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Picking the cotton market: a natural progression into nonwovens.

Picking The Cotton Market

A Natural Progression Into Nonwovens

as cotton usage in nonwovens continues to grow, people are beginning to get a |feeling' for the natural fiber in an array of applications; ongoing expansions mark changes in the past year Five years ago bleached cotton was virtually unheard of in nonwoven applications outside of the traditional cotton puff and tampon end uses. Two years ago, aided by the improved processability of cotton fibers on nonwoven cards and the continuing development of spunlacing as a viable technology utilizing cotton, the natural fiber surged into prominence in the industry.

Today, cotton has established itself as a healthy contender in the market, with domestic production of bleached cotton for nonwovens estimated to have stayed constant at about 70-75 million pounds annually. Capacity increases, as well as process improvements and technology updates, continue, while the few sizeable players in the market work to maintain their share of the market and move into a variety of as-yet untapped areas.

The Cotton Connection

Markets for cotton in nonwovens are diversifying as manufacturers become more adept at handling the fiber and discover more about its capabilities. The inherent properties of cotton make it applicable to many more end uses than previously realized and nonwovens producers are starting to see its vast potential. While the traditional disposable markets are still a primary target, other applications are also evolving.

Despite the reportedly sold out capacity at Alpha Cellulose, Lumberton, NC, this newest supplier of bleached cotton fiber to nonwovens is attempting to develop a variety of new markets; its 8-10 million pound plant has been running to capacity since mid-1990. "We are doing research into flame retardant cotton as well as adding biocides for wipes and possibly for the medical market," Gregory Ward, director of nonwovens marketing, told NONWOVENS INDUSTRY.

He added that Alpha Cellulose, which is the first U.S. supplier to run a continuous bleaching line, has also been working with a customer on a needlepunched undercast wrapping as a replacement for rayon. "This is the most straightforward market there is," said Mr. Ward. "The decrease in the use of the rayon in the past few years was not marked by a similar increase in cotton."

"Nonwovens in general are the target of much cotton today," said John Smith, sales manager at Barnhardt Manufacturing, Charlotte, NC. "We have done well in filtration, as well as a variety of niche markets. Cotton's properties of absorbency, breathability and biodegradability have aided in its acceptance." Overall, he said, "The long term outlook for bleached cotton is strong."

One of the newest cotton fibers on the market, "Easy Street," from Veratec, Walpole, MA, has been commercial for the past year and is also targeting almost all of the major nonwovens technologies. "Establishing cotton for nonwovens is a two-pronged sword," explained Edward Hart, product manager. "There's the challenge of getting the customer to learn how to handle a new fiber and there's also the question of engineering the right product for customer needs. It's a matter of runnability and marketability," he said.

Questions still remain, however, about the availability of supply and the viability of cotton for some markets. Mr. Hart said that the primary reason cotton has not yet been completely accepted in nonwovens has been the lack of availability of a commercial grade for use in nonwoven fabrics. "Our new fiber is the first to meet that commercial grade," said Mr. Hart.

"The market will grow because of viable nonwoven cotton fibers," continued Mr. Hart. "New products, which will take up marketshare, will be developed and bleachers are expanding to meet these needs."

Mr. Ward agreed, but thought lack of current supply was another problem. "There's a strong demand for cotton out there," he said. "Right now, though, almost everyone is up to capacity, however, resulting in the slower growth."

Charles Lapidus, vice president-nonwovens marketing at Cotton Inc., New York, NY, the marketing arm of the U.S. cotton growers, also said he believes cotton volume figures would be higher if there were more cotton available. "There are products currently being test marketed that will have to worry about supply before becoming commercial," he said.

Meanwhile, Across The Sea

On the other side of the Atlantic, Edward Hall Ltd., Stockport, U.K., the sole licensee of Cotton Inc.'s continuous bleaching technology, is targeting surgical and nonwoven applications. Marketing director Ian Hollis reports that cotton has grown in acceptance in Europe. "The European manufacturers' awareness of the possibilities for cotton in nonwoven constructions has grown in recent years," he said. "This period has taken longer in Europe than would be the case in the U.S., where cotton is better understood, and demanded by manufacturers and consumers alike."

New products at Edward Hall target wipes and spunlaced applications. "Today, there is significant interest among many thermal bonded manufacturers for cotton blend nonwovens, mainly for wiping applications," said Mr. Hollis. "Led by U.K. thermal bonders, a strong trend is developing, particularly in the important Germany market."

