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Cotton: a natural move into nonwovens.

the natural fiber is set to make a further move into the nonwovens industry as new products, coupled with a number of significant capacity expansions, are ready to offer a better product ... and more of it

A consumer could always find cotton nonwoven swabs, puffs, wipes, filters, waddings and other personal care items. Just in the past year stores shelves have been filling up with the natural fiber in diaper coverstock, feminine hygiene coverstock and an assortment of needle-punched nonwovens.

Now, it seems, pushed by one very important new product and increased capacity at all three major domestic suppliers, as well as the possibility of a fourth supplier entering the fray from overseas, cotton is poised to take the next large step into lightweight nonwovens production. The industry has apparently met the challenge laid down by the nonwovens producers to develop a fiber that is easily processible on existing equipment, that is available on a large enough scale and that meets the industry's very tough quality standards.

The path leading towards meeting that challenge, however, has not always been a straight line. The nonwovens industry thought it had found the answer in the mid-1980's when Cotton Inc., the research and marketing arm of U.S. cotton growers, developed and built a pilot scale continuous cotton fiber bleaching line in Greenville, SC. But with that technology currently only in commercial use in the U.K. by licensee Edward Hall, Ltd. (see sidebar on next page) and with the realization among suppliers and users alike that the continuous process is just one available technology, the U.S. industry has embraced both the continuous and kier bleached processes. It seems as if the industry doesn't favor either technology, as long as the cotton is processible and there is enough supply.

The simple reasons for the turn towards the kier technology-if there can be simple reasons-are that it is a proven technology and there is plentiful kier bleaching production at Veratec's Natural Fibers Group and at Barnhardt Manufacturing, along with a host of smaller suppliers, while it will take years to build a continuous bleaching line similar to the Cotton Inc. patented technology. Alpha Cellulose has gone a long way in this direction and has been supplying continuous bleached fiber since late 1989, but its 10 million pound annual capacity is not yet significant enough to give the large nonwovens producers the security of supply they demand. In the meantime, kier bleached cotton remains 85-90% of the supply available to the nonwovens industry today

In addition, the development of a new super-opened fiber by Veratec signals the start of a new era when nonwovens producers can be comfortable with running the natural fiber on their existing production equipment. The concern over dedicating a complete line to cotton nonwovens production had bogged down more than one recent developmental project.

There is currently between 75-80 million pounds of cotton used in nonwoven products. Veratec is by far the largest supplier in North America, followed by Barnhardt, which utilizes much of its production in-house, and newcomer Alpha Cellulose. An array of smaller suppliers serve either as niche suppliers or as captive sources for larger customers.

Cotton is currently priced starting at about $.84 a pound for shorter length fibers up to about $1.30 for staple fiber grade. This compares to rayon, its primary competitor, which sells in the $1.10 a pound range, although the high wet modulus grades are priced more in accordance with the upper end cotton figures. Capacity Expansions Everywhere

In addition to a product that it can easily handle, the nonwovens industry is going to accept cotton as a viable fiber only when the cotton suppliers are able to assure an adequate supply To that end, the three major U.S. producers have recently completed or are in the midst of significant expansions directly aimed at the nonwovens producers.

Veratec's Natural Fibers Group, Walpole, MA, has already expanded outside production capacity at its Toronto, Canada bleachery by 80% and is in the process of a multi-million pound expansion at its Griswoldville, MA site that will be completed in mid-1991. Veratec is also continuing with its plans for a third North American bleachery in Bethune, SC, although no indication has been given for the exact timetable or which technology will be utilized. Overall, the Group's cotton bleaching capacity has expanded about 30% in the past three years.

Much of this additional capacity is freeing up production for the expected increase in demand for Veratec's new "Easy Street" super-opened cotton, one of the most important technical developments in the cotton nonwovens segment. The new Easy Street fiber utilizes a means of post carding of kier bleached cotton that is designed for nonwovens since it has more consistency and uniformity and therefore processes better.

The thinking behind the development of this cotton fiber type at a time when the industry was looking for any answer to its cotton fiber demands is a matter of knowing what the producers needed, explained product manager Ed Hart. 'We are aiming at people who can't afford to dedicate a complete line to producing cotton nonwovens," he said. "One of the biggest problems with cotton in nonwovens has been getting the people to spend the money to engineer a line to run it. It is good for any company that wants to make a cotton nonwoven."

The introduction of Easy Street also means the nonwovens industry won't have to keep waiting for a usable fiber available on a very large scale. While Veratec determines the timing for its proposed Bethune plant, it already offers a readily available source of cotton for nonwovens. "Here is something that is available now. It's a tested, proven technology," Mr. Hart added.

