Airlaid Market Positioned for Progress

By Sean Moloughney, Managing Editor | October 8, 2012

Growing demand in the feminine hygiene sector and a strong sustainability story will help move the airlaid market forward.

With the majority of demand for airlaid nonwovens coming from the feminine hygiene market, as well as wipes applications, airlaid nonwovens offer some interesting advantages over other nonwoven technologies, including a sustainable raw material base. However, challenges still persist.

“Despite the global economic woes, airlaid demand continues to grow, especially since its major raw material is biodegradable, sustainable and cheaper than any other,” says Phil Mango, president of Phillip Mango Consulting. “But airlaid capacity has grown very slowly, with only Glatfelter’s Falkenhagen III line (in 2009) being high performance/high quality. This has slowed some market development.”

Feminine hygiene and wipes are currently the most popular applications for airlaid, Mango says, representing about 40% and 28% marketshare, respectively. Food pads and adult incontinence are growing markets, especially for hydrogen bonded airlaid producers, he adds. “Tabletop is a smaller, but important market, especially for latex bonded airlaid; it represents about 14% of the global airlaid market.”

Jens Erik Thordahl, owner of Airlaid Nonwovens System, agrees, saying absorbent products for the feminine hygiene industry dominate the market. “However, I see a growing interest in airlaid material for napkins and covering material for tables. I see a lot of interest in small units for dyeing pulp rolls before the hammermills at the airlaid line. By using colored pulp rolls, it is possible for manufacturers to produce colored airlaid covering materials for tables and napkins.”

Dave Hill, business development manager, Technical Absorbents (TAL), notes that while airlaid nonwovens have traditionally been linked to the food packaging and disposable hygiene markets—and these continue to be principal applications—new directions have opened up.

“As the industry and the technology becomes more sophisticated, TAL has also seen increasing interest from medical products (disposables and wound care) and filter/filtration media manufacturers for super absorbent airlaids,” Hill says.

Most recently, TAL has entered the evaporative cooling apparel market with a superabsorbent airlaid technology. “The fabric is the absorbent core within a three-layer structure that has been designed to provide a cooling effect when wetted,” Hill explains. “The wearer soaks the garment with water before wearing, and through evaporation it provides a cooling effect and reduces the risk of heat-stress when working in hot conditions.”

Advantages & Challenges

Compared to other nonwoven materials, airlaid offers several advantages, experts say. For example, Mango notes, the raw material base for airlaid is “the most sustainable and lowest cost of any nonwovens process.

“Based on trees grown in North America in soil unsuitable for food production with little/no fertilizers or pesticides or irrigation, fluff pulp is significantly cheaper than petroleum-based fibers, which continue to grow in price,” he says.

According to Raymond Dunleavy, marketing, strategy and business development director with Fitesa, typical types of airlaid nonwovens include: TBAL (thermal bond airlaid comprising pulp and thermoplastic bonding fibers or powders); MBAL (multi bond airlaid is TBAL with latex added as a topical dust binder and/or to increase wet strength); and HBAL (hydrogen bonded airlaid that can be bonded without adding thermoplastic or chemical binders by the natural formation of hydrogen bonds between cellulose fibers).

A broad range of raw materials, including fibers, functional powders, binders, and topical coatings, are available for customizing applications for airlaid fabrics in basis weights from 40 to more than 500 grams per square meter, according to Dunleavy. “Like carded nonwovens, airlaid fabrics can use a wide spectrum of fibers: natural, synthetics and blends. In addition, they can also contain a variety of functional powders, such as SAP (Super Absorbent Polymer), odor control powders, anti-bacterial treatments, etc.”

Emerging applications include adult diaper cores, food pads with/without Super Absorbent Fibers (SAF), feminine care panty liners with SAF, and soft, flexible cores.

However, challenges in the airlaid arena include its high cost on a per square meter of fabric basis, due to its relatively high basis weight, even at the low end of its range, he adds. Additionally, its low density makes airlaid expensive to ship due to poor utilization of trucks and shipping containers. Finally, sourcing for fluff pulp raw material is nearly exclusive to North America with only a couple mills in Europe and Asia.

Regarding costs, Thordahl adds, “I see the price of pulp and bicomponent fibers are increasing due to the fact the oil prices are also increasing. The demand to produce cheaper is a big challenge for airlaid producers. They need to find a way to work on reducing waste and energy cost—for example, installation of a system for recovery of energy, waste and easy recipe systems with high line uptime, etc.”

TAL’s Hill notes problems will airlaid have included speed (cost) web uniformity (performance) and weight limitations, together with potential issues associated with dusting and shedding. “However, it is a process in which a wide range of fibers can be used,” he adds. “TAL’s superabsorbent fiber (SAF) has been converted into airlaid fabrics since inception in 1993. The company now toll manufacturers such fabrics via a global network of converters and demand continues to be strong.”

