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The highloft market: a series of unanswered questions.

The Highloft Market: A Series Of Unanswered Questions Defining a product is an issue that must be tackled before market analysis and growth projections can be attempted. In the area of highloft nonwovens, the former is slightly more difficult than the latter. While it is accepted that fiberfill for bedding, comforters, pillows and furniture are highloft products, a variety of other fabrics fit into the definition of highloft as well.

Or do they? This definition has remained as elusive as does an accepted term for "nonwoven" itself. There have been many attempts to categorizea highloft fabric according to its "loft" or "density" and several attempts have been made to actually define loft, but the general understanding still remains blurred. Industry consultant and Nonwovens Industry columnist Tom Holliday suggested that a highloft fabric could be considered as "any fiber structure containing more air than fiber."

Dr. Edward Vaughn, of Clemson University, suggested in a paper in the Fall, 1989 issue of the INDA Journal of Nonwovens Research that "highloft be based on the weight per cube of all solid components plus the entrapped air--something analogous to the specific volume or the reciprocal of volume density." In the same issue of the JNR, consultant George Jordan disagreed, raising the question of "whether we should prefer the definition of loft as batt volume per unit weight as opposed to some value related to batt volume per unit volume of fibers in the batt." (For the complete discussion of defining highloft, see the JNR, Fall 1989).

Another difficulty with a definition results in the fact that there is no typical "highloft" nonwoven process or "highloft" raw material. A manufacturer can use the same fibers, binders and nonwoven process to make two different fabrics, one of which is a highloft fabric and one of which is not. "The definition of highloft comes from its end characteristics," Mr. Holliday told Nonwovens Industry. "The process and raw materials aren't what matters.

Defining An Undefined Market

Without an accepted definition of the market, it proves a formidable task to monitor its growth; however, there are some accepted facets of the highloft industry whose growth is measurable. Polyester fiberfill, considered a major component of the highloft industry, has posted slow but steady growth in recent years.

Polyester fiberfill shipments in the third quarter of 1989 were 79.2 billion pounds, dropping sharply from the second quarter figure of 94 million pounds and from the comparable 1988 period of 92.9 million pounds. For the first nine months, fiberfill sales were 263.2 million pounds, according to figures in Fiber Organon.

Independent figures were also available. "Domestic shipments of fiberfill through October, 1989 were 294 million pounds," said Dean Belcher, strategic marketing manager for fiberfill at DuPont, Wilmington, DE, a major supplier of polyester fiber for fiberfill. Despite the significant volume, he refers to the industry as relatively static. "Although there was a large jump from 1986 to 1987, in 1987 shipments were 349 million pounds; in 1988, they were 351 million pounds. This year (1989) is projected about the same."

Another major supplier, Hoechst Celanese, Charlotte, NC, also reported slight increases in the past few years. "The polyester fiberfill business has averaged about 3% annual growth in the past five years," said Chris O'Connor, director of the highloft business at H-C. "If you don't include furniture, it falls to about 2-1/2%.

These figures, however, represent only first quality polyester, not off-quality or regenerated fibers also used in fiberfill. "Numerous figures are published periodically regarding the amount of fiber consumed and typical end uses...," said Dr. Vaughn. "Some of these data show the total sales of polyester fiberfill to be as low as 305 million pounds and as high as 510 million pounds for 1987 ... Most of these fiber sales figures, however, do not include off-quality and regenerated polyester fiber. Some do not include binder fibers or other types of fibers that may be used in a blend."

Dr. Vaughn and Mr. Holliday collaborated on a chart of polyester fiberfill shipments based on all grades of the fiber (See the JNR, Fall 1989). According to them, usage of polyester fibers in highloft products totalled 421 million pounds in 1988 and is projected at 493 million pounds in 1991.

Despite the fact that the industry may not be growing by leaps and bounds, the polyester suppliers remain optimistic about the possibilities of new niche markets developing, as well as gaining market share from other related markets. "The industry is changing," said Mr. O'Connor, of H-C. "Where it used to a filling fiber that was not very sophisticated, now a lot more sophisticated product is being developed. Products are changing also in that there are developments in crimping, levels of resiliency and changes in design."

