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Nonwoven Fibers: Flexing with Innovation



In the face of pricing sensitivity, producers are using fibers to lead the nonwovens market into new territories.



By Karen Bitz McIntyre, Editor



Published June 6, 2012
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Nonwoven Fibers: Flexing with Innovation
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In nonwovens, there seems to be two things on everyone’s minds—costs and environmental impact of the final product—and fiber suppliers are addressing both of these issues with a range of new products.

When it comes to costs, fiber suppliers are generally guided by the economic principles of supply and demand. This dependence rocked the cotton market last year when lower supply could not keep up with demand, driving pricing higher than ever and forcing many nonwovens users to change direction. Higher prices have also been the case with petroleum-based fibers and resins like polyester and polypropylene, which have felt the impact of higher crude oil prices. In these areas, fiber makers are trying to develop innovative products to add value or to allow their customers to achieve more with less.

“The fact is we cannot influence the rising raw material costs and, of course, we must pass these on to our customers,” says Hartmann Huth, chairman business unit staple fibers, Trevira. “Since we are working in a context of global competition, however, the market environment defines the extent to which this is possible. Therefore, we have to manufacture, on the one hand, as effectively and resource-conserving as possible—on the other hand, it is vital that we offer our customers an added value along with our products, which makes us and the customers somewhat independent from raw material price increases at short notice.”

Innovations are coming in many forms in the fiber market. Whether they want something that has had another life as a plastic bottle, an oil-based synthetic substrate that promises uniformity and predictability or something based on natural resources like cotton or rayon, nonwovens producers are using fibers to take them to places they’ve never been before.

Cotton To It

The past couple of years have been a roller coaster of supply and demand for cotton. The fiber’s ties with mother nature have at the same time given it pleasing associations with softness and purity but also tied it heavily to the whims of weather patterns and agricultural trends. At the same time, a longer lifecycle makes it difficult to respond quickly to fickle market demands.

According to Jan O’Regan, supply chain manager for Cotton Incorporated, cotton’s troubles started in the fall of 2008. At that time, it seemed that cotton’s place in the nonwovens industry—particularly for wipes—was solid. Most major nonwovens producers had upgraded their filtration systems to accommodate cotton, a record harvest was on the books and the global economic crisis made demand for cotton in many markets come down. Cotton farmers had a major surplus on their hands.

“These were good times for wipes,” she recalls. “Pricing was low, down in the 50 cents per pound range, cotton could offer companies something new and different and the performance of these products was great.”

However, the global drop in demand led farmers to pull back on cotton in spring 2009, focusing instead on corn and soybeans, meaning that the fall 2009 harvest was small, even though Chinese demand was spiking. This drove cotton prices to record highs, more than $2 per pound, in 2010 and 2011. “The problem with agricultural products is they cannot respond quickly to rapid economic changes,” says O’Regan. “The last year was a rough year to pitch cotton in almost any market, but now we are through it and it’s time to go back and pitch it.”

These pitches will surely be helped by current pricing levels, which are in the high 70 cents per pound range, thanks to an oversupply situation globally. “Cotton is back down to reasonable levels and it will stay there for a while,” says Lawson Gary of TJ Beall. “People who are considering taking cotton out of their products should reconsider because volatility risk is all but gone and consumer preference for cotton is still very high.”

TJ Beall has crossed a number of research and development hurdles that could help cotton branch out into a number of new markets. The company’s Zero Chemical cotton uses a mechanical cleaning process that removes impurities without the use of bleach. Calling it the only natural polymer that can act as a plastic replacement, Gary explains, “This product is hydrophobic so it can be utilized to replace any existing hydrophobic layer in feminine hygiene and diapers, which is absolutely new territory for cotton.”

While cotton is generally thought of as being absorbent, it is actually the chemical treatments—absent in Zero Chemical—that make it hydrophilic. “We use it in its natural state and clean it to the point where it does not have to be bleached,” Gary adds.

While Gary could not be specific, TJ Beall is already close to finalizing a deal to place Zero Chemical into an absorbent hygiene product, but for now the fibers are present in a number of bedding and furniture applications where advantages such as low cost, softness, efficient processing and efficient carding have added to its attractiveness.

