Driving Innovation

By Tim Wright, editor | December 4, 2013

The market for nonwovens in automobiles is growing, presenting challenges and opportunities.

The use of nonwovens in the automotive industry is set for continued growth as consumers demand greater comfort and safety, and auto makers along with their component suppliers look to save costs by reducing the weight of a vehicle as well as lower fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.

While woven fabrics and knitted fabrics continue to dominate the total amount of textiles used within the automotive design sphere, nonwovens are becoming more attractive to automotive designers because of their low weight and low cost along with other advantages.

“Nonwovens have gained more acceptance in the auto industry,” says Francois Farion, Nissan North America’s senior design manager. “This trend has mostly been driven by cost, but it turns out that nonwovens are also good for sound insulation in cars.”

The design expert says the interior design of a vehicle may have been overlooked in the past, but automakers are increasingly spending more time and money on interior design and looking to nonwovens to offer solutions.

“One of the latest updates in the use of nonwoven parts in our design has been the application of printed material for vehicle headliners in order to get better aspect,” Farion says. “Some vehicles in which we’ve featured such updates are the 2014 Rogue and the 2014 Versa Note.”

Johnson Controls, a manufacturer of automotive seating, overhead systems, door and instrument panels and interior electronics, is incorporating more nonwovens into the components it supplies to the auto industry. “There is lot of interest in nonwovens for some automotive areas due to their high-speed production, low cost, easy-to-mold nature and ability to make composite materials,” says Vamsi Krishna Jasti, manager new technologies, trim and fabrics, automotive seating, Johnson Controls Inc.

The company recently signed an agreement with Zhejiang Wanfang New Materials Co., Ltd. to set up a new fabrics joint venture in Haining City, Zhejiang Province. Johnson Controls will become one of the first Global Fortune 500 companies to invest in Haining. The new joint venture will be called Zhejiang Johnson Controls Wanfang Textile Technology Co., Ltd. It will supply major automakers in China and abroad with automotive and functional fabrics for automotive seating and interior products.

“The usage of nonwovens in terms of volume and value is growing and forecasted to grow in the coming years,” says Krishna.

There are roughly 40 applications for nonwovens inside cars and nonwoven materials are now being employed in the exteriors of vehicles as well, especially as undershields and outer wheel arch liners.

At the recent RISE (Research, Innovation & Science for Engineered Fabrics) Conference, INDA’s director of markets and research Brad Kalil gave an update on markets for durable nonwovens, which comprise about 32.5% of total nonwovens tonnage in North America. He says the transportation market represents 5% of all nonwovens and 16% of durables and INDA is predicting the market to grow about 5.6% as the automotive market continues to rebound and consumer demand for comfort continues to expand.

One of the challenges regarding the incorporation of nonwoven materials into auto interiors is that customer perception is still not high, according to Farion. “We believe that qualitative options either embracing the aspect—making the material look more like felt or flannel—or changing it through embossing or prints will help with customer acceptance,” he says, “From the perspective of automotive design, we’re asking for more creativity in terms of the aspect or other qualitative options from our nonwovens suppliers. In terms of purchasing, cost efficiency still remains key.”

Sustainability in the driver’s seat

Emphasizing the recyclability of nonwoven materials is another key that will further unlock the acceptance of nonwovens in car design, says Farion. To this end, a growing proportion of needlepunched nonwovens for automotive applications are being manufactured from recycled polyester derived from plastic bottles.

For example, consumer giants The Coca-Cola Company and Ford Motor Company recently teamed up to develop an interior fabric made from the same renewable material used to produce Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle Technology packaging.

The two companies unveiled a Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid vehicle with Coca-Cola PlantBottle Technology interior fabric surfaces covering seat cushions, seat backs, head restraints, door panel inserts and headliners. The research vehicle marks the first time PlantBottle Technology is applied beyond packaging and affirms a joint commitment by two global consumer icons to develop innovative new products produced from renewable materials.

“By using PlantBottle Technology in a plug-in hybrid, Ford and Coca-Cola are showing the broad potential to leverage renewable materials that help replace petroleum and other fossil fuels, reducing the overall environmental impact of future vehicles,” says John Viera, global director of sustainability and vehicle environmental matters at Ford.

The idea behind the vehicle was launched last year when Ford and Coca-Cola research teams came together to explore innovation opportunities in more sustainable products. Both companies use PET, a durable, lightweight plastic also known as polyethylene terephthalate, in a variety of products including plastic bottles, fabrics and carpets. This provided an opportunity to bring together both recyclable and renewable technologies.

Since The Coca-Cola Company introduced PlantBottle Technology to the market in 2009 as the first-ever recyclable PET plastic bottle made partially from plants, more than 18 billion PlantBottle packages have been distributed in 28 countries resulting in more than 400,000 barrels of oil saved. If PlantBottle interior fabrics were migrated across the majority of U.S. Ford models, it would displace nearly four million pounds of petroleum-derived materials and save the equivalent of 295,000 gallons of gasoline and 6000 barrels of oil the company says.

