Spunlace: Life Beyond Wipes

By Karen McIntyre, Senior Editor | March 11, 2013

While the wipes market continues to dominate, more spunlace makers are looking for new application areas to fuel growth.

The spunlace market continues to grow between 4-5% annually thanks to a combination of growth in the technology’s core market—wipes—as well as diversification into new areas. While most spunlace manufacturers admit that the bulk of sales continue to be tied to the wipes market, which continues to experience growth and diversification, many say that eroding margins and other macroeconomic factors are influencing their move into new markets.

Successful navigation into new markets is not without its challenges, however. Not only does this often require machinery modifications, often competition is just as heavy in these new markets.

“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 Caroline Weber, sales director hygiene and wipes for Sandler.

With three spunlace lines in operation, Sandler continues to diversify its spunlace business outside of wipes. “Spunlace technology is advancing by offering fibrous textiles for most different applications,” Weber explains. “Sandler’s wide-spread portfolio is allowing us to consider the spunlace technology for most products in diverse markets like hygiene, homecare and technical applications allow us to cross functionally develop utilizing all kinds of technology for most diverse products.”

Still, the wipes market continues to dominate and accounts for the lion’s share of Sandler’s spunlace business. The challenge in this market is catering to the many sub-markets. “Key requirements vary—softness and skin friendliness being at he forefront for baby care and cosmetics products while tensile strength and absorptive capacity are paramount in industrial and household cleaning,” Weber explains.

Didier Vulliet, managing director technology, nonwovens  for machinist Andritz Perfojet reports that the wipes market segment still represents the major share of spunlace production and the demand for additional capacity is constantly growing. “The wipes industry is so far a volume- and cost-oriented market segment. Therefore the spunlace nonwovens producers invest in performing solutions in terms of line capacity and cost efficiency,” he says. “Fabric weight is also a key trend. Producers are targeting lighter fabrics with a good multi to cross directional ratio.

Andritz’ answer is its unique ISOjet system, which provides a full capability to influence nonwovens cross directional tensile properties after the carding machine on light basis weight fabrics. In addition, wetlace is an ideal process for the production of flushable wipes from 100% natural and/or renewable raw materials without chemical binders. The process has been analyzed meticulously in respect to energy and water consumption.

In search of new markets

During the past several years, a slowdown in growth of the global wipes market, combined with an aggressive rate of spunlace investment from manufacturers in the Middle East, Europe and the Far East has contributed to an overcapacity situation in the European spunlace market.

Industry watchdogs report that supply within Europe is outpacing demand by about 20,000 tons per year, following new lines from Sandler in Germany and Mogul and Eruslu in Turkey. There has been some downsizing, namely from Suominen, which closed one line in Finland in July, and before that some streamlining from former owner Ahlstrom in 2009-2010.

“As you might expect, the price of roll goods remains under downward pressure as a result of overcapacity,” says Alistair Brown, director of marketing and communications for Suominen. “As the market grows, some of this will be dissipated over time.”

As the world’s largest producer of spunlaced nonwovens, Suominen remains committed to supplying the broadest range of nonwovens, adding customer value wherever possible through close collaboration.

“We enjoy the largest range of available technologies covering wetlaid, thermal bond, airlace, hydroentangled, SPC Nonwovens, carded and composite structures,” Brown explains. “While we are the largest producer of nonwovens for wipes, we are also heavily involved in other growing market segments.”

Outside of wipes, existing and potential markets for spunlace include medical, hygiene and other markets where nonwovens can bring added advantages over textiles and paper. These markets are expected to become more important to spunlace makers as the overcapacity situation continues. In fact, some would say that never has a greater need for more innovation and product development existed in this market.

At the forefront of these efforts is Norafin. This company spun itself off from Jacob Holm about five years ago to focus on more technical applications, leaving Holm, at the time, to focus on wipes.

