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Fibers for nonwovens: another record year for staple shipments.


Another Record Year For Staple Shipments both nonwovens and fiberfill set new records last year, with nonwovens up 4% and fiberfill growing 2% compared with 1987; polyester came back strong in nonwovens, while olefin faltered and rayon continued its long-term decline For the third consecutive year, sales of rayon, polyester and olefin staple to nonwoven roll goods producers set a record in 1988. A total of 547 million pounds was sold, up 20 million pounds (4%) from the preceding year.

The 1987 figure (527 million pounds) was 13% ahead of the previous year, while 1986, at 467 million pounds, was also 13% better than 1985. Thus, while the torrid growth of the recent past slowed last year, nonwovens still showed healthy growth compared with other markets for the three fibers.

Fiber Sales: Nonwovens Versus Other Markets

Comparing 1985 and 1988, shipments of PET, the largest fiber in nonwovens, went from 162 million pounds to 244 million pounds for a 26% increase. PET shipments to all other markets (broad woven goods, knit goods) went from 1711 million pounds to 2068 million, an increase of only 21%. Nonwovens accounted for 11% of PET staple sales last year compared with 9% in 1985.

In the case of olefin staple, shipments went from 136 million pounds to 181 million pounds in the 1985 to 1988 period, an increase of 33%. Sales to other markets, by contrast, increased only 13% (144 million up to 163 million pounds). Olefin now depends upon nonwovens for 53% of its business, while in 1985 the figure was 49%. This is in spite of the fact that olefin sales to nonwovens in 1988 were actually 19 million pounds lower than in 1987.

In rayon staple, the least used of the three fibers tracked in nonwovens, demand from other markets increased more than did orders from the nonwovens sector. The other markets, which are mostly broad woven goods, jumped 210 million to 264 million pounds from 1985 to 1988, for an increase of 26%. At the same time, sales to nonwovens increased only 7% (114 million to 122 million pounds). Thus, nonwovens took only 33% of rayon shipments last year versus 35% in 1985.

Fiber Shares Of Market

When the decade of the 1980's opened, polyester had a 48% share of the nonwovens business, with rayon in second place (42%) and olefin just beginning to make itself felt with a 10% share of the total. By last year, polyester's share had declined slightly to 45%, rayon's participation had dropped dramatically to 22% and olefin had grown from 10% to 33%.

But what happened in the years between 1980 and 1988 is very interesting, especially in the relative positions of olefin and polyester. With rayon's share eroding steadily, interest was focused on the olefin/polyester competition for supremacy in nonwovens.

For the first four years of the decade, polyester maintained--and even somewhat increased--its share of the market. But starting in 1984, olefin competition drove polyester's share down sharply through the end of 1987. However, last year polyester staged a strong comeback and boosted its share back up to 45%, cutting olefin's participation down to 33%. The reasons for switches in market shares over time are not always readily apparent, but a few explanations suggest themselves.

Rayon's Long Term Decline

Losses in market share are seldom caused by a single factor; usually several forces are at work. In the case of rayon staple, the decline is related to rayon's high price, its absorbency (which is sometimes an asset, sometimes a handicap; in coverstock, the largest nonwovens market, the trend has been toward hydrophobic fibers such as polyester and olefin) and its lack of suitability for thermal bonding, a process that has been growing in popularity.

Perhaps as important as any of these factors in explaining rayon's decline have been the questions that have persisted for a long time about the dependability of the supply. These questions have played a significant role in the decision made a dozen or more years ago to phase rayon out of the coverstock business. They have continued ever since.

The latest episode was, of course, the brief closing of the Avtex rayon plant in Front Royal, VA in the fourth quarter of last year. Had that plant not reopened as it did, about one third of the country's rayon staple capacity would have disappeared overnight, with consequent serious repercussions in rayon staple's market.