According to Mango, some producers have increased line speeds for airlaid to 400-500 meters per minute, which is almost double spunlace and slower only than spunlaid. “Hydrogen bonded airlaid and festooned packaging make airlaid a very attractive counter to vacuum formed fluff/SAP for diaper cores. Hydrogen bonded airlaid is as thin as Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) DryMax core, is probably cheaper, and rather than replacing the sustainable portion of the core (fluff pulp) it just densifies it. While diaper core has political issues, airlaid is already replacing the same type of structures (vacuum formed fluff/SAP) in food pads and underpads and will continue to do so.”

Demand and Regions

Globally, airlaid demand/supply changes as the global economy shakes, says Mango. “There are two issues. One: there is no real expansion planned and it takes about two years to bring anything on once announced; and two: much of the airlaid capacity today is old, small and/or economically disadvantaged.”

More than 52% of capacity was built before 2000; 24% was built before 1990, he adds. “The learning curve for airlaid is steep; new lines that have failed include Fiberweb Italy (2007), Danish Airlaid Technology (2007) and Lacell (2010). There will be an airlaid shortage within the next five years.”

According to Mango, the two regions with the greatest potential for airlaid are Asia and, perhaps surprisingly, North America. Demand in China and India especially will grow rapidly. Demand for flushable, sustainable wipes in North America will propel the airlaid market on that front. However, in order to succeed in North America, airlaid lines must be state-of-the-art and operated by an experienced company, he adds.

These same requirements hold true in Asia, but must also produce quality suitable for multinational feminine hygiene producers, or they must be low cost producers to compete with foreign competitors, Mango says. As for other regions, the South American market is still small while the Middle East is volatile and can be served from Europe or Asia.

China, India and Indonesia hold great potential for airlaid in the future “due to their large populations, low penetration of hygiene products, and their rising GDP per capita,” says Dunleavy.

In China, airlaid is primarily used in premium feminine care products. “Due to the economic slowdown in the region, consumers are more sensitive to the price. Even though the overall feminine care market is growing in China, the premium segment of this market is more or less flat. The majority of growth comes from mid-tier and economy products.”

Airlaid has a very steep learning curve, says Mango. “Even semi-experienced companies like Fiberweb have had problems. Today, there are very few companies capable of adding new capacity with a high probability of success (Buckeye, McAirlaids, Rexcell and a few others).”

If there is no added quality capacity soon, spunlace will most likely capture the remaining wipes market and airlaid will primarily supply feminine hygiene, he continues. “As global feminine hygiene demand grows, so will airlaid. Tied tightly to the major feminine hygiene producers, profits for airlaid will not be attractive and airlaid will become a niche nonwovens process.”

Cinzia Astorino, sales manager with MAIN S.p.A., (Multilayer Absorbent Innovative Nonwoven), says the price of airlaid has been much lower compared to spunlace. “The main composition of pulp compared to synthetic fibers has also been a preference issue.” The company’s main applications has been hygiene (sanitary napkins, panty liners), food packaging (with or without SAF), tabletops (white and color) and wipes (plain and embossed).

“Due to our good position close to port in the Mediterranean Sea we are able to follow new emerging markets like Turkey, Middle East/Africa and still keep good results in Italy and Northern Europe. The market that at the moment is requiring more material is hygiene, especially material with SAP.

Mattias Wikström, business area manager with SCA Östrand, said his company’s airlaid, Luna, is different from others in that it is produced from HTCTMP and it does not include any thermo bonding agents—instead it is pattern bonded. “We are the worlds only producer of HTCTMP based airlaid for absorption purposes. Our strength is in the fiber and its pattern; we compete with other airlaids, but the technology is somewhat different. In our case, the fiber is the absorption substance and in most other cases the fluff pulp or airlaid is a carrier of an absorption substance. Thanks to the fiber and the pattern our Luna products have unique absorption and wicking properties, giving the end products many advantages. The benefits from using a cellulose fiber as an absorbent is, besides the environmental aspect, that it performs equally well on different types of liquids, whereas super absorbents often have problems with absorbing and transporting, for example, blood.”

SCA’s airlaid is used in several segments, from personal care products to soaker pads. “Today, all segments are growing partly because of a steadily increasing demand for greener products. The interest of eliminating products that include non-renewable substances increases the demand for alternatives. In many markets, environmental profiled products have earlier been regarded as a niche but they are now strongly coming out as standards.”

SCA’s airlaid is used in segments from personal care products to growing media for herbs, cress, etc. “Since we decided to sell this product outside of SCA all segments are growing, mainly because of a steadily increasing demand for greener products. The interest of eliminating products that include non-renewable substances increases the demand for alternatives. In many markets, environmental profiled products have earlier been regarded as a niche but they are now strongly coming out as standards.”