Drive On with Nonwovens

By Karen McIntyre, Editor | December 2, 2011

Technology advances and changing customer needs open up new pathways for nonwovens in the automotives industry.

Factors helping nonwovens cruise into more automotive applications are many. Minimum mileage regulations are making lightweight materials necessary; green concerns are mandating the raw material flexibility nonwovens can offer and advancements in nonwovens technology are allowing for the creation of aesthetic fabrics.

Beyond lighter weights and lower costs, nonwovens can also offer quieter cabins, improved filtration systems, alternative interior fabrics and many other choices to automotive designers. These attributes are helping nonwovens expand from traditional areas such as truckliners and carpet backings into acoustical areas, headliners, door panels and even in carpet materials. Experts say nonwovens’ role in automotives has no limits. In fact, anywhere a tufted fabric or woven knit is used in a car could someday be replaced with a nonwoven.

“Nonwovens manufacturers, particularly in the field of technical uses, have realized that the automotive application holds great potential for their products,” says Gerhard Klier, sales director of technical products for Sandler.

One example of new developments targeting automotives is the significant efforts to reduce the weight of synthetic absorber nonwovens compared to mixed fiber nonwovens that were more frequently used in the past. “Individual nonwovens can already offer a combination of various properties and thus a standalone solution for parts, which previously had to be assembled from different components. However, new high performance composites can be produced using new or more sophisticated technologies. Last but not least, the possibility of producing single-polymer nonwovens also makes the concept of recycling a reality. With these and other preconditions in place, the textile industry creates sustainable products.”

According to market forecasts, automotive builds are increasing every year as the industry recovers from the economic challenges of a few years ago. This year, builds are expected to reach 11.7 million, and grow even higher to 12.5 million next year. This figure is markedly higher than the 8.6 million builds recorded in 2009 at the height of the economic crisis, meaning that not only are nonwovens increasing their share in the automotives industry, they are benefiting from an expanding market.

As the automotives industry recovers, nonwovens makers can expect to sell more yards and target more applications than ever before. In fact, some would argue the lower volumes of the last couple years could actually help nonwovens’ plight in automotives as lower car builds gave automotive interior designers a chance to step back and examine new materials—like nonwovens. Now that recovery is here, these designers are raring to go, ready to innovate with new materials and designs to help differentiate their automobiles on the market.

“One of the main things that has really come up and has continued has been the increased opportunities that are rising for the use of new materials in automotives,” says Chuck Pelly of The Design Academy, a San Diego, CA-based design firm that specializes in automotives.“The two things helping nonwovens are that they are lightweight and low cost. Nonwovens, especially when they are combined with electronics or special additives, can really stand out.”

A key area where nonwovens is standing out is in smaller and mid-sized cars, which need to be manufactured at a lower price point, while keeping up the aesthetics and tactile feels of more luxurious cars.

“The driving force is really costs and weights,” says Robert Eller, principal of consultancy Robert Eller Associates. “European fuel costs are extremely high so they are really willing talk about grams saved, not just pounds. So if you can offer a solution that is aesthetic and low VOC while offering acoustics and weight saves, they will pay a little more on it.”

The automotive industry’s willingness to pay for innovation is prompting nonwovens manufacturers to focus on this market and many are reporting strong growth in the segment. Foss Manufacturing, for example, a Hampton, NH-based needlepunch nonwovens manufacturer, reports that sales in automotives are set to increase 17% this year and should go up another 15% in 2012 as new programs take hold.

One of these programs is floor carpeting in Chevrolet Malibus, which is changing from tufted to needlepunch substrates in some areas. While a tufted material is still placed on top of the needlepunch in areas where the foot goes, more yardage of needlepunch material means lower costs and lighter weights.

Sandler has focused on acoustical materials as well as a number of other nonwovens materials for automotive applications.

“The majority of fabrics in automotives continues to be knits but more areas are changing over to nonwovens because the look and feel of these materials continues to improve and they are lighter weight, less expensive and often don’t need a foam attachment,” says Foss vice president of sales and marketing Dave Rowell, who adds that any place where there is a need for a nice looking, lightweight product can be filled with a nonwoven if the aesthetics are right.

