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Spunmelt nonwovens roll on: industry deals with supply shortages, pricing pressures and looks to new applications.

After facing severe overcapacity issues in the late 1990s and early 2000s, spunmelt nonwovens are now facing a supply shortage that has left manufacturers scrambling. While ups and downs, in terms of capacity, are not unusual in the fickle nonwovens industry, the speed with which spunmelt went from overcapacity to undercapacity is unprecedented.

This rapid turnaround can largely be credited to a conversion in the disposable baby diaper market from thermal bonded coverstock to spunmelt coverstock. While spunmelt nonwovens have long been used in this application, at least one major diaper producer, until recently, continued to use thermal bonded materials. When that diaper producer converted its stock to spunmelt, a squeeze was felt throughout the industry.

"There is a shortage of fabric today," said Anders Moller, senior vice president of Ason/Neumag. "This has dramatically changed in the past eight to 10 months. We have gone from an oversupply to an undersupply that quickly."

The spunmelt market has responded to this shortage by planning for a great deal of new capacity to come onstream in the next several years.

Much of this new capacity will specifically target hygiene markets with standard spunmelt nonwovens. However, many of the smaller players in spunmelt, particularly on the machine side, are targeting markets beyond hygiene in the hope of untapping a smaller, more profitable area. Because of the high level of competition within spunmelt, the technology unfortunately has become extremely price-sensitive and often the sale goes to the company willing to move its material at the lowest price. This has eroded margins and made conditions tough in the market.

When you add to this situation the rising price of polypropylene--the main component of spunmelt nonwovens in hygiene--it's clear that times for spunmelt producers doing business in hygiene are tough, but that has not diminished the segment's appeal. New players are appearing in the market regularly announcing new lines and new partnerships, proving that vitality must exist in the market.

Vanilla, Chocolate or Strawberry

Spunmelt nonwovens feature a combination of spunbond and meltblown technologies usually in a two to five beam configuration. This technology represents the largest segment of the nonwovens industry in both North America and Europe. The explosive growth in this segment in recent decades can largely be attributed to the rise of turnkey machinery.

Leading the way with this technology is Reifenhaeuser, Troisdorf, Germany. This machinery specialist has been offering turnkey spunmelt technology through its Reicofil production lines, which can lower produce production costs for nonwovens by making a mulilayer nonwoven in a single process.

Reifenhaeuser's success in spunmelt cannot be overstated. Its customer list reads like a who's who of the nonwovens industry including such big names as BBA Fiberweb, PGI Nonwovens and Avgol. This is not to mention the companies that don't reveal their suppliers.

Reifenhaeuser's recent development, the Reicofil 4 spunbond technology, allows the independent control of filament laydown. A line featuring this technology is currently being added in PGI's Cali, Colombia facility (see "Recent news from spunbond/meltblown producers).

According to company literature, much of Reifenhaeuser's recent developments surround spunbond-pulp-spunbond technology, which offers high strength and low linting in wipe applications.

While Reifenhaeuser has long been a major force in spunbond and melt-blown nonwovens, it is not without its competition. Plenty of machinery makers are trying their hand in this segment, and several are finding success.

One such company is Reiter Perfojet, traditionally a spunlaced machinery manufacturer, which entered the spunbond market with its Perfobond 3000 technology in 1999. This system features modularity, high performance and a process stabilization system that allow it to have high productivity, up to 300 kg/h/m/bm, web uniformity and flexibility. After installing or rebuilding a few lines in Europe, Rieter has more recently been successful in Turkey, where it has secured orders with at least two nonwovens producers.

This fall, Rieter held an open house at Eruslu's Gaziantep site, where it showed off its new line. Around this time, the company announced it would install a line at another Turkish company, Akinal, a company that started out producing spunlaced nonwovens for leather and shoe backings. When its core market began facing stiff Chinese competition, Akinal decided it was time to develop and meet a growing demand for hygiene products in Turkey and neighboring countries such as Iran and Syria.

The company's strategy is reportedly to provide an added value to its roll goods.

The new spunbond line will be housed in a new building adjacent to its existing premises. The line is expected to be operational at the end of 2005. Further development projects include the construction of a third building.

Rieter's expertise and know-how are playing a major role in Akinal's development strategy, according to executives. The supplied line will enable the company to customize its own products.

According to Rieter executives, its success can be attributed not only to its technology but also to a recent shift in the spunbond market. "Today, there is a new standard for hygiene launched by big players," said Andre Michalon, sales director. "The nonwovens have to invest in updating spunbond lines to produce high quality of nonwoven fabrics. These new investments started two years ago and a lot of spunbond producers should invest in new spunbond lines in the coming years in order to offer spunbond fabrics with high characteristics."

While hygiene is attractive for the large volume opportunities it presents, spunmelt is also branching into other, more specialty areas. These new areas allow smaller players to compete more effectively on the global market. For Ason Neumag one such opportunity is in the field of spunbond polyester for roofing and other markets, which present smaller volumes and smaller lots but also higher profits.

"As an industry, the spunmelt market needs to get away from being mass producers of cheap material," Mr. Moller said. "If the industry wants to see more profits, it has to come back to old textile-thinking machines that are capable of making many, many things so manufacturers don't have to focus solely on price."