George Hargrove, vice president for Barnhardt Manufacturing, a Charlotte, NC-based marketer of bleached cotton, says that cotton has been able to keep its status as a preferred fiber in product ranges in feminine care, baby care and medical devices despite the aberration in prices seen in 2011.

Blaming underreported reverses in China, an embargo on exports of cotton by India and flooding in Pakistan for the pricing spikes, Hargrove agrees use ratios are now beginning to reach levels that have demonstrated lower price points than in the past. “New opportunities for cotton are beginning to surface,” he says. “Retailers and consumer companies recognize the consumer passion for cotton due to their long-term connection with cotton in many of their everyday products.”

He adds, “Markets such as diapers, incontinence products and feminine hygiene products that currently incorporate film or synthetic fibers next to the skin are now open to the integration of cotton nonwoven containing substrates due to performance and consumer preference.”

Barnhardt remains bullish about natural fibers in general and has recently entered into an agreement with NAT to process  Crailar Flax product for downstream customers, including brands such as Hanes, Target, Georgia-Pacific and many others. The appeal of this agreement will allow both Barnhardt and NAT to leverage the synergies of innovation and technology to markets they serve, Barnhardt explains.

“The growth in natural fibers in nonwovens is being driven by the focus on sustainability championed by retailers and consumers.  This has had a domino effect throughout the supply chain pointing everyone toward Natural Fibers. As environmental regulations regarding landfill management and disposability become more pronounced, the demand for biodegradable fibers will continue to escalate, creating opportunities for fibers such as flax, which has been around for centuries. The Crailar technology developed by NAT has created a flax product that can now be utilized commercially in nonwovens.”

Everybody Loves Lenzing

Cellulose-based fibers  have become the darling of the current wipes industry as they offer a very strong sustainability profile  without the pricing volatility recently seen with cotton. The worlds leading producer of Viscose and Tencel—the Lenzing Group headquartered in Austria—has been a trendsetter in this industry for decades and executives are basing its expansion strategy on the theory of the cellulosic gap predicting an increasing demand of cellulose based fibers.

Lenzing’s Viscose and Tencel are used in textile as well as nonwovens application  and the company is strongly committed to the nonwovens industry with approximately 30% of its fibers going into these applications. Beyond the main market of wipes, Lenzings fibers already play a role in  feminine hygiene, medical  and technical  applications and  Lenzing keeps reaching out for new applications such as  beauty masks,  according to Nick Hrinko, nonwovens marketing director US.

“Wipes is the largest market for us and we are currently looking at ways to improve our products’ performance in wiping efficiency and lotion management.  Additionally we  target  new segments,” he says. “We are actually looking   at increasing our presence  in the  hygiene and medical markets and generating new innovative products that fit and provide value in this segment.”

Lenzing has been and continues to  expand its capacity, of both Tencel and Lenzing Viscose globally,  aiming at a fiber capacity of 1.2 million tons in 2015.

Beyond expanding its capacity Lenzing  continues to be  an active partner for the supply chain in several aspects, Hrinko adds. “We are  engaged  in  identify ing  ways to help our supply chain becoming more of a value added partner to their customers. We believe that our customers play a major role in  the choice of the fiber components of a fabric and it is our aim to provide them with information relevant for their choice,” he says.  “Consumers are trying to make correct  purchasing decisions but indicate a lack of information on how to make the right choice. We are trying to fill that gap with information based on certifications.”

Hrinko explains. “The mega trends are with us, sustainability is taking on a more serious role in major consumer companies as well as  with  consumers. We are  able to offer our customers  third  party  certifications as consumer want more transparency in how a product is made and what it contains.”

Tencel, one of Lenzing’s botanical fibers made from the natural raw material wood, has  recently earned the right to bear the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) biobased product label, showing potential customers that the cellulose-based fiber meets the requirement of the government’s new BioPreferred program.

The overall purpose of the USDA BioPreferred program is to promote the increased purchase and use of biobased products and is expected to promote economic development, create new jobs and provide new markets for farm commodities in the U.S. It is also intended to reduce petroleum consumption, increase the use of renewable resources and better manage the carbon cycle. Thus, it may contribute to reducing adverse environmental and health impacts.