There is a major capacity expansion coming on-stream as well at Barnhardt Manufacturing, Charlotte, NC, which began an upgrading in 1988 when it foresaw the growth of cotton in nonwovens. The expansion will effectively double capacity to the 20-30 million pound annual range and, according to John Smith, vice president-sales and marketing, there is built-in flexibility to double that again. He said product should be shipping from the new capacity by July

The new unit will employ upgraded kier technology to, according to Mr. Smith, "supply the growing demand for cotton in traditional markets, but also to address the increasing interest in cotton for nonwovens that we saw three years ago."

Barnhardt has also developed a cotton fiber that virtually eliminates the nips of cotton, which had been one of the drawbacks for synthetic nonwovens producers. This fiber is currently still in the experimental stage.

Barnhardt presently sells much of its output on the merchant market but also does significant in-house converting of cotton nonwovens for the industrial filtration markets. It has a near term target to sell half of its cotton into nonwovens.

The newest player in the cotton for nonwovens game is Alpha Cellulose, Lumberton, NC, which got its 10 million ton annual capacity continuous bleaching line on-stream last November. Greg Ward, director of nonwovens marketing, said the company already has the engineering plans for a second line that is scheduled for completion in the first quarter of 1991; the planned line has an announced capacity of 25 million pounds a year.

Cotton Inc. Focuses On Kier

Although it is the developer of the first commercially viable continuous bleaching process, Cotton Inc., New York, NY, has focused in the past year on improving the quality of kier bleached cotton, which is how the vast majority of cotton is produced in North America. "The producers working with us were indicating they couldn't go into production of cotton nonwovens because there were no suppliers of the type of continuous bleached cotton they were working with in Greenville (its pilot continuous bleaching site),' said Charles Lapidus, Cotton Inc. vice president-Nonwovens and Floor Coverings Div. That is why Cotton Inc. started its work on kier bleaching.

"We are certainly not turning our backs on the continuous process, but we are answering the call of the customers asking how do they get enough of the fiber now," he said.

The improvements made by Cotton Inc. researchers utilize coarse wire cards to open the fiber after bleaching. This process effectively breaks down the cotton into almost single fibers that can run on conventional nonwovens equipment at high speeds. Its work has paid off in improved quality of the product and the expected increased use of bleached virgin cotton by the major cotton suppliers.

One of the big cotton users has apparently decided to take the cotton supply situation into its own hands, at least to a minor extent. In April, Steams Technical Textiles, Cincinnati, OH, a producer of nonwovens roll goods and battings, restarted its kier bleaching operations in Cincinnati after a 15 year hiatus. The kiers were shut down in the mid-1970's because of plentiful supply of bleached cotton and Stearns' own limited demand.

Now, with added demand for cotton diaper coverstock, fabric softener, feminine hygiene products and wet wipes, prompted the return to its in-house bleaching. Steams said it will continue to purchase just as much cotton from its regular outside suppliers.

Steams is, according to vice president-sales and marketing Norm Egner, producing cotton diaper and feminine hygiene product coverstock. But this wasn't the reason for the move. "Aside from the recent interest in lightweight nonwovens, we have an on-going use for cotton for our battings business and sprayed cotton for mattress covers," among other things. "We need to be assured our existing business is covered," he said. "Then we see the growing demand or other cotton nonwovens."

Growth of consumption of cotton in nonwoven products to the 75-80 million pound mark represents a steady increase from 60-65 million pounds three years ago. With the new capacities that are coming on-stream and the new fiber types, along with the uncertainty of rayon supply and consumer satisfaction with a natural fiber in an increasingly environmentally conscious society, that growth should continue well into the 1990's.

"For whatever reason, cotton has become fashionable again," pointed out Mr. Smith, of Barnhardt. He admitted this popularity with producers may have accelerated with the recent rayon problems, but any interest now has turned to performance and the properties cotton can offer alone or in blends with synthetics.

Mr. Ward, of Alpha Cellulose, agreed, but focused on the marketing angle. "Our customers are realizing they will have a marketing advantage with cotton," he said. "One of the advantages of cotton in nonwovens is that it is appealing to people." The revamped marketing efforts by Dafoe & Dafoe for its disposable diaper with a cotton coverstock, which now focuses on the consumer's perception of cotton, as well as Scott Paper's marketing of its baby wipes, are seen as examples of the correct way to address the challenge.

Cotton Inc. constantly tracks nonwovens consumption of its natural fiber and Mr. Lapidus believes the growth is even stronger now than in the past two or three years. The only factor holding back this growth was the uncertainty of supply That has certainly been addressed. The demand can be adjusted to meet the supply very quickly" is how he put it. The Biodegradability Issue

It would seem only natural that the cotton producers would promote the biodegradability aspects of their fiber as the world's eyes continue to focus on the environment. Somewhat surprisingly, they have not used the inherent biodegradability of their natural fiber as a marketing gimmick. The reason? They feel it isn't necessary.