“The spunlace technology offers various benefits for technical markets,” says Norafin spokesman Eveline Salem. “Just as an example, we were able to place our products in the composite market thanks to product features such as tear-resistance, durability, homogeneity of the material as well as surface weight and drapability. These are characteristics, which are needed in that segment.”

Within protective apparel Norafin now offers a durable, lightweight spunlace nonwoven that provides significantly increased arc protection performance compared to leading competitive materials.

Boasting that this material achieves equivalent (or improved) performance at approximately 45% lower basis weights than competing materials, Salem adds that Norafin’s unique production process creates a three-dimensional web as opposed to a two-dimensional web via traditional cross lapping.  “This leads to products with excellent uniformity, loft and strength,” she says. “We offer a full range of flame retardant spunlace products created in this manner of various fiber types and structures which are used in protective apparel today. In filtration, our spunlace nonwovens show a constant filter surface characterized by a higher number of finer pores and a homogeneous cross-sections, which leads to an increased filter performance. These examples illustrate that spunlace nonwovens can be adapted to various market segments thanks to their wide-ranging product characteristics.”

Reporting a lesser reliance on wipes is Jacob Holm Industries, the same company that a few years ago spun off its technical division to focus on this very market. While the bulk, 65-70%, of its output is still sold to the wipes market, the Swiss company’s efforts to diversify beyond wipes during the past couple of years have been both strong and successful. One winning market for the company has been the hygiene market for diaper components and feminine hygiene applications. According to company executives, efforts in these markets have helped the company increase its sales without adding capacity.

Jacob Holm has not added a new line since 2006 when it added a large line in North Carolina, which has been running at sold-out status for several years. Instead of line investment, Holm has expanded its processing capabilities beyond lightweight hygiene applications to deliver mid- to heavy-weight products for industrial applications like automotives, apparel and furniture, areas that have used needlepunch fabrics. Meanwhile, in wipes the company has developed 100% synthetic wipes with apertured or smooth surfaces for disinfectant applications as well as premium lightweight wipes.

Andritz Perfojet reports that more of its customers are interested in technical applications. “This market segment currently represents a minor share but should be considered a growth segment with increasing demand in the coming years,” says Vulliet. “More and more companies are developing and designing new nonwovens for environmental issues like air or liquid filtration.”

Perfojet’s Jetlace 3000 hydroentanglement technology is most of the time the unique solution for finishing treatment of the web after the mechanical needling process. The main target is to obtain fabrics with higher density and smoother surfaces. Jetlace 3000 is the technology designed for the treatment of technical fibers including high tech applications by continuous filaments.

In  2011, Andritz Perfojet  built the widest hydroentanglement line ever, which was sold to the BG Filter Group in China. This  spunjet line has a working width of 6.6 meters and is dedicated to the production of technical fabrics for the filtration and geotextile industries.

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 them 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 focus 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.

The green guard

Some will argue that nowhere is the lifecycle analysis of a product so important than in the wipes market. Consumers need reassurance that they are not unnecessarily contributing to the global waste problem when choosing a wipe over a resusable textile or other cleaning tool. Therefore, spunlace manufacturers have been challenged with upping the ecological profile of their materials so their customers in the wipes market can appear more environmentally friendly.

For Sandler, this trend led to the creation of its  “Less is Best to Nature” campaign, which was started in 2008. The company’s latest substrates feature low basis weights and are soft and gentle textile products with excellent cleaning properties, simultaneously placing strong emphasis on energy and raw material usage.

Biotextile by Sandler, a bio wipe substreate, was developed last year with one of the company’s raw material suppliers. The substrate is made entirely from viscose fibers originating from sustainable, responsible forestry. These fibers are made from European origins, minimizing the carbon emissions used in transportation and fibers as well as the nonwoven substrate are certified according to the PEFC standard. ”With regard to environmental protection and sustainability, latest developments in the industry also offer great potential for spunlaced nonwovens made from manmade fibers like the polymer PLA which is based on lactic acid.

