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How to coat & laminate a better mousetrap.

converters and suppliers cite technology and cost as key drivers in this growing market

Defining Terms: What Exactly Is A Mousetrap, Anyway?

Any serious discussion about coating and laminating nonwovens must first begin with the definition of certain fundamental terms. For instance, what exactly is coating? How can this be differentiated from laminating? And where do finishing and bonding fit into the picture? As is often the case in nonwovens, specialists in this sector have varying versions of "the facts," which makes the task of establishing "the basics" somewhat challenging. Just about any industry insider can attest that differing opinions about the nuances of technical jargon have made for many a heated conversation, even in forums as unlikely as hotel lobbies, taxi cabs and cocktail parties. Whatever else can be said about members of the nonwovens industry, they take their definitions very seriously.

It is with some trepidation then that the following base-line definitions are presented. Beginning with coating, the most common definition is the application of a thermoplastic resin-based adhesive to a substrate through the use of heat or pressure. Coating can also be defined as the application of a curable, liquid-based finishing substance (for instance, urethane) on one or both surfaces of a substrate, possibly through the use of a die. There are myriad coating technologies, some of which include hot melt, scatter dot, dry dot, adhesive net, knife over roll, reverse roll and immersion.

Laminating, on the other hand, can be defined as combining or "fusing" two or more fabric-type webs with an adhesive, foam or thermoplastic resin. Laminating can also be defined as the combination of a pre-cast urethane film (as opposed to a liquid-based coating) with a roll good through the use of a bonding material. Laminating methods range from traditional thermal laminating - which involves the application of heat and pressure on a binder-type nonwoven - to the commonly used hot melt or film adhesive lamination to flame laminating, which involves a molten urethane, polyethylene or polypropylene foam that acts as its own adhesive. Other terms used to describe the laminating process include hot roll, solvent adhesive, rotogravure hot melt, rotogravure cross-linking urethane and thermoplastic powder laminating.

Things become even less clear once we consider bonding, which can be defined as the process of combining fibers into webs but which can also be used to describe the act of joining the webs themselves. Laminating is sometimes used interchangeably with bonding, which, according to certain definitions, can also be considered a type of laminating; for purposes of this article, however, bonding will be considered a separate process.

As for finishing, one generally accepted definition of this term is post-treatment with an agent, rather than an adhesive, for the purpose of adding properties such as stiffness, lubrication, flame retardancy, water repellency, anti-microbial properties, etc. To make things even more complicated, finishing is often used as a catchphrase to refer to any chemical, mechanical or thermo-mechanical process following web formation, including coating and laminating.

In the coating and laminating industry - despite the difficulty in defining terms (see box above) - the companies involved target specific nonwoven end product sectors and are very clear when it comes to marketing their products. Key markets include automotive (headliners, seating and interior trim products), disposable diaper coverstock - which is often made from a lightweight spunbonded polypropylene laminate - and barrier fabrics for medical and protective apparel applications, including trilaminates such as spunbond/melt blown/spunbond (SMS) nonwovens. Other end uses include industrial, packaging, filtration, feminine hygiene and reusable adult incontinence products for hospital use. Lamination and coating can be used to achieve thermal or liquid barriers as well as to increase breathability, stiffness or drapeability of composite nonwoven products.

On the converting end, companies sell either directly or indirectly to the nonwovens industry, with some suppliers of coating and laminating services working on a contract ("commission" or "toll") basis, selling value-added roll goods to nonwovens manufacturers. Coaters and laminators may also sell finished roll goods to converters who then cut, package and sell end products. Many coating and laminating specialists source all of the various components for a project from adhesives and films to nonwoven and woven substrates.

Fast Forward: Technology

Technological advancement in raw materials, roll goods and equipment was one key issue raised by suppliers of coating and laminating products and services. On the raw material end, developments include new thinner, monolithic and breathable films, release liners and coating resins, which offer strength, softness and pin hole resistance. Adhesive application methods are evolving and innovations in the roll goods area have led to diverse substrate configurations. Equipment upgrades have brought about increased flexibility, process repeatability and line speeds and, despite increased up-front costs, customers are now demanding greater technological capabilities from their equipment in order to achieve lower costs in the long run.

