Lean Times Ahead

By Karen Bitz McIntyre, Editor | December 4, 2012

Last month, Veronica Hagen, CEO of PGI Nonwovens, one of the largest—if not the largest—makers of spunmelt nonwovens in the world, made a (not so) startling revelation. It could take until 2016 before the world’s major hygiene markets are able to absorb all of the new spunmelt capacity coming onstream between 2010 and 2013.

The unprecedented expansion of the global spunmelt market that began around 2010 and continues today has been the major news story of the nonwovens industry for the past couple of years. As company after company announced plans to build multiple gargantuan lines around the world, one could only wonder if these companies had some kind of inside information about demand moving forward.

Hagen’s company, for example, has been aggressively adding capacity since it emerged from bankruptcy protection in the early 2000s, adding lines in China, Latin America and North America and acquiring a pretty big European operation.

And, they were not alone. For a time, it seemed that every major spunmelt supplier was adding lines, boasting not only huge capacity numbers but also the potential to make a product that is more uniform, stronger and lighter weight than previous generations. It seemed these companies were responding to their customers’ demand for lower raw material usage, but at what cost?

The markets for diapers and feminine hygiene markets in North America and Western Europe are at near 100% penetration, and as birth rates stagnate or even decline, growth is not likely. While adult incontinence does offer potential for growth, this base is lower. Markets in the developing world, where many of the new lines are being built, do offer lower penetration levels, but unsure economies could hinder market acceptance. Some felt that the capacity expansion was an indication that K-C would eventually outsource more of its nonwovens than it produced in house but that company recently announced plans to exit the European diaper market, meaning, at least for now, its diaper output will decline.

Of course, the supply and demand ratio within the European market will work itself out. Nevertheless, Hagen’s warning should come as no surprise. The rapid rate of spunmelt expansion will offer the market more sophisticated products than ever before but it will mean a couple of lean years for nonwovens producers while they wait for market demand to meet supply.
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