Nonwovens For The Automotive Market:

By Sandra Levy , Associate Editor | December 7, 2010

the use of nonwovens is accelerating in the automotive industry, thanks to attributes such as lower weights, flexibility, the ability to absorb noise and improved aesthetics

Lighter cars. More fuel efficient vehicles. Quieter cabins. Cost efficiencies. These are just some of the requirements that auto manufacturers are seeking in order to please their customers. With auto production in the U.S. expected to climb in 2010, will the road ahead be smooth for nonwovens producers who play in the automotive market?
According to CSM Worldwide, which provides automotive market forecasting services and strategic advisory solutions to the world’s top automotive manufacturers, suppliers and financial organizations, this year automakers are expected to churn out 11.7 million cars, compared to 8.6 million in 2009. And, despite the fact that the economy is still spinning its wheels, analysts predict that automakers will produce 12.1 million units next year. These numbers bode well for nonwovens producers, who are already reporting that their automotive business is picking up. Best of all, as car makers look to make automobiles lighter, more fuel efficient, less expensive, quieter and more eco-friendly, they are turning to nonwovens.

Nonwovens appear to be the perfect fit for the automotive industry—they offer flexibility, low weights, sound absorption, improved aesthetics, cost efficiencies and eco-friendliness. From interior and trunk carpets and underbody panels and headliners to wheel well liners to dash panels to package trays, nonwovens producers are finding innovative ways to keep the momentum going.

“There’s pent-up demand, but cars are being built with higher quality standards and they last longer. They are big-ticket items. When the U.S. has 10% unemployment, people are not buying cars. But for the next one to four years there will be an upward trend of car sales. Every year, more car interiors are changing from woven fabrics—from tufted carpets to needlepunched nonwovens—because of cost and weight factors and fuel economy, and that trend continues now,” said Dave Rowell, president of Foss Manufacturing.  

Gale Shipley, automotive sales representative for Canadian needlepunch nonwovens producer Texel, echoed Mr. Rowell’s sentiments. “The automotive industry is rebounding slowly. These last few months have shown gradual growth, which is very positive since there are no major governmental incentives like the Cash for Clunkers program in 2009. The auto industry has gotten smart. original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have been very diligent on inventory control, which was out of control in 2008. Most of the OEMs are keeping inventories in the 50-60 day range. What we’re seeing are actual increments rather than OEMs making product and putting them in parking lots to store, waiting for orders to come in,” said Ms. Shipley.

 Detlev Kaeppel, global sales director for eswegee Vliesstoff GmbH and managing director at Techtex GmbH Vliesstoffe Mittweida/Germany, a longstanding player in the automotive sector, agreed that sales in the automotive sector are finally emerging from the doldrums. While the company’s volume dropped 40-50% from October 2008 to February 2009, it gradually improved and by the beginning of 2010, it started to see strong demand in the automotive sector.     “German OEMs have had huge success in the export market, especially in China and in the U.S. We’re currently working up to capacity,” said Mr. Kaeppel.

German nonwovens producer Sandler also sees the glass as half full. “Our automotive segment continues to be successful. We did face decreases in orders due to the tense situation in the market in general. However, owing to the start of several new projects, declines in revenue could be compensated for. The centralization of all business units at our location, as well as the global distribution we are able to maintain, contributed to this positive development,” said Ulrich Hornfeck, vice president of sales, logistics and purchasing at Sandler AG.

Investment Mode

Making investment plans amidst an economy that is plodding along is one tactic that nonwovens producers are banking on to ensure future prosperity.  

Textilgruppe Hof, which has been in the automotive market since the early 1980s, built a spunlace plant in Reichenbach, Germany three years ago, adding to its two other manufacturing locations in Germany. The company has developed a new spunlace generation of light- weight nonwovens with high stretch, low cost and high performance on that line. Although Hof had to make cuts because of the recession, the company continued to invest in all of its manufacturing plants worldwide. “That helps us cope with all the new projects we have now in Europe as well as in the U.S., which has bounced back quite strongly. We were glad we went though this recession with some investments in terms of capacity expansions and capital investments for a lot of machinery,” said Mr. Kaeppel.

