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Needlepunching: retaining a sharp image in nonwovens.

NEEDLEPUNCHING Retaining A Sharp Image In Nonwovens The needlepunching industry is like th eblack sheep or ugly duckling of the nonwovens industry. Despite this, needlepunching is in reality a dynamic and highly technical industry.

No other nonwoven process can match needlepunching's unique physical properties. For instance, elongation in the X, Y and Z direction makes a needlepunched fabric unbeatable in mildable applications. The ability to attach layers of different type fiber webs makes needling the ideal way to produce composites. The ability to achieve extremely high densities sets needlepunching apart from other nonwoven processes. The high strengths associated with needlepunched fabrics makes them the overwhelming choice for geotextile fabrics. The high strengths and superior filtration properties make needlepunched fabrics the choice for much of the world's filtration media.

Some of needlepunching's past problems have been centered around the perception that needlepunching was a waste utilization industry. However, the connotations perceiving needlepunching in this light are slowly eroding. More people are realizing that needlepunching has progressed to an industry that is very much high tech.

Years ago the vast majority of the needles that were sold into the needlepunching industry were 19, 20 and 25 gauge. These are the needle styles that are predominantly used to needle waste fibers. Today, however, most of the needle styles are in the range of 32, 36 and 40 and 42 gauge. These have finer blade sections and are the needle styles recommended for needling virgin fibers in the range of 1-1/2-18 denier.

This, in and of itself, serves as a barometer in that it indicates that the industry is moving towards finer deniers, virgin fibers and products requiring more technology in general. Compared to other nonwoven processes, needlepunching equipment requires relatively low capital. This is one of the reasons why there are so many needlepunchers. At last count, there are approximately 290 in North America alone.

If You've Seen One,

You Haven't Seen Them All

Obviously, not every needlepunching line is set up the same. A line set up to produce geotextiles is completely different than one set up to produce automotive fabrics. Some needlepunched products require post-needlepunching applications, such as singeing, calendering, slitting, embossing and splitting. These post-needlepunching procedures can be set up on-line or off-line depending on the application.

Listed below are three different needlepunching lines, for producing filtration, carpet underlay and synthetic leather products. It is interesting to show just what components go into each of these needlepunching lines as well. Also indicated is a rough "ball park" cost of purchasing a new line for each of three products.

Line A--Filtration; 3.5 Meter Wide, with

--opening/blending with two self emptying bins with opening, oiling, metal detection, duct work, etc.

--carding, double doffer in form with its card feed hopper

--crosslapping 4.0 meters wide--high speed

--preneedling

--needlepunching--down punch and doube punching

--roll up

--line electrics

--duty paid, delivered, erected--approximately $2.7 million.

Line B--Carpet Underlay; 3.5 Meter Wide, with

--same opening/blending system, carding system, crosslapper

--one needle loom with batt comprehensive system

--electrics

--roll up

--duty paid, delivered, erected, approximately $2.1 million.

Line C--Synthetic Leather; 3.5 Meter Wide, with

--same opening/blending system, carding system, crosslapper

--needle loom down punch, needle loop up punch

--two needle looms double punch

--wind up

--line electric

--duty paid, delivered, erected, approximately $3.2 million.

Needlepunching: The U.S.

And Canada

It's interesting to break down the U.S. and Canadian needlepunching market. Table 1 categorizes most needlepunched fabrics into 11 major areas.

Table 2 illustrates the percentage of North America companies that are involved in each needlepunching category.

Automotive

Many people recognize the needlepunched nonwovens in an automobile. Indeed, the automotive industry utilizes millions of square yards of needled nonwoven fabrics every year. The most common needlepunched areas on the automobile are the molded floor area, formed headliners, door trim, seat backs, load floors and package trays. In addition to some of the more obvious areas are the less noticeable needlepunched applications in the automobile, including sound barriers, transmission filters, battery separators, structural panels (often made from needlepunched wood fiber), speaker housings, vinyl substrates, catalytic converter insulation pads and much more.

Needlepunchers producing automotive fabrics tend to be larger companies with newer equipment. The needlepunchers in the automotive industry also tends to be some of the leaders in quality. This is because the automobile companies stress quality and statistical process control in manufacturing. They stress this to their suppliers and as a consequence the suppliers stress quality to sub-suppliers and there is a trickle-down affect.

The biggest opportunity for U.S. producers of needlepunched fabrics continues to be the goal to get more needlepunched floor coverings and headliners in U.S.-made automobiles. In Europe and Japan there are many automobiles produced with needlepunched floor coverings as well as needlepunched headliners. However, this technology has yet to take hold in the U.S.

It is still a matter of time before the U.S. automotive industry makes a move towards needlepunched floors and headliners. In the Far East, Europe and Latin America countries, there are more needlepunched molded floors than there are tufted.

Filtration

Needlepunched filter fabrics continue to be one of the major growth areas in the needlepunching industry. The number of needlepunchers participating in the filtration market went from 26 companies in 1989 to 30 in 1990. The type of needlepunched filter fabrics being produced in 1990 is more diverse and unique than ever before. High temperature liquid filter fabrics made from aramid or glass fibers continues to be popular. Other unique needlepunched filter fabrics include those for filtering blood. However, the more standard 6-14 OZ. sq. yard polypropylene and polyester filter bag is what most of the companies in this field are producing.

