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Geotextiles - poised for further growth in the 1990's.

Geotextiles - Poised For Further Growth In The 1990's

many products exist for a variety of end use sub-markets; nonwovens leading in most areas, but wovens still hold their own in certain segments; five primary markets make up the majority of the geotextile industry

There have been few, if any, textile-related businesses that have more written about them, yet remain something of an enigma, than the field of geosynthetic materials. It certainly is a relatively recent phenomenon in terms of widespread commercial development, having only been a viable economic factor for the past two decades. Yet the idea of utilizing some form of woven mat or material to reinforce a roadbed has been around for thousands of years.

Today, there are any number of geosynthetic fabrics, utilizing virtually every type of fiber in existence as a raw material, constructed on nearly every generic type of textile manufacturing equipment and priced from just pennies to many dollars per square yard, that have been developed for a multitude of specific applications. In short, through the past 20 years, companies dealing with geosynthetic materials have given new meaning to the term "niche marketing."

There are two broad areas that are generally recognized in the geosynthetic fabric arena - geotextiles and geomembranes. It was not until 1977 that Dr. Jean-Pierre Giroud, acknowledged as the foremost authority on the subject of geosynthetic materials at that time, first suggested that these terms be used to help delineate certain functions of the various fabrics that were rapidly coming into the marketplace. More specifically, working definitions for the emerging nomenclature were generated and have withstood the test of time. "A geotextile is any permeable textile material used with foundation, soil, rock, earth or any geotechnical engineering-related material that is an integral part of a man-made project, structure or system. The materials may be woven, knit or nonwoven fabrics and are principally utilized in stabilization/reinforcement, asphalt overlay, drainage, erosion control and other applications."

In short, man-made materials are used to help reinforce and/or stabilize the earth from erosion or other forces when it is disturbed by Man in order to improve his working or living environment.

The decision to utilize a given geotextile in a particular project is frequently made after a long, difficult process. Many applications for which a geotextile is considered are large, expensive undertakings that are usually funded by a government agency or a sizeable private corporation, both of which are generally reluctant to spend any more funds than absolutely necessary to get the job done. As a result, even though it can be demonstrated that installing a geotextile material during construction will save money in the long run, the up-front investment is a powerful deterrent for many decision makers.

In addition to the added initial cost, clear specifications must be written to ensure the proper fabric is chosen and that it can do the task for which it is intended. Finally, the project is usually put up for bid with the lowest price offered by an acceptable firm generally winning the contract, although mitigating factors sometimes alter the process.

By almost any standard, the expanding use of geotextiles, both in the U.S. and around the globe, has been phenomenal. From just a few thousand yards in 1970, domestic consumption of these products has climbed to approximately 325 million sq. yards. This figure represents nearly 60% of the estimated 550 million sq. yards utilized worldwide in 1990.

Yet despite this success, many in the trade have been disappointed that forecasts made in the late 1970's that called for U.S. demand of one billion square yards a year by 1990 have not been realized. This disappointment is amplified by the fact that the geotextile business has been forced into a severe restructuring. Many firms jumped on the bandwagon based on rosy (unrealistic) assumptions only to find themselves having invested vast sums of money in R&D, plant equipment and properly trained personnel with little, if any, profit to show for it. Several companies (large and small) have been forced out of the business or sold their operations to other firms with more staying power.

Today, geotextiles remain a highly competitive, technical/engineering-oriented market with (usually) slim profit margins. This environment has fostered the drive to develop better products for the many niche sectors of this still-growing field.

Nonwovens Hold Onto Sizable Lead

From the beginning, nonwoven materials have been the predominant form of fabric construction for civil engineering/geotextile applications. In fact, for most of the 1970's, nonwovens were the only geotextile fabric construction available. This is not surprising for two important reasons.

Cost. Whether it is spunbonded, needlepunched or manufactured by some other process, there is still no more efficient, less expensive way to get from a polymer to a finished fabric than via nonwoven production technology.

Performance. Nonwovens have proven themselves (over time) to be effective, adaptable geotextile materials, particularly in erosion control, drainage, asphalt overlay, pond underlining and even certain soil stabilization applications.