“This collaboration with Ford demonstrates that PlantBottle Technology can be applied anywhere PET plastic is traditionally used but with a lighter footprint on the planet,” says Scott Vitters, general manager, PlantBottle packaging platform, The Coca-Cola Company. “We are pleased to share this technology with Ford and look forward to continuing to expand the application of PlantBottle Technology.”

Building upon the success of PlantBottle Technology, Ford has been able to produce the first-ever fiber that can be woven into durable, automotive-grade PET fabric from PlantBottle material. Fusion Energi, a plug-in hybrid version of Ford’s global midsize car, was chosen as the perfect vehicle on which to test out the material. Fusion Energi is Ford’s most fuel-efficient sedan.

Optimized auto acoustics

Nonwoven felt blanks for bulkhead and floor components in vehicles are being manufactured by a new rotating injection fiber process developed at Autoneum in Switzerland. The company says this results in products with both significant weight reductions and improved acoustic performance.

Autoneum is a global provider of acoustic and thermal management solutions for automobiles and the company partners with major light vehicle manufacturers around the world to provide innovative and cost effective solutions for noise reduction and thermal management to increase vehicle comfort and value.

Autoneum’s IFP-R2 production system based on the rotating injection fiber process has been newly designed for optimized manufacturing and improved environmental performance. In the process, a fiber mixture is filled into a defined cavity in a rotating drum. This results in robust intermediate products, which are then molded into the shape required for the final product.

Among other things, the process leads to a reduction of “sound bridges” in the felt blanks and at the same time, the desired thickness can be exactly defined and the required shape precisely filled and cut to size.

With the optimization of this procedure, Autoneum has also achieved an improved environmental performance—material efficiency is now 95%, compared to 80% previously and excess material is recycled and reused in the production process.

IFP-R2 has already been successfully put into operation in Europe and will now be used at Autoneum sites in North America and Asia. The compact, mobile system can be easily transported between different production sites as required.

In other technology, Autoneum’s designs damping materials to reduce the noise in the interior of a car by weakening or eliminating vibrations that are transferred to its body and cause unpleasant buzzing sounds. AUTYL is Autoneum’s new damping product and can be used in numerous body areas and increases the acoustic comfort in vehicles. At the same time, the light weight of the product allows it to contribute to lowering fuel consumption and thus also CO2 emissions says the company.

AUTYL is suitable for use on the body shell and after painting, among other uses. Automotive manufacturers are as a result given flexibility in choosing when the product is assembled in the vehicle production process. Due to its adhesive properties, the damping solution can be applied to flat and shaped as well as vertical or horizontal body parts, such as the front wall, the body or the wheel wells.

The company says AUTYL’s multi-layer composition enables the new and light-weight damping solution to achieve better acoustic power and outperform to current environmental expectations and standards. AUTYL is already used by German vehicle manufacturers, and introduction on the market outside of Europe is in progress.

On the expansion front, Autoneum is growing its business in Asia having recently founded the company Summit & Autoneum Ltd. in Thailand together with automotive supplier Auto Interior Products. Summit & Autoneum combines Autoneum’s technologies and global customer relationships with access to the partner’s established manufacturing capacities. It provides light vehicle manufacturers in the emerging market of Thailand with innovative and high-performance solutions for acoustic and thermal management.

The acquisition and technical fulfillment of orders as well as selling components and systems for acoustic and thermal management to non-Japanese light vehicle manufacturers in Thailand enables Autoneum to expand its customer portfolio and tap the potential of the growing Thai automotive market. Serial parts will be produced in the existing plant of the partner, Thai automotive supplier Auto Interior Products (AIP), in Rayong.

Expanding applications

Innovation that leads to better automotive performance features, such as optimized acoustics, begins with nonwoven roll goods producers like Canada’s Texel. For example, the company’s ThermoFit technology addresses interior noise sources that were once considered uncontrollable.

“Nonwovens are offering more advantages in the automotive market,” says Alex Alexis, business unit manager, Texel. “We’re currently seeing more replacement of extruded plastics parts because nonwoven technology can reduce the weight and can offer better acoustical properties. European and Japanese programs that are being transferred in North America are bringing more demands for nonwovens. The last four years the automotive market has brought growth, due to the amount of cars built in North America. We anticipate positive growth for the next three years for our automotive platform.”

Nonwovens used in headliner scrims are growing as the industry shifts toward the needlepunch technology because it offers excellent elongation properties during the molding operation, according to Alexis. “Easier to use than spunlace, our Versaflex scrim products are gaining more marketshare,” he says. “Also in some headliner construction nonwoven scrims replace foam. Our B and C scrims offer great quality to our customers and our inline camera visual inspection ensures a good visual aspect of the scrims.”

In terms of global trends, nonwoven face materials will become more popular in the NAFTA zone predicts Alexis. “Currently a large number of European and Japanese cars are using nonwoven as face material,” he says. “The market is definitely moving south. Headliners, carpets and trunkliners will use nonwovens, replacing tufted carpet or fabrics especially in the Latin American market. This will demand new technology of needleloom with new patterning and new velour construction to satisfy the market standards. Texel’s automotive growth has been driven by the cotton belt states. In the future we’re expecting more demands from Mexico, especially in Silao, Guanajato area.”

