“Right now, the automotives market is on the upturn,” explains Gale Shipley, automotive sales manager at nonwovens maker Dalco Nonwovens,” which makes investments in new equipment easier to justify due to the increased demand from the market. All manufacturers, however, remain cautious due to the downturn in 2008-2009.”
Shipley adds that she has seen a substantial increase in the amount of nonwovens going into vehicles, driven by the need for reducing cost without compromising quality. In this conversion, North America has lagged Europe where green-driven needs like fuel efficiency and recyclability have been regulated by the governments at a much earlier timeframe.
According to data recently released by EDANA, the European Disposables and Nonwovens Association, nonwovens offer many advantages in the car. Because nonwovens are typically 15-30% lighter than competing materials, they can make a car more than two kilograms lighter. Meanwhile, the average passenger car using nonwovens can save 55 kilograms of CO2 over the life of the car. Cars using nonwovens in all possible applications, from insulation to lining, have a benefit of more than 30% less impact on the environment.
Not a Drag
One area where Dalco is seeing more interest for nonwovens is in underbody shields and belly pans, installed underneath the vehicle to reduce air drag and improve gas mileage. In recent years, the percentage of North American cars that have these products has increased approximately 30%, driven by government mandates to increase miles per gallon averages by 2025.
“This is one of the small pockets of innovation that have come about in the face of the need for better fuel efficiency, Shipley says.” “Auto makers know their targets, with regard to mpg and are examining different areas to achieve them.”
Another area where nonwovens are helping automotive makers meet fuel standards are in light weighting. Here, executives say that manufacturers look at grams, not kilograms, meaning that any weight reduction, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is considered.
“If a car maker can save a few grams here or there, it can mean a lot,” says John Bradburn, manager of waste reduction at General Motors. “Whenever you build a lot of vehicles like we do, anything counts. Any weight reduction can get the attention of engineers and designers.”
While changing material to nonwovens in any area of the car can be challenging as nonwoven grades become lighter weight in the future, he envisions more acceptance of nonwovens in even more areas of the car. Also, benefitting nonwovens is their ability to accept different grades of resin, including recycled goods or other sustainable materials.
Texel, Saint-Elzear, Quebec, Canada has made strides in automotives with ThermoFit nonwovens. This substrate features a monolayer construction with 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.
Marc-André Drouin, business unit manager, automotives, for Texel, says that nonwovens, when used in acoustics, can offer a significant weight reduction compared to injection plastic. Because the density is not 100% polypropylene or polyester, the product is made using a sandwich construction and the middle is soft, saving up to 30% in weight reduction. “You need a lot less material so they are saving weight and they are saving money,” he says.
“Each OEM has a target of weight reduction. The price to save weight may increase as they get closer to launching the car, they may be willing to pay more for some part that reduces weight.”
Texel recently invested $15 million in a new Dilo production line. This new equipment is allowing 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.
Dalco, meanwhile, makes needlepunch products, sometimes in multilayer formations, in weights that range from 70-80gsm to 2000 gsm. Shipley says that while weight reduction is important, the ultimate goal is increased fuel efficiency.
“Regardless of weight addition, the end goal appears to be driven by improved mileage averages. We see non-glass fiber underbody shield material ranging from low weights of 800-900 gsm to substantially higher at 2000 gsm. Innovation will drive this market as OEM’s better understand the requirements,” Shipley explains.
In addition to reducing weight and fuel usage, nonwovens are also offering opportunities for cost savings. One material helping this cause is regenerated polyester, used in a number of moldable nonwoven products. In fact, Shipley says that regenerated materials, having lower melting points than virgin polyester, mold better while bringing the cost down. As the demand for regenerated polyester is increasing, manufacturers have fine-tuned their processes to guarantee physical parameters such as shrinkage and tenacity, etc.
Keeping Up Appearances
The challenge with using regenerated polyester, however, is color matching or visual harmony, so automakers are relying on a blend of fibers combining virgin and regenerated products or using 100% virgin polyester, depending on where the material is located in the vehicle.
“Molders are using mixed color regenerated polyester on the non-visible, or the moldable substrate side, to reduce cost while using virgin material or a matched fiber blend on the visible-side,” she says. “The other choice is to have a homogenous product with bico or polypropylene fiber for moldability.”
