In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as disposable wipes applications came to prominence on store shelves, investment in spunlace was rampant as new lines popped up across North America, Europe and, eventually, less developed regions. Fast forward a few years, and as wipes proliferation slowed, so did the rate of new investment, but in recent years new lines have been popping up, proving this market is still strong.
This strength is largely due to wipes demand, which manufacturers say has not retreated. Consumers count wipes in many categories as must-haves in their daily lives. From tried and true baby wipes to floor cleaning mops like Swiffer and makeup removal or facial cleansing wipes, these products are here to stay, and spunlace nonwovens manufacturers continue depend on this market. According to industry statistics, the market is growing steadily at 5-6% per year and, in recent years, this has led to a return to investment among major players.
“Wipes remain the main market for spunlace products,” says Arnaud Laroche of spunlace equipment supplier Andritz Perfojet. “Constant growth of 4-5% per year has been observed in the past decade. We do not see any reason for a slowdown as the size of the middle-class population, who are the main consumers of commodity products, is expected to explode in the next few decades.”
New Markets, New Lines
Suominen, the world’s largest maker of spunlaced nonwovens, is meeting demand for wipes and other spunlace products with a growth investment plan that will span 2015-2017. Initial efforts in this plan, announced late last year, included upgrades at spunlace plants in Alicante, Spain and Paulina, Brazil, which were valued at €4 million. In Alicante, the investment is targeted to serve globally growing markets of industrial wipes and medical nonwovens, while in Paulinia, Suominen will expand its product offerings to further strengthen its position in the growing South American wipes market and enable supply to medical and hygiene nonwovens segments.
In North America, in January, the Finnish company said it was in the early stages of adding a new wetlaid line a yet-to-be-determined location. Calling it the single largest initiative in its growth investment program, executives said the line would allow Suominen to meet the strong demand for high value-added nonwovens with attractive growth forecasts. Suominen already has North American operations in South Carolina, Wisconsin and Connecticut.
“I am extremely pleased to announce this major move in the execution of our growth strategy. Since we are still in the preparation phase of the investment project, several important decisions, including selection of machine suppliers, are still to be made. Consequently, we cannot yet comment on the total value of the investment, but it is safe to conclude that this constitutes the most significant single initiative in the €30–50 million growth investment program we announced in December,” says president and CEO Nina Kopola.
While spunlace has potential in many markets, the strength of wipes is enough for some spunlace makers who are content to seek opportunities exclusively in this market. As it waits for its second greenfield line in North America to come onstream this quarter, Jacob Holm Industries reports no plans to look too far outside of wipes
“Line number six, as it is called, is a unique line based on our own proprietary developments and we believe it will provide a range of materials that will offer unparalleled performance in our targeted areas of the wipes market,” says CEO Martin Mikkelsen. “The current planning does not include expansion to markets outside of wipes with this line.”
In North America, Mikkelsen reports a high demand for value added or high performance products in the wipes market, especially in comparison to the more commodity-oriented European market. This is because there is a greater segmentation between a premium and a base segment that is not as clear in Europe. “In many cases, this translates into higher relative pricing. Price and value is correlated and typically we see that there is a larger understanding and willingness from the consumer to pay for performance in North America, especially in baby wipes.”
Jacob Holm announced it would build the second line at its Candler, NC site early last year, valuing the investment at $60 million. The company built its first line there in 2005 and was soon operating at full capacity. Since then, Holm had been steadily growing sales by fine-tuning equipment and lessening basis weights, until market conditions could warrant a full line expansion.
Also gearing up for North American growth is Spuntech. The Israeli producer is currently adding a second spunlace in Roxboro, NC, to capitalize on growth in the region.
As North America waits for three major investments to come onstream, Europe, with its sometimes unwillingness to pay for valued products, has seen little investment in recent years. The most recent line was Germany’s, Sandler’s third line, which was added in 2011.
Ulrich Hornfeck, member of Sandler’s management board, reports that there is a slight overcapacity situation in the European spunlace market; however opportunities still exist there, particularly in wipes.
“Wipes can be a challenge, depending on the market. There is a lot of spunlace in Europe right now,” he says, adding, “North America is better. You have so many brand owners and it is a market where consumers are using a lot of wipes. This market is important to us.”
While the company has no plans to enter the North American market by way of investment, it has been honing its spunlace technology to expand into new global markets for wipes like industrial and household cleaning and North America is key to this strategy.
“For us, wipes continues to be a market we believe in, one where we can innovate,” Hornfeck says. “There are still ideas to discover in wipes and we are keen to bring them to our customers.”
Life Beyond Wipes
Each of Sandler’s three lines is able to provide a somewhat different type of spunlace nonwoven to its customers. While wipes continues to be the driving force in this business, Sandler does have some niche areas for spunlace like carrier materials for plastic molds in building applications and feminine hygiene and adult incontinence where the softness of spunlace is admired and appreciated. “We try to diversify throughout all of our technologies,” Hornfeck says adding that Sandler’s experience with technologies outside of spunlace has opened doors for it in non-traditional markets for the material.
