Spunlace Showdown

March 16, 2011

Manufacturers balance catering to the wipes markets ever changing needs with the never ending search for new markets.

Spunlace Showdown

Manufacturers balance catering to the wipes markets ever changing needs with the never ending search for new markets.

The spunlace market continues to focus heavily on the needs of the wipes market. Photo courtesy of Suominen.

During the past decade, the spunlace market has grown steadily with investments around the world. Now that the era of explosive growth is over, many of this market’s leaders are favoring efficiency and flexibility over large investment initiatives. While new investment is not over—not by a long shot—many of the market’s largest players are making sure their businesses are able to give their customers in the wipes market what they want.
“There is never a dull moment in the spunlace market – we see changes in the supply and the demand and adjust our business accordingly,” said Noora Blasi, spokeswoman for Ahlstrom.

“There are always opportunities for growth. We have focused heavily on spunlace developments with sustainability in mind, creating a range of spunlace products that meet the requirements for sustainable products – they also offer a cost advantages.For example, we are developing spunlaced fabrics made from recycled PET where we can identify a carbon footprint reduction of 20%.”

After a string of investments including the purchase of Green Bay Nonwovens in the U.S., Orlandi in Europe and Fiberweb’s spunlace assets in North America and Europe as well as new investments in Brazil and North America, Ahlstrom’s more recent efforts in spunlace have centered on improving its efficiencies and developing new products.

“The strategy of consolidation of our platforms in order to increase capacity in spunlace is working out well,” Ms. Blasisaid. “We will continue in this direction meaning improving the overall efficiency of our different platforms to serve the quality and quantity enabling us to stay ahead.”

While market growth has definitely declined during the last 10 years Ahlstrom continues to report healthy growth in the market and still considers wiping fabrics dominant in the nonwovens market. “Even with differences within various countries and continents, the overall position for wiping fabrics is strong and the market volumes keep increasing every year,” Ms. Blasi continued.

Growth in the spunlace market is estimated between 4-5%, which is comparatively lower than a few years ago when the wipes market was in its heyday. As growth in wipes has plateaued and new product introductions have stagnated, manufacturers have focused on new substrate technology to woo customers and hopefully drive up pricing. “Opportunities for growth are existing, however they can only be realized by continuously introducing innovative products following the market’s needs,” said Sandler’s Ulrich Hornfeck citinghis company’s Less is Best to Nature campaign, which wasstarted in 2008 and is continuously introduced into the market. Sandler’s latest technology developments have led to substrates with lower basis weights, which offer soft and gentle textile products with excellent cleaning properties, simultaneously placing strong emphasis on energy and raw material usage.

Currently in expansion mode, Sandler announced in April 2010 it would add a new spunlace line—its third—to its operation. Executives said the new line, which will come onstream later this year, will again enable the company to set new milestones in quality, energy usage and new development possibilities. “The new line will enable us to systematically follow our strategy of highest level quality in terms of product-properties and service as well as flexibility,”Mr. Hornfeck said.

New spunlace technology is offering fibrous textiles for most applications. State-of-the-art production lines, like the one Sandler is currently building, will allow manufacturers to cover all market requirements for today’s and tomorrow’s needs in both traditional markets for spunlace and also ones yet to be discovered. “Different fibers, basis weights ranging from low to high, opacity, differentiation by design and most diverse technical properties are resulting therefrom,” said Mr. Hornfeck. “Completely different end products are offering highest grade flexibility and usage of this technology.”

Suominen’s product development is also focusing on launching new light-weight nonwovens with high bulk, through its sustainable Biolace brand of products. “We are aiming to utilize our own fiber production assets through producing new fiber types we could further use in our own spunlace production,” explained general manager Jukka Jokinen.

These efforts are largely being driven by the wipes markets’ need for lower cost products. Thinner substrates mean lower raw material costs which is a win for both the environment and the bottom line.

