Versatility in fiber content can lead to expanding applications.
Nonwoven fabrics have become a mainstay in the textiles sector. Compared to commodity textiles, nonwovens, industrial textiles, smart and wearable textiles are relatively new entrants into the industry. But the nonwovens sector is an organized one and has been established for five decades.
This sector has become an important contributor to consumer textiles, predominantly single-use products such as medical gowns, hygiene and incontinence products. Although nonwovens are predominantly used in single use/disposable items, they also find application in industrial and high-tech fields.
Based on the lifetime of nonwovens in usage, they are classified three ways: single use, semi-durable and durable. In terms of their applications, they can be classified as consumer products, industrial products and specialized products. Examples of industrial products include filter substrates, automotive headliners, acoustic insulation webs, as well as many others. A classic example for a highly specialized product is a nonwoven liner that counters chemical and biological toxins in chem-bio protective suits.
The Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA), based in Cary, N.C., and its European counterpart EDANA are the authoritative organizations that provide statistics about the industry and international technical and marketing platforms to advance the sector. Forecasts by INDA and EDANA predict that worldwide growth will be around 5.7 percent annually to 2020. Estimates show that the Asian region will lead growth with the cumulative annual growth rate (CAGR) of about 6.1 percent. North America is expected to grow at 5.3 percent, while Europe will show 4.8 percent growth.
According to Brad Kalil, Director of Market Research and Statistics at INDA, China’s CAGR will be 7 percent. India and the Middle East will register rates of 8 percent and 7.1 percent respectively. Brazil’s growth will be the slowest at 3.2 percent, due to political and economic situations there, says Kalil.
As nonwoven fabrics are feed materials to develop single-use consumer items, productivity of the processing machines has been the priority for this sector, which is determined both by the speed and the width of the machines. Most recently, narrower, customized machines are getting attention. Leading European nonwoven machinery makers are now manufacturing 1–1.5 meter-wide machines to suit the needs of new entrepreneurs and small businesses. This will reduce the cost of initial investments and will enable the development of highly technical and customized nonwoven products.
While developing nonwoven washable apparel is far from reality, nonwoven fabrics are used as liners for apparel, for example, and are becoming established products in the interlinings sector.
Another trend getting attention currently is the use of alternate and natural fibers. The nonwoven sector predominantly uses three fibers: polypropylene pellets, polyester staple and viscose staple fibers. Apart from these three, bleached cotton has established a presence in some products. Most recently, due to environmental concerns and consumer interests, natural fibers are being investigated.
Brian George at Philadelphia University has been experimenting with hemp fibers in developing industrial products. Mechanically cleaned cotton for developing wipes and some absorbent products have been in the market for some time now. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agriculture Research Service (ARS) Laboratory in New Orleans has been working towards increasing the consumption of cotton in the nonwovens market.
According to Brian Condon of the ARS, “Systematic research has shown that cotton from a wide variety of sources and with a wide range of properties can be used in nonwoven products.” ARS’ work includes studies on the biodegradability of cotton and new cleaning formulations for wet wipes. A particularly interesting area of work involves blending blue dyed fiber to counter the yellowness in cotton.
Another project involves synthesizing silver nano particles inside cotton to develop wash-fast antimicrobial fabrics that can be used in drapes, undergarments and other products. Recently, a collaboration between scientists at the USDA New Orleans laboratory and Texas Tech University has shown that low micronaire cotton has better oil absorbency compared to regular cotton. This approach will lead to new industrial applications for low micronaire/grade cottons. The wipes sector is also experimenting with different regenerated fibers, flax fibers and corn-based PLA fibers.
The nonwoven sector needs to look into multidisciplinary and collaborative approaches to develop next generation products. Although disruptive processing technologies may take time, machinery adaptations and modifications will pave the way for growth, particularly from new entrants’ points of view. The industry can and should explore cost-effective natural and new fibers for developing specialized products.
Seshadri Ramkumar, Ph.D., is a professor in the Nonwovens & Advanced Materials Laboratory, Texas Tech University.