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Prospects for key nonwoven processes in the U.S.

detailed analyses of various technologies for nonwovens and their potential for growth; melt blowns and spunlaced fabrics continue to increase share quickly

Worldwide nonwovens volume reached an estimated 3.3 billion pounds (1.5 million tons) in 1990 ad probably grew to more than 3.5 billion pounds in 1991 (Figure 1). North America accounts for just under 50% of the world nonwoven output, Western Europe 29% and the rest of the world the remainder. Japan represents about half of the |rest of the world' total.

The growth rates in nonwoven consumption vary significantly be region. The North American market is growing at 6% a year in unit volume, while Europe is growing slightly faster. Markets in other parts of the world are growing at an average about 10% a year. Nonwovens is truly a global business with capacity springing up very rapidly in almost every part of the world.

On a global basis, the value of nonwoven roll goods consumption, using the traditional definition of the industry, is estimated at U.S. $6-10 billion. For reference purposes, the size of the world converted disposable nonwoven products business (such as diapers, feminine hygiene products, wipes, medical gowns and drapes) is of the order of $25-30 billion.

The definitions of what is or is not include as "nonwoven fabrics" vary considerably, however, throughout the world. The Koreans and the Taiwanese, for example, have a somewhat different view than the North Americans and Europeans.

Nonwoven Breakdown By End Use

The largest nonwoven type continues to be staple fiber-based fabrics, which account for roughly two thirds of the U.S. total of 1.6 billion pounds. Melt spun processes represent about one third of total consumption, but this category is growing several percentage points per year faster than staple-based as a whole However, some individual staple-based processes are growing faster than the average. Spunlaced is an example.

The staple fiber processes sector is made up of numerous individual nonwoven technologies including carded resin and thermal bonded fabrics, needlepunched, spunlaced, wet laid and air laid.

Carded Resin and Thermal Bonded Fabrics--Thermal Bonded. The total consumption of carded resin and thermal bonded nonwovens in the U.S. in 1991 was approximately 250-275 million pounds. Total consumption of these fabrics has been growing over the last several years, with thermal bonded carded fabrics growing much more rapidly than resin bonded fabrics. Thermal bonded carded fabrics now account for about 60% of the total category.

The largest thermal bonded carded staple nonwoven market in the U.S. and, in fact, the world, is coverstock. We estimate total U.S. consumption (on U.S.-based products) of thermal bonded carded coverstock in 1991 at 120-130 million pounds, equal to more than 80% of total consumption of this fabric type.

Thermal bonded staple, most of which is polypropylene, competes with spunbonded polypropylene in coverstock applications. A few other fabric types are also used in small amounts. Veratec, Scott and Fiberweb are the major producers of carded thermally bonded coverstock in this country.

Total coverstock demand in the U.S. has grown during the last several years as producers of baby diapers adopted barrier leg cuff designs, which use significantly larger amounts of fabric per unit. The birth rate has also been up, resulting in some diaper unit growth. The diaper market accounted for the majority of the recent increase in demand in coverstock volume, but other end uses segments--such as feminine hygiene products and adult incontinence items--also grew:

A much slower rate of growth in coverstock demand in North America is forecast during the next few years than has occurred in the recent past. Further, the coverstock supply/demand balance, which has been exceeding tight, will become less so during the next several years, largely because of the coming onstream of significant new spunbonded polypropylene capacity in the U.S. and Canada.

The supply of thermal bonded carded coverstock is not likely to increase significantly, if at all, in the U.S. during the next several years. While thermal bonded remains the fabric of choice of Procter & Gamble and certain other diaper producers, we expect spunbonded polypropylene to gain share; therefore, the demand for thermal bonded polypropylene coverstock will remain flat or possibly decline slightly. This statement applies to the U.S. market only. The situation is quite different elsewhere. For example, demand for carded thermal bonded coverstock will grow in Mexico, Europe and parts of the Asia-Pacific region.

There has been significant progress in the use of thermal bonded staple nonwovens in other applications as well. Interlinings is a prime example. A sizeable portion of the interlining market is now served with thermal bonded fabrics that have replaced resin bonded and certain other fabric types. We expect this trend to continue. Thermal bonded fabrics have also gained share in a number of other technical applications. Polypropylene will remain the most significant fiber type used in carded thermally bonded fabrics, but polyester and multi-components fibers will show good growth.

