While he was managing nonwovens research and development at 3M, David Nelson observed an irony surrounding the technology with which he had been involved for 35 of his 40 years at the Minnesota-based powerhouse.
“When I gave updates, I would say, ‘Of our 48 technologies, nonwoven is the only one described by what it isn’t than by what it is,’” he says. “‘Nonwovens’ is not a very sexy term. There’s a lot of effort to rebrand the technology and describe it more as an engineered fabric.”
One could argue that there’s a need for rebranding, especially for people with a history in manufacturing products that use textiles, because advances in nonwoven processes have propelled the capabilities of manufacturers to meet needs for long-lasting and launderable fabrics.
“A barrier we encounter is a market perception that nonwovens are just disposable, low-performance, low-cost materials, which certainly is not the case,” says Stuart Smith, business director of Norafin (Americas) Inc. in Asheville, N.C.
Durable nonwovens from Germany-based Norafin Industries serve a range of markets, including personal protection garments, automotive, aircraft, construction, furniture and bedding.
“The truly durable materials are [Norafin’s] Komanda® nonwovens, which are targeted toward personal protection applications,” Smith says. Komanda has been successfully laundered through more than 300 domestic and 100 industrial wash cycles. Some users just need a product that bridges the gap between one-time use and hundreds of wash cycles.
“If you want something that’s got the durability of five to 20 laundry cycles, that can be engineered into the material,” Smith notes. “You don’t need a fully durable product if it’s only going to be used 10 times.”
Fulfilling specific needs
With more than 80 years of experience in the nonwovens industry, Freudenberg Performance Materials has tailored its technologies to fulfill specific needs of customers, such as bedding products for airline’s cabin crews—an example of an end use where the light weight of nonwovens prevails over other materials.
Headquartered in Weinheim, Germany, and with 25 manufacturing plants in 14 countries, Freudenberg supports a range of applications with durable textiles through its Evolon® microfilament, which it introduced in 1999.
“Durability is part of Evolon’s DNA and is not only about the visual aspect, but also about constant performance,” says chief technology officer (CTO) Frank Heislitz. “It is soft, drapable and much lighter than traditional textiles. At the same time, it provides the strength and isotropy required by durable applications.” It also is printable.
Freudenberg makes durable and launderable nonwovens for apparel interlinings. Additionally, Heislitz says, “Evolon has succeeded in replacing coated woven textiles with high performance and increased comfort” in bedding, including dust mite–proof encasings. And because it absorbs up to 400 percent of its own weight in liquid and dries quickly, it’s also used for incontinence pads that are washable at up to 95 degrees Celsius.
In the packaging market, Evolon offers a soft, smooth and lint-free surface that prevents damage to materials such as painted metallic parts for the automotive industry.
“Every textile container made of Evolon is designed to have the same lifetime as the car model it is used for,” Heislitz says.
Although Freudenberg’s main durable/launderable applications are based on Evolon technology, all of its nonwoven interlinings are launderable.
“We offer specially developed interlinings for post-processing applications, as they have to withstand aggressive mechanical and chemical treatments, such as stone or enzyme wash,” Heislitz says. “These interlinings are particularly durable in terms of abrasion resistance.” Interlinings for work wear withstand more than 50 industrial wash cycles.
Headquartered in Schwarzenbach/Saale, Germany, Sandler AG manufactures durable nonwovens for the transportation and construction industries, environmental applications such as hydroponic supports and sewage pipe liners, room acoustics, bedding and interior design.
“The market for acoustically efficient insulation nonwovens in construction, as well as interior design, is growing, and nonwovens are a relatively new material in these applications,” says Ulrich Hornfeck, board member and chief commercial officer for Sandler AG. “The trend toward lightweight construction and the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels create demand for nonwovens in transportation.”
Sandler’s nonwovens are also used as a support layer for smart fabrics. “Some of our customers use our products or work with us to jointly develop new nonwovens for these applications,” Hornfeck says. The company’s printable nonwovens are used primarily for acoustic office furnishings.
Ends with benefits
“Depending on the area of application, nonwovens replace a variety of materials,” Hornfeck says. “In transportation, they substitute for foam. In filtration, they replace vacuum cleaner bags made of paper or glass-fiber filters. In construction, they substitute for Styrofoam™ or mineral-fiber insulation materials. Nonwovens continue to tap into new areas of application.”