The award, which has also been earned by cotton maker T.J. Beall means that Lenzing can now use the 100% biobased label to showcase its products’ environmental profile. In February, President Obama signed a memo requiring the federal government to give preference to biobased products when making purchasing decisions. All biobased amount claims are verified by independent labs and monitored by the USDA so consumers can feel secure in the accuracy of the biobased amount being reported.

“The biobased label is latest in a series of third party certifications that Lenzing has received during the last several years,” says Hrinko.  “This certification helps the entire nonwovens supply chain with their choice for certified products as well as to provide the consumer with the assurance that the USDA and other federal agencies stand behind the accuracy of the label claim,” he mentions. “Additionally, this certification is expected to increase domestic demand for renewable resources.”

Synthetics Still Shine

Polyester and polypropylene, both synthetic, oil-based fibers, have had significant roles in nonwovens for a long time. Polyester has a strong place in many industrial areas like bedding and fiberfill, construction and roofing markets and automotives and is even penetrating disposable areas like floor cleaning cloths and wipes. At the same time, polypropylene enjoys a solid place in the hygiene market where it is often the preferred choice in many diaper applications.

While these two materials don’t enjoy the same status as natural fibers when  it comes to environmental concerns, executives say these synthetics do have a green story.

Currently, about one-third of the molecules present in polyester are based on bio materials and there are a lot of projects underway for the other two-thirds of the molecules, explains Mark Ruday, vice president of DAK Americas’ fiber division. “Polyester has the potential to be very sustainable in the future as advancements are made in the technology. Also, it’s very recyclable which is something that is very important.”

While polyester has faced some challenges—like the economic slowdown and Chinese competition—in fiberfill applications, much of DAK’s business is in floor cleaning cloths, like Swiffer, and in acquisition/distribution layers in diapers, businesses that have been able to remain stable in spite of economic volatility.

Polyester supplier Trevira offers fibers for airlaid, wetlaid spunlace and carding technologies and is focusing on growing in markets like hygiene and filtration. Like DAK, sustainability continues to be a high priority for the German company, something it is achieving through the development of products made from biopolymers as well as through the incorporation of recycled materials.

“We notice a general trend towards ‘greener’ products,” says the company’s Huth. “This is limited, however, by the fact that the product has to show the same quality and performance as the conventional one, and should possibly not cost more. This makes it of course difficult to substitute current products by more sustainable solutions.”

For Trevira, the key to success in the international competition is a high flexibility and a great product variety. This begins with the raw material. The option to offer custom-made fibers via raw material modifications plays a vital role here. “As a typical example I would like to mention permanently flame-resistant polyester fibers,” Huth adds. “When we process the various raw materials in our diversified production, we can manufacture homopolymer fibers, hollow fibers, bicomponent fibers, spun-dyed fibers, long- and short-staple fibers.”

Meanwhile, polypropylene has focused on developments that lower the amount of materials needed per unit, improving not only the green profile but the cost efficiency of the final product. “Customers are definitely looking for more sustainable solutions and PP fibers can be a major part of these solutions,” says Karena Cancilleri, director of Hygiene Products, FiberVisions. “The approach taken by FiberVisions and ES Fibervisions is to develop higher-performing products that make the final consumer end product more sustainable. For example, efforts to reduce basis weight leads to products that use less material and ultimately require fewer resources. Furthermore, PP itself is a polymer with low greenhouse gas emissions and low energy consumption to produce.”

Some examples of Fibervisions’ innovations in recent years include: PP/PET and PE/PET bicomponent fibers for various airlaid and carded applications, special finish for airlaid fibers that reduces dusting in nonwovens containing fluff pulp, eccentric core PE/PP bicomponent fibers for enhanced bulk in air through bonded nonwovens, soft and fine PP fibers for carded spunlace nonwovens for wipes and sanitary applications, fine PP fibers for carded thermal bond applications and monocomponent PE binder fibers for binding natural and recycled materials for insulation and similar high loft materials.