DuPont's Mr. Belcher was also optimistic. "Part of 1989's slowdown may be attributed to a slowdown in the furniture business," he said. Although it was strong in the first half of 1989, it slowed considerably in the second half. However, we feel it is going to continue to grow and one of these years there's going to be a pretty good jump. The question is when."

"In the past 10 year period," Mr. Belcher added, "the market has grown from 240 to 350 million pounds a year domestically, which is better than most fibers have done in that same time frame."

Part of future growth may come at the hands of other markets, such as foam in furniture applications. "Growth should come from both new markets and current markets expanding," said Mr. Belcher. "We may get a portion of the foam furniture business. Because this is such a large market, even a small part would have a big impact. New markets in insulation and filtration will probably also be uncovered."

A segment of highloft not always considered part of the highloft business is the pulp market. Merfin, Vancouver, British Columbia, is involved in pulp-based highloft products that target markets from industrial wipes and wet wipes to absorbent core materials that may be used as a component in adult incontinence pads. "We are not competing with wet laid products," said James Westphal, of Merfin. "We are, however, looking at highloft materials that have high absorbency and retention and the ability to get quicker wicking."

The Battle Of The Binders

Chemical binder suppliers, likewise, are continuing work on improving their products for the highloft markets. National Starch and Chemical, Bridgewater, NJ, has a variety of polyvinyl acetate products for the fiberfill and related lines and plans to introduce a new product by the middle of 1990. "The market is becoming more segmented," said Howard Katz, marketing manager-nonwovens and textiles, "and we are working on designing products specific to the process the customer is using."

Another binder supplier, Sequa Chemicals, Chester, SC, is also concentrating on new developments. "New niches are developing," said marketing manager Kim Deacon, "although these are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. There is a need for binder improvement in particular applications.

"It's not just a question of developing new binders, though," Mr. Deacon added. "It's also how to compete with thermal bonded polyester. A binder with certain characteristics could be opening new markets rather than simply depending on current ones expanding."

Mr. O'Connor, of Hoechst Celanese, also commented on the move towards thermal bonding. "There is a trend right now to increase usage of thermal bonding because of disposal problems and less down time during clean up. Resin bonding will not disappear, though," he added.

"Thermal bonding is growing faster," said Mr. Katz, "but it is a newer technology. This means it is different, not necessarily better. The market growth is large enough that the amount of latex used is still growing, at a remarkable level, about 5% a year."

Through The Looking Glass

According to Mr. Holliday, the glass highloft market is larger in volume (pounds) than all segments of the nonwovens business combined. He estimates that more than one billion pounds of glass highloft nonwovens were sold in 1989. Yet the glass manufacturers are not considered, nor do some of them consider themselves, part of the highloft industry.

Producers of glass highloft products for filtration are encouraged about the future, although, again, growth remains evolutionary. "Most new products are modifications of a theme," said Bob Burkhead, president, American Air Filter, Louisville, KY. American Air Filter is involved in glass filtration from inexpensive throwaway home filters to high quality clean room filters. "The materials we use can do certain things," said Mr. Burkhead. "We can be creative, pleat it differently, but it's all a manipulation of what's there now."

From 1987 to 1988 there was a sharp increase--about 20%--in glass air filtration, according to Norm Scheffel, sales and marketing manager, Manville Corp., Denver, CO, but from 1988 to 1989 the market remained relatively flat. "During 1990, there should be a slight increase, perhaps 5-6% worldwide," said Mr. Scheffel. "We expect Europe to be stronger than domestic." Manville is involved in wet laid filtration as well as the lower efficiency dry laid filtration. "The dry laid highloft materials market has been stronger consistently since 1987 and should continue to grow more rapidly than the higher efficiency wet laid filters," said Mr. Scheffel.

The Environmental Questions

Environmental concerns are always on the minds of nonwovens suppliers. The highloft market is no exception.

Chemical binders are the main target on environmentalists' hit lists and the binder suppliers are certainly aware of the growing problem. "Environmental restrictions are becoming stricter," said Michael O'Brien, sales manager at Sequa. "Effluents are the problem. Even when they are harmless, they are looked upon with jaundiced eyes, especially in metropolitan areas."

