The future of Airlaid nonwovens until 2027

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The future of Airlaid nonwovens until 2027

Capitalizing on the concept of sustainable development, the use of heavier base materials and manageable capacities are key challenges for the Airlaid market.

Airlaid nonwovens are on an attractive growth trajectory.

The volume of sales in the market is expected to exceed $2 billion for the first time in 2022. Further increases are then projected at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.7%, which will raise the total market value to $2.93 billion by 2027 at comparable prices. Over the same period, the consumption of nonwovens with aerodynamic styling will increase from 574,800 tons to 768,800 tons, which is equivalent to an average annual growth rate of 6% in the period from 2022 to 2027.

Sustainable potential

Stability is one of the main factors stimulating the wider use of Airlaid nonwovens produced using aerodynamic styling technology. Three-quarters of the raw material base for Airlaid materials is fluffed cellulose produced from coniferous trees. Such cellulose is characterized by biodegradability and is one of the cheapest raw materials used in nonwovens. Like any other industrial process, the production of Airlaid nonwovens requires energy, primarily natural gas, but it is one of the least energy-intensive technologies for the production of nonwovens, which uses relatively little water and chemical processing additives.

Airlaid market share by raw materials in 2022

Airlaid material is a powerful solution for brands seeking to reduce their environmental impact, including legal requirements for flushable napkin bases. Legislative norms introduced by many countries and innovations contribute to further reduction of the use of polymers in the production of nonwovens.

Environmental friendliness is particularly attractive in some major end-use segments, especially in feminine hygiene products (35.8% of the market in 2022 by weight), napkins (23.6%), disposable tablecloths (13.6%) and food absorbent pads (9.2%). These are all consumer disposable consumer applications. In the household and industrial segment, Airlaid nonwoven fabric occupies a much smaller share with limited use of such sub-segments as car interior air filters, fire-resistant barrier fabrics for furniture, mattresses and interior decoration, as well as clothing and liquid filtration.

Airlaid materials of Heavy base weights

Several companies dominate in the supply of the considered materials of traditional base weights from 40 to 300 g/m², on average in the range of 70-80 g/m². After acquiring the Airlaid business of Georgia Pacific and Jacob Holm in 2021, Glatfelter currently controls about 30% of the global Airlaid production capacity - more than the other five manufacturers present on the market combined. Another limitation is that Airlaid materials have a steep technological barrier to market entry.; Fiberweb Italy, Danish Airlaid Technology and Lacell have failed trying to gain a foothold in this market in the last decade.

Currently, a new potential has been identified for heavier materials produced by the aerodynamic stacking method, in the range of 500-1500 g/m. The main end-use areas for them are packaging, insulation and molded consumer goods. The segment of heavier substrates is an easier market for new firms, since they do not impose strict identical requirements for base weight and density control.

The Airlaid market currently occupies a small segment of the nonwovens market (6.8% by weight in 2022), although there is a tendency to increase demand. In packaging, Airlaid is used due to its protective and insulating properties, for example, in cases of delivery of goods with the need for temperature regulation and control, where it is a more stable alternative to existing plastic materials. The same qualities help these new materials penetrate the residential and industrial insulation market instead of expanded polystyrene or other foams.

Molded consumer goods is another new market for Airlaid, driven by the desire to replace single-use plastic in products such as food trays, cutlery and cup lids.

Airlaid Market Capacity

Another serious task for the Airlaid segment for the next five years is to create suitable capacities to meet the emerging demand. Airlaid is the smallest of the major nonwovens markets in 2022 and has the toughest demand-capacity ratio, estimated at 92%. In 2022, 34 major airlaid manufacturers and 24 minor manufacturers with 90 commercial lines and a nominal capacity of 624,800 tons of products define the Airlaid nonwovens industry.

New capacities are being added with the launch of a new production line for Airlaid multilayer materials in 2022 by EAM/Domtar, although no other major capacity increases have been announced. The introduction of new capacities should also be balanced with the closure of old, less efficient lines. This principle is connected with the experience of previous years, when due to the massive increase in Airlaid capacity (+37% in one year) in the early 2000s, there was a subsequent collapse in prices for these materials and the bankruptcy of many companies. Thus, over the next five years, investments in new Airlaid lines will continue to be below the existing growth rates of demand. The demand-to-capacity ratio is projected to increase further to 94% in 2027. In contrast, the expansion of the Airlaid heavy base weights market is happening at a faster pace, with dedicated lines in commercial production for each of the emerging end-use areas.

When considering Airlaid nonwovens, four leading aerodynamic stacking processes are usually considered: a combination of several methods of bonding Airlaid (binder + thermal bonding = MBAL); Airlaid with latex binder (LBAL), Airlaid thermal bonding (fluffed cellulose and binding fibers = TBAL) and Airlaid HBAL (fluffed cellulose followed by thermal calendering at a certain pressure)

MBAL is the most flexible of the Airlaid processes. It can be used for the production of LBAL or TBAL; and in some cases, for the production of HBAL with some modernization of the line design. In 2022, TBAL will account for just over half of global consumption by weight. However, MBAL is also the most technically complex process and has the highest capital costs.

TBAL will have the greatest growth: in 2027, demand is projected to more than double compared to 2021. TBAL lines are cheaper to operate and provide superior embossing quality on finished products; and this is the technology that is best suited to meet the demand for new heavier substrates for applications such as insulation materials produced by sustainable technology and molded consumer goods.

Entry into the Airlaid project should be based on an exclusive set of market data, segmented by the Airlaid processes discussed above, input raw materials, final use of the material and geographical location of sales markets. The current and future prospects of the Airlaid market should additionally be contextualized by a detailed study of emerging markets, regulatory and technological developments, as well as profiles of the world's leading manufacturers.

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