Industrial Nonwovens

By Steve Katz, Managing Editor | October 5, 2011

While wipers are still a market mainstay, new products and technologies continue to emerge.

Industrial nonwovens are versatile.While wipes have typically been the central focus of the market – and are still a major part of the story – there are other products that have recently come on strong. And the case can be made that the industrial sector of the nonwovens industry is as diverse and healthy as it’s ever been.

Industrial nonwovens are used in a variety of non-consumer applications including janitorial and sanitation activities, as well as a wide range of manufacturing scenarios. These products can be used to maintain the safety and appearance of nonresidential buildings, including manufacturing plants and large institutional facilities such as hospitals and prisons, as well as military and other government structures.

Both wet and dry wipes are utilized in the industrial market, though the extent to which each is used varies from market to market. For example, inexpensive dry wipes historically have dominated manufacturing applications (commonly referred to as “wipers”), while wet wipes are prominent in healthcare settings.

However, there are reports that wet wipes are gaining ground. According to Chris Plotz, business development manager for ITW Dymon, the premoistened wipes market continues to grow in the industrial sector. He says, “Wipes are experiencing nearly twice the growth of other forms of cleaning chemicals including bulk and ready-to-use (RTU). More than 90% of cleaning costs are in labor and the convenience of ready-to-use wipes makes cleaning more efficient and cost effective. Sanitization and disinfection are key areas of growth as the products continue to offer the market a ‘need to have’ and not a‘nice to have’.”

The awareness level for these types of products is getting stronger, not only in the U.S., but worldwide, Plotz adds.

According to market research firm The Freedonia Group, demand for wipes used in industrial settings is projected to advance 4.7% annually to $1 billion, or just over 58 billion units, in 2014. “New and innovative offerings providing task-specific performance properties will increasingly replace established cleaning alternatives such as solvents applied to rags or cloth towels,” the firm says, though notes that the higher cost of disposable wipers compared to conventional shop towels will limit gains in highly cost sensitive applications.

However, a recently released Kimberly-Clark commissioned study by Gradient, an environmental and risk science consulting firm, reveals that elevated levels of heavy metals have been found in tested laundered shop towels. These findings could prove to be a boost to the industrial nonwovens market.

The study,“Evaluation of Potential Exposure to Metals in Laundered Shop Towels,” builds upon an earlier analysis published in 2003 and concludes that, even after commercial laundering, the towels studied retain elevated levels of metals. This could result in worker exposures that exceed guidelines, which are based on various health effects, including cancer. Additionally, the tested shop towels may unexpectedly introduce new metals that are not otherwise present in a facility. Based on the calculations discussed in the 2011 Gradient study, a worker may ingest up to 3600 times more lead on a daily basis than is recommended by the California Environmental Protection Agency.

New Pig offers an extensive line of absorbents for the industrial market.
The National Association of Manufacturers estimates that nearly 12 million Americans, or 9% of workers, are employed in manufacturing. Across industries – from equipment manufacturing and printing, to aviation and automotive work, to food and beverage packaging and medical device manufacturing – workers use laundered shop towels for wiping equipment, as well as their hands and faces. Industrial launderers then collect the towels from different workplaces, wash them together and send them out again for use by the same or other businesses.

“Manufacturers face an unexpected worker exposure issue: Workers using just one or two shop towels a day may be exposed to elevated levels of heavy metals, compared to health-based exposure guidelines,” says Barbara Beck, principal at Gradient, who has testified before the U.S. Congress on lead toxicology issues. “Without knowing it, manufacturing workers may be ingesting certain heavy metals at elevated levels from this unexpected source. For some of these metals, the amounts ingested may be greater than allowed in drinking water on a daily basis. Because towels are used and then laundered multiple times and are often delivered to different companies each time, workers may even be exposed to metals that do not otherwise exist in their work environment.”

With health concerns being a significant issue, it could go a long way in helping to overcome the economic hurdle. “The higher cost of certain wipes relative to conventional cleaning products has proven to be more growth-constraining at the industrial level than at the retail level,” the Freedonia Group says. “Less-expensive paper wipes already have a well-established position in manufacturing, food service and other commercial applications and account for a significant share of the industrial sector.

“The industrial market has been somewhat slower to accept wet wipes, due in part to the higher cost these items generally maintain. Initially, costs for conventional alternatives such as laundered shop towels (and liquid chemicals) are typically lower than wet wipes. However, when additional costs are included (transportation fees, labor costs of retrieving and using multiple cleaning items), wet wipes can be cost competitive,” The Freedonia Group says. “As a result of the efforts of many manufacturers to increase efficiency and hold down costs, wipes will continue to penetrate the industrial market. This increased penetration, coupled with continued product development, improved manufacturing activity, and an ever-growing healthcare industry, will propel gains in the industrial market above those forecast for the consumer market.”

