The increasing versatility and functionality of nonwoven fabrics is expanding their market reach with new technologies and new applications
The constant drive to bring costs down and performance up has made nonwovens a key player in the textile industry, penetrating markets traditionally dominated by woven fabrics. Sustainability, durability, versatile functionality and cost-efficient production are all part of the continuous growth of the nonwovens industry, now estimated at more than $30 billion worldwide, and expected to grow by nearly 6–7 percent annually.
“The reason people are turning to nonwovens today generally is because they perform better. They’re engineered so they can be designed into your final product with properties that you need. You can make them lighter, more dense, have acoustical properties, be repellent, more absorbent, and sometimes they are less expensive,” says Rory Holmes, president of INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabric Industry. “There are occasions when nonwoven technology is the only way a structure can be produced.”
INDA tracks 12 nonwovens markets, the largest being personal hygiene (disposable diapers, incontinence products, feminine hygiene products), wipes, filtration and medical/surgical products, followed by construction (geotextiles, roofing), automotive and other areas including batteries, carpets and rugs, upholstery and others.
What is a nonwoven?
According to INDA’s website, “Nonwoven fabrics are broadly defined as sheet or web structures bonded together by entangling fiber or filaments (and by perforating films) mechanically, thermally, or chemically. They are flat, porous sheets that are made directly from separate fibers or from molten plastic or plastic film. They are not made by weaving or knitting and do not require converting the fibers to yarn.”
Nonwovens may be a single-use, limited-life or very durable fabric, engineered to provide specific functions such as absorbency, liquid repellency, resilience, stretch, softness, strength, flame retardancy, washability, cushioning, filtering, bacterial barriers and sterility. These properties can be combined to create fabrics designed for specific jobs while keeping a balance between use-life and cost. They can also mimic the appearance, texture and strength of a woven fabric.
Disposable nonwoven commodities, such as diapers and surgical gowns and drapes, have penetrated nearly 100 percent of their U.S. markets. Nonwoven markets are growing in other parts of the world as well, especially in China, India, Brazil and Russia, says Holmes. But durable nonwovens are also making their mark, sometimes fetching a higher price than traditional, disposable applications. Sales are growing at approximately 4.5 percent in North America, driven mainly by geotextiles used in a lot of government-sponsored infrastructure improvement projects, as well as the automotive and construction industries, as reported in the April 2012 issue of Nonwovens Industry.
In the automotive industry, every car made now carries about 35 pounds of nonwoven fabric, notes Holmes. Needlepunch nonwoven fabrics are being used in automotive carpeting, representing another growing application. “The car market is one of our durable end uses and is pretty measurable. Those end uses are growing, and the reasons are nonwovens are lighter weight and sometimes less expensive,” says Holmes.
Innovation is key for growth within the nonwovens industry. The Polymer Group Inc. in Charlotte, N.C., a global supplier to the hygiene, medical, wipes, filtration and other specialty markets, launched a proprietary nano-fiber-based technology platform in 2011 called Arium™, enabling submicron fiber production. This technology allows PGI to enter new markets with improved performance at an attractive price point, says Cliff Bridges, senior director, corporate communications and sustainability. PGI is pursuing market applications such as acoustics, filtration, vacuum cleaner bags and specific health care and life sciences applications.
PGI’s APEX® technology is an advancement of the spunlace hydroentanglement process, producing nonwovens with textile-like properties. PGI has leveraged the technology to create truly differentiating products, such as secondary carpet backing. The advantages over traditional backing are that it is easier to cut, bend and mold around corners, it eliminates latex flaking, and offers better protection to woodwork and hardwood floors due to its superior softness, explains Bridges.
RKW US Inc. in Rome, Ga., is utilizing a new combination technology called HyJet® hydroentangled spunlace, a process that allows more flexibility in production, such as a loftier or higher strength product. The technology also allows for a very high absorption rate that spunlaces and spunbonds separately don’t achieve. Additive chemistry or post-secondary coatings are applied to meet end use requirements, says Morris Collins, president. “I can see where that product could move into areas where traditional wovens have been used. The unique properties allow for a lower basis weight at the same tensile strength, as well as the ability to change chemistry in coatings, additives and laminating surface effects. This should open areas where traditional spunbond and other technologies have been used.”
The technology is changing all the time, adds Collins, but that drive has pushed nonwovens into areas that just 10 years ago were inconceivable. Customer demands for efficiency, performance and sustainability are also moving the nonwovens markets forward. Outside factors like rising raw materials costs and downward pressure on prices are always a challenge. But nonwovens are typically less expensive and require fewer manufacturing steps, which leads to a safer product, and most are 100 percent recyclable.