Kelly Graham, Midwest area sales representative for May Coating Technologies, White Bear Lake, MN, pointed to a continued evolution of polymer chemistries. "The plethora of adhesive offerings such as PUR, EVA, PSA, UV, EB and warm melts currently being used or explored in the nonwovens industry is staggering. The characteristics of the materials need to be explored fully to maximize the design of the equipment and its functionality."

Carl Cucuzza, marketing manager, Nordson Corporation, Nonwovens Systems Group, Norcross, GA, cited a move toward the use of specialized films, especially breathable materials. "This has created the demand for hot melt coating and laminating on temperature-sensitive substrates. Nonwovens manufacturers are interested in making their product more laminatable through the use of tie layers of hot melt that reactivate in downstream processes such as extrusion coating."

Also concentrating on developments in the raw material sector was Ralph Krueger, vice president-business development for converting specialist TSG, North Wales, PA. "Research into new laminating agents has been driven by increased customer requirements. This is a key issue for us at this point and, although we use spun adhesives, we have been looking at hot melts and alternative laminating methods. To date, films have been the most impressive because they can run faster and process at a higher rate," he said.

Aaron Albert, vice president of Harodite Finishing, North Dighton, MA, discussed technology advancement in the roll goods arena. "In nonwovens there are new innovations and the variety of substrates is always growing. For instance there are now substrates that can withstand alkaline washing on their own, substrates that are super high stretch and there are more and more types of hydroentangled nonwovens."

Rick Klaus, distribution manager at J&M Laboratories, Dawsonville, GA, discussed the impact of this trend on nonwovens machinery. "There continues to be a need for flexible equipment that can be changed over quickly to various widths and applications methods," he said. "Our customers demand increasing technological capabilities."

May Coating Technologies' Mr. Graham agreed. "Systems are becoming more exotic in their design, function and versatility. Gone are the days where you had one machine for one product. The trend is to look at the multi-functionality of the equipment to help justify large capital expenditures."

Jerry von Gretener, sales manager for coating and laminating equipment specialist Advanced Web Dynamics, Bloomsburg, PA, also focused on evolving equipment requirements. "Some of the new nonwovens being introduced are very light and highly extensible. They respond more as light films and to be efficiently processed, will probably require film-type handling and processing equipment. Also, packaging density (yardage) requirements for narrower width packages are increasing." Mr. Von Gretener also commented that an increased demand for fully integrated lines encompassing all process aspects is driving the formation of strategic alliances among synergistic equipment suppliers.

How's The (Economic) Weather?

Despite the significance of these technological advances and their impact on the industry, many suppliers to the coating and laminating market suggested - off the record that cost continues to be the driving factor - in fact, the bottom line. As one industry executive put it, "The reality is that you might be able to build a better mousetrap, but if it's more expensive, customers will say, 'our old mousetrap will do just fine, thank you.'"

Harodite's Mr. Albert discussed the problem of pricing and suggested overcapacity as a potential cause. "There is no bottom to pricing in nonwovens and roll goods overcapacity is partially responsible for this. Specialty products mean more profitability for roll goods manufacturers but in certain areas - such as chemical and thermal bonded technologies - prices continue to fall."

Robert Koeppel, vice president-Medical/Barrier Fabrics Division, Shawmut Mills, West Bridgewater, MA, agreed that the market is driven by cost to a large degree. "Everybody in manufacturing is under enormous cost constraints. Manufacturers are often unable to pass on costs and are looking to cut costs internally. Fortunately, nonwovens do allow for some of that, even if it means replacing a nonwoven with another nonwoven in an effort to lower costs. This is definitely the case in the disposable medical area."

In terms of the external economic climate, most suppliers agreed that nonwovens, like many industries, has benefitted from a strong U.S. economy and growth in capital expenditures. Generally, coaters and laminators reported that materials are available and customers currently seem content with the overall market conditions.