Resin Bonded. Carded resin bonded nonwovens in the U.S. are expected to remain flat or, more likely, decline. This class of nonwovens has clearly lost share in numerous markets through the last 10 years. This share attrition will continue as thermal bonded, spunbonded and spunlaced replace resin bonded in numerous applications. The largest end use areas for resin bonded staple nonwovens are coverstock, wipes, fabric softener substrate and interlinings.

The decline in share of the resin bonded staple nonwoven category has forced several traditional binder suppliers to reallocate priorities. The largest area of binder consumption in the U.S. in nonwovens today, from a process standpoint, is the broad category of air laid pulp and Scott's "Hi-Loft" fabrics, not staple fiber-based nonwovens. Producers of acrylics, vinyl acetate ethylenes, SBR's and other binder types are carefully examining their priorities and concentrating on those markets that offer the greatest promise for the future.

Spunbondeds: Potential For Growth

The next process category is spunbonded nonwovens. In 1990 the order-of-magnitude production of spundbonded fabric in the U.S. was estimated at slightly more than 400 million pounds. Polypropylene represented almost 65% of total spunbonded production, polyester just under 20%, high density polyethylene (HDPE-"Tyvek") about 15% and nylon the remainder. The cast is for total spunbonded volume to grow faster than the average for the industry through the mid-1990's, perhaps at as much as 8-9% a year. This means, of course, that spunbonded will continue to take share from other process types.

Polypropylene. Of the 250-275 million pounds of spunbonded polypropylene produced in the U.S. in 1990, coverstock accounted for about half. Medical and furniture and bedding represented just under 10% each, carpet backing and geotextiles about 7% and 4% respectively. Agriculture, industrial apparel and other end uses represented the remainder.

The presence of additional spunbonded polypropylene capacity will be felt in the U.S. during the next several years. Veratec started up a line in Canada within the past year and this capacity is essentially sold out at present. Poly-Bond had brought on additional capacity recently as well and American Nonwovens has debottlenecked their existing line.

Significant new capacity will be started this year at Fiberweb North America and a new producer, Atlas Corporation, will also start up in the U.S. this (see International New, page 14 for more information). Further capacity additions are likely as we move forward through the mid 1990's. In the U.S. spunbonded polypropylene should continue to take share from other nonwovens used in many applications.

The strong growth in demand for spunbonded polypropylene is a worldwide phenomena. Polypropylene is the largest resin type consumed by the nonwoven products industry and is expected to continue as the fastest growing. Worldwide consumption of spunbonded polypropylene is expected to expand from about 500 million pounds in 1990 to close to 800 million pounds by 1996. Turnkey plants are becoming an increasingly important factor in this business worldwide. Several of the recent North, Central and South American capacity additions have been such plants.

Polyester. In spunbonded polyester, roofing accounts for about a third of the total of 80-90 million pounds utilized in the U.S. The second largest market is automotive carpet backing, carpet tiles and other automotive applications, which, collectively, represent just under 20%. Other significant end uses are filtration, furniture and bedding, fabric softeners, apparel interlinings, agricultural fabrics and various other technical items.

In the U.S., almost all of these end uses are expected to grow. Furniture and bedding could be an exception as the major producers serving that market reallocates its production to other markets.

Spunbonded polyester consumption in the U.S. is projected to grow at perhaps 8-9% a year through the mid 1990's. Fabric softeners could represent significant growth potential if current trials to substitute spunbonded polyester for carded resin bonded rayon fabrics in this application prove successful. Spunbonded polyester provides exceptional value in most end uses. This fabric has, for example, made possible numerous advances in the quality of automotive interiors by providing moldable components. Spunbonded polyester has high value in filtration end uses and in a number of roofing products as well.

There are currently four producers in the U.S.--Reemay, Hoechst, BASF and Freudenberg. Capacity is being expanded. Each of these producers have relatively strong competitive positions in specific applications. It is also possible that we will see new entrants in spunbonded polyester in the U.S. within a few years.

