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Sharp differences in needlepunch markets as business adapts to economy.

Sharp Differences In Needlepunch Markets As Business Adapts To Economy The Bad news is that the automotive and geotextiles segments are in for a tough year in 1991 because of a growing recession and all of the inherent economic cutbacks. That means those two major markets for needlepunched nonwovens will suffer in the coming 12 months.

The good news is that growing concerns about the environment, personal and work safety and more efficient production methods for industry will all play into the hands of the diverse products being made by needlepunched nonwovens producers worldwide. The general consensus in the industry is that needlepunching has diversified into such an array of markets that it remains as insulated as possible from the vagaries of financial fluctuations.

What was once a minor business built on the utilization of waste fiber that no one else wanted has evolved into a highly technical, extremely quality conscious market.

The most dominant theme among needlepunchers today--and a theme that was played out repeatedly during an INDA Needlepunch Conference in Charlotte, NC late last year--was the environment and its impact on business. For needlepunchers, an increased concern over the environment means greater demand for some of its products for geotextiles such as landfill liners and erosion control, as well as filtration. "The challenge for the needlepunch industry will be to develop products which can be used to aid in environmental protection," pointed out Ted Kelly, vice president-marketing, Phillips Fibers, Greenville, SC, who was the keynote speaker at the INDA conference.

Mr. Kelly referred to the "big three" topics of the environment, quality and safety as the driving forces behind the needlepunch industry in the 1990s. "Technology has got to be the leading edge for us to achieve any degree of success as we enter the global market of the 1990s," he said. "The challenge of the 1990s for the needlepunched industry will certainly be impacted by global competition, the environment, quality, safety and technology."

Three Needlepunched Markets

The December conference was highlighted by opening presentations that focused on the three major needlepunched markets--North America, Europe and Asia. Each has its own unique demands and opportunities to offer the industry.

The basic U.S. needlepunch industry is now estimated to be close to a $400 million roll goods business, with projected sales growth of about 7% moving it to a more than $500 million business by 1995. With an average of four companies a year starting up operations throughout the 1980s, today there are about 250 needlepunchers in North America.

The home furnishings segment, with mostly the smaller needlers making composites and specialty products, attracts the most participants in this business, followed by automotives, apparel, filtration and general industrial products. The geotextile segment is dominated by a few very large, well financed producers.

The five largest needlepunchers in the U.S. are Phillips Fibers, which specializes in geotextiles, home furnishings and roofing; privately-owned Foss Manufacturing, which set the trend in 1990 with its acquisition of Waterbury Nonwovens; Lydall Westex Div., a quiet producer of specialized medical and automotive products; Amoco Fabrics and Fibers, which is in the process of upgrading its spunbonding capacity; and Hoechst Celanese, part of the fifth largest producer of nonwovens in the world.

The European challenge, according to Hans-Gunter Mittermeier, of Groz-Beckert, Ebingen, Germany, is to adapt the needlepunching industry on that continent to the rapidly changing political and economic climate. Mr. Mittermeier provided some interesting figures on the unified European market for needlepunching.

First, there are 178 potential end users of needlepunched products in Eastern Europe, led by 100 alone in the Soviet Union. These are joined by almost 400 potential needlepunching end users in the European Community, led by West Germany (92), Italy (90), France (72), the U.K. (50), Spain (22) and Belgium (23); these are comprised of a few, very large concerns and many small companies. And then there is the potential market of 63 end users in the rest of Western Europe, led by Turkey, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland. Altogether, according to these figures there are 435 potential end users of needlepunched nonwovens in Europe.

The growth potential for all of Western Europe is about the same, according to Mr. Mittermeier, while the Eastern Europeans still supply more basic products that will have a difficult time competing with the advanced technologies of the West. In all markets, he felt, the number of potential producers will decline and the big will get bigger. "Once the united European common market is in place and all restrictions placed between the various countries are lifted, there will be a stiff competition which forces the producers of nonwoven fabrics to become even more innovative than they are today," Mr. Mittermeier said.

Europe's nonwoven product program consists of the well known needlepunched products with a trend towards more technical applications, especially in geotextiles in most of the western countries. However, he added, this depends greatly on the fiber material available and the planning system in each country.

In the Far East, where a full two-thirds of the world's population lives, the generally lower standard of living (except for Japan) means there is significant potential for needled products in the areas of automotives, floor coverings and a host of industrial applications, according to Steve Brown, vice president-international sales and development, at Foster Needle, Manitowoc, WI.

