Glatfelter, which entered the airlaid business through the acquisition of Concert Industries in 2010, completed a major investment last year, adding a new facility in Fort Smith, AR, with 22,000 short tons of production capacity. “Glatfelter continues to focus on investing in the quality, innovation, and supply security for our customers,” says Chris W. Astley, chief commercial officer, Glatfelter. “Fort Smith has the capability to serve various product segments, but was designed to be the highest quality and most efficient facility in the world to support the large and growing wipes market, which uses a number of substrates.”
In 2018, Glatfelter also grew through acquisition, purchasing G-P’s European airlaid business, a 32,000-ton operation, for $181 million. The facility in Steinfurt, Germany, makes airlaid products for tabletop, wipes, hygiene, food pads and other end use markets. “The [Steinfurt] acquisition was highly synergistic, combing complementary technologies and foci,” Astley says. “It has enabled us to broaden our footprint in Europe, and to broaden our product portfolio, especially in the tabletop and wipes markets. The acquisition also has provided us a full complement of airlaid manufacturing technologies to support the diverse marketplace needs.”
The combination of the new Fort Smith facility and the Steinfurt acquisition increased Glatfelter’s airlaid production capacity by 50% in 2018 to approximately 150,000 metric tons.
Meanwhile, G-P, a maker of consumer products, pulp, paper and building products, has reduced its airlaid operation in recent years. In addition to the sale of its European business to Glatfelter, G-P shuttered an airlaid line in Green Bay, WI sometime last year. Today, all of the company’s airlaid output is in Gaston, NC, where it operates two lines with a total capacity of about 42,000 metric tons, which it acquired through its purchase of Buckeye Technologies in 2013.
Industry consultant Phil Mango estimates that in the last 10 to 15 years, G-P, along with its acquired Buckeye business, closed about 70,000 tons of a capacity in North America, where only about 160,000 tons are produced annually in the region. “Years ago they sold off two European lines that they had from the early G-P days—one in France and Italy—then more recently they sold off the Buckeye lines in Steinfurt, so they are definitely in a divestment mode at this point. G-P appears to be trying to get out of the market,” he adds.
Today, Mango estimates that globally Glatfelter is commanding a 25.3% market share in airlaid, with German manufacturer McAirlaid’s following at 9.2% and G-P at 7.4%.
McAirlaid’s recently increased its marketshare through investment. This year, the company started production on its fifth airlaid line, in Berlingerode, Thüringen, Germany—its third line at the site. McAirlaid’s also has one line in Heiligenstadt, Germany, and one line in Rocky Mount, VA, where it recently completed a $7.8 million investment to increase capacity. The site, which was established in 2006, currently employs more than 125 workers and is McAirlaids’ only U.S. operation. The site makes absorbent airlaid material for food packaging, retail, medical, personal hygiene and filtration applications. The expansion has allowed the company to expand its FruitPad and MeatGuard lines.
Meanwhile Fitesa, one of the biggest nonwovens producers in the world, manufactures airlaid at a unit in Tianjin, China. The line produces several types of airlaid nonwovens, including multi-bond, thermal-bond and hydrogen bonded airlaid. Fitesa also employs festooning technology to offer materials with greater length, reducing downtime for exchanges at its customers.
One of the company’s latest introductions in its airlaid portfolio is Fitesa TLA (Transfer Layer Airlaid), a fabric composed of layers of ATB carded and airlaid nonwoven, to be used as fast acquisition and distribution layer for disposable hygiene applications, especially feminine napkins. Fitesa TLA provides cushiony softness, fast intake with distribution and temporary fluid storage in a single component, with the additional opportunity of reducing the total core basis weight.
In Europe earlier this year, Mölnlycke, a medical products and solutions company, acquired M&J Airlaid Products, a Danish private company and manufacturer of specialized and high-quality absorbent airlaid nonwoven materials.
M&J’s airlaid technology is critical along with foams and soft silicone in Mölnlycke’s wound care products. The acquisition supports Mölnlycke’s growth ambitions and adds critical R&D capabilities. It also improves Mölnlycke’s security of supply of the airlaid material that is essential in the production of advanced wound care dressings and will help grow the wound care business by accelerating innovation and product development in existing and future products. M&J has an annual revenue of €10 million.
“We are very happy to welcome M&J into the Mölnlycke family,” Richard Twomey, CEO of Mölnlycke, commented at the time of the acquisition. “Our relationship dates back several decades, and thus is a natural unification of forces. This is fully in line with where we want to be as a company, and M&J’s strong R&D capabilities combined with Mölnlycke’s end-product knowledge will help us further improve our competitive position within the advanced wound care industry.”
For its part, Gelok International, which has made low-profile, superabsorbent laminates and composites since the 1980s, expanded its product range following the investment of hydrogen bonded airlaid equipment at a new production facility at its Dunbridge, OH, headquarters last year.
A new range of airlaid absorbent cores under the brand name TotalCore complements its existing portfolio of thin, high absorbent laminate structures. “It allows us to produce cores that are free of adhesives, resins and plastic fibers but which are also soft and flexible with superior wicking characteristics,” says general manager Steve Lazenby.
Since TotalCore airlaid is made of hydrogen bonded cellulose, Gelok’s fluff-pulp fiber only airlaids are therefore completely natural from renewable resources, he adds.
The TotalCore range of airlaid cores cover all facets of absorption of aqueous fluids, from rapid acquisition through distribution to storage. The cores can be used for applications in feminine hygiene, incontinence, underpads, food pads and wound care. Each absorbent core is custom designed to meet a customer’s exact needs and are available in master roll format, pancake rolls or festooned.
A Promising Future
Hygiene continues to be the biggest market for airlaid today, with wipes and smaller markets like tabletop (napkins, tablecloths), food pads and medical products consuming the rest.