High Density Polyethylene (Tyvek). The next process category for review is spunbonded high density polyethylene or Du Pont's Tyvek. The largest market on a tonnage basis is protective apparel. Tyvek is, by far, the most important nonwoven used in this segment. The use of protective apparel in the many diverse end use segments served is growing at an attractive rate, about 8-9% a year, on average. There are year to year variations because of changing priorities in certain of the end use segments. Tyvek will remain the most important fabric used in this market and, therefore, will benefit by market growth. However, other nonwovens will continue to take share from Tyvek in specific functional applications.

The second largest end use for Tyvek is envelopes followed by house wrap, sterile packaging, graphics, other packaging and a variety of other applications. Tyvek has lost some share in certain of these end uses. However, growth in demand for this important nonwoven type is expected to continue strong through the mid 1990's. Of course, overseas markets for Tyvek are also developing nicely and to serve them Du Pont has recently started up new manufacturing capacity in Europe.

SMS. Spunbonded/melt brown/spunbonded polypropylene is a fabric technology that is proprietary to Kimberly-Clark. Volume is considerable, of the order of 50 million pounds or more in the U.S. By far the major market is medical packs, gowns and sterile wrap. However, this fabric also finds use in many other applications as well and utilization of SMS fabrics should continue to grow in the U.S. through the mid 1990's.

Four More Technologies--Melt Blown, Air Laid, Spunlaced And Wet Laid

Melt blown. Kimberly-Clark is, by far, the major manufacturer of melt blown fabrics in the U.S. The company also makes a proprietary melt blown/pulp composite, "Coform."

Coform has been used for many years as a component in absorbent products such as adult incontinence and feminine hygiene items. Most recently, Kimberly-Clark has decided to use Coform in its premoistened wipe products to compete with resin bonded air laid pulp offered by Scott and others. There are numerous other applications for Coform as well. Coform volume is expected to grow considerably during the next several years.

The order-of-magnitude consumption of melt blown, including that portion used in combination with spunbonded polypropylene (SMS) and with wood pulp (Coform), is modestly over 100 million pounds in the U.S.

More than a quarter of melt blown volume goes into various filtration application including face mask media, air conditioning materials, micron-rated bags, cartridges, coolant oil and several other uses. Medical/surgical fabrics also represent about a quarter of total volume. The use of melt blown in sanitary products is the next largest important use followed by sorbents, wipes, apparel insulation, adhesives, protective apparel, battery separators and a host of smaller volume uses.

Melt blown volume has been growing steadily and continued growth is expected in almost all important end uses. The majority of melt blown produced today is polypropylene, although there is increasing interest in melt blown fabrics made from other polymers. A number of high performance melt blowns based on polymers other than polypropylene are expected to be introduced in the near term future.

Air Laid Pulp/Hi-Loft. The combined category of air laid pulp and Hi-Loft is also an important nonwoven segment. Hi-Loft is a name used by Scott to describe its proprietary DRC process, which involves reverse creping of a wet laid wadding material to which binder has been applied. This material competes with air laid pulp in numerous applications and vise versa.

The total consumption of these fabrics is approximately 200 million pounds. Virtually all of the volume is used in disposable applications. More than 45% of total tonnage goes into industrial/institutional wipes, while premoistened wipes represent almost 40% of total volume. These fabrics are also used as absorbent product components, miscellaneous specialty wipes and for certain specialized medical and a variety of other industrial applications. As was pointed out earlier, this category of products represents a major area of consumption for nonwoven binders.

Total consumption of air laid pulp and Hi-Loft nonwovens is expected to grow in the U.S. at 6-7% a year. Additional capacity to produce air laid pulp fabrics has recently been installed by Walkisoft. Fort Howard expanded its air laid pulp capacity a few years ago and a further expansion in the future is possible. Scott has also expanded capacity. The three major factors in this business are Scott, James River and Fort Howard.

Spunlaced. The next category is spunlaced nonwovens. The volume of spunlaced fabrics in the U.S. is about 100 million pounds. By far the largest volume application is medical packs and gowns, which accounts for about 60% of total spunlaced volume in this country. The pack and gown market is expected to grow only modestly domestically during the next few years, but considerable international growth is expected. Spunlaced should remain the fabric of choice for several years, despite increasing efforts to bring more SMS and other breathable barrier fabrics (which are still developments) into this market.