In automotives, Mr. Brown said the good news for needlers is that the Japanese home market production uses much more needlepunched fabric than is used in the U.S. and even Europe, especially in molded floors. The spread of Japanese technology and licensing has also increased the acceptance of needled floor coverings into countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

"The one advantage, or the one difference, between the U.S. and the European markets and the Japanese markets is the fact that they are using fibers of significantly lower deniers on a regular basis," Mr. Brown said, adding that six denier is very common for decorative trim areas and headliners and even finer deniers are used in some of these applications.

There is a tremendous amount of needlepunched floorcovering in both homes and offices in the Far East, Mr. Brown said, because of the lower production costs. Many times these are produced in tile form so that high traffic areas are easily replaced and the cost of total replacement is eliminated.

A unique floorcovering product that he highlighted is called a "hot carpet," which is described as nothing more than a heating grid similar to the type used in an electric blanket laminated to the back of a structured needlepunched product. These hot carpets range from one to two sq. meters large. They are popular in Japan because families spend a lot of their time on the floor in their relatively smaller homes.

Mr. Brown also focused on one other market. "Without a doubt, from a needlepunched nonwovens standpoint, the greatest potential and one of the largest markets in the Far East is that of synthetic leathers, or 'man-made' leathers," he said. Many companies in this region produce the synthetic leather-type products for the garment, shoe, vinyl coating and other large volume industries.

"Placement of new lines and equipment is very brisk in the Far East, more so than in other regions of the world," Mr. Brown concluded. "Technology developed with such low weights and fine deniers is good news for all needled nonwoven producers, as it forces refinements in equipment and technologies, even in the fiber development. It also makes for a finished product that can compete with other textiles technologies in both performance and cost."

Needled Automotive Products

The most common applications for needlepunched nonwovens in automotive applications remain in molded floors, formed headliners, door trims, seat backs, load floors and package trays. These are in addition to the less noticeable applications such as sound barriers, filters, battery separators, structural panels, formed liners and door parts, speaker housings, headliner substrates, seat forms and even exterior body panels.

"The North American automobile market and its manufacturers have been the leaders in the development of textiles in the automobile and, in particular, the development and application of needled nonwoven structures," said John Foster, vice president, Foster Needle. The Europeans have roughly paralleled this utilization and the Asian manufacturers, while now developing new composites for these applications, have traditionally adopted and reproduced the technology processes developed in North America.

The basic differences in the selections of raw materials and manufacturing processes and engineering policies have determined the extent to which needled fabrics are utilized in automobiles, according to Mr. Foster. Among the major applications:

*Molded Floors: Time and again the molded floor receives the most debate between needled or tufted fabric. It is also the area where there is the most disagreement as to the fiber type most suitable--nylon, polypropylene or polyester. It is also the area with the most disagreement in philosophy between the U.S., Europe and Asia.

The performance requirements and test standards for these products on car floors are very high in the U.S. Admittedly, a needled floor does not abrade as well, is more difficult to clean, has less crush resistance and cannot be made as plush as a tufted floor for the same raw material cost. This, coupled with the greater availability of tufted products in the U.S., has led to the continued use of more tufted carpets in U.S.-made cars.

*Trunks: This is one area of the automobile where there seems to be agreement and consistency worldwide. Nearly all trunkliners in use are made from needlepunched fabric and nearly all are polyester. A great deal of the polyester is derived from bottle waste. This, along with the relatively low cost of polyester, makes it the least expensive fiber to use. Added to the lower cost of needlepunching, it offers a good combination for manufacturers.

*Headliners: This is another area of considerable discussion and disagreement concerning which type of fabric is best suited. In the U.S., test standards are quite high and needled nonwovens cannot compete against the knits and wovens without substantial increases in basic weight, which often prices them out of consideration. In many other markets, however, it is common to find needled polyester and polypropylene nonwovens that have very good abrasion resistance and mold well with the variety of substrates commonly used.

A number of the so-called transplants now use needled headliners and new technology in web forming. Low fiber deniers and sophisticated needle styles could allow needled products to be competitive in the U.S. within the next few model years. A number of Japanese companies are looking to share technology with U.S. companies to produce

these products in the U.S.