While Mr. Katz, of National Starch, agreed that the potential problem of effluents is a growing concern, he looked on it as an opportunity. "This is an opportunity for a company like National Starch to demonstrate to the government and to the environmentalists that the product is not hazardous," he said. "We know the market, we can use our resources to help the customer tackle the problem. It is more a perceived problem than an actual one and we are helping customers deal with it effectively. I cannot think of one situation where a regulatory matter has caused a change of decision about a latex binder. It's simply a matter of education and information."

Polyester and pulp suppliers, likewise, are taking steps toward environmentally acceptable solutions. "We are trying to figure out how to recycle," said Mr. Belcher, of DuPont. "That will be a factor down the road somewhere, perhaps in the foam or glass replacement areas."

In the pulp industry, the possibilities of recycled products have yet to be addressed, said Mr. Westphal, of Merfin. "We are examining the use of environmentally friendly products. We are looking at chlorine-free products and CTMP pulps. These may have lower brightness, but better acceptance among consumers."

Environmental concerns are also prevalent among glass highloft manufacturers, although in this segment there is less of a targeted problem. "There is a fear, whether warranted or not," said Mr. Burkhead, of American Air Filter, "of glass fiber being hazardous."

Most seemed to feel it was an unwarranted fear. "Polyester may replace glass if glass is considered hazardous," said Mr. Belcher. "However, this is not a major problem now."

Mr. Scheffel of Manville concurred. "Glass fibers are not a health issue," he said. "Inhalation studies have been done worldwide. Any that are inhaled can be dissolved in bodily fluids."

From Oven Mitts To Parade Floats

"Highloft markets extend beyond basic fill pads into filters, insulation, geotextiles, protection fabrics, cleaning goods, containment fabrics, health care and agricultural products," Mr. Holliday said in a paper on highloft nonwovens given at the most recent INDA highloft conference last year.

Indeed, niche markets are certainly developing and the actual range of highloft materials around us is practically unending. Products ranging from basic apparel and home furnishings end uses to applications as diverse as oven mitts and pot holders, Christmas decorations, material used in parade floats, cosmetics and cleaning pads only partially complete the big picture of the highloft market.

The fact that highloft is so difficult to define as a market certainly has not stopped any suppliers and manufacturers from developing new products and niche markets. Sequa has developed a binder for use in waterbed baffles and continues work on "a soft and slippery binder" to give a softer feel to a chemically bonded fiber. "Permaloft," a springier, higher priced binder for more specialized applications introduced last year, is growing in acceptance.

Merfin has been experimenting with combinations of cellulose and synthetic pulp, although it is currently using 100% cellulose sulphite processed fluff pulp. "We are also embossing products to increase bulk and produce very attractive clothlike attributes," said Mr. Westphal.

While apparel fiberfill has always been National Starch's forte, it is now concentrating more on industrial markets such as filtration and furniture.

As the computer industry becomes more clean air conscious, Mr. Scheffel, of Manville, sees computer rooms requiring higher grade air filters. Other growth areas he suggested are clean rooms for aseptic packaging such as perishable foods, providing a bacteria-free environment and less reliance on preservatives; clean benches with higher grade filters within specific work areas in clean rooms, especially important in genetic engineering; office buildings, where higher efficiency filters would help prevent lost time for illnesses such as sick building syndrome; and doctor's offices, for reduced bacteria count.

American Air Filter is manufacturing a diffusion media in paint spray booths for automotive applications. Mr. Burkhead reported the company also buys highloft nonwovens for auto roll filters, pads and bulk media.

A seven-hole pillow line, "Quallofil" and "Quallofirm," is new from DuPont. The new line represents an improvement over the previous four-hole design. DuPont is also manufacturing "Comforel" fiberballs or clusters that are used for top-of-the-line pillow stuffing.
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Title Annotation:defining highloft and fiberfill products
Author:Noonan, Ellen
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Feb 1, 1990
Previous Article:American Filtration Society experiencing major growth.
Next Article:Another landmark along the way.

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