That new mother standing in the grocery aisle may not fully understand the technology that goes into her child’s diaper—but she knows what she likes and often purchases the same brand, week after week, month after month. Why such loyalty? The cartoon printed on the front is cute, the wetness indicator is helpful, and she feels confident that she can go out in public without an accident.
In another aisle, an active senior citizen plucks a package of disposable undergarments off the shelf, choosing a brand that appears and feels almost like underwear. Nearby, a teenager selects her feminine hygiene product based upon the colorful pouch.
Consumers play a vital role in the evolution of the hygiene components industry. Many of their desires—things like comfort, style and good performance at a reasonable price—serve as the fuel for hygiene component manufacturers’ greatest innovations.
As Dave Hill, business development manager for Technical Absorbents, Ltd., explained, “The demands of the consumer are the key focus of hygiene product development. Brand loyalty often drives the product purchaser [and serves] as a measure of consistent quality and performance.”
One Product, Many Parts
Consumers may not be aware of the complexities of hygiene products, but each product is comprised of many different components, ranging from pulp to superabsorbent polymers to closures and films. Component manufacturers often have areas of expertise. They continue to strive for product development improvements within their core regions to further penetrate markets and provide points of differentiation.
For example, Tredegar Film Products’ hygiene component business centers on topsheets, which includes a wide variety of products such as formed films, aperture nonwovens and film- nonwoven laminates.
Among its new product offerings, the company has brought to market the AquiDry Plus film acquisition-distribution layer, which has applications in the baby diaper and adult incontinence sectors. The introduction provides converters with the ability to “engineer thinner, more discreet products that notably dry faster and more consistently,” said Matt O’Sickey, global product marketing manager.
Tredegar also recently launched new grades of its FlexFeel elastic laminates, offering stretch and softness for both tape- and pant-style diapers worn by adults and babies. For the feminine hygiene market, it supplies a number of film topsheets and film-nonwoven laminate topsheets.
Another topsheet supplier, Texol Technologies and Solutions, serves a worldwide market with Europe, the Middle East and North Africa currently accounting for a large share of its business. The company’s core expertise is feminine care and baby diaper topsheets. The company also supplies new aperture film ADL, as well as elastic side panels for both baby and adult diapers.
RKW, a global company serving all areas of the hygiene sector, says its core competence is ultra-thin backsheets, offering both breathable and non-breathable versions. With approximately 70% of its sales coming from Europe, the company is particularly attuned to sustainability requirements, supplying back sheets “which respond to all angles of sustainable requirements, in particular with regard to economics, reduction of landfill waste and lower carbon emissions throughout the supply chain,” added Patricia Featherstone, director of marketing and communications.
RKW also offers a wide range of topsheets comprised of both perforated film and nonwovens, in addition to a line of elastic film to nonwoven laminates suitable for waistbands, side ears and tape applications.
Its latest launch, HyJet, is a hydroentangled spunbond utilized in closure system components and landing zones within baby care and incontinence products. HyJet is also a replacement for traditional airlaid core within the feminine care sector, said Ms. Featherstone.
Berry Plastics Corp. places high emphasis on innovation in outer cover backsheet design for hygienic articles. “Our number one focus is on the development of next-generation, cost-effective outer cover film-based products,” said Keith Brechtelsbauer, vice president and general manager, specialty films division.
Among its new innovations, Berry Plastics Corp. has launched the Touch of Silk line, with new technology designed to improve the tactile feel and performance of both hygiene products and its corresponding packaging. The films improve the connection with the consumer by providing enhanced softness, quietness and appeal, said Mr. Brechtelsbauer.
Serving global medical and hygiene markets, Technical Absorbents’ key expertise is the manufacture of Oasis SAF, its super-absorbent fiber. Produced in the U.K., Oasis SAF is a white, odorless fiber that is ideal for use in core designs of disposable hygiene products. It is produced in a range of absorbency grades, staple lengths and dtex to suit different requirements, and its fluid absorption properties eliminate the need for containment systems.
BASF’s Care Chemicals and Formulators business unit manufactures super absorbent polymers, serving the global baby diaper and adult incontinence markets. The company additionally supports the hygiene product category with other functional chemistries such as surfactants, polymers, chelates, antimicrobials and personal care actives. Through its product line, the company strives to improve the performance of diaper cores, increase diaper production efficiency and provide technical and product sustainability expertise, BASF reports.