Woven geotextiles began to gain attention in the late 1970's as a growing number of erosion control and soil stabilization projects demanded a tougher, more durable form of material and funding was provided to cover the generally higher cost of these fabrics. However, despite the significant inroads made by woven goods through the past decade, nonwoven materials still account for an estimated two-thirds of the total domestic yardage. Wovens make up the majority of the remainder, although knits and a few other specialty materials have a small share as well (Figure 1).

With their high relative strength and resistance to degradation caused by most acidic, alkaline and other potentially damaging substances, noncellulosic synthetic fibers have been the favored raw materials for geotextile end uses. Primarily because of their competitive price, fabrics constructed with olefin fibers, polypropylene in particular, account for close to 60% of the yardage of all geotextile materials. Polyester, in turn, has captured more than one-third of the volume based on its superior strength and durability. The remaining fibers each have just a few share points of the total.

There are two very powerful forces affecting the demand for geotextiles in the U.S. One favors a rapid expansion of the utilization of these products, while the other continues to limit the growth to single-digit increases.

The first is the crumbling infrastructure. A great deal of publicity has been given to the fact that the highways, bridges, water and sewage systems, railroad roadbeds and other vital structures that have been instrumental in making the U.S. an economic powerhouse as well as providing a comfortable, healthy standard of living are badly in need of repair or replacement. Add to this the growing national concern about environmental issues and manufacturers of geotextiles should be able to count on continued rapid growth in their revenue as their products are incorporated into this massive, necessary, $1 trillion + undertaking.

The other issue is lack of economic resources. Unfortunately, the infrastructure problem is much like Mark Twain's weather - everybody talks about it, but little is done to change it. The sticking point is the age-old problem of money. Federal, state and municipal governments are all struggling just to provide what are deemed to be essential services, which leaves very little for nationwide repair projects. Therefore, only those structures that are determined to be an immediate, dire risk to the safety of the population at large are being repaired on an ad hoc basis.

Little is expected to change through 1995, but hopefully things will improve by the year 2000. However, in the meantime, repair work will be done on an "as needed" basis which, in turn, will provide opportunities for geotextile manufacturers. However, a national effort to attack the problem in a planned, systematic way is not likely to materialize.

There are five principal outlets in which geotextiles are utilized on a regular basis - soil stabilization, asphalt overlay, drainage, pond underlining and erosion control. Each has specific reasons for requiring the use of a geotextile material and, over time, certain types of materials have been proven to be more effective than others in a given situation. Two of the applications - soil stabilization and asphalt overlay - account for approximately two-thirds of total domestic geotextile consumption (Figure 2).

Soil Stabilization Surges

To The Forefront

With an estimated 125 million sq. yards of geotextile fabric usage in 1990, soil stabilization is the number one end use application for these types of materials. The building and repairing of roadbeds for railroads as well as primary and secondary streets and highways has become a critical target for geotextile producers as they have demonstrated the overall cost savings associated with using their products. Geotextiles help to limit the amount of fill dirt required to complete certain jobs and assist in preventing the soil from shifting once the task is finished, an unwanted phenomenon that can cause the premature failure of a roadbed.

A wide assortment of materials are used in soil stabilization, the choice of which is dependent on the circumstances at a particular work site. As a general rule, the steeper and higher the grade is on the side(s) of a given roadbed and the more unstable the soil conditions are, the greater the likelihood a contractor is to select a geotextile such as a heavy woven fabric made with high tenacity polyester yarn. For less demanding tasks, a nonwoven or woven polypropylene material will do the job.

Formerly the top end use application for geotextile materials, asphalt overlay remains a solid number two behind soil stabilization in overall fabric consumption with about 90 million sq. yards or 28% of the total. This is, and will remain, an important outlet because moisture is still the leading nemesis in terms of limiting the life of a road surface as it abets the formation of unwanted cracks. However, by laying down a (usually) nonwoven material over a coating of hot asphalt oil, a strong, moisture-resistant bond is formed as the nonwoven fabric absorbs the oil. This type of barrier has been proven to effectively extend the life of a new coating of asphalt on a highway.

