The Ups and Downs of the Needlepunch Market

By Karen McIntyre, Editor | August 9, 2011

Surge in capacity shows strength of new applications for needlepunched nonwovens.

After a period of reduced activity, needlepunch investment is picking up, driven by growth in its core markets like geotextiles, automotives, filtration and bedding where the technology’s flexibility is a value. Also driving growth is a market rebound. After a few years of little investment, makers of the cards, crosslappers and looms that make up a needlepunch system are reporting demand they cannot keep up with.

“There is some really good activity in nonwovens, everywhere, which is interesting because there is not a whole lot of positive talk, when you talk about the economy,” says Daniel Feroe, area sales manager for NSC nonwoven.“When we talk about what we are struggling with, it’s not orders, but keeping up with delivery schedules.”

Recent North American investments in needlepunch technology have included SKAPS, Tencate, Southern Felt and Nonwovens Solutions, which join a number of global players in investing in needlepunch growth in Europe and Asia.

Stefan Schlichter, managing director and head of the carding division atOerlikon Neumag Austria, credits this high rate of investment to compensation for low investment during the global economic crisis. “I have the impression that the last two years were weaker than ever and there is a certain amount of compensation but it is also interest in new markets – filter is a huge market with six or seven new lines in China alonefor hot gas filtration – going in. Geotextiles is strong worldwide, too – more than average – so it’s not just compensation of the business slowdown before. “

Where once the words needlepunch nonwovens conjured up images of thick stiff fabrics and heavyweight industrial applications, in recent years technological advancements have created a new kind of needlepunch, offering thinner, softer fabrics, more efficient production lines. This is opening up doors for the technology into new markets on both the durable and disposable side of the spectrum.

Needlepunch lines are extremely flexible, making one investment suitable for a number of markets. Photo courtesy of Dilo.
Add to this the fact that needlepunch technology is extremely flexible, allowing manufacturers to achieve several goals with just one line, and offers a lower start-up investment that is more easily recouped than in other technologies, and it’s easy to see why needlepunch continues today to be one of the industry’s most sought-after technologies.

According to industry estimates, the needlepunch market is growing at a rate in the high single digits annually. In addition to finding growth in its established markets like automotives, carpeting, furniture and geotextiles, recent technological advances that have made needlepunch fabrics sturdier, thinner, more fabric-like and more flexible have earned it a place in a number of new markets.

According to J.P. Dilo, of machinery maker Dilo Group, these advancements can be attributed to a number of factors.“A vast array of fiber material can be needled, virtually any fiber as long as it has got a staple length of more than approximately 20 mm,” he says. “Even shorter staple may be processed within blends. This includes all man-made organic fiber, inorganic fiber, metallic fiber and of course, all natural fibers.”

At the same time, needlepunched nonwovens may be processed in a very large range of area masses from 30-40 gsm up to several kilograms per square meter.
Adding to its attractiveness is the fact that needlepunch carries with it a relatively lower investment level than other nonwovens technologies like spunbond and spunlace. This makes it easier to determine the risk in investing in the development of new products based on needlepunch technology in an era when manufacturers are more cost conservative than they’ve been in decades.

Full steam ahead
The past couple of years have seen a steady stream of needlepunch investments as some existing manufacturers have upgraded their lines to make them more cost efficient and others have added capacity to their operations to meet growing demand for the technology.

“The last decades have been used to provide state-of-the-art technology with constant increases in productivity (stroke frequency 3000 per minute), throughput speeds up to 150 m/min,” Dilo says. “This is not only for the needle looms but also in the preparatory equipment and in carding and crosslapping. At the same time, quality improvements have been achieved mainly for the surface appearance by more random stitching patterns and more regular weight profiles in MD and CD directions.”

One of these companies capitalizing on these advances is Fibertex Nonwovens, Aalborg, Denmark, which embarked on a reorganization plan in 2007 to better position its industrial business. This included the start-up of two production lines – one in Aalborg and another in the Czech Republic – which use fewer raw materials; price increases; the shutdown of older production lines including an entire older factory in the Czech Republic; streamlined production processes; innovation and product development.

Following this reorganization, Fibertex executives have indicated that the more efficient lines, combined with the other cost-saving measures, better positioned the com­pany when the economic crisis, which was unexpected at the start of the plan, hit.

More for less
Most experts agree. One of the key demands of the needlepunch industry is modern and efficient machinery that offer a low investment cost and promise a quick return on that investment. Needlepunch manufacturers want their lines to make more nonwovens more quickly while offering them more choices for their customers. And, today’s lines are achieving this goal.

“The demand for more flexible machines has especially –in the just-ended period of economic weakness – been a focus of discussions with customers,” says Schlichter. “A lot of nonwovens producers have seen that competitors could survive in better shape when they were having a flexible product portfolio, allowing them to revert to market niches when the demand for their established products eroded.”

Geotextiles applications, requiring wide-width needle looms are driving growth in the needlepunch market.

