Twenty years after the explosion of Airlaid technology in North America, which led to a long period of excess capacity in the world, the technology is currently experiencing a kind of revival, as new companies seek to enter the market and, using this technology, new applications for Airlaid canvases are being developed. Machine builders are creating new solutions that offer more opportunities in terms of processing types, fiber selection and technology combinations, which, in turn, allows potential customers to get exactly what they need for target niche segments in a number of applications.
Anpap Airlaid, a Finnish company that was at the dawn of Airlaid, was part of the United Paper Mills Walkisoft business unit, and then in Buckeye Technologies, offers Airlaid technology and complete turnkey production lines, starting from the defibrillation stage and ending with the packaging stage of the final products. Anpap engineers have been working in the Airlaid market for more than three decades and during this period have delivered several of the largest installations in the history of Airlaid. Currently, the company reports increased interest in this technology, mainly due to increased attention to natural fibers. Consumers are beginning to understand how important the possibility of recycling is and how important it is to use natural fibers, especially since this technology does not use as much water as in the Wetlaid (wet laying) process.
The new Campen molding technology can be successfully combined with the traditional aerodynamic molding technology, as well as with the systems "meltblown", "spunbond", "wetlaid" and carding. The molding head, which is equipped with an outlet chute through which fluffed cellulose fibers are blown, is usually installed between two meltblown/spunbond/card systems. Further, a continuous stream of cellulose fibers is fed as an intermediate layer between the two reinforcing layers. This is followed by the process of fastening the three-layer material at the customer's choice (compacting, calendering, hydro-entanglement). This technology allows the production of composite nonwoven fabric within a single technological process.
The defibrillation technology offered by Campen offers the possibility of processing algae, straw, hemp, etc. fibers up to 30 millimeters long. Numerous combination possibilities, as well as a wide selection of fibers, allow the use of the new Campen technology for the production of aerodynamic material for napkins and hygiene products, as well as cotton pads, packaging for food and non-food products and much more on one compact and efficient line. Thanks to the new technology of forming Samrep on the line, it is possible to produce a continuous web from various mixtures of fibers and for subsequent dry molding into containers — trays for the non-food and food industry. New trays/containers produced using this technology are 100% composted at home and do not contain plastic at all. They can be made hydrophobic or hydrophilic and at the same time do not contain plastic. Key growing markets for Airlaid include packaging for food and medical products, absorbent liners, biodegradable napkins, disposable tablecloths for catering companies, towels and masks.
Another new technology that combines the components of Airlaid and Spunmelt technology, offers new flexible ways to produce wet and dry wipes while reducing resources and costs. Oerlikon Nonwovens-Teknoweb Materials recently received a license to distribute this technology, known as Phantom, worldwide from its original developer Procter & Gamble. Phantom technology combines a combination of cellulose fibers, long cotton fibers, polymer fibers and SAP superabsorbent powders in one production line. This technology eliminates the process of hydro-entanglement and the drying stage, and also allows you to optimize the corresponding characteristics of the final product, such as softness, strength, speed and ability to absorb liquids.
Mondi, the world leader in packaging and paper production, has developed a new combined line combining carding and Airlaid (CAC) technologies to create a more environmentally friendly three-layer nonwoven fabric for napkins. This line will use cellulose and viscose from certified sources to produce a fully biodegradable nonwoven fabric. The new technology used on the CAC line located at the Mondi plant in Aschersleben, Germany, allows combining three layers into a highly functional and stable composite material that provides optimal absorption and the degree of impregnation with lotions in the production of high-quality biodegradable wipes and uses less resources than comparable monostructures from carded fabrics. This technology makes it possible to produce composite nonwoven fabric conforming to the concept of sustainable development in real time, using the option of hydro-stamping to increase the softness and improve the cleaning ability of the final product.
Manufacturers focus on growth
After many years of problems, line closures and mergers/acquisitions of companies, nonwovens manufacturers are now showing optimism. Georgia-Pacific, which was once a major player in the airline industry, has sold its European venture to Glatfelter and has reportedly closed all but one of its U.S. lines. The remaining 50,000-ton line was purchased from Buckeye Technologies in Gaston, North Carolina. The sale of the European business by G-P, along with an ambitious investment strategy, made Glatfelter the world's largest manufacturer of Airlaid nonwovens, and this company continues to grow in size and scale.
Glatfelter's recent investments include the acquisition of a facility in Steinfurt, Germany, from Georgia-Pacific, as well as the creation of a new facility in Fort Smith, Arkansas. These two investments, which came to fruition at the end of 2018, helped increase the company's Airlaid sales from $311 million to $406 million in 2019. In fact, growth was observed in all key areas of the company related to Airlaid technology, including women's hygiene, special applications, hygiene products used for urinary incontinence in adults.
While feminine hygiene is still the largest segment of the division, its share fell from 63% to 51% in 2019, reflecting the company's continued diversification and growth in markets such as napkins and disposable tablecloths, thanks to the acquisition of Steinfurt and additional facilities in Arkansas.
The production site at Fort Smith, capable of producing 22,000 tons of material per year, was commissioned in mid-2018, which required an investment of $90 million. The new product line has helped Glatfelter meet the growing demand for napkins and substrates produced using "sustainable" technology.
Meanwhile, the recently acquired Glatfelter facility in Steinfurt, Germany, adds approximately 32,000 metric tons to the company's global output. Recent company research shows that the demand for Airlaid materials will remain high, given their wider use in personal hygiene products and the high demand for napkins.
The Institute of Innovation and Research in the Field of Nonwovens (NIRI) has recently invested in Dan-Web technology. NIRI in Leeds, UK, has expanded its extensive prototyping capabilities used by industry consultants and partners around the world by acquiring a new Dan-Web Airlaid machine capable of prototyping prototypes.
Sustainability has been a key factor in NIRI's investment in equipment for prototyping materials by air stacking.The need for this investment is explained by the fact that more and more consumers are studying Airlaid technologies, since they use a high percentage of natural fibers, mainly fluffed cellulose, which is both cost-effective and "sustainable", biodegradable and renewable.
Working with more than 200 companies to develop and improve more than 450 products, to date, NIRI's investments in new aerodynamic equipment have particularly benefited customers in the medical and hygiene sectors, where aerodynamic styling technology is most common. In addition, market information collected over the past few years shows that the filtration and automotive industries are revising Airlaid technology, reducing their dependence on synthetic materials and increasing the sustainability of their products. It is noted that in addition to traditional Airlaid markets such as napkins and hygiene products, the automotive industry is a major market for this technology, especially in the noise insulation segment. The materials of this segment are also made from recycled materials, which ensures compliance with the concept of sustainable development for car manufacturers, as well as lower costs.
In combination with other technologies such as carding, spunmelt, and wetlaid with chemical, thermal, hydro and needle-punching capabilities, NIRI offers experimental equipment for prototyping products in a variety of industries, as well as research and commercial experience to help customers targeting various segments (medicine, hygiene, geotextile, automotive, insulation and filtration), increase the speed of bringing Airlaid products to market.