Tape is another vital component for hygiene products, and Avery Dennison supplies tapes for baby and adult diapers, as well as for sanitary napkins. The company serves the global hygiene market.
Increasing volume and quality demands have resulted in regular investments in upgrades and new technologies for RKW. “The most recurring investments over the past five years have been in multi-color registered printing to serve the baby diaper maker with the highest quality of print on backsheets,” noted Ms. Featherstone.
RKW has announced plans to expand into the Middle East. Once there, the company will better serve the growing hygiene disposables market with the “highest quality back sheets,” according to Ms. Featherstone.
Tredegar Film Products has also recently expanded, opening up a production facility in India. Its latest addition will complement its existing plants located in the U.S., Brazil, Europe and China.
Other manufacturers have announced plans to upgrade and enhance capabilities. For example, Texol recently added a production line and has announced plans to launch another new line in 2011.
Berry Plastics made significant investments into decorating outer cover backsheets through new technology. In 2011, the company plans to expand its extrusion and printing capabilities to address increased demand for sophisticated decorative materials that enhance the consumer experience, said Mr. Brechtelsbauer.
Technical Absorbents has set its focus on Oasis SAF, enhancing its business through a growing network of partnerships with global convertors, roll good producers and end product manufacturers. The company has “identified significant growth within the developing regions of India, China, South America and Eastern Europe, while also concentrating on developing existing markets of Europe and North America through innovative research and development,” said Mr. Hill.
Within the hygiene component market, growth rates vary widely depending upon geography, with much focus placed on developing regions such as Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Growth in disposable diapers and feminine hygiene has been notable, driven by a number of factors.
The first driver involves population. Developing regions such as Asia have higher birth rates, “thus becoming of increased geographic importance to disposable diaper and feminine-hygiene manufacturers,” said Mr. Hill.
Economic factors have also come into play. “The market for baby diapers is experiencing growth in Asia and Latin America, where disposable diapers are not widely used. There is a low penetration rate and the regions now have increased disposable income,” said Birgitta Van den Driessche, marketing manager, personal care, Avery Dennison.
The hygiene market for mature geographies, such as North America and Eastern Europe, is experiencing something altogether different, with suppliers reporting mixed results based upon the category.
According to Mintel International, the U.S. $3.4 billion disposable baby diaper market—which includes diapers, wipes and cleansers—edged up only 4% between 2004 and 2009 in food, drug and mass merchandisers. When adjusted for inflation, however, the category actually declined 9%, according to Mintel.
The category’s lackluster performance was blamed, in part, to poor sales of diapers and training pants as consumers traded down to less expensive versions during the recession. The report also notes “the disposable baby products category faces a growth challenge as the absolute number of new moms is not increasing.”
The story is much different for the adult incontinence sector, where aging populations are facilitating growth in Europe and North America. New opportunities exist in these regions, driven mainly by cultural changes in lifestyle and attitude.
“People are now living longer and healthier lives,” explained Mr. Hill. “Some brands are embarking on new marketing campaigns and product launches aimed at removing the social stigma of adult incontinence.”
Others agree. Wider consumer education efforts and better acceptance of incontinence products has fueled the growth and evolution of the incontinence sector, noted Ms. Featherstone of RKW, who added, “This has led to less use of traditional backsheets in the growing retail sector in Europe, [as well as] a switch to more consumer friendly backsheets like breathable textiles.”
“In Western Europe, the U.S. and Japan, we see a significant rise in the adult incontinence market, especially in the pull-on pant and light incontinence pad categories,” added Mr. O’Sickey.
Growth patterns have spurred other market trends. Berry Plastics Corp., a global company with particular focus in Latin America and North America, has observed two diverse trends based upon the geographies it serves.
“In emerging markets, you need entry-level, price-sensitive products,” explained Mr. Brechtelsbauer, although he noted that some consumers in these regions are starting to trade-up. “In mature markets, it’s about differentiation. How can we differentiate the products, provide vibrancy and consumer appeal to gain market share?”
Hygiene Trends: Baby and Adult Diapers
There are many ways to differentiate products in an effort to appeal to consumers. Comfort is of utmost importance to today’s consumers and is reflected in new diaper designs. For example, “One of the evolutions in diaper design is to allow the diaper and baby to move together for greater comfort,” commented Ms. Van den Driessche. “For baby diapers we see a trend toward greater absorbency, softness and more elasticity.”