Sandler Nonwovens is also poised for growth due to expansion plans.  “Production capacities are well utilized and we continue our efforts in product development and in expanding our business both to new fields of applications as well as to new countries,” said Dr. Hornfeck.
Sandler offers a wide range of highly effective absorber nonwovens for interior and exterior applications; carrier materials for molded parts; upholstery materials with a high recovery rate and drapeability, which create an optimal microclimate for seats as well as cover nonwovens and processing aids. The portfolio also includes air and fuel filtration. Sandler materials are applied in more than 40 automotive models worldwide.

With plants in Germany, India and the U.S., Hof serves all major OEMs worldwide. Hof’s nonwoven technologies include needlepunch, chem bonded, thermal bonded, spunlace and stitch bonded and are focused on acoustics, engine bay applications, headliners scrims and trunk trim. Its stitch-bonded technology is applied to decorative headliner facing materials, package trays and retractable boot covers. Its multi-knit technology is used as a foam replacement in car seats.

Another experienced player in the automotive sector, Freudenberg Nonwovens, is also gearing up to ensure prosperity.

John McNabb, general manager, Freudenberg North America, said the company had an upturn in the second half of 2009, which continued into this year. Noting that 2010 has also seen an increase in the vehicle build rate, Mr. McNabb said, “That’s been a positive and we’ve also seen our volumes increase in Durham. Because of the overall increase, we are restarting a spunbond polyester production line in Durham that was idled in 2008 during the recession.  The line makes our Lutradur product, which goes into tufted carpets.”

Turkish Mogul is also betting on the automotive market, as evidenced by its recent addition of spunlace for auto applications such as headliners. Mogul offers PET spunbond and polypropylene spunbond materials for secondary carpet backing for trims, metal seat covers, foam backing and airbag lining as well as spunbond and meltblown composites for acoustic insulation fabric.

Serkan Gogus, Mogul’s commercial director, agreed that the automotive sector is bouncing back. “There was a significant reduction in car sales plus manufacturers faced serious problems. This year was a recovery year. We expect growth mostly in the Far East,” said Mr. Gogus.

Cost Is Key

With auto manufacturers increasingly demanding cost efficiencies from producers, nonwovens appear to be in the right place at the right time and they are gaining an edge over wovens in many applications.

 “Many of the OEMs are starting to look more closely at nonwovens, especially needlepunch. You can utilize a needlepunch nonwoven for a number of applications that incorporate acoustics as well as aesthetics. They are moldable. As a result, you can replace some of the woven products and some of the products that don’t have acoustics with something that is value added, yet cost-effective,” said Ms. Shipley.

 Texel has been a player in the automotive market since the mid-2000s with its Thermofit technology, a substrate blend of thermoplastic and non-thermoplastic fibers for exterior wheel well liners. The company offers a wide variety of needlepunch nonwovens for trunk parts, film laminates, scrims for injection molding, underbody, headliner (A, B, and C surface), leather backing, sunshade and no-slip floor mat applications.

Pointing out that knit fabrics have dominated the market for A-face fabrics for headliner and trunk parts, Ms. Shipley said more OEMs are turning to needlepunch nonwovens because it can be made as aesthetically pleasing as a woven product. “It can be color matched and can have UV protection and it’s more cost-effective. It can be incorporated with the substrate material at the needlepunch manufacturer so that you have a one-part entry into your molding cycle rather than a two-component entry. It’s more efficient to the Tier 1s from a manufacturing standpoint,” said Ms. Shipley.

When it comes to cost efficiencies, computer-assisted simulation technology is vital, according to Dr. Hornfeck. “Owing to computer-assisted simulation technology, Sandler is able to develop new products without having to conduct protracted pilot productions. Thereby, costs for trial productions can be reduced and the materials can be developed in a more cost-effective manner. The product can be equipped with specific properties corresponding to customer specifications, thus achieving an individual product design,” said Dr. Hornfeck.

New Applications

No doubt about it; nonwovens producers are churning out a range of innovative products to meet the growing needs of automobile manufacturers. The latest innovation from Texel is a non-chemically treated needlepunch product with applications as an anti-skid pad. “You can attach it to the bottom of a floor mat and it keeps the mat from slipping, which has been a problem noted in recent vehicle recalls,” said Ms. Shipley.

Also showing up on automaker’s wish list is a requirement for water impermeability in the wheel well liners and underbody parts of cars. In response, Texel is partnering with Tier 1s to create film composites with a needlepunch product. “We have the ability to take needlepunch scrims and sandwich a film in the middle without using needling—without puncturing the film. Most nonwoven products have some airflow and therefore some water flows through. Water does not go through the product we are creating,” said Ms. Shipley.