Mr. Lapidus said that the cotton suppliers and Cotton Inc. have not gone out of their way to promote the biodegradability features of the natural fiber. "While we are not playing up the biodegradability issue, mostly because there's no reason to, I think there are others who are realizing independently the environmental advantages of cotton," he said. "We see the disposables industry having to respond to legislation concerning biodegradability, but we're not making an issue of it."

"We haven't really played up the issue," added Alpha's Mr. Ward. "It's there because everyone knows cotton is a natural fiber and we know it is biodegradable, so it is not something we really have to talk about." Arguments over the exact meaning of biodegradability "won't do anyone any good, it clouds the issue. Biodegradability," he added, goes with the territory for cotton. It's not something we have to push."

Mr. Hart, of Veratec, summed it up best. "People feel more comfortable with cotton if they are concerned about biodegradability," he said. "If it means something to them, then the biodegradability of cotton is an issue. We talk about it, but it is not driving the business." Where To From Here?

Further in-roads by cotton into nonwovens will depend on a number of factors, chief among them the performance and acceptance of the new, more easily processible fibers. Much work has already been done in needling cotton fibers, while most feel the next great step will be the ultimate commercialization of spunlaced cotton nonwovens.

Bart Morse, general manager of the Natural Fibers Group at Veratec, said the development of Easy Street is just a step in this direction. "We have gone one step further than just expanding capacity, because we have designed our process around the needs of a market," he explained. "We were looking to do things to the fiber to enhance its capabilities. That will then expand the market."

Mr. Lapidus also felt the improved quality of cotton for nonwovens is the key to future growth, now that capacity appears to be sufficient for the foreseeable future. "Much of the nonwovens industry is in a commodity situation," Mr. Lapidus said. "I think the mentality of the industry has to be switching to breaking away from this and finding individual niches. That's where cotton comes in."

Edward Hall: Cotton on the Continent

INDEX '90 provided the impetus for continued development of the European cotton nonwovens business

Employing continuous bleaching cotton technology licensed from Cotton Inc., Edward Hall, U.K., has become one of the leading suppliers of bleached cotton to the European nonwovens industry. Although rumors still swirl around its plans to establish a U.S. cotton bleaching facility (a move the company says is still under consideration but is not yet imminent), Edward Hall remains strictly a European supplier of the cotton fiber.

Two years after the start-up of the world's first continuous process cotton bleaching line, the company reported last month that many of the original teething problems associated with the development of the Cotton Inc. continuous process have been overcome. Although the line still has additional capacity, it is now producing between eight-10 million pounds of its "Luxicot" fiber annually. The line is capable of processing raw cotton fibers, combers and lower grades wastes,

New developments have focused on improving the range of finishes that may be applied to the fibers. One of the major developments in this field is a finish designed to give Luxicot improved cardability on modem nonwoven high speed carding machines. Other recently developed finishes include one for hydroentanglement, which overcomes potential filtration difficulties with water recycling, and a new wash resistant high loft finish for wadding, upholstery and pillow filling applications. A further goal is to produce a permanently flame proof Luxicot grade.

Edward Hall, exhibiting at INDEX'90 in Geneva, Switzerland in April, has taken a highly visible route in promoting cotton in nonwovens. It had on hand at the show resin bonded wound and bum dressings from Lantor (The Netherlands); wet wipes and specialty wipes from several European roll goods producers; spunlaced fabrics from various sources; and powder bonded fabrics from Bonar Carelle (Scotland).

The latter represented a number of newer applications as Bonar Carelle managing director Mike Seal explained. "As yet we are in the early stages of commercial development for a number of impregnated wiping products," he said. The concept is that by incorporating varying percentages of Luxicot into our 'Ultrasoft' fabric, we can tailor the product's absorptive capacity in line with specific customer requirements. - However, according to Edward Hall marketing manager Ian Hollis, these applications are not currently the most significant for Luxicot. "By far, the fiber's greatest success is for use in thermal bonded products," he told Nonwovens Industry. These include lightweight products (20-30 grams sq. meter) for coverstock and, in particular, feminine hygiene and sanitary towel applications; manufacturers offering these thermally bonded cotton nonwovens include Robinsons, Mansell Bonded Fabrics, Lohmann and Sodoca. A second product category is the heavier weight, 50-70 grams sq. meter, nonwovens. This latter group is replacing rayon thermal and resin bonded products for general purpose and medical wipes.

Duncan Rhodes, product development manager, said the consensus at INDEX '90 was that thermal bonded and spunlaced specialty products are generating the most interest from converters and producers alike.

Edward Hall expects to sell 30% of its Luxicot fiber into identified nonwovens segments this year. Its properties have given rise to use in a variety of durable and semi-durable applications. The company feels Luxicot's potential for semi-durable segments, including bedding and household furnishings, has already been recognized by spunlaced manufacturers.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on Edward Hall bleached cotton technology
Author:Jacobsen, Michael
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Jun 1, 1990
Previous Article:Fibers at INDEX '90.
Next Article:A hot market gets hotter as globalization takes hold.

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