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INDEX '90 diaper technology gap: from exhibition floor to production floor.

the author takes a look at the machinery and equipment developments from the European trade show and finds this gap will continue to widen if there isn't some sort of combined effort somewhere along the production chain

Tom Schuler, one of the regular contributors of this Profitable Manufacturing column, was asked to examine and analyze the diaper machinery developments on behalf of Nonwovens Industry from INDEX '90, April 2-5, 1990 in Geneva, Switzerland. What follows are some of his opinions on the efforts put forth by the equipment suppliers to the disposables industry if a diaper manufacturer went to INDEX'90 in Geneva, Switzerland in April with the hope that he might find relief from the technically complex issues facing disposables producers today, he probably didn't come away with the aspirin for the headaches in his plant.

There was little opportunity for disposables producers to view equipment that could provide new insights or provide the confidence that the required product features could be run to the efficiency standards required. For many private label companies, the struggle to match the national brand technology and product quality remains elusive, expensive and a major challenge.

The "technology gap," defined as developing world-class capable equipment and know-how to cost effectively produce quality products, is a complex and multi-faceted problem. The problem is shared (or not shared, depending on your perspective) by producers, equipment suppliers and even retail buyers due to pricing policy ... to varying degrees dependent on the market. Some Are Making A Few Bucks

For example, there are now a number of private label manufacturers in the U.S. that, by most standards, are doing reasonably well. Their capacity is sold out near the design capabilities of the machines, product quality is recognized to be near parity with the national brands and they are enjoying "decent" margins and prices. In other words, they're making a few bucks. Generally, they have successfully met Procter & Gamble's or Kimberly-Clark's feature requirements without falling off the product performance and profitability cliff.

If you take a look in other regions, however, the technology and quality gap is much wider. In some cases ridiculously low prices commanded by retail multiple buyers make it nearly impossible for producers to invest in viable product technology to close the gap. A good example of this is the moisture barrier feature. In the U.S., the adhesive moisture barrier was abandoned for a variety of process and product quality reasons, yet it's widespread in Western Europe. Unfortunately, the "Pampers" brand manager probably loves it because it differentiates his product quality favorably from many private label competitors.

Meanwhile, the U.K. and Western European markets are on the verge of a whole new set of technical challenges waistband, compressed packaging, boy/girl core, etc.), and must use these opportunities to narrow the technology gap, not widen it. Between A Rock And A Hard Place

In order to understand the technology gap in context with INDEX '90, we need to look at how producers and equipment vendors can successfully confront the challenges in the future and close the gap. Hopefully, the retail buyer will also come around to understand that the viability of their suppliers is in their best interest.

Narrowing the technology gap will not be easy, as INDEX go pointed out.

Technically, tomorrow's baby diaper products will require sophisticated cores (boy/girl specific), compressed packaging, foam waistbands, improved elastication, gathers and who know what else. Unfortunately, with all the INDEX'90 fanfare and technology displayed (see Technology Summary), there was no manufacturer demonstrating all these features in a fully integrated, high speed process.

On the other hand, nearly every machine builder speaks of its competence in supplying these various feature technologies, promising appropriate practical devices in the near future. While achieving all the features simultaneously might be possible in a totally new machine, it appears questionable whether these new devices can be readily retrofitted onto existing machines and run at a "profitable" operating position.

Why such a process wasn't shown at INDEX '90 raises puzzling questions. Does a fully integrated process exist? Did no supplier wish to take the risk to demonstrate its technical proficiency? Did disclosure of technical secrets outweigh visibility considerations?

We don't propose to have all of the answers, but this technical void was disturbing, particularly when compared to the advanced sanitary napkin technology that was demonstrated, an area where most consider the demands less stressful and less technical.

Here the story was much different and equipment vendors and producers could toast to a new generation of equipment, achieving higher speed thresholds and productivity levels. This would have been a breath of fresh air on the other side of the business.

On a less optimistic note, let's hope the private label industry as a whole can, in fact, measure up to the challenges posed by the national brands. Closing The Technology Gap

Unfortunately, competitive realism creeps in when propositions are made that technical collaboration between machine builders might help narrow the technology gap.

The "INDEX Daily," EDANA's exhibition publication, pointed out that 13 baby diaper machine producers were competing for the hearts and pocketbooks of the private label producers. It asserts that "there is certainly room for more cooperation between these companies."

We agree that it would be wonderful, but finding the middle ground and developing the "rules" is an enormous task. Who would negotiate and police the terms?

However unrealistic, though, there is remarkable openness and cooperation between competitors in some facets of the disposables business. In the U.K., for example, producers regularly call on each other to meet peak production needs and priorities. It's refreshing and indicative of a shared vision of the problems and challenges facing private label converters.

Although producer-to-producer support is noteworthy, closing the technology gap is going to take a lot more effort and commitment from producers and equipment suppliers-and hopefully not impeded further by retail buyers. The Path To Follow

We think any action has to take the following direction.

Equipment suppliers will need to move away from a traditional equipment engineering role and emphasize technology that addresses operational success criteria, keying on the impacts of process efficiency, waste and speed.

