Clearly, the overwhelming majority of the world spunlace output is targeting wipes applications and growth of spunlace has largely mirrored the ebbs and flows of the wipes market in recent years. Ten years ago, as wipes applications were exploding on store shelves, spunlace investment was heavy in North America, Europe and the Middle East. More recently, as wipes growth has slowed down a bit in the West, investment in spunlace has also slowed down. At the same time, however, spunlace investment in Asia and other developing markets like Eastern Europe and the Middle East has continued, as has wipes market growth.
“In spite of an already very versatile range of applications, opportunities for growth exist in the market for hydroentangled nonwovens but can only be realized by continuously introducing innovative products following the market’s needs,” says Carolin Weber, sales director, hygiene and wipes for Sandler. “Above all in Asian and Far Eastern markets, as well as in Eastern Europe, an increasing number of market players will continue to provide vivid dynamics in the spunlace market.”
Investments in these regions prove the high growth rates for spunlace will continue as activity in North America and Europe slow down. With current growth levels estimated between 4-5%, a great deal of which is occurring beyond wipes, this market continues to be a strong one.
Suominen Steps Up
Perhaps the biggest story shaping the spunlace market was the surprise sale of Ahlstrom’s Home and Personal business to fellow spunlace manufacturer Suominen in late 2011. After spending years—and millions of dollars—buying up smaller spunlace producers such as Green Bay Nonwovens in Wisconsin and larger players like Fiberweb, as well as purchasing new lines, Ahlstrom had secured its place as the largest manufacturer of spunlace nonwovens globally. Just a few years after its most recent spunlace investment, the Finnish nonwovens producer sold this massive business—including lines in Connecticut, Wisconsin, Brazil, Spain and Italy—to Suominen whose 2010 spunlace sales were under $70 million, significantly less than Ahlstrom’s, which were reported at $390 million.
According to reports, the total value of the transaction was approximately €170 million. Under the agreement, Ahlstrom received €170 million in cash from the deal, of which €30 million was used to purchase shares of Suominen stock, making Ahlstrom the company’s largest stockholder with a minimum stake of 20% and a maximum stake of 28.2% depending on the size of the share issue. Ahlstrom has agreed to a two-year lock-up period for a minimum of 20% ownership in holding its Suominen shares.
At the time of the transaction, executives from both companies said the merged businesses would create an entity that can reinforce its position as the global leader in developing and manufacturing nonwovens for wipes. The new entity is stronger in serving its existing and future customers by offering a comprehensive product range in wipes fabrics as well as a broad market presence.
According to Alistair Brown, director of marketing and communications for Suominen, the merger has expanded the companies’ offerings to the market in terms of technologies, machine operations and manufacturing locations. “The clear impact at this stage is that our customers are buying from one source rather than two,” Brown, who was originally an Ahlstrom executives, says. “We are now also in a better position to serve our global customers due to our wider product portfolio and global presence.”
Six months after the merger, Suominen is now focusing on keeping sales and product development as seamless as possible and striving to keep its customers and suppliers totally up to speed on its combined business. Wipes continue to be the company’s major focus and Brown described this market, particularly in Europe, as “oversupplied.”
“Global spunlace market conditions remain challenging with a general slowdown in demand in most Western economies,” he says. “In the wipes segment, pressures from the retail end of the supply chain mean that margins are difficult to maintain for all elements of the supply chain. Asia and Eastern Europe, including Russia, continue to grow with internal supply as well as from outside.”
The Global Picture
Beyond Suominen, major spunlace players in the developed world include Sandler in Europe, Spuntech in Israel and North America, Jacob Holm in Europe and North America, Albaad and Eruslu in Israel and Mogul in Turkey. Beyond these companies, there are a number of smaller companies in the Far East that are chasing growth in the wipes markets and beyond.
According to machinery and equipment supplier Andritz Perfojet, the spunlace market represents 10% of the total nonwovens market and wipes consumption continues to be the major share of the spunlace market. This demand continues to grow, but pricing and performance pressures have largely driven investment in this cost-oriented market. “Wipes still have the major share in spunlace production and the demand for additional capacity is continuously growing,” says vice president Andres Lukas. “The wipes industry is volume and cost oriented. Therefore, the spunlace nonwoven producers invest in performing solutions in terms of line capacity.”