Even in the face of today's strong demand for rayon there is reluctance to install major capacity increases. Apparently, even at today's high prices, rayon is not spectacularly profitable. Indeed, Avtex cited lack of profitability as a major reason for closing Front Royal. Raw material prices have skyrocketed and apparently profit margins have been kept at levels below those that would justify major capital investment in new facilities. Further, there is the question of whether rayon's popularity in woven goods will be sufficiently large and durable to keep the current capacity in a sold-up position, especially if further erosion of its nonwovens market occurs.

PET's Strong Growth

Talking of fiber prices, PET's record has been directly opposite that of rayon's. It started off in the market at a serious price disadvantage. Those of us with long memories can recall when polyester was well over $1.00 a pound and rayon was in the $.35-38 area. The contrast with today's position--rayon at $1.00 or more, polyester at $.70--is dramatic and has a good deal to do with polyester's rapid progress in the market.

In another respect, too, the contrast between polyester and rayon is noteworthy; namely, there has never been any doubt about the dependability of polyester supply. When polyester first started pushing for nonwovens business, two or three producers had announced major capacity expansions. Their sales forces were actively soliciting the orders that they knew would be needed to absorb the new poundage soon to be entering the market.

Polyester's hydrophobic properties also helped--although, as mentioned above, hydrophobicity is not an unmixed blessing--as did the prospect that polyester would lend itself to the increasingly popular thermal bonding techniques. Finally, polyester was marketed by producers controlling strong, aggressive and well-managed selling and promotional organizations.

Olefin: Progress Halted Or Interrupted?

In the case of olefin staple, the primary appeals were low prices, good cover due to its low specific gravity and its ability to perform on thermal bonding equipment. The lack of alternative market outlets for olefin was also widely assumed to be in its favor, since failure to move ahead in nonwovens would be likely to result in idle plant capacity, a condition much disliked by fiber company managements.

These factors undoubtedly explain olefin's rapid penetration of the market in the 1984-1987 period. Since then the combination of improved polyester products and aggressive market development by the polyester producers, together with some reported processing difficulties with olefin, have apparently slowed olefin's progress, at least for the time being.

All of this is a way of saying that some things don't change--or at least don't change very much very rapidly. The three P's--product, price and promotion--are still the key to marketing success even if the order of priority changes with the market and over time.

A New Record--By A Whisker

Sales of polyester fiberfill last year also set a new record, but not by much. The total came to 357 million pounds, up eight million pounds, or 2%, from 1987. Sales in 1987 at 349 million pounds had shown an extraordinary 18% jump over the previous year.

Given the background of average growth in the immediately preceding years of around 2.5%, many thought the 1987 growth rate was unsustainable. The 1988 figures suggest that this conclusion was right. Indeed, because of the big bulge in sales in 1987, some were expecting a drop in 1988, but in the end a small gain was registered.

For polyester producers, fiberfill is a larger, and probably a more profitable, market segment than nonwovens. For every pound of polyester sold to nonwovens last year, the polyester producers sold 1.5 pounds of fiberfill.

Unlike nonwovens, the fiberfill market is quite strongly end user oriented, with many brand name programs heavily underwritten by fiber producers in areas such as pillows, comforters, sleeping bags, upholstered furniture and heavy outerwear, especially for the winter sports market.

Another advantage of fiberfill for a polyester producer is the virtual lack of interfiber competition. To be sure, there is some small use of other man-made (now officially called manufactured) fibers such as acrylics and some cotton gets into certain bedding uses. But the name of the game in fiberfill uses is resilience and in that characteristic polyester has no effective competition, nor is any likely to develop in the near future.

The fiberfill business, by the way, is a classic example of how, by product development and skillful marketing, an end use can be upgraded and expanded. Twenty years ago the fiberfill market was thought of as nothing more than a convenient outlet for off-quality and waste fibers at break even or often lower prices. Today, fiberfill has been developed into a large, expanding market using specially engineered fibers and frequently paying premium prices.

There is still a fair quantity of polyester and other waste fibers used in noncritical stuffing applications, but the emphasis--and the profit--is on first quality products, many of which are branded and promoted right down to the retail consumer level.
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Author:Harrison, David
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Jun 1, 1989
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