To achieve that elasticity, Ms. Van den Driessche noted that elastic components may be put in the waistband area, closure or in the diaper’s side panel. “Putting elasticity in the side panel requires diaper manufacturers to make changes in their production equipment, so it involves a monetary investment,” she explained.
The need for comfort is much the same for adult diapers. Ms. Featherstone notes the demand for thinner components, is driven by the consumer’s desire for comfort and with a nod toward sustainability.
In the adult incontinence sector, there is an increased likelihood to buy higher tier products at retail, such as the purchase of softer diapers with mechanical closures, some even with elasticity, according to Ms. Van den Driessche.
In addition to comfort, fashion has also infiltrated the world of hygiene. “The increase in the number of active adults requiring some form of incontinence protection has resulted in the introduction of thinner products that are more garment-like and fashionable,” says Mr. O’Sickey. “In many cases, the products are very similar in comfort and appearance to conventional underpants.
Even little consumers are stepping out in style. “Diapers remain a low-cost product, so companies look for ways to differentiate or segment (the category) to get more margin. As a result, we are seeing diapers in different designs and colors,” said Ms. Van den Driessche. In response to this trend, Avery Dennison can supply closures with colors, elasticity and prints.
In a recent address on trends in film-based outer cover designs for absorbent hygiene products, Mr. Brechtelsbauer noted several factors impacting the diaper industry. Among his findings, decorative printing has played an increasingly large role in industry discussion.
“Consumers are drawn to diverse and sophisticated overwraps and printed diaper designs, often coupled with highly functional wetness indicators,” said Mr. Brechtelsbauer.
Other trends he observed include a continued push to reduce total system costs while still enabling value added features; increased emphasis on discreet products; and breathable designs to ensure skin health. “Baby diaper converters are often achieving this through micro-porous films, while adult incontinence converters often achieve this through chassis design,” he explained.
Finally, suppliers mention sustainability as a growing factor in baby and adult diaper design. BASF, for example, utilizes an eco-efficiency methodology tool to assess environmental and economic value that a product or process creates over its complete life cycle. The company has also launched a sustainability evaluation concept known as SEEBALANCE, which considers societal impact to stakeholders. Both services are offered to BASF customers who wish to evaluate the sustainability of a product.
While comfort, performance and sustainability are all important factors within hygiene products, price is also a primary consideration, according to Fabrizio Coladonato, sales and marketing director for Texol Technologies and Solutions. The hygiene industry has “started to look and investigate new, innovative materials to reduce the total product cost, with similar or better performance,” he stated.
Trends: Feminine Hygiene
Some of the same consumer needs that are impacting diaper design are also impacting feminine
hygiene. Mr. Hill of Technical Absorbents has noticed consumer demand for comfortable and discreet products. To this end, the company has pioneered polymer research and development. “In the feminine hygiene sector, the desired outcome is to exceed industry standards for absorbency, fluid management, re-wetting at minimum dosage levels and to provide a truly cost-effective basis for new enhanced product design,” he explained.
And in another nod to enhanced comfort, ultra-thin back sheets, as well as textile-like, film top sheets are gaining in popularity, observed Ms. Featherstone.
Like other hygiene products, feminine care products are getting fashionable upgrades too. “There has been an expansion into the use of more vibrant colors coupled with decoration,” noted Mr. Brechtelsbauer. “We are seeing differentiation on multiple fronts, particularly the use of innovative pouches designed to attract and retain younger women.”
No discussion of consumer product categories is complete without a mention of the economy. But for hygiene component manufacturers, The Great Recession has played less of a role than in other industries.
The necessity of hygiene items has sheltered the components industry from the hardest blows of a rough economy, but that doesn’t mean that the industry escaped completely unscathed.
“The economy is motivating some consumers to buy cheaper diapers. Manufacturers have responded by bringing lower tiers of diapers to market. So people who bought at a premium tier now might buy a lower tier at a lower price,” explained Ms. Van den Driessche.
According to Ms. Featherstone, the overall European market was not severely impacted in terms of numbers of product sold. “However, it certainly led to a major swing in favor of private label, discount brands. As we come out of the economic crisis, we see the ‘A’ brands regaining their market share.”
The economy and many other factors will continue to shape the industry in the future, forcing component manufacturers to evolve. “Despite the economic downturn, there have been continued advances,” observed Mr. O’Sickey, who cited adult incontinence products, elastic fit and closure features among those advances. “Government regulation, consumer sensibilities regarding cost and the rising awareness of sustainability are pushing converters to produce products that are increasingly efficient in terms of costs and resources.”