“We continue to strive to reduce energy consumption in every area of our company and with sustainable products in all of our markets,” Weber says. “The latest spunlace production line is furthering that goal. Ongoing new developments in cooperation with our partners do not only focus on products but, among others, also on raw materials, means of transportation and the resulting CO2 emissions.”

At Suominen, sustainability has been the key driver in product development for several years and the company’s key products in this area include Hydraspun and Hydraspun Sispersible subsrates as well as the Biolace nonwovens product offerings in addition to the increased usage of raw materials from sustainable and renewable sources. “Additionally, developing lower grammage substrates is another way Suominen has been able too offer more sustainable solutions to the marketplace.

As environmental awareness grows manifold within various sectors and the advantages of the natural fibers characteristics are becoming more prominent, Norafin ventured into flax fiber processing and introduced the material into the hydroentangling process a few years ago.  “The flax nonwovens created can be used as components in composites and offer a great deal of advantages for various applications thanks to the nonwovens texture and properties such as smooth surface and wood-like optical appearance,” Salem says. “The spunlaced flax nonwoven offers benefits that can be used in various markets such as window shades applications or ecological roofing membranes.”

From a production standpoint, main trends in the spunlace industry focus on line production capacity and energy savings. Spunlace producers involved in disposable fabrics are looking for solutions in producing state-of-the-art nonwovens at high production capacities while reducing energy consumption at the same time. Andritz has focused for several years on meeting these customer requirements and is currently ready to offer new solutions to the industry.

One major development has been the Andritz neXline wetlace, a line concept that links Küsters wetlaid and Perfojet hydroentanglement technologies. The design of the neXline wetlace integrates all water consuming processes in a way that the majority of the process water is re-entered back into the system and provides optimum performance and energy efficiency. Also for the spunlace market, Andritz Nonwoven has introduced the IsoWeb TT card, which generates cross-directional physical properties at line speeds and capacities above traditional web forming systems.

Emerging markets gain influence

During the past two years, Eastern Europe and The Far East as well as Turkey have been the most active areas in terms of investments; additionally Turkey has been a very dynamic investor, according to Andritz’s Vulliet.

In China, alone, in fact, there are at least 160 lines, representing 300,000 tons of spunlace capacity largely serving the Chinese wipes market, which was estimated to reach $230 million this year.

“The development of the Chinese nonwovens market follows GDP growth and also the fast evolution of lifestyle. Chinese people use more and more disposable fabrics and can be widely found in their daily life,”  Vulliet says says. “The Chinese authorities have acknowledged that the nonwovens industry has great potential power. Some policies have been implemented to promote this industry in order to meet the huge domestic demand.”

Chinese spunlace makers certainly have a big influence on the global market. However, as Norafin is active in niches with high-performance materials that need to be tested against given specifications and norms requiring a specific know-how, the competition from Chinese spunlace suppliers is not that fierce in such specialized markets yet. The Asian influence can certainly be seen much more in various mass/commodity markets.

Meanwhile, the geographical location of Turkey helps to serve and develop the market in surrounding countries, a major driver for growth. The investment in spunlace technology is seen on a high level. The key according to market participants is to at all times bring an added value to the process chain to enable customers to compete in their markets and make new investments affordable.

Leading the way in Turkey has been Mogul, which entered the market three years ago and added a second line one year ago.  The key market for this capacity has been wipes, according to commercial director Serkan Gogus, but there are several technical applications under review.

As the spunlace market continues to focus on growth both in new geographies and new applications, wipes, at least for now, will continue to be the bread and butter of this market, accounting for the bulk of sales for most manufacturers. While the heydays of the late 1990s and 2000s are behind them, spunlace makers are still confident that there is enough growth in wipes to propel their sales forward.

“The wipes market continues to perform well on a global scale with differing rates of growth around the globe,” says Suominen’s Brown.

Wipes, as always, need to meet the needs of convertors, retailers and consumers alike in performance, cost, sustainability and fitness for purpose. As the market continues to grow technology and investment will need to keep pace.

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