Because hygiene suppliers are looking for very straightforward spunmelt nonwovens, there is not a lot of room for added-value features. Because Reifenhaeuser has a stronghold on offering high-speed, turnkey lines, Mr. Moller feels it makes more sense for the little guys to look elsewhere. "Of course, there is still a big outlet for plain vanilla fabrics. It's just that we need more than that," Mr. Moller said. "A company like ours can't compete with just the plain vanilla."

This is also the philosophy of Nordson Corporation, which, following more than a decade's success in the meltblown market, began offering equipment to the bicomponent and spunbond segments of the business in 1998. The company has been targeting high quality machines, bicomponent technology and commodity markets where commodity products are not involved. This has resulted in the development of sophisticated nonwovens technology and exciting new growth opportunities for the company.

"There is life outside of hygiene and that is precisely why Nordson has spend so much time, money and development efforts on bicomponent machinery technology," said Nordson Corporation's Mark Snider. "The uses for wipes (personal care and cleansing), filters, roofing, geotextiles and medical nonwovens assure us productive opportunities for machinery suppliers."

The Global Picture

while shortages in spunmelt supply can largely be blamed on the diaper industry's conversion to the material in coverstock materials, raw materials prices can be blamed on a variety of factors including the emergence of China as a nonwovens-producing nation.

China is not yet a self-sustaining country and its recent development has strained world resources, particularly natural fuels. As the hygiene market continues to grow there, so has its need for polypropylene and other basic raw materials. Until China becomes able to produce its own material, this situation is expected to continue.

On the flip side, however, China's growth has been a boon for machinery suppliers who have been partnering with local companies to sell equipment in the region. While much of the equipment currently being used is made by local suppliers, all of the machinery suppliers interviewed by NONWOVENS INDUSTRY reported some growth in the area. Despite this growth, however, China's nonwovens industry is not expected to impact the West. "I don't think that China will impact the nonwovens industry the way it did the textile market," Mr. Moller predicted. "For one, the labor costs are much smaller when it comes to nonwovens and many of the main users of the material don't want to deal with Chinese suppliers."

Beyond China, growth in spunmelt output is rapid around the world. In fact, most of the new lines set to come onstream are being built outside of North America and Europe to fuel the growing disposable markets of developing regions.

Latin America, for one, has been a hot-bed of activity in recent years, and currently no fewer than four lines are coming onstream in South America. Some of the largest nonwovens producers in the world have tapped this region as a key growth area.

China, Latina America and many other developing regions will continue to grow in importance to the spunmelt market as consumers in these areas continue to increase their usage of disposable diapers and other items using these substrates. "These markets are very interesting because they are so large and are experiencing disproportionately high growth," explained Nordson's Mr. Snider. "While there may be some economic corrections in the years ahead, we do not see a fundamental change in this growth. China, India and other countries are also becoming more sophisticated in their demand for more product features and higher product quality."

RELATED ARTICLE: Recent news from spunbond/meltblown producers.

In April, Fibertex, Aalborg, Denmark, announced plans to erect a second spunmelt line in its facility near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Executives are saying that the decision came after the first line, which came onstream in 2003, was sold out sooner than expected. The sell-out was attributed to a sharp increase in demand for nonwovens from the personal care segment as well as the successful launch of products made in Malaysia both in regional and domestic markets.

The 36 million euro line will be located next to the first Malaysia line and will begin operating in 2005.

Fibertex first entered the spunmelt market in 1997 when it built its first line in Aalborg, Denmark. Since then, spunmelt nonwovens have come to dominate sales, representing about $70 million of the company's $107 million in annual sales in 2003.

In Brazil, Companhia Providencia has purchased a 3.2-meter-wide, two-beam Reicofil line from Reifenhaeuser in an effort to boost its businesses in both hygiene and industrial markets. The line, which is the company's eighth, will come onstream this year. Executives said they chose the Reicofil line because of its high flexibility. All of the company's output centers around spunmelt and executives are reportedly comfortable with this situation. In fact, they credit the company's success to a centralized focus on one technology type.

Unitika, Japan's fourth largest roll goods producer, has increased production capacity of its spunbond nonwovens by 2000 tons, bringing its total output to 22,000 tons. The new capacity comes after Unitika has considerably increased its exports to China during the past year. Unitika also has interests in China through its Tusco joint venture company with Teijin Films, which exports polyester spunbond nonwovens to China from its Thai manufacturing facility.

Softbond S.A. is installing a 1.8-meter-wide, double-beam spunbond system in Argentina. The new line, Softbond's third, was scheduled to come onstream in January. The new line can be reconfigured to a three-beam configuration and will supply both hygiene and industrial markets locally. It is expected to bring Softbond's sales from $13-17 million annually.

Also in Brazil, Fitesa is setting up a new spunbond production line to help meet rising demand for disposable absorbent hygiene products. Specifically, the new capacity will target value-added products for disposable masks and gowns in the medical segment as well as civil engineering applications. These two segments are projected to account for 35% of Fitesa's income by 2005. Fitesa manufacturers 22,000 tons of spunbond, meltblown and carded nonwovens per year and 12,000 metric tons of polypropylene staple fibers for needlepunched and thermal bonded nonwovens.

