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Melt blowing - when will its capabilities be realized?

Melt Blowing--When Will Its Capabilities Be Realized?

while melt blowing may be a growing technology, fascination with the concept does not necessarily mean success; there is still a learning curve to be conquered before melt blowns conquer nonwovens The melt blowing process has fascinated most people that have seen it in operation. This unique process is capable of taking a raw material such as plastic pellets, granules or powders and transforming them into fibers and then into a textile-like three-dimensional finished product. It can perform these miraculous feats in a continuous operation that requires less space than most other fiber-to-fabric processes that cannot furnish their own fiber or make finished products.

The growth of this industry during the past 20 years has also fascinated many inside and outside of the non-wovens industry. In 1991, I estimate that there are well over 100 companies worldwide with some type of melt blown capability and some 45 of these have commercial production, representing a capacity of 135 million pounds. More than 95% of this production is polypropylene and some 85% of that is produced in roll goods form to be further processed or converted.

However, fascination does not necessarily mean higher profits. Many of the melt blown producers have had to struggle to find markets that could produce acceptable volumes and profits for them. This is somewhat typical any time a company goes into a new process. There is that period of learning, modifying and adapting. Most of the companies that have entered melt blown production have done so with the objective of selling roll goods that would compete in the nonwoven market place.

They have normally found numerous obstacles that have delayed the profits they expected. These problems come in many shapes and sizes. The technology and knowhow to select raw materials (polymers), operate the line, set standards and maintain quality for high tech materials is more than they had expected. Often the company does not provide the knowledge of polymer chemistry, extrusion expertise or aerodynamics to utilize the capabilities of this process.

As a result they produce fabrics that do not meet the market's requirements. These fabrics may contain "shot," which are beads of polymer instead of fiber. The fiber diameters may vary too much or fiber distribution (thick and thin areas) is too extreme for certain filtration applications. They may find that this new material, when compared to other fabrics, is weaker, has poor abrasion resistance, is more difficult to handle, has a low melting point and has an unusual hand or feel. The marketing group may also have their problems finding new markets or getting production to re-engineer a product they can make well and that a customer needs.

Every manufacturer is impressed with the ability of melt blowns to produce micro fibers. Indeed, this is the only practical and reasonably economical method we know of today to produce a fabric with fibers that are less than one micron in diameter. However, the melt blown process, with the proper die and set up, can produce fibers larger than one hundred microns as well. This is an area that has been neglected and should be exploited in the next five years. Obviously, new and different end uses will come along with this approach. Reclaimed plastics may be made into noodles for special applications or loose insulation materials may be produced.

A Technology Defined

Most of the industry defines melt blown with the word or term "extrude" somewhere or other. Indeed, nearly every production line today uses an extruder. However, I see the key to melt blowing in the die design, its functions and the apparatus that processes the fibers after leaving the die. There are materials and substances that can be forced or fed through such dies without an extruder and these approaches will be the beginnings of totally new materials. These may be based on solvent, gas or other principles, but they will come.

Typically, the melt blown fibers are not drawn or oriented like most manmade fibers. Many companies have had and continue to have development projects to make the fibers stronger with higher tensile strengths and other improved properties. Several manufacturers have made innovations in their line and produced fibers close to the tenacity of some manmade fibers. Elastomerics and other polymers can also offer a solution to certain strength requirements as well as offer desirable marketing needs. Off line or finishing techniques like controlled stretching, such as the "Microspan" process by Biax Fiberfilm, can draw or orient the fibers in the melt blown web to change the fiber and, therefore, the fabric's characteristics. Other approaches include adding stronger fibers into the process, laminating or combining the melt blown with other materials, webs, fabrics and/or films.

Patents have been a somewhat limiting force in this field of great potential. Several of these basic patents on process and products will be out of date in the near future and this should encourage additional entrants into melt blown production as well as increase the capacities of those already in it.

The improvements and wider range of polymers available, new die designs, innovations in collection systems and air control, higher production speeds and the greater depth in experience will all assist in the growth of this process that is still in its infancy with regards to its potential. In the year 2001 the space odyssey in the nonwoven industry will see melt blowns and spunbondeds dominating the scene.

Tom Holliday is a well known consultant to the nonwovens and textile industries whose column on a wide range of nonwovens-related topics appears every month in Nonwovens Industry. Mr. Holliday operates his consultancy firm, Thomas M. Holliday & Associates out of his office at 25 Edgewood Road, Yardley, PA 19067; (215)493-2501.
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Author:Holliday, Tom
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Article Type:column
Date:Aug 1, 1991
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