For engineering projects, P&G accomplishes this with "high cross-sectional teams" that involve, among others, operating personnel early in the design phase. When the equipment is ready for installation, these same teams insure it meets strict performance criteria before a hand-off is made to production. This eliminates the production manager's worst nightmare-a retrofit assembly that drops his speed and efficiency by 20% and raises his waste by a couple of points. Regardless of whether P&G designs the equipment itself or contracts it out, the engineering process is nearly the same.

Some machine builders are, in fact, moving in this direction. Unfortunately, others still ship customers a sophisticated hunk of hardware with a "Good Luck" sign attached.

Converters, for their part, also need to read from the same sheet of music. We have noted before in this column that the plant's investment in technical skills is an absolute necessity in this business. We also know that if a plant succeeds in creating even a tiny fraction of profit in each unit produced-when multiplied by 80-100 million units a year, a reasonable profit position is generated.

The Africa Syndrome

In summary, relative to what the private label industry faces as we head in the general direction of INDEX 93, we found the following analogy most interesting.

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows that is must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed.

Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows that it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death.

Moral. It doesn't matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle. When the sun comes up, you had better be running.

Since the lions in our midst are easily recognized and have enormous appetites ... let's pick up the pace of the gazelles and outrun the lion for a change.

Diaper Technology Summaries From INDEX 190

* Fameccanica, Sambuceto, Italy: Compressed packaging with in-line poly bag making, precision engineered equipment marked the Fameccanica activity. The company has a commitment to quality packaging and presentation and a good knowledge and understanding of the operational requirements of producers. The company also featured its "Faidata" process control system. With automated production, downtime and troubleshooting assistance, the machine is well engineered with obvious collaboration from its Fater production parent.

Fameccanica appeared to be most progressive and aggressive in demonstrating its partnership with producers. How well this can continue to be expanded to private label producers around the world depends on its continuing this important process.

* Nuova Red, Gropelli, Italy: The company demonstrated its new high speed sanitary napkin machines, as well as new drum forming technology developed with its U.S. technical partner. The new technology runs up to 500 pads a minute and is a technical triumph for the company. The company also showed that Roberto Crippa has fully assumed the leadership position in the company and effectively marshalled its technical resources.

Nuova Red also confidently promoted its retrofit feature technology for diaper zones, including tape landing zone and elasticized waist. Some converters felt that its waistband technology was the most practical and technically sound of the versions offered.

Viola Giorgio, Pavia, Italy: One of the more interesting Italian producers of diaper machinery equipment at INDEX '90, Viola Giorgio these days it talking about the ability of its machines to produce anatomical diapers elasticized with polyurethane or Lycra. Its newest entry is its T.M.P. 0090/A baby diaper machine. its features include electronic adjustment of cutting, automatic rejection of defective diapers, automated fluff filler size change for both weight and length and a patented hammer-grinder.

* Tekma, Fiesco, Italy: Tekma demonstrated both diaper and sanitary napkin production equipment. Both were technically sound, mostly in the mid-range in technical sophistication and speed capabilities. The sanitary napkin machine, with speeds up to 400 pads a minute, demonstrated tri-fold, individual wrap and auto bag making and packaging. The diaper machine ran a quality, standard product. Tekma's offerings were viewed as solid machines for emerging disposables markets.

* Zuiko Tekka, Osaka, Japan: Zuiko certainly created a stir with its 1 000 pad a minute sanitary napkin machine. However, Zuiko's reluctance to provide product samples confused many attendees who would have liked to match this product quality to the highly visible line-speed indicator. Out of necessity, the tri-folded, individually wrapped product had to be coupled to automatic packaging equipment. The machine demonstration always drew large crowds. Paper Converting Machine, Green Bay, WI: Although it didn't demonstrate machine components or a running line, PCMC spoke of continued development work on compressed packaging, elasticated waist and the diaper "cuff" feature, which is becoming more popular, particularly in the U.S. market. PCMC continues to supply one of the better blue barrier (polyethylene) feature capabilities. It is also continuing development work on drum forming core technology.

Cellulose Converting Equipments, Sambuceto, Italy: President Walter Cestaro demonstrated his disposable baby bib machine capable of 250 pieces a minute. The product was well received technically, but one has to wonder how disposable bibs are going to fare in the increasingly "green" business environment in Western Europe.

CCE also promoted its proficiency in supplying retrofit diaper feature technology, which includes compressed packaging, landing zone, blue barrier and elasticated waistband.

Fibre Converting Machine, Sollentuna, Sweden: With numerous machines sprinkled around the U.K. and Europe, FCM is seeing good demand for retrofit feature technology that includes landing zone, elastic waist and compressed packaging. Since FCM machines already have horizontal stackers, the compressed packaging feature doesn't require major changes to the stacker section and, therefore, is a relatively easy and cost effective option.

FCM continues to offer a choice to producers on pulp sourcing (roll/bale CTMP and chemical pulp), potentially creating products with a cost effective blend of the major product's cost component.
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Title Annotation:includes diaper technology summaries from INDEX '90
Author:Schuler, Tom
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Jun 1, 1990
Previous Article:Nonwoven imports to and exports from Japan.
Next Article:EPA releases results of dioxin studies - regulatory action expected.

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