“At Dalco we are seeing both,” Shipley says. “Some customers want a color-matched face with less expensive mix in the substrate and others want homogenous blends in bico mixtures.”
“As for entry into the OEM or Tier 1 acceptance arena, if the product is higher performing with potential cost reduction, it is easier to get buy-in on the product. If it is an equivalent trade on pricing and quality, it’s much more difficult,” Shipley adds. “There, however, is a gray zone where there is improved performance and equivalent price that is easier to sell but still difficult to get entry into the industry, especially with regard to refreshed vehicles, due to PPAP and lab package costs.”
Vamsi Jasti, R&D Engineer, Johnson Controls, a manufacturer of automotive components for major automotive makers, reports that nonwovens usage in seating applications has lagged other areas like carpets and headliners because it can be a challenge to get car makers to swap in new materials.
“We believe that current products are optimized for cost and performance,” he says. “It’s not easy to replace an existing component, especially in the seating area.”
Adding to this challenge is a perception among car makers that nonwovens are lower cost, and lower quality, than other materials.
”Automotive products are functionally and cost driven,” Jasti adds. “It’s really a challenge for the nonwovens to conquer the new areas. Nonwovens are more like a commodity and are optimized for their cost. Stretch, residual set, elongation and abrasion resistance are some of the property-related issues that prevent the use of nonwovens in some areas of seating.”
Even as nonwovens struggle to penetrate new areas, many producers remain bullish about the market. One of the companies is German nonwovens Tenowo. The company, which is in the midst of a major, multicontinent investment program, credits much of its growth in recent years to the automotives market. The company currently offers eight different manufacturing technologies that are used in automotives, giving it the advantage to meet the full spectrum of needs in the market.
“Nonwovens offer high performance associated with reasonable economics” rather than “low cost fabrics,” says Detlev Kappel, director of sales. “The trend to substitute ‘classical’ textiles such as circular or warp knits for interior decorative apps still continues. We find highly engineered nonwovens in headliners, car seats, trunk, door panels, floor carpet sandwiches are still more cost effective compared to other textiles or material systems but at higher price level than some commodity types.”
The entry barrier into the automotive world is still often underestimated. To stay healthy you need to be a global partner, willing to take high risks, able to live with low margins and continuous price pressures and offer excellent sales network and service.
“Every technology has its own pros and cons, so it’s perfect if you can offer all of them to your customers on a global basis,” he adds.
Looking forward, Kappel says he sees acoustical applications to be the main growth driver for nonwovens in automotives both in developed and developing regions globally. Tenowo is targeting this area with AFR scrims (air flow resistance scrims), a new product that allows customers to reduce the weight of their parts and simultaneously maintain the acoustical performance.
The company also has new stitchbonded products to be used in car seats under genuine and PUR leather and new generational spunlace products for injection molding and superior acoustic applications.
GM’s Focus on Sustainability
GM’s Bradburn said that all of manufacturing can learn from efforts being made in the automotives market when it comes to waste reduction, green practices, energy conservation and other sustainability efforts. “This started for us about 20 years ago, when we realized there were significant opportunities to reduce waste and increase revenues. It’s been a long road but it’s been a good one.”
In October, GM announced that 11 more of its facilities have achieved landfill-free status bringing the running total to 122 manufacturing and non-manufacturing operations spanning Asia, Europe, and South and North America that recycle, reuse or convert to energy all waste from daily operations.
“Our landfill-free movement is part of our culture of continuous improvement embraced by teams globally,” says Jim DeLuca, GM executive vice president of Global Manufacturing. “Not only does it make our operations more efficient and help conserve vital resources, but we’re able to reinvest the money we get from recycling into future vehicles for our customers.”
The addition of these 11 facilities to landfill-free status helps GM avoid more than 600,000 metric tons of CO2-equivalent emissions. This is comparable to the greenhouse gas benefit of 15 million tree seedlings grown for 10 years.
“Our ultimate goal is not to generate any waste at all,” says Bradburn. “Until then, we do everything we can to ensure it doesn’t end up in the ground. From connecting our suppliers on special recycling projects to reusing packaging, we apply lessons learned across all of
our operations to broaden the positive impact.”
A strong network of recycling partners and suppliers helps facilities achieve their goals. Localizing the supply chain strengthens the business case and reduces the overall carbon footprint.