According to Heislitz, nonwovens replace down, foil and foams. “For example, Freudenberg Performance Materials waddings replace down in outdoor gear and sportswear and provide excellent insulation. Our separators are especially safe membranes for batteries, as we constantly improve their density and minimize their porosity,” he says. “Being much lighter than woven fabrics, nonwovens offer higher breathability and higher porosity at the same time.
“Disposable will have its place in the future, especially since nonwovens play a major role in hygiene applications,” Heislitz notes. “Certainly beyond these applications, we see growing demand
A little over a year ago, Freudenberg introduced Evolon 3D, which has been used for sports towels, again capitalizing on the nonwoven’s absorption capacity, as well as its ability to dry two to three times more quickly than conventional towels.
“Ultra-light and compact, towels made from Evolon offer leisure and tourism professionals—the major users of these towels—an important advantage,” Heislitz says, calling sports towels one of the latest breakthroughs for Evolon. Up to five times more Evolon towels can be washed in one maintenance cycle, compared with terry cloth towels traditionally used by fitness clubs and hotels. They can also be equipped with antibacterial properties.
“Eco-friendliness and light weight are increasingly important market requirements,” Heislitz says, adding that producing Evolon requires 400 times less water than the manufacture of cotton. “Evolon was designed as a clean technology with no solvent, chemical binder or PVC used in the production, and with a huge saving of raw materials due to its light weight.”
“From Norafin’s perspective, the growth [in the durable nonwovens market] will be in personal protective equipment,” Smith says. “Longer term, we anticipate broader acceptance and growth in many different markets as the end user gains a greater understanding of what nonwovens can potentially deliver.
“In more than 20 years of technology and product development, we decided to focus on the need for more niche, performance-driven materials targeted at value-added applications.”
Getting it together
“Given the flexibility and engineered performance that nonwoven materials have the potential to deliver, we believe they will play a significant role in smart-fabric developments,” Smith says, adding that Norafin is actively working on smart nonwovens. And with in-house printing capabilities, the company is reaching further into industrial and consumer product applications.
“Personally, I believe we will see an increase in more limited-use materials where the performance and life cycle of the material are custom engineered based on the demands of the end use,” Smith says.
“In terms of technology evolution, Freudenberg is pushing the limits of Evolon,” Heislitz says. “Our R&D specialists focus intensively on extending its range, either with regard to weight or with more technical projects such as composites and special finishes. We are working on increasing its washability and developing a variety of haptics, for example with a 3-D structure.”
Heislitz identifies anti-mite bedding, cleaning wipes and packaging materials
as growth areas for Evolon. “We are able to tailor our technology to the very specific needs of different customers, thanks to the wide range of weights and inherently flexible product properties, and the possibility of enhancing the features of Evolon with all traditional textile finishing processes,” he says.
Hornfeck says there is no competition between disposable and durable end uses.
“In many cases, disposable end uses are useful and reasonable,” he says. “Many of our disposable products can be used in long-term applications.” Examples include synthetic filter media and industrial liners.
While at 3M, Nelson served on the industrial advisory board of The Nonwovens Institute at North Carolina State University for six years, which included three years as chairman. For six years, Nelson served on the board of INDA, the global trade association of the nonwovens industry. Now retired from 3M but still residing in Minnesota, he works part time as assistant director of industry education and engagement for The Nonwovens Institute and has his own take on the growth areas for durable nonwovens (see “Pressing Forward” on page 55).
“I went to a big textiles technology conference last year in Germany,” he says. “What I came away with is that there’s tremendous opportunity for nonwovens to continue to penetrate the market and substitute for—but also be complementary to—conventional textiles.”
Smith agrees. “Our Komanda materials offer high performance, are a cost-effective alternative [to woven textiles] and can be used in conjunction with traditional textiles to improve overall performance,” he says. “I believe there are opportunities for nonwovens to replace or complement all types of traditional textiles.”
“Differentiation is the key to succeed in the nonwovens industry,” Heislitz says. “This means being close to customers and understanding their needs with regard to material performance, service and added value. Translating those demands in tailored solutions is what it takes to win and what is our idea of ‘innovating together.’”
Janice Kleinschmidt is a writer and magazine editor based in San Diego, Calif. For contact information on the sources used in this article, turn to page 78.