*Body Panels/Rigid Components: The U.S. has long been a user of a variety of components within the car made up of composites of a variety of fibers, resins and polymers. There are a number of products in a car that begin as a blend of wood fibers and a smaller percentage of textile fibers and are formed into needled blankets. These are combined with a variety of resins, adhesives and binders and are molded and compressed into forms that actually create lightweight, flexible and strong components. They are used around the firewall, dash, fender liners, speaker and parcel structures and engine bay enclosures.

*Heat Shields: Rather interesting composites are used in automobiles and heat insulators between "hot areas." These consist of various products produced from fibrous mats that include polyester, fiberglass, aramid, ceramic and shoddy.

*Interior Trim: The typical interior trim fabric found on door panels, seat backs, parcel shelves, package trays, load floors and rear hatches is generally a needled velour or flat needled fabric. In the U.S. the predominant fiber is polypropylene because of its availability and UV resistance. In contrast, the use of polyester in needled interior trim is considerably higher in most other countries. In many places there is considerable use of polyester even in needled molded floors.

*Vinyl Substrates: In terms of sheer yardage generated, this application of needled nonwovens is significant. A web of polyester generally 4.5-6.5 oz. sq. yard is needled and then used as a substrate onto which is extruded or laminated a vinyl material for applications such as landau roof tops and seating.

In concluding his presentation, Mr. Foster said that "there is a consensus that needlepunched structures in the automobile will enjoy growth for years to come. Whether the fibers used are a single synthetic type, a natural or waste type or some as yet unknown variation, manufacturers and designers and continually finding new applications and composites are a booming area.

"The fabrics and engineering specifications may vary from country to country," Mr. Foster said, "but the race is on between U.S., European and Asian manufacturers to find the lightest, most efficient and strongest composite or structure."

The Geotechnical Nonwovens Market

Looking at a specific segment for needlepunched fabrics, Stephen Walker, Polyfelt, Atlanta, GA, said that the geotextiles industry, although showing some signs of slowing in some of its major segments, remains very healthy. The industry has evolved into the hands of a few, very committed, global companies, thus escalating the barriers of entry. As in the past, Mr. Walker said, the keys to success will be unique process technology, a strong technical capability and long term commitment to specific growing market segments.

Mr. Walker placed the current growth rate at between 8-12%, down from an earlier 15-20%. "This is due to very slow growth in major segments such as asphalt overlay and drainage. However," he added, "certain key high growth sectors exist, such as waste containment and high strength/low elongation product applications."

Currently, medium to heavy weight needlepunched products in waste containment applications are among the brightest market segments, although user preference is strongly aligned with continuous filament polyester and polypropylene products. He pointed out that there are now significant barriers to entry to this market, including substantial chemical compatibility test data, QC/QA on every roll shipped and needle-free certification.

"The key needlepunched opportunity now appears to be in the high strength/low elongation area which has thus far been cultivated by high quality woven materials," according to Mr. Walker. "The engineering community is actively seeking a product to compete with the woven materials and which offers hydraulic and frictional advantages for the areas of stabilization, slopes and earth walls. Major nonwoven geotextile producers are now poised to convert the stabilization market to a nonwovens area."

Mr. Walker attributed the rapid growth of the market prior to 1985 to the relative newness of the industry along with the heavy investment in industry-building activities by the manufacturers, moves that were justified because of the high growth rates and acceptable margins. Today, however, thinner margins in some key segments have significantly reduced the available R&D funds.

"The best growth opportunities now exist among applications that generally have smaller volume potential than the major market segments that initially developed the industry," he added. Most of these uses are outside of the traditional highway applications, requiring new ways of thinking about promotion and distribution.

"We must, if we are to perpetuate our industry well beyond the year 2000, deliver acceptable return on investment to our financial principals," Mr. Walker said. "This requires commitment to a number of sound business practices. Control of costs, responsibility to the industry supply/demand ratio as it evolves and emphasis upon differentiation, as well as appropriate technical contribution, are some of these practices."

As a final comment, Mr. Walker projected that a major challenge to the geo-textile industry is "a commitment to quality, not just to goods and services but to the reputation of our industry within our market and to the proper stewardship of our industry that will enable us to guide it to its full potential and position among the long-accepted building products."
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Title Annotation:includes related articles on the status of the industry, top new needlepunched products and statistical process control for felting and fork needles
Author:Jacobsen, Michael
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Feb 1, 1991
Previous Article:New approach at first INDA filtration conference.
Next Article:Highloft nonwovens: a product of the nonwovens environment.

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