Drainage And Pond Underliners - Old

And New Uses

Few geotextile end uses offer as quick a return or present such overtly beneficial results as do drainage applications. This sector represents a robust 55 million sq. yards of demand per annum, a figure that will move to higher ground in the years ahead. Simply described, a geotextile fabric, generally a nonwoven, is positioned underground to facilitate the flow of water to a drain or predesigned runoff area while simultaneously acting as a filter to prevent dirt and other matter from obstructing the drain itself. A properly constructed system keeps the moisture from damaging a roadbed, building or other structure.

Unlike the drainage category, pond underliners constitute a relatively new end use opportunity for geotextile manufacturers. These materials are generally heavy nonwoven fabrics that are placed beneath a geomembrane to help protect against a tear, seam split or other unwanted rupture that could compromise the protective capacity of the membrane. As environmental concerns dictate an increasing usage of geomembranes in the coming years, makers of pond underlining materials will see their sales take a commensurate leap from the current 25 million sq. yards as well.

Erosion Control - Small,

But Steadily Increasing

The devastation to homes and other property that can be caused by steady erosion from the ocean, a river and other sources of flowing water can be enormous. This cumulative effect can be slowed or even halted by installing a geotextile material under a layer of rip-rap or as part of a layered, built-up barrier such as a levee on the side of a riverbank. While nonwovens are utilized in this demanding application, an increasing share of the estimated 20 million sq. yards is going to woven materials, many of which contain polyester.

There are a number of other small end uses for geotextile fabrics (such as silt fences to prevent topsoil runoff) that comprise about 10 million sq. yards of consumption annually. This total, along with those of the other major outlets, are summarized in Tables 1 and 2.

Table : Table 1

 (Millions of Square Yards)
Market Sector 1985 1987 1990 1995 2000
Soil Stabilization 75 95 125 155 180
Asphalt Overlay 75 80 90 115 135
Drainage 40 45 55 70 80
Pond Underliner 15 20 25 45 65
Erosion Control 15 17 20 25 30
Miscellaneous 5 8 10 15 20
Total 225 265 325 425 510
 (Percent of Total)
Market Sector 1985 1987 1990 1995 2000
Soil Stabilization 33 36 38 37 35
Asphalt Overlay 33 30 28 27 26
Drainage 18 17 17 17 16
Pond Underliner 7 8 8 10 13
Erosion Control 7 6 6 6 6
Miscellaneous 2 3 3 3 4

Table : Table 2
 (Millions of Square Yards)
Fabric 1985 1987 1990 1995 2000
Nonwoven 160 180 215 225 280
Woven 55 70 90 145 200
Knit/Others 10 15 20 25 30
Total 225 265 325 425 510
 (Percent of Total)
Nonwoven 71 68 66 60 55
Woven 24 26 28 34 39
Knit/Others 4 6 6 6 6

Suppliers As Diverse As Markets

More than 15 companies manufacture the variety of materials utilized in geotextile markets. No one company dominates - has more than a 10-15% share of the total - and the majority of suppliers serve a number of the sectors. Leading fiber producers such as Hoechst Celanese, Du Pont, Phillips, Wellman and Amoco have made varying degrees of commitment to this business over the years and, not unexpectedly, have generally utilized the basic polymer they are most familiar with in their geotextile fabrics.

Mirafi and Foss are also key players in this market, although the distribution chain with respect to the non-fiber producing participants can become somewhat muddy at times. For example, Mirafi markets their geogrid materials under their own name even though Milliken manufactures the base fabric. Such arrangements, while not commonplace, testify to both the degree of specialization that has evolved in this business as well as the need to optimize opportunities while simultaneously keeping costs to a minimum.

Recent trends in the field of geotextiles are forecast to continue through the year 2000. While all segments of the business are expected to enjoy at least moderate growth in the years ahead, soil stabilization will retain its front runner position and pond underliners should perform especially well as the nation's leaders are forced to rebuild the country's infrastructure and waste containment and other environmental issues spur demand for these products. The split between nonwoven, woven and other fabric constructions will not change appreciably, nor will the distribution of the various fibers. Solid technical know-how, focused niche marketing and an efficient manufacturing process will remain the keys to success in this exciting industry.


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Title Annotation:excerpt from Lockhart Market Research Associates report 'Outlook for U.S. Industrial Fabrics and Fibers Through the Year 2000'; geosynthetic materials for roadbeds
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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