Increased requests for product development services, said TSG's Mr. Krueger, is one indication of the strong economy. "Our services are being contracted and this seems to be a new area of the market. This is an indicator of a strong economy when people - perhaps former victims of downsizing - can afford to start their own businesses. The entrepreneurial spirit has never been dead but it is definitely revitalized."

Donald Rindfleisch, president of Innovation Converters, Hamilton, OH, agreed that generally things are looking good. "The level of demand and competition in the nonwovens sector are both very strong," he said. He added, however, that the tight job market makes hiring qualified people difficult.

J&M Laboratories' Mr. Klaus also cited increased demand. "We have seen a consistent increase year to year in nonwoven-specific projects in the area of coating and laminating wide webs. Demand has been particularly strong in the area of multilayered structures in filtration products that require the use of adhesive application - rather than heat - to hold the layers together."

Steve Lessley, nonwovens sales group manager for hot melt equipment supplier ITW Dynatec, Hendersonville, TN, concurred, commenting, "Many new products are and will be developed for off-line coating versus online, particularly in the hygienic sector of the business. New technologies allow the coating/laminating industry to operate at efficiencies and cost levels that were not available before now."

Competition Coming On Strong

If the economic rule is that increased demand and a healthy fiscal climate lead to heightened competition, then the coating and laminating sector is no exception. "The competition is formidable," said Shawmut Mills' Mr. Koeppel. "Coaters and laminators really need to be on top of their game because, in order to engineer the right composite for the job, it is critical to really understand end use requirements as well as the process the converter will put the product through."

"Most companies are desperately trying to find a niche or a way to add value to a product," said Mr. Cucuzza of Nordson. "This compares to historical competition that was based strictly on price. In the past, many large manufacturers reserved their capital expenditures for production expansions. Now, they are looking to pull converting in-house as a means of bringing more value to their customers and to grow closer to their customer base."

May Coating Technologies' Mr. Graham had a unique take on the issue of competition. "Frankly it is a battle between the marketing and technology companies. The marketing companies have flooded the market with equipment suitable for end user requirements but limited to the current application method at hand. Technology companies, on the other hand, have generally superior products and are willing to conform to end user requirements. The drawback to this scenario," said Mr. Graham, "is that the end user has been programmed to expect midrange cost of the initial equipment and relatively high maintenance and spare parts costs. The technology companies' product offerings are typically higher priced on the front end but will provide superior performance in the long run."

Speaking of competition, nowhere is it more fierce than overseas, according to many North American-based coating and laminating specialists. "Like many suppliers, we are affected by off-shore competition from South American and Asian regions," said Glenn Rauch, vice president-sales for U.S. Laminating, Bohemia, NY. "Finished products - that have been manufactured, laminated and converted off-shore - are coming into the U.S. and while there is a push for extremely high quality, price is a major consideration. Everything seems to be price-based. Despite this trend, there is still plenty of domestic demand."

Advanced Web Dynamics' Mr. von Gretener concurred from the machinery perspective. "The level of demand is increasing but most of the process machinery competition is still from large, off-shore companies. I see a real opportunity for small and mid-sized U.S. companies, with their ability to respond quickly and competitively, to enter this market."

Nonwovens Displacing Textiles

Another market trend is the continuing displacement of conventional textiles by nonwovens. "There are more and more applications where nonwovens are replacing knits or wovens," said Shawmut Mills' Mr. Koeppel. "The automotive headliner market is the most dramatic example. There is a lot of interest and some inroads have been made in replacing brush nylon tricot headliners with nonwovens. As nonwovens' aesthetics begin to mirror traditional textiles, we will see more of this, particularly in areas where nonwovens can be used to reduce costs. The limiting factor will be just how textile-like nonwovens can get."

TSG's Mr. Krueger agreed. "Nonwovens continue to displace traditional fabrics and a lot of business has come from this trend. Nonwovens are now being used in areas where woven products were once used, such as internal furniture components." Mr. Krueger added that if this trend takes off, it would have a significant impact on nonwovens.
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Author:Wuagneux, Ellen Lees
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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