The most important demand Alexis says that Texel is receiving from its customers is weight reduction. “Providing lightweight solutions that could provide great stiffness and good acoustical dampening is the major goal,” he says. “Different options are currently in demand. The use of natural fibers, to replace the traditional fibers such as PET, PP and fiberglass, is growing rapidly. Texel is currently developing a wide range of new natural substrate with thermoset resins such as the ACRODUR from BASF. Our new coating capabilities will allow us to push the limits even more.”

Texel recently invested $15 million in a new Dilo production line. This new DILO-brand equipment will allow Texel to increase its production capacities by more than seven metric tons of transformed fibers per year and will, allow for the manufacturing of products with a width of 5.25 meters. This new line is equipped with an inline oven and calendar rolls, which will also allow stabilizing and increasing the density of the moldable substrate.

In terms of technology, Texel’s new monolayer ThermoFit is a single black layer of 40% polypropylene and 60% polyester. This substrate is stabilized which the company says prevents any shrinkage during the preheating process. ThermoFit is designed to offer elongation and stiffness properties, which are ideal for wheel well liners and underbodies.

Moving forward, sustainability will be the next challenge facing the industry says Alexis. “Reprocessing our customers recycled textiles, and creating new products to the same customers is the direction we are heading,” he says. “Using recycled textiles is not a challenge by itself, but the logistics to close the loop will be. Texel along with other textiles companies in Canada are operating a new recycling center in order to facilitate our customers to close this loop, by converting the recycle trims into usable fibers and reintegrate the content into new product. By doing so we’re avoiding filling the landfill.”

Keeping up with customer demands

Freudenberg Nonwovens supplies automotive interior nonwovens in Europe, Asia, North America, South Africa and Japan via Japan Vilene Company. Its core product for the automotive market is Lutradur, which is used to make tufted carpet. Lutraflor is another product that the company recently introduced and says is rapidly gaining market attention as an alternative to needle-punched carpet without sacrificing technical performance. Freudenberg Nonwovens also offers a wide range of moldable acoustic facings within its Soundtex M product line, and says solid or printed nonwoven headliner facings continue to generate OEM interest as a replacement for traditional headliner materials.

The company also says intensive development activities are underway including pilot production commercialization for components of fuel cells and Li-Ion batteries for electrical vehicles.

“The gradual replacement of traditional textiles and even untraditional materials by nonwovens continues unabated in the automotive industry,” says John McNabb, general manager, Freudenberg Nonwovens North America. “Tier oness are always looking to use nonwovens to help satisfy the OEM demand for cheaper and lighter-weight products. For example, underbody shields, an entire class of products historically designed using plastic and metal, is gradually being replaced by much lighter composite designs that use nonwovens. These newer designs include the use of engineered nonwovens for increased acoustic performance.”

The global automotive nonwovens market will continue to grow at a healthy pace in the years ahead fueled in part by the overall recovery of the automotive market. “The automotive market in North America has recovered since the crisis of 2009 when vehicle production was nearly half of the peak seen in 2006,” says McNabb. “For the foreseeable future, the North American market is projected to continue to grow at a 3-5% annual rate. As the world’s largest automotive market, China continues to be a major consideration of OEM’s strategic plans, and Tier1 suppliers who require nonwovens for their products are expanding operations there to support their grown initiatives.”

In addition to the replacement of traditional textiles due to significant cost down pressure, there are global regulations on CO2-reduction and vehicle end-of-life which are driving the use of lighter, sustainable and recyclable materials, according to McNabb, and the technical performance of advanced nonwovens can be adapted to fulfill OEMs’ specifications at lower costs than traditional textiles.

“The end consumer’s relentless demand for higher-tech, safer, ‘greener’ and more fuel-efficient vehicles is the catalyst for the growth in nonwovens,” says McNabb. “OEMs are adding cost in the areas that consumers can physically see and touch while at the same time off-setting these costs in other areas. Nonwovens can usually take the place of more expensive and heavier traditional textiles so Tier oneswill continue to require innovative nonwoven solutions from their Tier two suppliers like Freudenberg Nonwovens.”

Tier one suppliers are requiring more and more engineered nonwovens, according to McNabb. “Engineered, in this case, means that they require a nonwoven that is specifically designed for an end-purpose,” he says. “Some Tier ones require value-add operations to nonwovens such as adding a flame retardant, water repellant or even a specific adhesive. They are requiring nonwovens to do more and more.”

Satisfying customer demands is an ever-changing process. “OEMs still require supply chain excellence from their Tier one, and ultimately, their Tier two suppliers like Freudenberg Nonwovens,” says McNabb. “Consumer demand for vehicles can change dramatically in just a few weeks so the entire OEM supply chain is expected to react quickly when this happens. With OEM, and ultimately Tier one, requirements for a quick change of nonwoven weights, colors, widths and technical attributes, nonwoven suppliers need to have the capability react in a matter of weeks. Customers want to implement changes quickly and are not willing to wait months for the previous product to be used up.”