number of growth opportunities. The company announced plans in late 2009 to install an additional meltblown production line in Hatzfeld, Germany. Expected to be operable before the end of 2010, the line will help the company meet growing demand for technically-advanced products used in air filtration, automotive air and fuel filters, specialty liquid applications, face masks and respirators.
The company has also announced plans to rebuild one of its production lines at its manufacturing site in Winchcombe, U.K. The initiative, slated for operations in second quarter 2011, will double H&V’s European microglass filtration and microglass battery separator manufacturing capabilities, as well as enable performance improvements in microglass media production.
Finally, H&V has expanded through strategic acquisition. In January 2010, it struck a deal with Fiberweb, acquiring its AQF line of carbon-containing composite filter media. The move “allows H&V to better serve the growing global market for gas phase filter media,” says Mr. Gaudry.
On the Asian market front, Ahlstrom has announced an acquisition of China-based Shandong Puri Filter and Paper Products Ltd. from the Purico Group.
The recent move enables “operations in all main markets and regions with the support of local sales and marketing, as well as technical customer service and research and development,” adds Mr. Björnmann.
The buzzword among filtration media manufacturers is “efficiency.” All have noted heightened industry interest for higher efficient product than in years past.
What is driving this trend? Despite growing consumer interest in environmental safety and clean air, the main driver, says Mr. Stockbower, is not customer sentiment but a “whole lot of government regulation affecting the market,” most notably the LEED initiative for indoor air filtration efficiency levels as well as additional scrutiny by FDA regulations affecting the liquid filtration market.
“Looking forward, legislation is targeting more stringent air emission and indoor air quality standards,” agrees Mr. Gaudry, “Biofuels and building LEED certification loom as a priority for future emissions and indoor air quality standards.” As a result, he notes that these pressures will give way to smaller engines with increasingly sophisticated air intake, fuel delivery and lubrication systems.
Also of note, Mr. Scoble pointed to new PM2.5 legislation, which he says regulates plant emission of particulate under 2.5 microns and the development of nano-materials. This mandate presents both challenges and opportunities to the industry.
“Nano-materials will require new filter media, which is not yet fully developed for certain parts of our industry. Even small percentages of nano particles in a more conventional gas stream present problems for currently available materials. Nano-fibers are available but they are expensive, not readily available in large volumes—and, much existing nonwoven equipment is not suited for processing nano-fibers with conventional fibers,” says Mr. Scoble.
Despite the current challenges, Mr. Scoble adds, “there is a considerable amount of opportunity for nano-fibers in conjunction with conventional filter media in the area of developing better media for nano—and even ultra-fine—particulate.”
Finding the right equation between meeting regulations through innovative materials and maintaining cost efficiency is an important task. “The market is balancing regulation and requirements, additional costs, and additional benefits, such as overall improved performance and longer-lasting products, right now,” says Mr. Konesky. He adds that “regulations are changing over time and getting more stringent. What’s challenging about our market is that the target we aim for is constantly moving.”
With the recession hopefully a thing of the past and the industry pushing forward to meet increased market demands and regulations, filtration media manufacturers are poised for future growth and further innovation.
“Virtually every level of the distribution chain, beginning with the primary manufacturers’ level, is working toward more innovative and higher performance finished products,” adds Mr. Reaman. I see that trend continuing as long as the technology and innovation is behind the favorable product changes.”