A spunlaced fabric utilizing Edward Hall's "Luxicot" cotton fiber has also experienced significant capacity increases in the last two years. "Some of the leading marketers of nonwoven swabs are now talking seriously about 100% cotton fabrics," said Mr. Hollis, "looking to gain a competitive edge over currently available products." Several European spunlacers are now technically capable of making 100% Luxicot fabrics and Mr. Hollis said he anticipates that this will be the year for spunlaced cotton.

Are Durable Nonwovens Next?

While disposables are certainly the primary target of cotton in nonwovens, durable nonwoven niches are an untapped area for most cotton fabrics. It appears, however, that there certainly may be possibilities here. "Cotton has great potential in durable markets," said Mr. Ward, of Alpha Cellulose. "In home furnishings alone, applications such as drapery liners, mattress pads and quilting can benefit from the sturdiness and breathability of cotton."

Barnhardt's Mr. Smith was a bit more cautious. "We need a lot of process work before durable nonwovens markets for cotton can grow," he said. "There's still some work to be done."

"I would not exclude cotton from any nonwovens market right now," said Mr. Hart, of Veratec. "Bleached cotton in nonwovens is so new and so many are looking at its unique performance. It's too early in the ball game to exclude it from anything. Most people are looking at where it fits." While the logical place is still health and personal care products, "to exclude it from any market would be doing cotton a disservice," he added.

Mr. Ward was optimistic about cotton's future. "People are still not using it as much as they should, it will take time to get accepted, but it will take off. It's a matter of getting people to appreciate the benefits of cotton."

One durable product currently in the test market stage is the cotton bale wrap for which Cotton Inc. is supplying the (unbleached) cotton. The wrap is an eight oz. sq. yard needlepunched product treated with a vinyl copolymer to confer fabric durability and abrasion resistance. Cotton manufacturers are hoping the wrap will replace its synthetic competition. (For more information on this product, see Industry News, p. 67.)

Cotton Inc. is also working on some durable and semi-durable cotton applications, including bedsheets. "We've got to come up with products that have the performance characteristics," said Mr. Lapidus.

|Natural' Expansions

As new markets are analyzed and technology develops, the cotton producers are gearing up to handle the anticipated demand. The largest player in the U.S. cotton field, Veratec, continues work on a multi-million pound expansion at its Griswoldville, MA plant, with a number of process improvements and capacity expansions online or planned through the next several months. Mr. Hart said that throughout the ongoing expansion, the company's bleachery at Toronto has also been a tremendous benefit. "Although it is smaller than our Massachusetts plant, we will be importing a great deal of material," he said.

Mr. Hart also reported that Veratec is not revealing plans yet for the previously-announced expansion at its Bethune, SC plant; the company's plans are "to continue to concentrate on growth in current as well as new markets for nonwoven fabrics," said Mr. Hart.

The second largest U.S. manufacturer of cotton, Barnhardt Manufacturing, which produces about two thirds of its output for the merchant market and utilizes the remainder in-house, is also working on a capacity increase. The expansion currently taking place will more than double its capacity and, according to Mr. Smith, should be completed by the end of this year or by the first quarter of 1992. It has been phased in gradually, with the line continuing to run as capacity is added.

The newest player in the cotton arena, Alpha Cellulose, continues development of its second continuous bleaching line. According to Mr. Ward, the line is expected to be onstream late this year or early next year and will probably be at the Lumberton, NC site.

"The main reason for the delay on the new line was the recession," said Mr. Ward. "Things are moving ahead now, however, and we hope to be up and running soon." The new line will have a capacity of 20 million pounds a year.

British producer Edward Hall will have a capacity of 40 million pounds this year at its cotton bleaching facility in the U.K., said Mr. Hollis, with 65% of sales exported. While work continues on its continuous process line, Edward Hall still reports no definite plans to move into the U.S. "We have made steady but significant improvements (to the line) with more scheduled for this year, after which we will be in a position to seriously consider an investment in the U.S," said Mr. Hollis. He added that the company is still committed to the U.S., where there is undoubtedly a market for its Luxicot fiber, and various options are being considered.
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Title Annotation:use of cotton in nonwovens
Author:Noonan, Ellen
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Jun 1, 1991
Previous Article:Fibers for nonwovens: shipments dropped for the first time since 1985.
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