Susan Stansbury, director, Converting Influence, notes that there continues to be an emphasis on areas like janitorial-institutional wipers, and at the other end, premium products that deliver value in particular cleaning environments. “In addition,” she says, “Everyone is figuring out how they can offer ‘green’ products that have real meaning, not just ‘hype’,” she says.

So, just how can a company differentiate? This, Stansbury says, is one of the key challenges for converters in the industrial nonwovens market – to involve the changing landscape of new developments rolling out after so many years of“same old” products. “Now, industrial nonwovens products include a full range, from wet wipers to multi-layered and premium task-specific applications. And converters have to offer a greater range of capabilities,” she says.

“Variations on the wiper types of products are rolling out. For example, there are better-scrubbing surfaces delivered by specific types of nonwovens or nonwovens with certain fiber blends. Also,there are more pre-moistened products in markets where previously dry wipes dominated.”

In addition to adding value and becoming more sustainable, cutting costs is another major issue in the industrial nonwovens market.

Jeff Slosman, president, National Wiper Alliance, says, “The industrial sector – like the rest of the industries we work with – is under pressure to reduce costs. The trend is to continue to look for ways to cut costs out of the wipes through lowering basis weights, changing fiber blends or using alternative technologies – as long as it does not diminish the properties of the wipe,” he says.
Most multi-use wipes are made from spunlace or hybrid technologies, and Slosman points out these production properties offer multi-use, low lint and durability. “Though the cost of the wipes are higher on a‘per each’ basis, they are lower than many alternatives when figured on a ‘per use’ basis. Most of the single use disposables are made using airlay or DRC. They offer absorbency, softness and low cost per wipe,” he says.

Talk to a ‘Pigger’
New Pig is a Tipton, PA, based company that epitomizes the crossover from wipes, to additional products, like absorbent mats, in the industrial nonwovens market.

“Our business is about leak and spill prevention and cleanup, and we are seeing that industrial plants and facilities are continuing the trend of turning away from loose clay floor sweep (particulates) and switching to nonwoven contained absorbents like Pig Mat,” says Dan Silver, New Pig’s vice president of product development. “More and more people that work in factories and commercial facilities are reaching the conclusion that using floor sweep to soak up spills on floors is just ‘making a mess to clean a mess.’ Sheets of nonwoven polypropylene absorbents like Pig Mat provide better absorbency and are quick and efficient to use.”

Silver says that Pig Mat is far and away the company’s most popular product. It is a nonwoven meltblown polypropylene sheet that features outstanding absorbency and strength characteristics. “This product is used by over 200,000 sites in over 70 countries in really, every industry you can think of,” Silver explains. “It’s a great example of a disruptive innovation made possible by leveraging the power of nonwovens. When we brought this product to market nearly 25 years ago, most plants were still using clay floor sweep to address liquid messes in their facilities. However, floor sweep is a mess all by itself. It takes time to sweep up and you never really get all the grit and dust off your floor.”

The nonwoven Pig Mat sheets provide better absorbency and are simple to just pick up and dispose of once saturated. “The nonwoven material provides a contained absorbent system rather than an uncontained loose absorbent mess,” Silver says.

One of New Pig’s most recent product introductions – and one that’s getting lots of attention – is Grippy Mat. It starts with the nonwoven Pig Mat but adds a full adhesive coating to the bottom. That means the mat stays flat in place rather than bunching up or curling from foot or vehicle traffic. “It’s another great example of the flexibility that nonwoven substrates can provide. With Grippy Mat, we stitch-bond the material, add a poly barrier layer, and finally the adhesive on the bottom. There seems to be no end to the product configurations you can make or the applications that nonwovens can be applied to,” Silver says. Grippy Mat was recently nominated as a finalist for the inaugural RISE Durable Product Award.

“Our core business is around nonwoven absorbent mats, of which we have dozens of application-specific variants,” Silver adds. “This includes Pig Blue, which is an airlaid cellulose nonwoven mat notable for its exceptional absorbency characteristics. We also use nonwovens as the foundation for other products like absorbent socks, booms and pillows. All of these products start with a nonwoven envelope or skin and have various absorbent fillers for different applications.” New Pig also has an extensive line of wiper products. In addition to its Pig branded wipes, the company carries a large selection from other brand leaders in this category.