In response to this, Oerlikon has developed a completely new needleloom named Sylus, which can realize different drive scenarios from one machine concept (vertical and elliptical needling at the touch of a button) and features a draft optimized needle zone with new needle patterns, allowing modular setup of all necessary options and entering into a complete new world of maintenance and setting procedures. “This all follows the strategy of allowing the maximum flexibility in a new machine investment,” Schlichter adds.

Meanwhile, Dilo’s response to new market needs have led to the creation of the AlphaLine, a cost-efficient production line for standard universal nonwovens which consists of AlphaFeed and AlphaCard. Other new developments include a new multifeed card feeder which applies the doubling effect with the Twinflow system for evening out the flock matts. The three-apron crosslapper of the DiloLayer series for the high speed range features up to 160 m/min infeed speed and more precise laydown and MD profile. This is achieved with the help of the Webguide in connection with a structured feed apron in the crosslapper. These two elements reduce dimensional changes of the web while feeding the crosslapper.

For its part, NSC has been developing new models to meet heavier punching load requirements while also allowing customers to make more pounds per hour using less fibers. “Because fibers are about 70% of the total production cost, any savings there is huge for the needlepunch makers,” Feroe says.

Efforts have also been made on the needleboard design to improve harmonics, thus increasing flexibility.“Anyone can make a certain speed, but if the harmoncis are not right, the visuals of the product would be compromised,” Feroe adds.

Focus on: filtration
Considered by some to be the fastest growing and most diverse market for nonwovens globally, needlepunch nonwovens have found their place in both wet and dry media applications. Companies ranging from Hollingsworth & Vose to Lydall to DelStar to Ahlstrom are all relying on the technology to help them expand their filtration offerings.

At Ahlstrom, needlepunch technology – including its recently added Oerlikon line – is used in the filtration market, namely in baghouse felts. While this market was hit hard by the general economic slowdown last year, which hurt a lot of users of these materials, like cement, asphalt and wood suppliers, executives are starting to see a recovery in many of these areas.

Despite the global recession, filtration suppliers have continued to invest in new technology. Southern Felt, a maker of needlepunch baghouse filters, has recently added a second line in China, and Lydall Performance Materials opened a new needled fiber product operation atits Green Island, NY, USA, facility in mid-2009. The investment gives Lydall a new manufacturing capability to enhance its portfolio of high performance appLY Mat needled glass mat products. These products were developed by Lydall to expand its high temperature insulation product offerings to serve global appliance OEMs in many application areas ranging from premium residential ovens and water heaters to commercial boilers.

Meanwhile, DelStar Technologies has recently launched Alphastar triboelectric media made from a proprietary blend of fibers that are carded and needled into a homogenous felt. “It is designed to maximize air filtration efficiency with low resistance,” says communications manager Marjorie Wilcox.
“The electrostatic properties attract both positive and negative particles which then enhances the media’s mechanical filtration properties.”

Compared to other nonwovens technologies, like spunbond, needlepunch nonwovens offers the uniformity and improved performance in terms of efficiency versus resistance, Wilcox adds. “The high loft of the needlepunch also enhances the media’s dust holding capabilities,” she says.

The electrostatic medium was designed specifically for air filtration applications but DelStar uses needlepunched nonwovens in other composite products. They provide an absorbent layer in Stratex medical wound care products where they are laminated with Delnet apertured films. DelStar also combines needlepunch with layers of its Naltex biplanar netting for fuel filtration media.

Go for geosynthetics
Geotextiles, and the large volume these markets offer, have been huge for needlepunch makers in recent years. While needlepunch lines are flexible enough to handle a range of markets, to meet the needs of geotextiles sector, the line must be a certain width, according to industry experts.

In January, SKAPS Industries, a geotextiles companyin Athens, GA, USA will contract with NSC nonwoven to add a second needlepunch line to focus on growth in the geotextiles market. The line will include Thibeau Excelle batt formation including IsoProDyn and the new A.C.S. systems for high speed crosslapping as well as three Asselin needlepunch looms. The new line will offer high output while maintaining minimum weight variation and improved fiber orientation for consistent strength properties.

SKAPS is a leader in the fabrication of geosynthetic and nonwoven drainage products for environmental and civil use in the US and around the world.

Other recent investments in this field come from Thrace Linq, Royal Tencate and Bonar & Natpet, which is installing a nonwovens production line at their joint venture facility in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia. The new line, scheduled to be installed in early 2012, will strategically be built near Natpet’s polypropylene production facilityThe state-of-the-art, six-meter working width line will be delivered by Asselin-Thibeau. It will include, among its carding and needling equipment, the IsoProDyn and A.C.S technologies.

Bonar Technical Fabrics is aproducer of geotextile fabrics, both woven and nonwoven, with production facilities in Belgium, Hungary, China and Saudi Arabia. This will be its fourth line featuring the Asselin-Thibeau ProDyn system.

All of this investment is expected to continue, once the machine makers are able to catch their breath and fill their backlogs. “The mark is quite stable,” Schlichter says. “It’s not just a short peak that will be going down already so this is a phenomenon we have seen. This seems to be steady on a higher level and it’s different.”