“Currently the leading theme in the wipes segment seems to be cost engineering and reducing unit price,” Mr. Jokinen said. “Nonwovens producers and wipes converters are stuck between the fiber suppliers continuously increasing prices to the nonwoven producers and retailers not accepting the prices increases introduced by the wipes converters. This is currently squeezing out the margins from the nonwovens producers and wipes converters, which is not sustainable in the long term.”

These challenges have not kept new players from entering the spunlace market.The market’s self-proclaimed new kid on the block, Mogul, became interested in the technology as a means to diversify its range though fiber-based nonwovens. The Turkish company, which had already made polymer-based spunbond and meltblown nonwovens, began making spunlace in June 2010 with the hopes of entering the wipes market and developing composite structures combining spunlace with its existing technologies. “Spunlace has helped us be a one-stop shop for our customers by providing a range of different technologies and products,” said Serkan Gogus, commercial director. “So far, we can say we have been successful but I think we will get higher yields in the mid and long term.”

Having studied the spunlace market intently, Mogul is aware of its many challenges but still foresees significant opportunity for the technology, particularly as interest in wipes extends into new regions. “The market is highly dependent on the wipes and the wipes market can be defined as a large volume, low margin market demanding for costs. We observe an increase in demand as usage of personal wipes and different applications are increasing. We also see new investments in Europe and the Far East, mainly. We see significant increases with fiber prices due to shortages of cotton but despite this because of he high competition prices are under pressure in the eroding margins. As we see an increase with demand opportunity with growth is still there but shouldbe with a right strategy.”

Sustainable Focus
A quick rundown of recent wipes introductions shows how important being green is to that market and spunlace manufacturers are working hard to make sure their wipes customers have lots of choices when it comes to environmentally friendly products. From Ahlstrom’s spunlace made from recycled polyester materials to Suominen’s Biolace to Sandler’s Bio Wipe, which is composed of 100% viscose fibers, fully biodegradable and certified according to the PEFC standard, which stands for a sustainable handling of wood and products made from it. “ The Sandler Bio Wipe substrate is also equipped with a unique hydro-embossing design combining an all-over garment-like structural pattern with design elements illustrating our commitment to sustainability,” Mr. Hornfeck said.

Suominen’s Mr. Jukka said he sees interest for sustainable spunlace strongest in wet wipes. “As environmental awareness is becoming increasingly important for consumers, they are genuinely interested in raw materials used in wipes,” he said. “We have some interesting development projects with a very green twist going on. Naturally, going down in the substrate basis weight while still maintaining the same end-use performance will support the sustainability as such.”

However, these developments must not add up to higher prices for consumers who are interested in upping their green profiles but are usually reluctant to pay for it. Because many of the fibers that offer sustainability, biodegradability or other green benefits are more expensive than traditional raw materials, many green wipes have kept a niche status. Still, many companies are focusing on keeping their processes green by minimizing energy or recycling water used in spunlace production.

“At Suominen we work hard to minimize the environmental impact associated with our materials and processes through recycling and re-using. Our production waste is not land filledbut burned to generate heat for our production lines and the local community. We have also committed ourselves to reduce energy in our production processes, which is a step forward in becoming even a greener spunlace producer.”

At Sandler, energy reduction is also a focus. ““We continue to strive to reduce energy consumption in every area of our company. The latest spunlace production line is also furthering that goal. Ongoing new developments in cooperation with our partners do not only focus on products, but, among others, also on raw materials, means of transportation and the resulting CO2 emissions,” Mr. Hornfeck said.

The Spunlace Market: Investment Continues in Asia and Beyond

According to industry data, the spunlace market is considered to be mature in Europe and the U.S., registering about 3% growth per year. Higher growth rates exist in the world’s developing regions, namely Asia, which currently represents more than 33% of the world’s spunlace production, and grew 29% between 2008 and 2009, driven largely by the activities of major players including Dailang Ruiguan, Hainan Xinglong and Hangzhou Nbond. In fact, Western machinery producers report that much of their sales success has been in Asia during the past couple of years. At the most recent ANEX exhibition in Shanghai, both of the major spunlace machinery suppliers, Andritz Perfojet (then Rieter Perfojet) and Fleissner announced major sales in the country.

