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Nonwovens markets expand to meet consumers’ demands

April 1st, 2009 / By: / Advanced Textiles, Feature, Upholstery

Consumers are requesting long-lasting products that are high-performance, cost-conscious and environmentally sound.

Although the concept of a durable nonwoven is not new to the industry, many of the products’ traditional applications have focused on disposable items, such as diapers, hygiene wipes, feminine care products and medical drapes and gowns. But as consumers demand products that are sustainable, perform well and cost less, manufacturers and fabricators of nonwovens are heeding the call.

Nonwovens are starting to put their stamp on categories traditionally dominated by woven textiles, such as military apparel, protective clothing and upholstery. “Nonwovens are penetrating the wovens market because of performance as well as price value,” says Nick Hrinko, marketing director, Americas, for Lenzing Fibers Inc. in Mobile, Ala.

For instance, Norafin GmbH of Allschwil, Switzerland, released Komanda® last fall, a durable spunlace nonwoven designed for the protective apparel market that delivers superior protection against things such as arc flash hazards. “Until now, wash-durable, heat- and flame-resistant protective clothing was usually made of traditional textiles,” says Stuart Smith, American business unit manager for Norafin. “Nonwoven providers were rarely able to bring a long-lasting, wash-durable nonwoven material to the market. Either the product was too heavy or too uncomfortable.”

Although nonwovens may be giving woven fabrics a run for their money in some industry segments, they are not strictly substitutes for traditional woven or knitted fabrics, particularly in clothing applications. Rather, those who work with nonwovens are quick to point out that these are distinctly different materials, with their own unique combination of technical and aesthetic characteristics; nonwovens are engineered fabrics specifically tailored to meet the performance needs of diverse markets.

The advantages of durable nonwovens

Durable nonwovens have been present in a variety of markets for years, but manufacturers are capitalizing on new opportunities within these sectors, thanks to nonwovens’ numerous advantages: absorbency, liquid repellency, light weight, softness, sewability and resistance to abrasion, soil, rot, mildew, bacteria and flames.

Like Norafin, many nonwovens manufacturers are further developing uses within garments—most notably within the health and safety markets. This type of apparel is developed to protect the wearer from chemical and biological hazards, as well as arc flashes, depending upon the garment’s specific application. Additionally, although nonwovens have been used in shoe and leather goods for years, manufacturers are adding an antibacterial treatment to these products.

Linings are another popular nonwoven application. Historically, the main role of nonwovens in linings was for stiffening or shaping of garments, but nonwovens have evolved to provide high-performance linings to enhance personal protection and comfort. For example, nonwovens are used in firefighters’ suits to provide good TPP (thermal protective performance) as well as high THL (total heat loss). Moisture management—particularly moisture vapor within the garment—is also important.

The automobile industry also represents a significant market for nonwoven applications, including car covers, hood liners, floor mats, seating, air bags, engine filters and silencers. “Nonwovens compete with woven fabrics, paper and foam or glass fiber materials for automotive construction,” according to Dr. Dong Zhang of Clarksville, Tenn.-based Textile Research Associates, in a March, 2008 article for Nonwovens Industry. “Continuing trends to minimize costs and reduce weight indicate that nonwovens will likely take share away from these materials.”

In the field of agriculture, farmers find that porous nonwoven ground covers can protect against tough weather conditions such as frost or hail while resisting mildew and rot. In household settings, nonwovens are appearing more frequently in upholstered furniture, window treatments, wall coverings and room dividers.

Developing and researching new possibilities for nonwovens

Manufacturers have developed and continue to research nonwoven fibers and end products that are ushering in a new era of durable products and applications. Lenzing Fibers Inc. has developed Tencel®, “which comes from the newest fiber technology, solvent-spun lyocell,” explains Hrinko. “The technology is an efficient way of manufacturing wood pulp cellulose fibers…that produces a more durable, stronger fiber.”

Tencel features a series of properties that make it ideal for a variety of applications. First, the nanofibrils within Tencel are hydrophilic and optimize absorption of moisture, with excellent cooling properties. Because of its composition, Tencel also inhibits bacteria growth, is chemical free, features controllable fibrillation, offers high tenacity and leaves behind less lint and residue on surfaces.

What’s more, Tencel is eco-friendly, a characteristic that continues to inform more and more specialty fabrics. Tencel is extracted from wood pulp, which comes from tree farms that practice sustainability. The material is also 100 percent biodegradable. Additionally, the solvent used in manufacturing Tencel is recovered up to 99.5 percent.

While Tencel is often used in disposable products such as household and kitchen cleaning wipes, the material has worked its way into longer-lasting applications such as shoe components, flame barriers in beds and food-service towels, “which can be used in soaking stations with sanitizing solution or bleach, washed in a dishwasher or washing machine and are ready to go back into circulation,” Hrinko notes.