Wipes is the second largest spunlace end use followed by medical sponges. A very large number of other applications make up the remainder. These include protective industrial apparel, interlinings, mattress pad fabrics, absorbent product components, coated fabric materials, reinforced plastic components, window treatments and other home furnishings, other medical supplies, automotive components, fire block fabrics, roofing materials, wallcoverings, scrub apparel, filter fabrics, geotextile materials and other advanced composites. Indeed, the two major producers of spunlaced in the U.S., Du Pont and Chicopee, are diversifying their applications. Veratec, also a supplier, already serves diverse end uses.

Wet Laid. Wet laid nonwovens, fabrics made on paper machines from precision cut staple or blends of staple and pulp with binders, have volume of approximately 100 million pounds, depending on what is and is not defined as a wet laid nonwoven. Participants in this sector include Dexter, which is by far the leader, Veratec, Lydall, Chicopee, Schweitzer Division of Kimberly-Clark, Hollingsworth & Vose and a few others.

Over time, wet laid nonwovens have lost share in the U.S. market. In fact, this same phenomenon has been observed elsewhere in the world. The reasons are several and include the relatively mature nature of several wet laid markets and strong competition from spunlaced, spunbonded composites, melt blown and other fabric in certain end uses.

In the U.S. market, as opposed to the total world, the medical are represents the largest consuming segment. Dexter dominates this application area because of a unique technology and high throughout production facilities. This segment, which is about a third of total wet laid consumption, will likely not grow significantly in the U.S. during the next several years. The reason is the relatively slow growth expected in pack, gown and CSR wrap markets in the U.S.

Dexter also dominates the tea bag, coffee filter and meat casing categories (food). These are also relatively slow growth markets. The so-called industrial market for wet laid fabrics is, however, expected to show reasonably attractive growth. This category is made up of a myriad of end use applications including such products as wall covering backing, alkaline manganese battery separators, lint-free wipes, vacuum cleaner bags, interlining fabrics, cigarette plug wrap, various types of filter material destined for diverse end use applications, coverstock and fire retardant protective apparel. Overall, consumption of wet laid nonwovens is expected in the U.S. to grow over the specialties-type applications. However, the magnitude of the growth, in pounds, will be relatively modest. Some additional capacity may be installed, but there is a little excess capacity in this market at present.

Last But Not Least...Needlepunching

Needlepunched nonwovens represent 200-250 million pounds of nonwoven fabric, depending on definitions as to what is and what is not included. Volume has been growing, although because most of these fabrics are in the durables area, the business has been negatively affected by the recent economic downturn.

The two largest markets are automotive trim and geotextiles. Each represent between 25-30% of total industrial volume. These end uses are followed in order of importance by coated/laminated and combined fabrics, bedding and home furnishing materials, filters, interlinings and "other." The "other" category includes an incredibly large array of specialized end uses for purpose-designed needlepunched materials. A few examples include craft felts, decorative felts, desiccant materials, display felts, insulations of various types, linings for gloves and other materials, noise absorbent felts, office partition and polishing pads.

Much of the growth in needlepunched fabric consumption can be attributed to advances in fabric-making technology--throughout in the case of relatively lightweight, high strength materials, that compete with spunbonded, woven and other fabrics and novel, aesthetically pleasing surface textures in the case of automotive trim and numerous other fabrics. The ability to manufacture extremely uniform needlepunched material is key to many uses such as filtration and polishing materials.

A precise forecast of the growth outlook for needlepunched fabric demand, in total, is difficult because of the previously mentioned affect of the recession on demand in a number of durable categories. Assuming a slow but continuing recovery, demand for needlepunched fabrics should grow at the order of 6% a year through the mid-1990's.

This process category is the most diverse in terms of producers. Several dozen companies in the U.S. alone manufacture needlepunched fabrics. A few, such as Foss, Phillips, Amoco, Spartan and National Felt, are significant in size while others account for a relatively small part of total production. However, many of these firms have a high share in a number of niche businesses for which their technology is appropriate and their equipment specifically designed.
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Title Annotation:details of nonwoven fabric technologies from paper given by John R. Starr at INDA-TEC '92
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Jun 1, 1992
Previous Article:Cotton pickin' good - suppliers of cotton to nonwovens remain optimistic about future.
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