Automakers are also increasingly interested in providing solutions for odors, stains and bacteria, according to Mr. Rowell.  

Foss offers Fosshield, an antimicrobial additive that works as an odor and stain eliminator on car seats. “Because it has high efficacy values, it inhibits the growth of bacteria. MRSA, C-Dif and other staph infections are becoming major issues in people’s homes and cars. We are selling our antimicrobial as an additive in seating applications. When you have children in a vehicle and they spill milk or food, that creates odors, stains and bacteria in the vehicle,” explained Mr. Rowell.
Nonwovens producers are also responding to the call for fabrics with high-performance flame retardancy.   

 Hof has developed a new spunlace nonwoven generation with very high performance flame retardancy for Volkswagen (PV 3357). “They had a very specific flame retardancy specification, which is similar to the North American auto market where UL 94 is required. There is also a very strict burning specification from Chinese manufacturers.  Some of the Big Three will adapt that spec in the near future,” said Mr. Kaeppel.

Prints and Patterns

Using patterns and designs in nonwoven headliners is a growing trend. For over a decade, Freudenberg has a joint venture under the name  Vitech to produce headliners. “We have a production facility in Kentucky that makes a nonwoven headliner. It can be monocolored or a solid type of fabric or we can put different prints or patterns on the nonwoven so it can have a textured look. The headliner is very flexible in design. It looks very high end and it is visually appealing,” said Mr. McNabb.

Silence is Golden

Nonwovens producers are also keeping up with auto manufacturers’ increased demands for products that keep noise out of the interior cabin.  

 Texel has expanded its wheel well liner product portfolio to include products that are 100% polyester or polyester/polypropylene. “We have the ability to blend fibers together to get a 100% polyester moldable wheel well liner which has some recyclability enhancements for properties above some of the other wheel well liners out on the market. We also manufacture a polyester/ polypropylene product and we supply our ThermoFit product, which is our proprietary blend, all of which give you acoustics and excellent moldability,” said Ms. Shipley.

Ms. Shipley noted that Ford is using exterior wheel well liners in its Focus and Fiesta models—cars that are primarily targeted to young people. “It’s something Ford is adding to their product to enhance the end results. It not only keeps the road noise from going inside the car, but it keeps the radio tunes within the car’s cabin. These wheel well liners are parts that are normally for high-end cars. In addition to Ford, there are a large number of OEMs such as Nissan, Honda, Mercedes, VW, BMW and Audi who are using wheel well liners,” said Ms. Shipley.

Mr. McNabb agreed that sound absorption products are in demand. Freudenberg offers Evolon, a sound absorption product for dashboards and side panels. Pointing out that hands-free cell phone usage while driving as well as the desire to enjoy expensive sound systems have increased consumers’ demands for quiet car interiors, Mr. McNabb said, “We’re seeing sound absorption increasing in value. Any nonwoven product that can absorb more sound and keep the cabin quiet is an advantage and that is a growing trend. As consumers we’ve upped the ante on what we expect for quietness within the cabin. We have a moldable product that fits inside the dashboard or inside the wheel wells—the areas that generate noise. You can get a nonwoven in there to absorb that sound and it’s flexible in the configuration of where you can put it.”

Foss is also on a roll when it comes to providing acoustical materials. “Some of the moldable concepts that we produce for the automotive industry—the backing materials, the moldable composites that we make are different blends of different fibers that have the ability to absorb sound. We’re also working in the automotive vehicle on some exterior fabrics—mudguards on the exterior of the car. We make a moldable felt that goes around the wheel well of your car on the outside so that when a rock hits it, it actually deadens the sound and you don’t pick it up in the interior car as noise from the road so you can listen to your expensive sound system,” said Mr. Rowell.

Sandler is also focusing on acoustics with its recent innovation dubbed sawasorb exterior. “Sawasorb exterior nonwovens for exterior applications in vehicles are resistant to fluid in the engine compartment and feature excellent sound and heat insulating properties. They absorb engine and tire noise right where they occur, thus enhancing the comfort for passengers,” said Dr. Hornfeck.

Dr. Hornfeck went on to say that customers are asking for a combination of different characteristics in one medium, such as water-repellency, rigidity of the trims and sound absorption. Because of the variety of web-forming and bonding technologies available, the nonwoven material can be adapted to specific customer needs.

