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Spunbonded nonwovens: spunbonded polypropylene nonwovens showing recent dramatic growth.

SPUNBONDED NOWWOVENS Through the last five years, spunbonded polypropylene fabrics have shown dramatic growth within the nonwovens industry and as a major component of resin usage within the textile industry. The use of fiber grade resin by the textile industry has exceeded the growth for all polypropylene resin usage through the last 15 years. Just when the growth of polypropylene resin utilization appeared to be slowing to the same rate as other textile fibers, the nonwovens industry picked up the slack, starting in 1982, with special emphasis on spunbonded polypropylene nonwovens since 1985.

It is therefore very timely to review the marketing and capital investment strategy that the nonwovens industry used to grow its production facilities for polypropylene spunbonded fabrics not only in the U.S., but throughout the world. There are also potential problems that this dramatic growth may cause for the individual firms, many of which are new to this industry, involved in the production and sales of spunbonded polypropylene fabrics from resin production to sales of finished products.

Spunbonding Basics

The nonwovens industry is just one component of the entire textile market for polypropylene resins. Table 1 gives the approximate poundages of polypropylene resin utilized by the five basic areas producing fibrous products to cover a broad range of markets. The total utilization predicted for 1990 is more than 1.8 billion pounds of resin, or approximately one third of the total poundage utilized in the U.S. today. Of this total, spunbonded and melt blown polypropylene fabrics will consume 450 million pounds, or about 25% of the total textile market resin utilization of polypropylene.

Spunbonded fabric manufacturing designates fabric made from polymer to fiber in one processing step. The four most common methods of producing a spunbonded fabric all start with the polymer being melted and forced through a series of spinnerettes or apertures into fiber form. To the melted polymer, various additives can be included to impart color, U.V. stabilization, antistatic and other properties to the fiber that will translate into finished fabric properties.

Without going deeply into the various systems, the fibers generally drop under controlled conditions to improve fiber quality and finished web uniformity onto a collecting surface where bonding will take place. The bonding can be chemical, mechanical or thermal to produce a finished nonwomen fabric with a variety of properties in weights ranging from 0.25-20 oz. sq. yard and widths up to 180 inches.

A second and newer fabric forming system from polymers is melt blowing. Here the polymer is almost exploded onto a collector with high pressure air or steam as it exits from the spinnerettes. There are also other systems, such as the DuPont process for the manufacture of "Tyvek" polyenthylene flash spunbonded fabrics that are unique quality fabrics included in total figures for spunbonded fabrics of all polymer types. Melt blown polypropylene fabrics are also included due to the end use markets and composite utilization of these fabrics with spunbonded polypropylene in the market.

Spunbonding As Part Of The Whole

Table 2 indicates that 40% of the total fiber poundage used to produce nonwovens in the U.S. is polypropylene resin based and that 75% of that poundage is produced by spunbonded or melt blown production. To look back at 1975, only 20% of the total fiber consumption by the nonwovens industry was polypropylene.

This growth in the spunbonded area was due to the installation of manufacturing equipment to the 10 largest nonwovens manufacturers in the U.S., as shown in Table 3. Starting with the first spunbonded lines pioneered by DuPont in the early 1960s, now eight of the 10 largest North American producers of nonwovens are involved in spunbonded production in one form or another. Also in Europe, the Americas and Asia, the dominant production equipment installed in the last five years has been spunbonded polypropylene facilities, as shown by Tables 4 and 5.

The markets for spunbonded polypropylene have had very dramatic growth in the last 10 years that resulted in capturing another 20% share of the U.S. market. Table 6 is an estimate of that utilization versus other nonwoven and textile processes. In 1990, it is estimated that the 18 categories into which the market is divided will utilize 450 million pounds of polypropylene spunbonded or melt blown fabrics in the U.S. This represents 360 million pounds of spunbondeds and 90 million pounds ofmelt blown fabric, which is generally in composite form. All of these totals refer back to Table 1, which was the overview of the entire textile industry for polypropylene resins.

Capacity Versus Demand

Melt blown fabrics are primarily concentrated in composites in such markets garments, filtration and sorbents of various types, while the polypropylene spunbonded fabric has a broader base market. Everything up to now has been extremely positive for the sales and profitability of spunbonded fabrics in the U.S. and around the world. This has led to the large number of plants being built in the last four years to manufacture spunbonded fabrics, with a special emphasis on one type of plant to produce polypropylene. There are 33 new Reifenhauser lines installed, out of the total 39 lines of all types of spunbonded manufacturing lines for all types of polymers, including polyester and polyerthylene. This has led to an excess of capacity worldwide when compared to present demand.

Some of this capacity was very necessary in the 1987-88 period when U.S. demand outpaced capacity growth due to selected market demands that doubled and tripled in one year. Twice overseas imports were necessary to sustain continued growth. The recent U.S. shortages have been handled by imports, but now we need increased utilization in the world market to help consume the in-place capacity established in the last few years in exporting companies counting on the U.S. market.

Looking at the largest of the major markets in Table 6, both the medical and the diaper markets are now mature for disposable products and growing at no more than 5-6% a year. The only major new use is the O.R. gown composite fabric, which may replace spunlaced fabric and shows real opportunities in the near term for some 15 million pounds of product. However, this opportunity appears to be restricted to only one producer through patent problems, so the 33 new producers looking to develop markets, including laminates with melt blown production equipment, may be blocked from participating for the present.

This brings up the problem faced by the producers of spundonded and melt blown polypropylene fabrics and the firms supplying their raw materials as well as their equipment. Ar present there is definite overcapacity coming on-stream each month. Much of this capacity is in the hands of small manufacturers in search of markets and opportunities. They do not have the resources and facilities to research and develop new products to create new markets. It is doubtful that firms such as Freudenberg, DuPont, Kimberly-Clark and Sodoca and a few other very large corporations will put time, personnel and capital into an effort to expand the market unless they have a solid patent position to control the market.

If new growth areas are not provided and the industry has to rely on normal mature growth rates, large over-capacities will begin to make themselves felt by 1992. The development of new polymer variants, fiber types and market concepts to keep the annual growth rate above 10% is a challenge to all associated with the polypropylene industry and not just the individual responsibility of the nonwovens producer.

This paper was orriginally presented at the Polypropylene and Polyethylene Symposium of Markets, Products and Technology, held March 19, 20 in Atlanta, GA. It is reprinted with the permission of the author and Richard Mansfield & Associates, Wilton, CT.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Greenwald, Emmett
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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