Silver emphasizes that the drive for sustainability is playing a major role in product development, and nonwovens are filling the need. “Our customers have been looking at this in two ways: to use products that can be recycled after use; and to buy products that are already made from recycled material streams. Both are possible with nonwovens. For example, many of our customers extract absorbed liquids from the saturated mats and can re-refine those fluids, typically oils. The mats can be incinerated for their BTU value, which is considerable. So they minimize waste accumulation and contribute a positive energy output. In addition, we use recycled materials to make many of our core products, including Pig Mat, which is made of 50% recycled material and Pig Blue, which has up to 70% recycled content.”

New Pig affectionately refers to its employees as “Piggers,” and Silver says that they’ve been quite busy. Thus, business, and the industrial market itself, is good. He says, “Most of our customers make ‘stuff.’ They make machines, parts, cars, planes, tools, food, homes, newspapers – you name it. There are few industrial sectors that don’t use our products. And, when they make stuff, messes happen – and that's where we can help. If our own experience is any indicator, we would say manufacturers are making stuff again.”

Continuing to innovate
Companies in the industrials nonwovens space are not confined to wipers, mats and other products of the like. These products are made with chemicals and additives that enhance their function, or add value – whether it’s through performance, sustainability – or both.

Photo courtesy of National Wiper Alliance

One such company is Dow Construction Chemicals. Drew Williams, application development lead, composites, Dow Construction Chemicals, North America, says the most noteworthy trend is the push for more eco-friendly products and materials. “Whether it’s due to regulations, as is the case with formaldehyde, which the U.S. government recently listed as a carcinogen, or voluntary shifts by corporations seeking to improve their sustainability profile, we see this trend only continuing to accelerate,” he says.

Dow Construction Chemicals anticipated the trend several years ago, and in response, launched its Aquaset Thermosetting Resin Technology platform – which helped enable the first formaldehyde-free line of fiberglass insulation.“Since then, we’ve expanded the scope of applications this formaldehyde-free platform can serve,” Williams says.

The main product lines for Dow Construction Chemicals in the nonwovens industry include Rhoplex Acrylic Binders and Aquaset Formaldehyde-free thermosetting resins.These products offer the high dry tensile strength, flexibility and manufacturing ease needed for a broad range applications.

The company also offers Rhoplex emulsion polymer technology designed for use as coating vehicles in the production of fiberglass and polyester mats. “Our technologies serve nonwovens markets such as insulation, specifically, fiberglass and stone wool applications for batt insulation or sound absorbing applications. We also serve the industrial mats market, which covers a large range of end-use applications, including fiberglass mats for reinforcement for roofing shingles, polyester-based mats, facers for gypsum board, and PVC flooring, along with carpet-backing and ceiling tiles,”Williams explains.

One of Dow Construction Chemicals recently announced innovations is the Aquaset LT Technology Platform, which, according to Christian Herrmanns, strategic marketing manager, Dow Construction Chemicals, North America, is an ideal example of how the company worked with a customer and utilized existing solutions to create a new product for a specific market need.He says, “This platform is an excellent solution for formulators that need a specific balance of rigidity and flexibility characteristics for a broad range of specialty mat applications. Our experts combined the flexibility of our Rhoplex product line with the strength of our Aquaset technology to create Aquaset LT – which can be completely customized to meet the varied and complex needs of specific applications.

“The industrial nonwovens market is very fragmented, and each segment comes with its own unique needs and challenges – there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer,”Williams says. “However, there are also certain performance requirements that are common to nearly all of them, such as flexibility, color and processability.If we start from that base, we can then help customers create customized solutions to achieve their specific performance, sustainability and cost parameters. This is the way we have collaborated with customers over the years, and how we have built our portfolio.”

Like many other industries, the nonwovens industry is working toward improving the sustainability profile of its products, whether it’s reducing VOCs, removing formaldehyde or reducing waste. Since nonwovens are closely tied to the industrial and construction industries, any materials that can adversely affect indoor air quality are subject to increased scrutiny by regulators, building owners, and the end-use customer.

“What we’ve noticed is that when looking for alternative, more sustainable technologies, nonwovens customers will often not just remove potentially harmful materials, but actually rethink their entire formulation,”Williams says. “They see this as an opportunity to either fix minor product shortfalls or introduce added performance benefits – or both. As a result, nonwovens manufacturers are continuing to innovate during a time when you might expect them to sit and wait until better economic times come around.”