Medical

Companies producing medical products through the needlepunching process are few and far between. Apparently, the needlepunching method of producing medical and hygiene related products is not as popular as other nonwoven processes. Many of the needlepunched medical fabrics that are now being produced are fairly secretive, so little can be said about them. However, an example of some needlepunched medical products being produced in 1990 include blood filters, cast wrappings and various absorption materials.

Apparel

Most of the needlepunced fabrics in the apparel industry are either used as shoulderpads or as interlinings. Other needlepunched apparel oriented fabrics include felts for the shoe industry. However, as most of the shoe industry is situated on foreign soil, there are few shoe felts produced in this country. By contrast, however, in Korea and Taiwan there are numerous companies that produce shoe felts. The Far East is one of the largest producers of shoes; the tennis shoes you buy in most sport shops today are actually a needlepunched artificial leather.

Home Furnishings

Home furnishings is the category that has the most needlepunchers associated with it. In fact, in 1990 we see more than 25 new companies participating in the home furnishings field. The needlepunchers in this group tend to be small-to-medium in size. The needlepunched products included in this category are diverse.

These products include floor coverings, wall coverings, mattress spring insulator pads, mattress top pads, ticking for furniture and bedding, vinyl substrates, carpet cushions, blankets, felts for vertical blinds and many others. Many of the products produced in this category can be needlepunched on older equipment, so the capital required to enter this field is low, a major reason why there is an abundance of needlepunchers in this particular category. This is especially true in the spring insulator pad field.

Because many needlepunchers are involved in the home furnishings field, it becomes rather clear how sensitive the needlepunching industry is to increases in interest rates. Most of the growth in this category of the needlepunching industry is to be in the high quality floor coverings area.

Marine

In 1989, there were approximately seven producers needlepunching fabrics for the marine industry. In 1990 there are now more than 20 needlepunchers involved in this field. Indeed, the marine industry has made a trend towards needlepunched fabrics in the past few years. Many of the major producers have been replacing traditionally tufted areas with needlepunched fabrics.

Also, needlepunched composite materials have been introduced as hull liners on some boats in the past couple of years. These needlepunched hull liners are actually composite fabrics and they offer better stability, lighter weight and economic benefits over the woven competition. Other needlepunched marine areas include floor covering, head and wall covering areas and other applications.

Industrial Felts

Industrial felts tend to be a small segment of the needlepunched industry. Needlepunched industrial fabrics include gaskets, vibration pads and heavy duty wipes.

Aerospace

This is currently a small but growing segment of the needlepunching industry in the U.S. and Canada. Included in this group are needlepunched carbon composites for various applications, needlepunched high temperature fibers for fire protection on aircraft, space shuttle exterior tiles and many more items that cannot be discussed because of security agreements. The companies that produce these types of fabrics have been successful in finding"niche" markets in the industry, staying away from commonly fabrics and produce products such as these that yield much higher returns.

Insulation Felts

Needled felts made from fiberglass, ceramic fiber and certain aramid fibers fall into this category. Those needlepunching ceramic fiber mats have been extremely busy in the past two years. However, the Environment Protection Agency is currently evaluating the reclassification of ceramic fibers as a carcinogen. This would create obvious problems for those currently needlepunching this fiber. Because the cost to get into the processing of ceramic fober is extremely high, the market is dominated by very large, multimillion dollar companies. The cost of processing glass fibers and aramid fibers is much less, however, so medium sized companies are more common with these needlepunched products.

Paperfelts

Paperfelts consist of large continuous belts of monofilament and synthetic fiber material that are installed on paper machines and carry the paper stock through three stages (forming, pressing and drying) of the paper production process. Paper felts, which are custom designed and manufactured, can have a considerable effect on the quality of the paper being produced as well as the efficiency of the paper machines on which it is used. Paperfelts can sell at prices up to $90,000 a fabric, thet may exceed 30 feet in width and have a life on the paper machine that ranges from 30-90 days.

The companies that produce these very technical fabrics are all fairly large. The looms needed to produce these felts can cost in excess of $4 million. The felting needles used to produce these felts are also very specialized. The paper industry in the U.S. has had great growth in the past few years. Not surprisingly, the companies that produce these paperfelts have also grown. It is perhaps the one needlepunching category that has had the most companies investing money into new equipment. However, many economists see slower times ahead in the paper industry.

Geotextiles

There has been a decrease of companies involved in the needlepunching of geotextiles. Because the goetextile market is controlled by the fiber producers themselves, it is very difficult to compete in this very price sensitive market. For those thinking about getting into the market, you better think twice. The competition is fierce and the margins are low. The sheer volume of needlepunch fabric is indeed very high, with 340 million sq. yards of total geotextile fabrics forecasts to be sold in 1990 alone. The market has grown nearly 50% since 1986 and this growth is expected to continue.

I hope this brief overview of needlepunching has brought to light the many fine "points" of the industry. Our "punch" has always been "felt" in the nonwovens industry. Those "poking" fun at our industry as being only waste utilization have changed their tune. It is my hope that needlepunched nonwovens will continue to retain a "sharp" image in our industry.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Rodman Publications, Inc.
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Article Details
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Author:Foster, John
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Oct 1, 1990
Words:1991
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