Freudenberg Nonwovens of Weinheim, Germany, offers two distinct nonwoven materials ideal for long-term uses. Made of post-consumer recycled plastic drinking bottles, Lutradur® ECO is a thermal-bonded, spunlaid polyester used in wall-covering substrates, as well as carpet backing for residential and commercial settings. Freudenberg’s Evolon®, a polyester microfilament fabric, also features many environmentally friendly properties.

Evolon’s manufacturing process, which has been awarded ISO14001 certification for its environmental management system, is solvent- and binder-free. In addition, the water used during manufacturing is recycled and reused in a closed loop. The lightweight, durable and washable fabric also minimizes the use of raw materials in its construction. Evolon—which can substitute for woven textiles in applications such as curtains and roman shades, carpeting, automotive interiors and signage—boasts high-performing advantages such as particle filtration, thermal insulation, wind resistance, UV protection and high absorbency

In addition to commercial and residential markets, nonwovens have emerged in military applications. NanoSynTex Inc. of Morristown, Tenn., is working with the U.S. Marine Corps to produce a multilayer composite nonwoven fabric for use in combat uniforms to replace woven uniform material. Currently under development, the product aims for excellent performance, high tear strength, durability, comfort and breathability, all while reducing lifecycle costs. The fabric also provides water absorbency on the inside and water repellency on the outside. The U.S. Army has also reportedly incorporated activated-carbon, molecular sieves within multilayer nonwovens to remove biological or chemical agents.

Nonwovens manufacturers are aiming to create textiles that can pull double duty. Developed by the Nonwovens Innovation & Research Institute (NIRI) in Leeds, United Kingdom, Hydrospace™ spunlaced fabrics have internal cavities that can be embedded with gels, cosmetics, detergents or solid particles, turning the products into functional devices. According to the NIRI team, potential applications include filtration of blood, air, oil and gas; acoustic and thermal insulation; and protective clothing, shields and blinds.

Manufacturers promote the advantages of nonwovens

As manufacturers pour additional R&D dollars into nonwovens, they are simultaneously targeting traditional woven fabrics markets by promoting nonwoven textiles’ distinct advantages. “Compared to more traditional materials, nonwovens often have an advantage with regard to their surface weight, the material’s comfort and its performance,” Smith says. “The combination of those very important aspects provides a clear benefit to the user.”

Specifically, Norafin believes that Komanda’s lightweight characteristics will help keep the product competitive with woven fabrics. “If we measure the performance of the material using ATPV [arc thermal performance value], Norafin’s Komanda material has an equivalent ATPV to the currently used woven materials while weighing 30 percent less,” Smith notes. “In other words, its ATPV performance would be about 40 percent better at the same weight.”

Another advantage that nonwovens may have over wovens is cost effectiveness. “The composition of nonwovens can be produced at a lower cost than other textiles,” notes Abby Bailey, a spokesperson for EDANA, an international association based in Brussels, Belgium, serving the nonwovens and related industries. Specifically for nonwovens, the cost effectiveness comes from the speed of production, cost-effectiveness of energy and raw material use and shortening of logistics and production steps. In producing a nonwoven material, there is a single step from the fiber or polymer to the fabric.

The nonwovens industry is also hoping to expand its products and market share by exploring new opportunities using nanotechnology. As it has shown in many other industries, nanotechnology can potentially enhance the value, efficiency and performance of nonwovens. “Using nanofibers for filtration, for instance, means that you can capture a lot with the fabric … and prevent a lot more particles from passing through,” Bailey says. For example, a Danish company called Fibertex A/S has launched a project designed to develop nano-nonwovens, whose benefits could potentially include improving the mechanical and functional properties of the fibers to produce environmentally friendly and fire-retardant materials.

Like any industry, nonwovens are not without their challenges. “In certain areas, price pressure is growing as mass markets are extending,” Smith says. “An appropriate price-performance ratio is certainly needed in the entire industry.”

Lenzing’s Steve Jones, sales director, Americas, also sees raw material price pressure as a potential challenge, along with demand/supply issues and producing environmental products efficiently. For instance, the last few years have seen wild swings in fiber pricing and availability in the U.S., particularly with regard to Asian imports.

According to Jones, 2008 saw a complete reversal in the Asian supply situation due to the problems of the global textile industry, with rayon prices tumbling during the course of the year. “With total Chinese fiber production down by 20 percent in 2008 and inventories becoming depleted, history suggests that the market is poised for a new realignment in global rayon pricing over the next 12 to 18 months,” Jones says.

However, touting the cost effectiveness of nonwovens over woven fabrics can sometimes be detrimental to the industry. As one insider puts it, “The tendency to think of all nonwovens as a low-cost alternative to traditional textiles overlooks their true potential.”

As it continues to invest wholeheartedly in continuing research and development, the nonwovens industry is poised for great success. “There will be an interesting and exciting future for technical applications,” Smith predicts. “Often, it is the combination of several layers/composite constructions with the appropriate after-treatment option that allows manufacturers to create interesting product novelties.”

Holly O’Dell is a Minnesota-based freelance writer.

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