“Even for a durable product or a limited use product, the ability to reclaim is a very positive feature, as disposal costs whether in incineration or landfill fees, continue to grow along with the restrictions for disposal,” says Morris.
Other factors, such as weather patterns, are pushing manufacturers toward new solutions. RKW is focusing on the agriculture market, where specific performance features are required to meet the needs of growing seasons affected by changing climates. The company’s Polydress® LP-Keder greenhouse film has been in European markets for 30 years and was recently introduced to North America; it has generated a lot of interest for its ability to provide a better environment for plant growth and longer growing seasons in harsh climates.
“As our customers have asked for things, it has forced us to be more innovative, move into new areas where we can continue to serve them,” says Collins. “Five years ago we moved into producing geomembranes for pond liners and erosion control. From wovens to nonwovens to films, all have been used in civil engineering and construction for 30 years, but the requirements are continuously changing—cheaper, lighter, better.” It’s a growing market even though worldwide construction is somewhat down; there’s still a need for roads, bridges and landfills.
The rapid development of meltspun processes has forced companies like Goulston Technologies Inc. to adapt its core products to the marketplace. The Monroe, N.C.-based company produces fiber lubricants and spin finishes for the manmade fiber extrusion and nonwovens market and downstream fiber processing.
“We’re focused on how to utilize new technology along with our core technologies in ways that benefit the customer. Today we offer products that are hydrophilic or hydrophobic for the medical industry, antimicrobial, that enhance the tactile feel, softness or harshness, or allow fabric producers to go to lighter weights,” says Chris Hagler, manager of staple and nonwovens. “For example, we might find a technology used in the paint industry and apply it to the nonwovens goods because it offers a key attribute.”
The “green” movement has also influenced the chemistry that can be applied. Markets have matured and companies are working to come up with the next technology. For example, 15–20 years ago spandex elastomeric fiber was considered extremely high tech; today it’s absolutely a commodity, notes Michael Kutsenko, Ph.D., research and development manager for Goulston Technologies.
“New polymers are being developed, and there is a spunbond process for virtually every polymer, which expands the use of nonwovens,” says Kutsenko. “That’s where opportunities come in for us, because we’re asked to provide the topical solutions for the nonwovens markets.”
The company is concentrating on the big growth areas—disposable diapers, wipes, hygienic products and lighter weight fabrics—all of which are predicted to grow dramatically because of population growth and an aging population—but Goulston is also looking at automotive applications, hospitality and food industries, carpets and even high-performance disposable athletic T-shirts, synthetic leather, and biodegradable and recyclable polymers.
Competing for markets?
Nonwovens, wovens and knitted engineered materials are part of a continuum of materials that can be designed with simple or complex functional attributes. Often these three different ways of constructing fibrous architectures are used in combination to address a particular profile of specifications, says PGI’s Bridges. “We can expect to see all types of materials evolve to serve the demands of the future. Nonwovens have been asked to step up and offer differentiation that was once only offered by traditional substrates. That differentiation has occurred and will continue.”
Numerous nonwoven technologies are enjoying acceptance in durable applications, despite the perception that they’re not as durable as woven fabrics. Some would say that nonwovens are more about functionality and less about aesthetics, but that’s also changing.
PGI’s Spinlace® technology, used in its line of Chicopee Durawipes®, is a combination of spunbond technology, airlaid absorbency and hydroentangling technology that results in a high-quality cleaning wipe that holds up to the toughest jobs, says Bridges. The triple-layer construction is compatible with both oil and water-based solvents and is known for exceptional absorbency and strength, designed for repeat-use, heavy-duty industrial and institutional cleaning applications.
PGI has also developed a durable blanket that is as warm as traditional cotton or wool, and utilizes APEX technology on one side to provide comfort and PGI spunmelt capabilities on the other side to provide a backing with a barrier to moisture, dirt and debris. This particular blanket is insect repellent and was developed as a humanitarian aid product that protects against malaria.
“We now are able to produce nonwovens in any color, with great prints. Understanding fibrous architecture, we can create textures that ultimately deliver very positive tactile acceptance; at the same time, these textures also serve a performance function such as ‘entrapment’ or ‘conveyance,’” says Bridges. “In many instances, it is difficult for one to identify an engineered material as being nonwoven, knitted or woven,” he adds. “It takes a specialist to identify the actual technology that creates some of our modern materials today.”
Goulston’s Kutsenko says nonwovens will not completely take over woven goods applications, but they could definitely squeeze traditional fabrics out of some markets.
“The question is how far it will go and how fast. Inherently, woven goods will always have a strong position in the market,” Kutsenko says. “For example, you may never reach the point where the comfort factor of woven goods can be satisfied and replaced by a nonwoven. But it’s absolutely a real possibility.”