“We have been working on new product construction, taking some latex coating out of our products and using low melt binder fibers,” he adds. “That helps take some weight out of the car and it helps creating recyclable products. You can’t recycle a product with latex coating.”

Also helping out Foss—and other nonwovens makers—increase their role in cars is equipment technology, that makes more aesthetic looking and feeling, lighter weight and more durable products, all at a lower price points. “We just added a new line three months ago and the products coming off of that line are just tremendous,” Rowell says.

Soft and smooth
Beyond interior fabrics, nonwovens are gaining traction as acoustical components on the underbody of the car where they seem to be winning the war against polyurethane foams. Here, nonwovens are able to retain noise without limiting air flow, due to their porous nature.

The beauty of nonwovens is they are able to offer the moldability of a plastic combined with the hydropholicity or oleopholicity of a treated fabric without the space requirements of foam. All of the properties required in the automotives can be incorporated into the nonwovens, eliminating the need for a finishing treatment.

Foss’ Mudguard is a nonwoven pad that is molded into shape to fit the exterior of the car underneath the wheel wells to lessen noise of pebbles and other road debris hitting the car. “More companies are adding this product to protection and sound,” Rowell says.

Canadian nonwovens manufacturer Texel has also performed well in this area with its Thermofit product since the mid-2000s. This proprietary substrate blends thermoplastic and non-thermoplastic fibers for achieved acoustical properties. This material can be color matched for customer specifications and more recently has been expanded into acrylate blends and other areas that meet the need for recyclability. Recent generations have been targeted at replacing glass and polypropylene composites within the underbodies of cars and are even targeting other areas of the car in need of acoustics like door liners.

“Lately we have seen a growth in underbody development,in demand for natural fibers products andin attempts to make lighter weight products with the comparable properties of the heavier weight components but at a lighter weight price point,” explains automotive sales representative Gale Shipley. “It’s a growing industry and as a result more and more parts in the car are being made from nonwovens as opposed to other technologies.”

In addition to advantages like lower weights and a more environmentally friendly profile, nonwovens also offer manufacturers the opportunity to diversify through fiber choices, deniers, chemical additives, finishes, calendering, treatments, back coatings and colors.

Sandler has spent the past five or 10 years focusing not so much on interior fabrics but acoustical applications inside and outside of the car and has found that nonwovens can offer a combination of various properties.

Klier says the exceptional versatility of nonwovens opens up a new range of possibilities and improvements for OEMS. “The significant efforts to reduce the weight of synthetic absorber nonwovens compared to mixed fiber nonwovens that were more frequently used in the past is a simple example of this,” he says.

Sandler has also focused heavily on acoustical areas where the company has seen expansion into the engine compartment but is also optimistic about nonwovens potential in a number of other areas. One of these is in car seats where nonwovens can contribute to a reduction, or even prevention, of creasing in leather seats.

“The most important tasks ahead will be to further improve the products performance and to develop products from new technologies that are not available today,” Klier says. “We will have to create sustainable products and product strategies, and, last but not least, we will have to communicate the value and significance of these products.”

Reaching the destination
There is no doubt that the nonwovens industry is ready to get more product into cars, but are car makers ready for nonwovens? Most industry experts say yes, that after years of stagnant designs, most designers – now more than ever – are open to new materials, seeking alternative interior fabrics as a way to differentiate their cars.

“I have found that the designers have been very welcoming,” says Dick Walton, president of Micrex, whose company offers machinery to crimp nonwovens and other materials. “I think in some ways it’s because they’ve been shown the same old stuff for years and innovation begins with design. If you don’t want to copy what everyone else is doing, you have to innovate.”

Having just attended the Los Angeles auto show in November,The Design Academy’s Pelly admits that challenges continue to face nonwovens makers trying to target automotives.”There has always been a certain level of secrecy so car makers are reluctant to share what they are thinking with newcomers—like nonwovens makers—so that is a hurdle the industry has to get over.”