According to Astley of Glatfelter, several megatrends are supporting the growth of airlaid, which globally is growing at a rate slightly higher than global GDPs. “Airlaid materials are primarily used in disposable products, many of which require a superior level of absorbent functionality. These types of products are benefiting from favorable demographic trends, a desire for convenience, and an increase in disposable income, particularly in developing countries,” he says.
Demographically speaking, Glatfelter sees a growing and wealthier population of active elderly individuals in developed countries. “This need for discreet and secure solutions, particularly among women, is driving the demand for adult incontinence,” Astley says.
Mango agrees. “In developed markets, the population is aging, and the section of the population that is aged is wealthier and more active than they have been historically,” he says. “This fits perfectly into products that use airlaid. And there’s really no quick or easy alternative to airlaid if you want comfort, discretion and effectiveness.”
While feminine hygiene growth in developed countries is not as strong as adult incontinence, the rising trend of daily feminine hygiene product usage is contributing to modest airlaid growth in this segment, Astley adds.
Meanwhile, the consensus among airlaid producers is that developing countries are showing potential for growth.
Market penetration and access to feminine hygiene products is still relatively low in developing markets, according to Astley. “Increases in disposable income, education on the benefits of sanitary protection and the corresponding mitigation of historical, local taboos, are driving growth in the feminine hygiene end market. We expect airlaid to continue to benefit from this growth trend,” he continues.
EAM Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Domtar that designs and manufactures ultrathin airlaid absorbent cores under the NovaThin and NovaZorb brands, is witnessing growth in these regions. “Growth within the Asia Pacific region continues at a rapid pace, most specifically outside of China, with India and Indonesia being of particular note,” says Lori Venn, vice president of sales & marketing, EAM Corporation. “Eastern Europe and Russia have also shown particularly robust demand as usage of feminine hygiene products and wipes has dramatically increased.”
Mango believes Asia is the largest growth market for airlaid for a few reasons. The first is simply because of demographics. “The population of women in that zone who are using feminine hygiene products is growing much faster in Asia than anywhere else in the world,” he says.
North America and Europe have already converted from the old, thick fluff-based pads to ultrathin pads, whereas Asia hasn’t, especially in India, where consumers haven’t even used the big, fluffy fluff pulp pads yet, Mango points out. “Some of the most populated countries in Asia are reaching the point where they want better feminine hygiene products, whether it’s in India where they want something better than textiles, or the upper class Chinese who want something as good as someone in New York is getting. Population wise, Asia is a powerhouse and I don’t think there’s anything that could stop it,.”
On the other hand, Fitesa believes airlaid market penetration in feminine care absorbent cores is already mature in Asia, and growth will be driven by innovations such as its TLA product. “We consider the Asian airlaid market mature, characterized by concentrated specialized demand and supply (products with more sophisticated technical and quality requirements), especially in hygiene, with a very large number of additional customers and suppliers operating in less strict (‘non-specialized’) markets,” says Mariana Mynarski, global marketing, Fitesa.
Sustainability: Airlaid’s Role
Lately, sustainability has been a major focus within the nonwovens supply chain, and has become especially relevant following the Single-Use Plastics Directive adopted by the European Parliament last year.
According to Mango, fluff pulp—the main raw material for airlaid—is one of the most sustainable materials on Earth. “It grows on land that doesn’t grow food, it doesn’t need pesticides or fertilizer, and it is grown responsibly. While chemicals are used in the pulping process, it has improved over time,” he adds.
Today, airlaid producers are trying to find something to replace the plastic, non-biodegradable bonding agents, and this was prompted by the European Union’s directive, he explains. “While a major target of the directive was wipes, everybody in the U.S. is saying it’s only a matter of time. Straws and plastic bags are already being banned, and it’s going to come to a point where if you have a non-plastic containing product, you have a big advantage, no matter what end-use it’s in.”
According to Venn of EAM, on average, airlaid products contain 75-85% fluff pulp, which is an advantage in cost and sustainability. “Some technologies are naturally more eco-friendly. For example, hydrogen bonded airlaid contains no synthetic fibers (i.e., Bico fibers, EVA, etc.) and is 100% reclaimable in the process. Furthermore, the most recent pending legislation on single-use plastics gives all airlaid technology a potential advantage over other materials,” she says.
Glatfelter’s Astley echoes this, saying that compared to all other nonwovens technologies, airlaid uses the highest percentage of natural fibers, substantially reducing the presence of synthetic materials or those which are considered to be plastic. “One of the many advantages of airlaid is that it utilizes a very high percentage of natural fibers, mainly fluff pulp. This makes airlaid one of the most sustainable products in the broader family of nonwovens. Glatfelter is committed to the development of a bio-based product platform, leveraging the unique advantages we hold in manufacturing natural fiber-based airlaid and wetlaid nonwovens,” he explains.
Fluff pulp—by the nature of its chemical composition—also has a natural ability to absorb and hold fluids 10 times greater than its weight, he adds. “This enables our customers to produce and offer to the market products with advanced absorbency of body fluids, avoidance of rewet, and excellent storage capacity – all critical to providing more comfort to the end-consumer.”
Mango believes the sustainability trend may also help airlaid enter markets that it was previously in—markets such as filtration that have transitioned to more durable nonwovens made of synthetic fibers.
“At one point, airlaid was used in sound insulation and filters, but it was much better to use materials made with polyester and polystyrene foam because they lasted forever and they weren’t affected by moisture,” he says. “That was all great and dandy, but now sustainability has come full circle. Now automotive companies are wondering whether they can replace styrene foam with airlaid in some cases. Can they replace some of the filters that were polyester with airlaid? There are going to be some new markets that are going to drive airlaid, and sustainability is going to help grow airlaid into these markets.”