Suominen continues to count wipes as its largest and most important market, but the company’s new operating model, established in 2014, is focused on creating new businesses and launching products with higher value add to the market, according to CEO Nina Kopola. The new model splits the nonwovens business into two categories—convenience and care. The Care business focuses on customers in medical and hygiene while convenience, which is considerably larger, focuses on wipes, catering and travel.
While care is still a relatively small business area for Suominen, generating about 10% of its annual net sales, by splitting it into a separate business area the company is ensuring it has the dedicated resources needed for future growth.
“Absolutely yes there are more opportunities for spunlace materials with all the unique features it can offer compared to other nonwoven technologies,” says Marjo Kuisma, brand manager hygiene. “Spunlace technology offers the best possibilities for differentiation, superior softness, together with eco-friendliness (just to mention a few) which all are features we see increasing demand in the hygiene market.
Consumers value innovation and are seeking for improved performance, shape and comfort like silky underwear.”
Suominen’s latest non-wipes launch is Fibrella Lite spunlace, which will initially target hygiene applications but also has opportunities in the medical market, according to Kuisma. This lightweight spunlace is stretchable, strong and has significant elongation products. Additionally, its ability to offer versatility for combining materials using hotmelt, extrusion, heat and ultrasonic lamination as well as its cloth-like, extremely soft feel, breathability and skin-friendliness make it ideal in laminates for hygiene products, according to the company.
“Our strategy to grow the share of products with higher value added in our portfolio—namely medical and hygiene plus selected applications in wiping—has already been successful and we intend to continue on this path,” adds Kuisma.
Calling expansion into hygiene one of the key elements of Suominen’s growth strategy, Lynda Kelly, SVP Care Business Area, described Fibrella Lite as a perfect example of an innovative application of technology to match traditionally incompatible nonwoven features like softness, strength and light-weight together in one material.
Alistair Brown, director of marketing, says it is Suominen’s diverse range of materials, which include wetlaid, thermal bond, airlace, hydroentangled, SPC carded and composite, make it well positioned to grow in areas outside of wipes. “Recently this has been seen in new product launches in the travel and catering, hygiene and medical market segments,” he says. “Already we are seeing a lot of excitement with new and existing customers in these new segments.”
Last year, Suominen expanded its reach into the tabletop market with Novolino, a range of nonwoven products for the hotel, restaurant and catering markets globally. The product brought a new dimension to the tabletop market while adding value beyond the traditional offerings in the segment, the company reports. Features include a soft and silky touch, which offers users a new alternative to traditional linen.
Jacob Holm’s non-wipe-related offerings include a lightweight portfolio, which continues to grow through some proprietary developments. Performance in terms of substrate weights have also diversified the business outside of the wipes market.
Additionally, Jacob Holm added significantly to its industrial wipes and medical businesses when it acquired the Sontara spunlace business from DuPont, a move that nearly doubled its size and provided it with new manufacturing sites in Tennessee and Spain.
“We have been very happy with the way we have been received by our new colleagues in the Sontara business, which has performed as expected. We are in the middle of the proper transition phase and that is running also according to the planning.”
Down the Drain
As it continues to expand its reach into new markets, wipes continues to be important and Suominen has recently focused heavily on the flushable wipes market with a new product introduction. Suominen has been a pioneer in this category since the late 1990s.
In January, Suominen launched Hydraspun Dispersible Plus, which is able to break up at least three times faster in 10 minutes than Suominen’s other flushable product Hydraspun Dispersible. This has been achieved through a combination of raw material choices, process settings and equipment modifications. “We have been able to push frontiers using our experience in wetlaid, knowledge of fiber science, understanding of the expectations of the wastewater industry as well as being a partner in our customers’ successes,” says product manager Kyra Dorsey.
Suominen’s commitment to flushable wipes goes farther than research and development and the company has invested in production facilities geared toward flushability in the U.S. and Europe. “Innovation drives our work to deliver convenient solutions that meet the needs of our customers and the consumer. We continuously strive to improve our Hydraspun Dispersible products focusing on faster break-up times,” Dorsey says. “In conjunction with upgrading the dispersibility characteristics, it was also key in this product development to assist our customers in providing the best consumer wipe experience.
“I do not think that Suominen imagined that this innovation from a customer request in the late 1990s would have led to this market and would have been one of our leading products today,” Dorsey adds. “But it has become very clear in the last 20 years, the global consumer has a desire to enhance their personal cleaning and the market growth reflects this well. We do believe that the consumer will continue to demand flushable products and will expect product improvements.”
As flushable wipes continue to an upward trajectory so will other areas of wipes from the most basic baby wipes up to sophisticated, value-added products that have the ability to transform consumers’ lives. Spunlace makers will be at the forefront of this innovation.
“Wipes continue to outperform total nonwoven sales growth globally. The strong desire for convenience continues to drive market growth,” Brown adds. “New applications are driven by the increase of consumer use, population growth of middle class as well as increased purchasing power of this new emerging class.”