The nonwoven fabrics industry is incorporating ideas from other industries to create new, technologically advanced materials that include antimicrobial fabrics that repel bacteria, mold and mildew; enhanced acoustic materials for improved sound and silence; and improved military uniforms that provide better protection from chemicals and fires. Nonwoven fabrics are generally made by heating fibers mixed with liquids and bonding them into a thin flat sheet. Other processes include bonding and/or interlocking extruded fibers by mechanical, chemical, thermal, solvents or a combination of these methods. The industry provides materials for a wide variety of uses and industries and is generally comprised of seven major product groups, as shown in the chart below.
Wet laid nonwoven fabrics account for the largest portion of the nonwoven fabric industry. Similar to the process used to manufacture paper, wet laid nonwoven fabrics are produced when staple fibers, water and other raw materials are made into slurry, similar to pulp. The liquid is then extracted, and the remaining content is oven-dried. The final products are made into a variety of products including apparel, medical packs and filters. This segment of the industry has seen some increases in demand, primarily at the expense of another nonwoven category, spunbonded nonwoven fabrics.
Spunbonded nonwoven fabrics are typically strong and durable and are primarily used for the manufacture of medical and hygiene products, automotive and furniture applications, and geotextile and roofing markets. These fabrics are manufactured by melting and spinning polymers, they are then cooled and bonded into the final fabric.
Carded nonwoven fabrics are made from staple fibers which are carded, sometimes referred to as combed, prior to heating and bonding. This process is also referred to as “dry laid”. Final products that use carded nonwoven fabrics include wipes, hygiene products and filters.
Pressed or needled felts are fabricated by hooking and entangling fibers, which are then compressed to form the fabric. These fabrics are primarily used in the furniture, filtering and automotive industries.
The markets for nonwoven fabric can be broken down into six major areas: medical supplies, exports, construction and agriculture, automotive, apparel and other. The following chart summarizes these segments based on estimated market share from 2009.
The health and medical products manufacturing industry is the largest market for nonwoven fabrics. Products manufactured in this segment include medical supplies, medical gowns, hygiene masks, wipes, packaging blankets, hygiene products, adult incontinence products and wrapping. After further manufacturing by downstream processors, the finished products are sold to wholesalers, hospitals, medical facilities and retailers. This segment is growing as the types of products the industry produces increase, new products are developed, demand for convenient and hygienic products strengthen, and the population ages.
Exports are also increasing, primarily due to strong demand for high–quality nonwoven products from manufacturers in China, Canada and Mexico. The industry has successfully developed export markets by using product differentiation and taking advantage of technology advancements. Overall, exports are projected to rise an average rate of 4.7%, from $1.26 billion in 2004 to $1.58 billion in 2009. The focus on exporting high value-added or technical products has helped the nonwoven fabrics industry compete with less expensive imports from lower labor cost countries. This export-oriented focus and the technical nature of many of the industry’s products have kept average profit margins high.
Similar to many other industries, declines in construction and automotive manufacturing have also impacted this industry. The construction industry utilizes a variety of nonwoven fabric products. Insulation, certain roofing products, geotextile applications, road bedding fabrics and filters all contain nonwoven fabrics. Automotive manufacturers utilize nonwoven fabrics in roof linings, engine insulation, trunk linings, air filters and for many other applications. Engineered nonwoven fabrics are durable and cost effective, as well as visually attractive and easily customized. However, the share of nonwoven fabrics used by the construction and automotive industries decreased in 2008 and 2009 along with the economy.
Protective clothing manufacturing, particularly against fire and chemicals, is the major driver of the apparel manufacturing market for nonwoven fabrics. Nonwoven fabrics are also used to manufacture surgical gowns, masks, hairnets and footies, as well as for protective clothing worn when applying pesticides, manufacturing electronics, producing chemicals and in all laboratories. Demand for these products is dependent on the general economy, industry specific demand, and, to a certain extent, some seasonal demand.
Other products sold include various felt and carpet products, packaging, ribbons, home furnishings, wrappings, covers and labels, among others.
For domestic manufacturers, the technological properties of nonwoven fabrics are essential. The ability to meet strict customer specifications as to absorbency, strength, color, denier and other requirements is critical in order to generate enough demand to keep nonwoven lines operating at full capacity and generate sufficient return on the substantial investment manufacturing lines require.
Technological change and product development within the nonwoven fabric industry is high. Many firms invest in the research and development of new products that offer performance improvements over existing goods. This has created a need to develop new technologically advanced equipment and machinery to manufacture these new products.
As previously mentioned, there are a variety of technological means used to manufacture nonwovens given the wide spectrum of products with diverse properties. Over the last five years, technology has focused on improving specific nonwoven functions such as absorbency, liquid repellency, resilience, stretch, softness, strength and flame resistance. In addition, research and development has focused on improving washability, cushioning, filtering, bacterial barriers and sterility. These technological properties are often combined to create fabrics suited for specific niche markets or to help products achieve a good balance between product use-life and cost.
The ability of the industry to gain a competitive advantage is based on implementing new technologies to develop and manufacture nonwoven fabrics. This should incentivize developers of manufacturing technology to invest in new research that would lead to an increase in the number of new, practical applications for nonwovens and demand for them.
The future of the nonwoven fabrics industry depends on its participants’ ability to continue the development of new products and to manufacture them more efficiently than foreign competition. It is anticipated that manufacturers will be subject to greater global pressure to produce high quality fabrics at lower costs. In 2010, industry revenues are expected to continue the decline that began in 2008; however, as the global economy recovers, it is anticipated that industry revenue will increase for the years 2011 through 2014 at an average rate of 2.8%.
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