Foam Substitutes

Nonwovens producers have also developed new products to meet European OEMs’ specs for fogging standards.  

Hof has developed a new lightweight nonwoven multi-knit product which substitutes for the foam located under the woven seat cloth of a car seat. “The advantages are less fogging, good air permeability and seating climate. This stitchbonded nonwoven is being used by BMW, Mercedes and Audi. It’s a European development and is not currently used in the U.S.,” said Mr. Kaeppel, adding, “There are a lot of specs from OEMs to meet fogging standards where we can comply with our stitchbonded nonwoven. There is much more market potential if other OEMs recognize the advantages of these composites in car seats.”

Green Minded

Sustainability, a trend that has permeated virtually every nonwoven sector, is gaining momentum in the automotive industry too.

 Foss Manufacturing is betting on its EcoFi polyester fiber made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic bottles. The company’s efforts have resulted in a contract for carpet in Chevrolet’s Malibu. In addition to improvements that have been made in aesthetics, Foss’s technology offers improvements in abrasions.

“With all the foot traffic, nonwovens have traditionally not been as durable as tufted carpet. We’ve made leaps ahead on abrasions through our fiber technology, through the use of low melt binder fibers and some additives that we put into our fibers. We’ve made major improvements on the wearability of our nonwovens needlepunch floor,” said Mr. Rowell.

In order to differentiate itself from the competition, Foss is launching a line of trunk carpets that are made from green resin.  “A number of companies like Honda and Ford are very interested in having green concepts in their vehicles and trim. The carpet will be available in greenish black and greenish white,” said Mr. Rowell.

Mr. McNabb agreed that automakers are increasingly pressing for sustainable products. Freudenberg’s Lutradur Eco product, which is made in Durham, is a spunbond polyester and is made from  post-consumer recycled bottles. The product can be sold into automotive and other markets.

Dr. Hornfeck agreed that green is the rage. “Producing green products is becoming more and more important, as nonwoven acoustical components account for a high percentage of the material used in a car. Environmental laws and regulations such as the European end-of-life vehicle regulation necessitate a revision of the choice of materials with regard to automobile panel parts. Producers demand materials which can be processed cleanly and have a low emission level. From 2015 onwards, at least 95% of the weight of all the components of a car will have to be recyclable. Sandler’s nonwovens for the auto industry are made of a single-polymer material (100% PET) and can be integrated into a cycle of reusable materials. Due to the low weight of our polyester nonwovens, less material which has to be recycled, is processed in the automobile,” he said.     

Lightweight Is a Fave

As automakers continue to concentrate on improving fuel economy and meeting federal regulations of miles per gallon, they are demanding lighter weight fabrics.    
“We can put a lot of individual fibers into the pile of carpet to make it look like a velour construction at a pretty light weight. All the car companies are still very interested in meeting federal standards of miles per gallon,” said Mr. Rowell.

Pointing out that nonwoven floor carpet weighs less per square yard than woven carpets, Mr. Rowell said, “They are taking two or three pounds out of the vehicle and that improves fuel economy.”

What’s more, a nonwoven needlepunch fabric on average costs probably 10-15% less than a woven fabric or tufted carpet, according to Mr. Rowell.

Ms. Shipley took Mr. Rowell’s sentiments one step further down the road. “Yes they are looking for more cost effective parts, but they are also looking for potentially lighter weight products in order to meet the governmental regulations of 35 miles per gallon in 2016. The next hurdle is the 62 mile per gallon edict that is proposed for 2025. Within nine years, something major is going to have to happen to achieve those goals. Current development efforts (are focused on) an underbody system with a molded nonwoven product that goes up underneath the body of the car. It is not only good for acoustics, it also helps with the aerodynamics of the car. It prevents air drag, and therefore improves gas mileage,” said Ms. Shipley.

 Underbody panels are a new arena in North America, but it is a technology that is already used in Europe. “In the internal trunk parts many OEMs are going lighter in weight and that can be accomplished very readily with nonwovens. Lighter weight means better gas mileage. All of the Tier 1s, Tier 2s and OEMs are actively looking at how they can make things happen to achieve those goals,” said Ms. Shipley.

