The nonwovens industry continues to progress and evolve, growing an estimated 5-6% globally per year, thanks in part to technological innovation and emerging market opportunities.
In an effort to provide information on the entire range of nonwovens bonding and converting technologies, INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, Cary, NC, hosted its inaugural Converting and Bonding (CAB) Conference in Greenville, SC, in April.
With its roots in INDA’s successful Needlepunch Conference, CAB encompassed all bonding technologies plus the addition of converting. The new conference covered the entire range of nonwoven bonding technologies, including needlepunch, spunlace, chemical, spray, foam, powder, stitch, thermal, through-air and ultrasonic. Industry experts also discussed the latest trends and developments in sustainability, raw materials and governmental affairs.
“We saw a need for a conference that was a blend of technology and business,” says Rory Holmes, president of INDA. “We offered the Needlepunch conference every two or three years and it was very specific about that single bonding technology. So we’ve decided to expand that to cover additional kinds of bonding, but also to reach out to a larger audience. This Converting and Bonding conference has done exactly what we wanted.”
Holmes indicates INDA attendance for CAB more than doubled from the last Needlepunch conference and attendees were much more diverse in their professional background.
So far, attendees have offered “fantastic feedback” regarding the conference’s content and the quality of its speakers, Holmes adds. “We’re anxious to see the results of our post-conference survey. I hope we get a lot of people to give us their thoughts, both positive and negative, and in-between, because that’s how we can modify and fine-tune this event for future offerings.”
Since INDA also hosts the IDEA (International Engineered Fabrics Conference & Expo) show every third year, CAB might serve as a good conference offering for the other two years—with a new technology focus from year to year. However, INDA continues to evaluate its strategic plans, Holmes says. The next IDEA show will be held April 23-25, 2013 in Miami Beach, FL.
Industry Challenges & Emerging Opportunities
Discussing dynamics impacting the nonwovens industry, Holmes says the economic situation in Europe represents the biggest challenge.
“The potential of a country-wide default [in Greece] is terrifying,” he says. “We really can’t do much about it, but we can certainly keep track of what’s going on. The cultural changes required in Europe are pretty significant. I think Germany has done a good job in advance of the curve, but when you look at Greece and Portugal and Ireland it’s difficult. And a cultural change is going to take time.”
Looking for some good news amid the turmoil, Holmes adds that, “change usually comes following crisis; and they’re in a crisis. We see that as our biggest risk. In our own INDA budgeting that’s our number one risk element, is what’s going on in Europe.”
Meanwhile, in North America, the NAFTA region has emerged from the Great Recession, albeit very slowly. “Slow growth is better than no growth at all,” Holmes adds.
Developing countries like China and India represent emerging opportunities for the nonwovens industry. “There’s been a real sea change within China, where the Chinese people themselves are looking to the West—to the US and Europe—for products of known quality because, I guess, they’re concerned about the quality of the products made in China. And so there may be opportunities for our products positioned as premium products, high quality products, within the domestic market in China. I think the same thing will happen in India but at a slower pace. India is basically where China was 20 years ago in terms of the nonwoven industry and its development.”
According to Holmes, growth in the nonwovens industry is tied to gross domestic product (GDP) and personal purchasing power. “We see a very linear correlation between gross domestic product and personal purchasing power and the amount of nonwoven fabrics that the population buys. China is the second largest economy in the world now. And I think the opportunities are rife there for our distribution of nonwovens products.” INDA forecasts 11% growth per year for nonwovens in China and 10 percent in India.
In addition to its recently issued spunlace report (see page 20 for more information), INDA intends to reissue its China report this summer. The association is also working with Brussels, Belgium-based international nonwovens association EDANA to produce a worldwide nonwovens report. The release of a new report on medical nonwovens in Europe is also imminent, Holmes says.
The balance of supply and demand around the world, in terms of technology, also continues to keep INDA’s attention. “A few years ago there was a major upset in the hygiene business and basically there was a significant over-supply in Europe of spunbond/spunmelt-type technologies. I think that is working its way out with the shutdown of older equipment and some increase in the amount of hygiene products that are demanded there. The balance of supply and demand is fairly good here in North America. I think it’s a little out of whack in Europe.”
Looking at nonwovens applications, Holmes notes that battery separators represent a fast-growing market, saying work on lithium ion batteries in terms of performance and longevity continues to improve. “I think there’s really a lot of innovation and technological demand in that area.”
On the consumer products side, growth in the hygiene market has stalled. However, the wipes area has been in “an unbelievable growth mode.” While the market has been slowing down a bit, growth was as high as 25-30% per year before the recession.
“The market didn’t really shrink during the Great Recession, which I think is a comment on its strength and sustainability,” Holmes offers. INDA estimates the North American wipes market at $700 million.
Other markets such as filtration, medical, military, alternative energy, automotive, geotextiles, building/construction and protective barriers continue to offer nonwovens producers new opportunities.
Growth in these segments will be tied, in part, to innovation and technological advancements. Holmes notes combinations of nonwovens technologies in the industry that have never been seen before. Traditionally, nonwovens technologies in spunmelt systems (spunbond, meltblown, calender bond) and spunlace systems (carding, cross-lapping, hydroentangling, through-air drying) are all very known and reproducible kinds of technologies.
However, Holmes says, “companies are putting together combinations of technologies that have not been combined before. That’s innovative. It will solve technical problems. It will offer fabric properties that weren’t available before.”
Holmes points to a recent Jacob Holm announcement that the company can make 15 gsm spunlace. “That’s not been known before.”
Additionally, Andritz announced it is offering a spunmelt system with hydroentangling, calendering and through-air drying bonding in-line. “You couldn’t buy all that from a single entity before,” Holmes notes. “I believe the combination of technologies will continue and that will open up new applications and new product lines around fabric properties that can be achieved through these combinations.”
“Nonwovens are performing at a much higher level than a decade ago,” according to John Leary, of J.M. Leary Associates, who presented on “Value Added Converting Possibilities for Nonwoven Technologies.” Growth in the nonwovens sector will continue, he adds. “The question is: how are you the nonwoven manufacturer going to participate in that growth?”
Moving into the future, Holmes predicts nonwovens producing companies will get larger, either through mergers and acquisitions or investments. He also highlights the global nature of nonwovens, noting, “the industry is doing well in North America and we anticipate continued growth,” also adding, “the nonwovens industry is a global industry and will grow around the world.”