To overcome these obstacles, Pelly, who has been promoting nonwovens to automotive designers for years, challenges nonwovens makers to expose themselves as much as possible in the automotives industry, where a new world of open sourcing has opened up. “Designers are entering all kinds of new areas that weren’t there before,” he says, citing the Nissan Volt, a car that uses a number of new interior materials like white panels with graphics. “It doesn’t take much imagination to see that they could be using a nonwoven at some point.”

The stigma that nonwovens are cheap or throwaway materials is another challenge facing the nonwovens industry, which explains why some industrial-focused companies are abandoning their disposable hygiene businesses to focus on more durable applications. To be considered serious, these nonwovens makers need to show automotive makers that nonwovens are not just disposable products but serious competition to wovens and knits.

“Whatever it takes to get samples of new materials into these designers hands should be done,” Pelly says. “They need to see the benefits, not associate it with cheap.”

Sandler’s Klier has found that designers and developers are realizing more and more that nonwovens in technical uses offer them a broader range of applications. “Already, today, the prudent and targeted use of these products helps to markedly reduce weight, emissions, odor and fogging,” he says. “Moreover, technical textiles already fulfill various highly demanding fire standards. In my opinion, there are more and more open minded designers and developers who are open to utilizing nonwovens.”

Of course, environmental responsibility is helping designers notice nonwovens, not only for their ability to be recycled but also for the ability to be made from recycled products.

“A certain percentage of recycled materials is already used in products and also in nonwovens in automobiles. Our approach is to treat reusable materials, such as products made of polyester which circulate in large quantities, in the same way at the end of their lifetime as to allow for new and above high quality products to be made of them. Nowadays, this is already done through the recycling of polyester bottles into fibers,” Klier says.

Whether the product is made from a recycled fiber or a natural fiber, the story of ecofriendliness is always a good one to tell and many nonwovens companies from Freudenberg’s Lutrador brand to Foss’ Ecofi fibers are relying more on recycled polyester fibers, sourced from both PCR and PIR streams, for their raw materials, creating a green story without upping the cost to consumers, who often like being green, but not enough to pay for it.

“When it comes to gas mileage, even weight ingram increments, not ounces, are the means used to makethe difference,” Texel’s Shipley says. “This is opening the doorway for nonwovens and other competing materials in automotives.”

Stability, breathability, flexibility and acoustic abatement are just some of the roles nonwovens are playing as they penetrate more and more automotive interior applications.
However, even needlepunch nonwovens can sometimes not be light enough to meet the needs of automotive makers. At some point, the thinness due to lack of fibers will sacrifice quality. Texel is meeting this challenge by combining technologies or by developing the entire part not just a component of the part. Adhering aspunlace, spunbond or film material to very lightweight needlepunch imparts uniformity as well as the meeting the remaining physical properties that theneedlepunch componentsupplies.”

Even in areas where nonwovens are not fully accepted, they are being used as scrim backings to support woven or tufted fabrics that might be thinner than previous generations. Even though these nonwovens are not the primary fabric of the applications, they still serve an important function, whether they need to filter light, provide structure, limit noise or protect key parts of the vehicle.

“The most important tasks ahead will be to further improve the products’ performance, to develop products from new technologies which are not available today,” Klier adds. “We will have to create sustainable products and product strategies and, last but not least, we will have to communicate the value and significance of these products. A further challenge will be to demonstrate the possible applications even more clearly to the OEMS.”

In addition to research and development, companies can achieve this by establishing close and vivid partnerships with customers and potential buyers to find the right balance between the customers’ needs and requirements and translating them into usable products. “Fostering the cooperation with research institutions and universities is another vital measure,” Klier adds. “Today, more than ever, it is important for the automotive industry to know their suppliers are reliable and economically stable partners.”

Meanwhile, at Foss, the focus will continue to be on improving its product to entice car makers. “Aesthetics are the big obstacle when in comes to nonwovens in automotives,” Rowell says. “People want a luxurious looking car but knits are more expensive, so the more we can create a nonwoven with aesthetic appeal, the better chance we have of getting new products in the car.”