And, both companies have made additional sales since then. Fleissner announced in June that it had signed a contract—jointly with sister company Erko Trutzschler—for a full-scale installation at an undisclosed Chinese company. Earlier, Andritz Perfojet said it had sold a third spunlace line to Zhjiang Shaozing County Nonwovens to come onstream next year as well as a sixth line to Hangzhou Nbond, which will come onstream later this year.
This growth is largely being driven by the Chinese market becoming more oriented toward disposable nonwoven fabrics due to the growing standard of living and is expected to extend to other Asian countries like India, Vietnam and Malaysia.

In India, Ginni Filaments became the country’s first maker of spunlaced nonwovens in 2007 when it started a 12,000 ton line and has already been accepted as a reliable quality supplier, having received Rockline Industries’ Nonwovens Supplier Excellence Award in 2009 and the company has recently added a second spunlace line which is expected to put the company in the same league as other global producers.

Asian expansion has not meant the end of investment in the developed world regions. In recent months, new lines have been announced in Turkey, Germany and Italy, to name a few, and a large spunlace line is likely to be announced in the U.S. in the short term. Amidst this investment, however, the spunlace market has had to readjust itself in the face of market maturity, increased pricing pressures from private labelers and lower margins. Manufacturers have achieved this through a number of initiatives ranging from line closures, upgrades and technological initiatives surrounding lower basis weights and alternative raw materials.

At Ahlstrom, the world’s largest maker of spunlaced fabrics for the wipes market, efforts have centered around consolidating its global operations to increase efficiency and output throughout its business. In January 2009, the company said it would close a plant in Gallarte, Italy. This announcement was followed by the revelation in June 2009 that it would close a line at itsBethune, SC site, and move its production to Green Bay, WI. This past May, the company said it would further consolidate its European wipes operation, closing theItalian plant in Carbonate; however at the same time the company is rebuilding a line in Mozzate to increase efficiency and output.

According to reports, the European market, which dominates wipes, has recently returned to growth after suffering a slowdown in 2009. Ahlstrom’s new capacity hopes to serve this growth as does investment from other spunlace manufacturers including Sandler and Suominen.

Located in Schwarzenbach/Saale, Germany, Sandler announced in April it would add a third spunlace line to its operation to target global markets. Describing the market as strong and slightly growing, vice president sales, logistics and purchasingUlrich Hornfeck said that Sandler is not interested in chasing commodity markets and will instead target specialty wipes and other, more technical applications. “This new line is set up in a perspective to find new opportunities, new markets and new customers for special products, not only for the baby wipes market but for a number of other areas,” he said.

Though not as aggressive, Finnish spunlace maker Suominen has also recently completed an spunlace investment—a modernization project to improve overall efficiency through a rebuilt production line. In addition to that, the upgrade will cut energy and water usage and save on transportation costs, which are all sustainable benefits in line with Suominen’s environmental concept, said Paul-Erik Toivo.

In addition to beefing up efficiencies on their lines, spunlace makers in Europe are seeking stability by offering more diversified product ranges. Sustainability, fiber innovation and alternative raw materials are all buzz words in the European market, where spunlace has been the material of choice for wipes for quite some time. Other efforts include new product development and expansion into Eastern Europe and the Middle East; however eastern expansion has been challenged by a high level of expansion in Turkey and Israel.

Mogul Nonwovens, Gaziantep, Turkey is the latest nonwovens producer in its country to diversify into spunlace technology. With its roots in spunbond and meltblown technology, Mogul decided to add spunlace to its arsenal to help it target the global wipes market, said commercial director Serkan Gogus.

The new line, capable of making 6000 tons of 3.2-meter, 30-80 gsm nonwovens, started commercial production in early July and is so far meeting expectations. In addition to wet wipes, target markets include cosmetic applications, fem care and baby diapers, dust wipes, hair towels used in coiffeurs, medical bandages/gauzes and, to some degree, filtration and automotive.