One recent investment within spunlace was made by Sandler. The Schwarzenbach/Saale, Germany-based nonwovens producer completed work on its third spunlace line in early 2011 to help it expand into wipes as well as more technical applications. The company first entered the spunlace market in 2003 and added its second line a few years later.
“Our latest investment enables us to set new milestones in quality, energy usage and new development possibilities,” Weber explains. “The new line allows us to systematically follow our strategy on highest level quality in terms of product-properties and service as well as flexibility.”
Like most spunlace makers, Sandler admits that wipes continues to dominate and account for the lion’s share of its spunlace business. Challenges in this business have included feedstock developments—changes in optimal raw material mixes—and forging close, cooperative relationships with customers.
One of the areas gaining ground continues to be bio/eco, sustainability or biodegradability as nonwovens producers continue to develop products that are more ecofriendly from the fiber to the production process. Sandler has made the use of appropriate raw materials as well as energy efficient and low emission production lines the center of its attention. One of the results of this focus is its biowipe substrate, bio textile. Developed in cooperation with a key raw material suppler, this product is made from 100% viscose fibers originating from sustainable, responsible forestry which are certified according to PEFC standards.
“For the spunlace sector, the PEFC and FSC labels are becoming more interesting, particularly in light of European spunlace production. With regard to environmental protection and sustainability, latest developments in the industry also offer great potential for spunlaced nonwovens made from manmade fibers,” Weber says.
Additionally, Sandler’s Less is Best to Nature campaign was started in 2008 and has consistently introduced newer, more ecofriendly products to the market. The latest substrates, featuring state-of-the-art technologies, offer low basis weights and soft and gentle textile products with excellent cleaning properties. These products place a strong emphasis not only on energy savings but also raw material reductions.
A Holm Run
Continuing strong in spunlace, is Jacob Holm Industries. The Swiss company has been able to increase its spunlace sales, despite a full production cycle on its three lines, thanks to an improved product mix and better sales volumes, according to executives.
Recent efforts from Holm have focused on making extremely lightweight spunlace materials, now down as low as 15 gsm, to help it gain entry into more non-wipe markets. In fact, a recent analysis revealed that the company has 25-30% of its combined product/sales volumes outside of wipes and this percentage continues to rise. Prevalent markets include baby and adult diapers and feminine hygiene items where lightweight spunlace nonwovens are used to wrap absorbent core materials.
Other areas of interest include a number of key industrial applications where the ability to provide lightweight webs is also valued.
One recent winner is a premium 35 gsm product with physical property characteristics that mirror those of standard 45-50 gsm products currently sold in the marketplace. This has allowed Jacob Holm customers to drive down costs without compromising their product. Additionally, the company has optimized its ability to manufacture lightweight substrates and has developed a new portfolio of lightweight products ranging from 15-25gsm which are ideal for hygiene and various composite applications.
Meanwhile, in wipes, which are still very much a focus for the company, Holm has also successfully commercialized alternate fibers in premium wipes. These alternative feedstocks include 100% cellulosic, regenerated cotton fiber, recycled polyester fiber, extruded soy fiber and PLA fiber. Additionally, Holm is working with partners to develop additional sources of alternative cellulosics.
In addition to new product development efforts, growth will come from future investment. While the company has not yet announced firm plans for additional North American investment, executives have made no secret of the need for additional capacity, meaning a second high capacity line could be announced soon in North America.
Meanwhile, Jacob Holm’s two-line European operation conducts more than 30% of its sales outside of wipes and expects to see this percentage exceed 40% by next year on the heels of growth in hygiene and industrial applications. Jacob Holm sees a brighter future in Europe for “differentiated wipes” where the company can engineer value for customers and leverage its capabilities with away from commodity and standard wipe markets.
As the product portfolio expands, Jacob Holm France plans for specified investments of €4-5 million over next three years, to build new generation capabilities for spunlace.
New Markets Shine
According to Andritz Perfojet, the development of nonwovens in China parallels GDP growth. At the end of 2011, for the first time, the number of people living in cities exceeds those living in rural areas. This shift is leading to more and more Chinese people using disposable fabrics more widely in their daily lives. Acknowledging that the nonwovens industry has great potential, Chinese authorities have developed policies to help spur investment within all types of technologies and spunlace has not missed out on this, according to Lukas. In 2010, there were 160 spunlace lines, representing more than 300,000 tons of installed capacity, running in China.