Mr. Kaeppel agreed that manufacturers are pressing for lightweight fabrics with high quality and less cost. “In terms of gas mileage, nonwovens are very lightweight and therefore help to create product performance and finally improve gas mileage,” he said.

In addition to supplying North American OEMs, Hof Textiles in North Carolina is supplying Volkswagen’s new Chattanooga plant with a lightweight nonwoven used for all engine acoustic parts. “The core material is a lightweight foam and our custom designed scrims add a lot of performance. In the past, VW used other core materials, but the lightweight foam material can save weight and the gas mileage goes up, so again nonwovens help to reduce costs and boost efficiency,” said Mr. Kaeppel.

Upscale Apps

Where will nonwovens end up next? Most automakers are interested in inexpensive applications for nonwovens, explained Chuck Pelly, partner and creative director of The Design Academy and designer of BMW’s X5 and 3-series. Mr. Pelly believes that nonwovens have the potential to be used in many upscale applications, such as seating in race cars.

“Nonwovens could take inspiration from upscale accessories made of felt. These examples can be aimed at cars and can be used for potential products in the car such as for map holders,” said Mr. Pelly.

Mr. Pelly envisions nonwovens becoming  “smart” too. “Thanks to wiring, they could be able to read temperature and measure moisture. The whole world of biofeedback through materials is one of the potential strengths of nonwovens. Again, it’s expensive. You see this technology mostly in sports clothing that can sense pulse, body temperature and moisture. Another example is micro balls that have liquid in the material that emit a leather smell or any smell you want.  Very slowly the perfume escapes over the course of a year to provide a pleasant experience,” said Mr. Pelly.  

Because of their moldability, nonwovens can be sculptured into unique ornamental and natural shapes to add interest and luxury to car interiors. “You can mold it so you have three-dimensional designs and textures that can help with soundproofing. These are some examples of advantages that nonwovens could bring to the industry,” said Mr. Pelly.

Peering into the Crystal Ball

When it comes to the future of the automotive market, producers predict there will be an increased focus on developments involving electric vehicles (EV).

 “EV development needs to happen quickly to free us from our gas dependency,” said Ms. Shipley. “Currently, there is a tremendous amount of input by OEMs and battery manufacturers into this operation. We offer acid proof battery holders. The EV, in conjunction with the underbody, gives you the maximum output for miles per gallon because you’ve created a battery-operated vehicle with aerodynamic quality.”

Emphasizing that EV technology is still in its infancy, Mr. Kaeppel said he questions whether EVs must have or will have the same amount of nonwoven acoustic scrims compared to gasoline- or petroleum-powered autos. “The interior and also the exterior has to be some kind of textiles. For EV cars, we do see some demand for nonwovens on the interior, but also if you have a lot of noise coming from the tires and not from the engine anymore you need to have an acoustic package. That might have to be designed with other materials, but scrims for the A (visible) and B (nonvisible) sides can still be a nonwoven. We do see it as an additional opportunity and I think we will still see new innovations in new engine developments,” he said.

Mr. Kaeppel envisions hybrid cars that will offer even more opportunities for nonwovens. “I’m not convinced if this is going to substitute for all our gas line or diesel engine cars. It’s a good way, a fair way, a green way. I see good opportunities for nonwovens manufacturers to participate in this development as well.”

Today, nonwovens are a material of choice for automakers, but nonwoven producers agree that the future includes an onslaught of competition from countries now entering the North American market.

For example, Ms. Shipley predicted that there will be increased competition from Korea and China. “A few years ago, Koreans entered the U.S. market with Hyundai and Kia. Because they were Korean, they were not deemed as top quality rivals. Those companies, however, have proven those opinions incorrect. Hyundai Sonata was 2010 Car of the Year. The Chinese have watched the Koreans and have gained valuable market knowledge on entering the U.S. market and the North American OEMs must be prepared for that,” said Ms. Shipley.

Mr. McNabb summed up the future of the automotive market in these words: “There is a bright future for nonwovens in automotive. There’s been a strong past and there’s going to be a stronger future as nonwovens uses its flexibility to find new opportunities within a vehicle. There’s a good opportunity for nonwovens going forward.”

Finally, Ms. Shipley had this advice: “The industry crash that happened has made many people in the auto industry rethink how they are working things. It’s made us smarter. My advice for Tier 1s and Tier 2s is to stay on top of trends, manufacture top quality, cost-effective products as well as products that optimize the vehicles of the future.”