A meltblown line is being built at Hollingsworth & Vose's Hatzfeld, Germany facility. The move will significantly expand capability and capacity in meltblown production for high efficiency filtration media and provide European customers with a local source for these materials. The new line is part of Walpole, MA-based H&V's European investment program, which also included the purchase of Hepworth Air Filtration, Kentmere, U.K., in 2000.

Kuraray announced in July that is has begun selling a meltblown nonwoven made from liquid crystal polymers. With a capacity of 150 tons or four million square meters, Kuraray is reportedly targeting the printed wiring board and insulation paper markets.

In September, PGI Nonwovens announced it would double its spunbond output in Cali, Colombia to meet growing demand for hygiene products in Latin America. A new 4.2-meter-wide Reicofil 4 spunbond line is set to join a smaller, three-beam Reifenhaeuser line featuring spunmelt technology. According to PGI executives, the line, set to come onstream in early 2006, will add at least 1000 tons capacity per month to the operation and will primarily serve Andean markets.

This investment follows a decision last year to add a second line to PGI's San Luis Potosi, Mexico site. This line--the facility's second--is now ramping up. Company executives say the reason for adding spunmelt technology in Central America is simple: nearly 85% of its business there is hygiene, a core application for spunmelt nonwovens, and low penetration levels make the region ripe for growth.

Spunmelt specialist Avgol is forming a joint venture with Hubei Goldkinglong Investment Stock Co. for the production of spunmelt fabrics in Jingmen City, Hubei Province China. Located 300 miles southwest of Shanghai, in Jingmen City's High Tech Development Area, with easy access to the nearby Yangtze River shipping lanes, the so-called HGD joint venture company is also near Xiantao City, which is home to several users of nonwovens.

HGD was expected to start up its first Reifenhaeuser line in January 2005 and anticipates further expansion within the next two to three years to meet growing demand within China for spunmelt fabrics. HGD will supply customers in the hygiene and medical markets operating in China and other countries in Asia. The 3.2-meter wide SMXS machine will have a capacity of 10,000 metric tons per year and will incorporate the latest Reicofil technology including Avgol's proprietary technology and spunmelt production know-how.

In other news, Avgol has reportedly added a second line to its Mocksville, NC site, purchased from Unifi in 2001, to respond to growing demand for spunmelt nonwovens in North America. This line joins a 15,000-ton-per-year line in Mocksville and five spunmelt lines in Holon, Israel.

In September, Italy's Albis SpA invested in a five-meter bico spunbond line with multicomponent technology, purchased from Ason Spunbond Technology. The entry into the spunbond market will mean innovative new products for Albis, which employs 220 people in Germany, Israel and the U.S. Albis currently produces only thermal bonded nonwovens.

Toray Saehan Industries, a joint venture between Toray Industries and Saehan Industries based in Korea, will construct a 20,000-ton-per-year polypropylene spunbond line in China. The new capacity, set to come onstream next year, will enhance TSI's current 45,000-ton-per-year capacity in Korea and allow it to better respond to the increasing needs of the Chinese baby diaper market. TSI currently operates six spunbond lines in Korea. Of these, five are polypropylene-based and one is polyester-based. The company's total capacity is 54,000 tons and its technology includes SMS, SSMMS, bicomponent layers and multilayered material for lighter weight nonwovens.

Worms, Germany-based RKW's Gronau business unit has increased spunbond nonwovens production capacity to satisfy increasing demand for the material in industrial and hygiene markets. In October, a new spunbonded nonwovens line came onstream, representing an investment of 12 million Euro and tripling the unit's capacity of spunbonded nonwovens to 8500 tons per year. The line, supplied by Reifenhaeuser, manufacturers material in weights ranging from 14 to 120 grams per square meter and widths from 2.4 to 3.2 meters.

The Gronau business was founded as the nonwovens division of Amoco Fabrics Europe in 1980 and became a part of RKW in 2002. It produces more than 20,000 tons of polypropylene into carded and spunwoven fabrics as well as laminates and composites.

Akinal, Baspinar, Gaziantep, Turkey, will add a new spunbond line to its operations in an effort to meet growing demand for hygiene products in Turkey and neighboring countries such as Iran and Syria. The new line, developed by Rieter-Perfojet, will be housed in a new building adjacent to Akinal's current spunlace facilities when it comes onstream in late 2005. Akinal's total nonwovens output will reach 140,000 tons following the new installation.
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Title Annotation:Reifenhauser Gesellschaft mit beschraenkter Haftung und Company Maschinenfabrik
Comment:Spunmelt nonwovens roll on: industry deals with supply shortages, pricing pressures and looks to new applications.(Reifenhauser Gesellschaft mit beschraenkter Haftung und Company Maschinenfabrik)
Author:McIntyre, Karen Bitz
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Feb 1, 2005
Previous Article:A clean sweep--is it within reach? household wipes have registered off-the-chart growth in recent years, but now manufacturers will need to innovate...
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