From an end-product perspective, the Chinese wipes market was estimated at $157 million in 2008 and this figure should reach $230 million by 2013, an increase of more than 46%. This growth potential has translated into strong investment growth.
Andritz Perfojet alone sold eight spunlace lines in China in 2011. The company’s 3.6 meter Jetlace advantage has been particularly popular in China. Additionally, Andritz has sold the widest spunlace line in the world—3.6 meters—in China to BG Filter Group. This line will produce technical fabrics for filtration and geotextile applications.
In addition to Asia, Eastern Europe and Turkey continue to be important market segments. Turkey, in particular, has an advantageous geographical location allowing to serve a number of markets. In fact, both Eruslu and Mogul have recently invested in spunlace technology. “We started our first spunlace line in June 2020 and a second investment is coming onstream right now so a second investment in such a short time shows Mogul’s commitment to this industry,” explains Serkan Gogus, commercial director of Mogul.
The first line is a single card line designed to run cotton and synthetics while the new line has a double car and will triple capacity to 18,000 tons per year.
Wet wipes is a significant part of Mogul’s business, and the company, like many of its counterparts in spunlace, is looking for opportunities for growth in automotives, coating/laminating and filters, Gogus explains.
According to Andritz CEO Didier Vulliet, the development of technical end uses has been a strong growth area for spunlace. While this market continues to represent a minor share, it should be considered for its strong demand growth during the next couple of years. More and more companies are developing and designing new nonwovens for environmental issues such as air or liquid filtration.
Andritz’s Jetlace 3000 technology can finish web after the mechanical needling process to obtain fabrics with more density and smoother surfaces. “Jetlace 3000 is the technology designed for the treatment of technical fibers including high tech applications,” Vulliet says.
Back to disposable applications, strong drivers facing disposable applications include energy savings and higher production capacity and Andritz systems use minimum energy for the production of spunlace nonwovens. The Andritz process has been developed during the past 25 years with particular focus on the energy efficiency and reliability of the equipment and the company has developed and patented a special concept for pre-wetting and first bonding with an energy saving commitment for light and very light webs, according to executives. The three functions of compacting, pre-wetting and first bonding are achieved in one step on the first cylinder to avoid any unnecessary waste of energy. Both pre-wetting and first bonding are performed on an MPC sleeve instead of the conveyor mesh used in conventional technology. Furthermore, the MPC sleeve maximizes transformation of the energy from the water jets into bonding energy thanks to the additional effect of jet rebound.
Also supplying premium machinery to the spunlace market is Trützschler Nonwovens (formerly Fleissner), which has been focusing on its spunlace technology Aquajet since 1995 and has since delivered more than 90 lines around the world. Recent developments have included a special perforating or structuring shell on the spunlace drum. During the structuring process, the web is pressed into indentations by impact of the water jets without damaging the first. The web can be structured on the second drum of an AquaJet and can increase the web’s thickness or make it softer, increasing absorption without sacrificing strength.
For perforating a web, a spunlace drum shell is used with a coarse screen mesh. The impact of water jets on this system does not only bond the fibers which are pushed aside at the curves of the warp wires, creating holes. The perforation by water jets does not damage the fibers and the strength of the web is not reduced.
Meanwhile, in heavier weight webs, higher than 120 gsm, where applications include high quality wipes, table clothes, insulating materials and headliners for automotives, filters and geotextiles, there are increasing requirements concerning the water jet pressure, the jet strips, the configuration of the jet heads and the suction units. A number of AquaJet webs capable of making this technology are already in operation and research and development efforts moving forward will certainly focusing on expanding this scope.
As spunlace machinery specialists continue to figure out how to tailor technology to meet the needs of markets beyond wipes, spunlace manufacturers will certainly shift their focus away from wipes to more technical areas where margins are more attractive and competition is not as stiff.
“There is indeed opportunity for spunlace and for all other nonwovens technologies beyond wipes,” says Suominen’s Brown. “This is in existing markets but also still in untapped markets where nonwovens can bring distinct advantages over other traditional materials. For us, we examine all markets where this opportunity shows itself (and sometimes doesn’t) where we can create convenience for all end users of our materials.”
In spite of an already very versatile range of applications, opportunities for growth exist in the market for hydroentangled (spunlaced) nonwovens but can only be realized by continuously introducing innovative products following the market’s needs.
— Carolin Weber, sales director, hygiene and wipes for Sandler