Meanwhile, Eruslu, a well-known Turkish converter of baby diapers and wipes, last year purchased a 12,000-ton spunlace line, and in Israel Albaad has reportedly approved the purchase of a third spunlace line.

Outside Wipes
While the wipes market definitely dominates in spunlace, more interest has been paid to developing new markets in recent years to compensate for slower growth and tighter margins in the wipes market.“Spunlace fabrics can be found in the medical and automotive markets due to the versatility of the technology.There are also some applications for spunlace in the filtration market,” said Ahlstrom’s Ms. Blasi. “Combining spunlace with other nonwoven technologies will open up new interesting applications outside wiping fabrics.”

In developing its spunlace business, Mogul specifically tailored its new line to run synthetic and natural fibers to help it respond to increased need for natural and organic and sustainable products. We want to take our part in this development but so far I can’t say we have been 100% successful due to cost reasons demanded by the market as cotton is in an area of record highs due to shortages but we believe things will change in the future and we keep our optimism in this respect,” Mr. Gogus said.

Spunlace manufacturers are focusing on lower basis weights and alternative raw materials to improve pricing. Photo courtesy of Suominen.
While Ihsan initially thought the wipes market would dominated its 100% cotton spunlace business when the Pakistani company forward integrated into nonwovens production five years ago, difficulties in pricing for 100% cotton wipes have forced the company to explore other markets, namely feminine hygiene and adult incontinence. “It is quite logical that a natural product should be used—and not a synthetic product—in such highly sensitive areas. If you add to this that nearly 20% of women have irritations to synthetic fibers, the potential for market growth in these products is huge. The main problems is getting the word out to the consumers who for so long have just used what their mothers or sisters used and take these irritations as part of everyday life. Fortunately, we live in a modern world full of Internet forums and people do realize there are alternatives to the large global brands.”

Another area being targeted by Ihsan is the replacement gauze market. Using cotton nonwovens in this application makes a product that does not fray and is more absorbent than traditional products, which are also made from cotton. “As the traditional product is made from cotton, we don’t have the same problem where we are up against the synthetic prices, we are just up against traditional production methods. There is no doubt that spunlace cotton is a direct replacement for the traditional cotton gauze and at lower costs as well.”

Spun off from Jacob Holm Industries six years ago to focus on technical applications, Norafin has been steadily improving its profile in niche markets and applications for spunlace like filtration and protective apparel. “There is a lot of opportunity for spunlace in the filtration market,” said communications manager Eveline Salem. “We won new customers thanks to the spunlaced materials’ texture and product characteristics such as thinner pore sizes/tighter pore size distribution and thus a better filtration efficiency compared to more traditional technologies. In the protective market, it is the material’s texture, the lightweight of the material and the increased comfort to the wearer, which are very positive product aspects in the composites industry. It is the ability to offer natural nonwovens, which counts a lot.”

In response to a need for natural fibers and sustainable nonwovens, Norafin has ventured into flax fiber processing, introducing this material to its spunlace processing, creating ecological alternatives in building and interior design applications.”
While markets like automotives and filtration are squarely on the radars of spunlace manufacturers as they look to grow, the success of spunlace continues to be dependent on the success of the wipes market. While the technology has a place in a number of other consumer and industrial markets, much of its growth has been the result of the global expansion of the disposable wipes market where spunlace is favored for its absorbency, softness and all-round cloth-like feel.

“I can’t say there’s a big revolutionary change in spunlace technology but we can expect more developments in hybrid technologies,” Mogul’s Mr. Gogus predicted. “I believe we have seen developments in the past that include pulp with fibers, bicomponent splittable filaments or combinations of spunbond/hydroentangling, but these technologies have never been a highly accepted concept due to different reasons. So I think the success of this technology will depend on the development of new technologies, especially based on hybrid technologies which will help to develop technically advanced and low cost nonwovens that will help to grow spunlace applications and markets. Also, we can expect development of new fibers that can fuel these developments.”