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The Scene Around Europe.: New column explores the ever-changing nonwovens industry abroad. (European Scene).

I was born in the county of Kent, known as the "Garden of England" and so I am by birth English. Unlike some of my fellow British citizens, I am also a committed European, as I believe that the U.K. is logically a part of Europe (technically it was many years ago). I am therefore understandably very pleased to be invited to write you an occasional note on nonwovens from a European point of view.

Initially, I would like to establish what actually constitutes 'Europe' with respect to nonwovens activity. EDANA, the European Disposables and Nonwovens Association, Brussels, Belgium, has been producing annual statistics covering nonwovens industries activity in Europe for a number of years. These statistics cover the countries that make up 15 European countries (Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Spain, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Austria, Portugal, Finland, Sweden and the U.K.). In addition EDANA records data from Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

Data, based on the EDANA statistics, and published in Europe, shows that production of nonwovens in the year 2000 exceeded one million tons, representing an 11% increase over 1999. Corresponding data published by INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, Cary, NC, for North America indicated that production was in this region 945,000 tons, representing a more modest 4% growth.

In Europe the major production locations are Germany and Italy, which between them accounted for almost half of the total production last year. Growth in Italy in recent years has been particularly strong, increasing from 104,000 tons in 1995 to 252,000 tons in 2000. Therefore it could be claimed that the situation in Europe is buoyant and encouraging, but it does appear that there may be significant shifts in some areas of the business scenario in the near future.

Although there is an export and import business activity in nonwovens, the major share of our European nonwovens production is directed at markets within Europe. More than 30% of that production is consumed in the hygiene products sector, which is largely affected by demographic changes. Table 1 illustrates the population changes predicted for Europe, according to the Eurostat data (published by the European Commission).

As the products normally covered by the absorbent hygiene sector are baby diapers, feminine hygiene and adult incontinence products, the population changes will have an impact, with a shrinking baby and feminine hygiene customer base and a large increase in the older population, which is usually considered to contain a significant proportion of the adult incontinence sufferers.

The Changing European Scene

Europe is expanding, both in an official sense with a number of countries preparing to apply for membership as well as in the sense that we are taking a much deeper interest in countries that used to be considered part of Eastern Europe and were largely closed off from the West. In addition, there is increasing activity in those countries that border the Middle East and Asia.

One example of this spread of nonwoveas activity is Turkey. Production of nonwovens in Turkey, according to a recent article by a writer from the Istanbul Technical University, puts the annual production at 110,000 tons. The most widely used web forming methods are carding with crosslapping, while needlepunching and thermal bonding emerge as the dominant bonding methods. Additionally, two hydroentanglement lines have been installed, and although spunlaid technology has commanded a significant amount of recent attention, it still only accounts for 16% of the total nonwovens production. A major problem experienced by Turkey, which is common in other emerging production centers, has been the lack of experienced personnel. This is potentially a major constraint for any emerging operations in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

The Challenge of Change

The original nonwovens business is now quite mature in so far as it can readily produce products to meet requirements of a uniform web profile, adequate strength, correct permeability and other factors. However, user requirements from end products that use nonwovens are placing more emphasis on characteristics that are less easy to define such as softness, comformability and specific properties such as recyclability, flame retardency and antimicrobial characteristics.

The change has been accentuated by a major shift from a technology-led cycle to a market requiring innovation where the product user has much more specific end use requirements and expects the nonwovens producer to interpret these specific requirements in terms of the raw materials and technologies at their disposal to produce cost efficient products designed to meet the users' new specifications.

Unfortunately, these required changes cannot easily be met with many of the currently installed production systems. This in part explains the flurry of activities announced by nonwovens producers, both here in Europe and in North America, of investments in new equipment and very large upgrades of production systems, despite a significant overcapacity in a number of key areas such as spunlaid and hydroentanglement.

Change In The Absorbent Hygiene Products Sector

In Europe, as in North America, absorbent hygiene products represent a major consumption of nonwoven materials and consequently, exert a disproportionately large influence on the nonwovens business as a whole. For some time now there has been much talk of major changes in the production technology employed for the production of these products.

If such changes were to occur, they would have far reaching effects. The concept is to change from the current 'assembly line' system, where raw materials and component webs are brought together in an assembly line to produce products nominally one at a time, albeit at a fast rate of output.

Changes have already been evident in the production of feminine hygiene products and, more recently, in the adult incontinence segment, where pre-formed core materials have been used in place of individually formed fluff pulp. A number of major web producers are now offering core materials and more complex composite webs to this market. It therefore seems quite feasible that the claimed cost efficiencies and product design improvements that are possible with this new technology will prove very attractive to absorbent product producers despise the need to redesign and re-equip production lines.

If this is the case, it is likely that the currently used nonwoven materials (principally spunlaid polypropylene topsheets and spunlaid cloth-like back sheets) will no longer be required.

Combining these changes with the availability of new raw materials such as Naarden, The Netherlands-based Dow Cargill's PLA, Wilmington, DE-based DuPont's; "Sorona" polymer should lead to the development of new superabsorbent materials. Some of these will be fiber-like, and it can be seen that. thin, highly functional composite materials will be possible.

Whether the European nonwovens producers (or for that matter, the North American producers) are ready to accommodate such changes is yet to be seen and in the light of recent tragic events in the U.S. and the implications throughout the world, it is doubly hard to predict.

Colin White is a well known nonwovens industry veteran and principal of consulting firm MCW Technologies. Based in Cumbria, U.K., Mr. White specializes in wetlaid, thermal bonded and air-laid technologies. He can be reached by telephone at 44-1228-562-831; Fax: 44-1228-561-965; E-mail: cwhite46l7@aol.com.
Table 1

EUROPEAN POPULATION FIGURES

 Year 2000 Year 2020

Total Population 388.4 billion 393.7 billion
Infants 0-4 years 20.9 billion 18.8 billion
Females 15 - 49 years 94.7 billion 83.1 billion
Population over 65 years 62.9 billion 81.4 billion
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Comment:The Scene Around Europe.: New column explores the ever-changing nonwovens industry abroad. (European Scene).
Author:White, Colin
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:4EU
Date:Dec 1, 2001
Words:1234
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