Investments in Meltblown in 2022 continue
As the demand for meltblown in the masks and respirators market decreases, manufacturers of this non-woven material see opportunities for growth in the segments of air filtration, sorbents and napkins.
The shortage of nonwovens produced using the meltblown technology at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 has led to an unprecedented rate of investment in the material over the past two years. As governments around the world tried to acquire face masks, respirators and the meltblown itself - the main functional layer of these products - nonwoven fabric manufacturers and newcomers to the industry began to organize national production of these goods, which, before COVID-19, were mainly produced in Asia. Today, when hundreds of new meltblown lines are put into operation around the world, supply exceeds demand.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the meltblown nonwovens market was much smaller than it is today. According to a special study of this market segment "The Future of meltblown nonwovens until 2026", published by Smithers in the fourth quarter of 2021, in 2019 Smithers estimated the global meltblown market at 207,400 metric tons; in 2020 it increased to 367,800 metric tons. The main end uses in 2019 were filtration (excluding face masks): 44.1%, sorbents (mainly petroleum products): 16.9% and insulation (both acoustic and thermal insulation): 13.9%.
In 2020, the situation has changed: face masks: 33.1%, other medical products: 16% and filtration: 26.7%. In 2022, Smithers predicts filtration: 42.2%, insulation: 15.4%, sorbents: 15.1% and face masks: 10%.
In 2019, the demand for face masks was about 14,400 metric tons, whereas in 2020 it was 121,800 metric tons, and today it is estimated at 26,600 metric tons. According to Phil Mango, Smithers: "Although this is only about 22% of the demand for face masks in 2020, it is about 185% of the demand for the same masks by the end of 2019. We predict that the demand for face masks will remain above historical demand until 2026.
In qualitative terms, the Smithers agency believed that the global supply and demand of the meltblown meteriales were relatively balanced before the pandemic in 2019. "Today the supply significantly exceeds the demand," adds Mango. "While some investments may be justified by government incentives to accumulate strategic materials, most of them are not justified."
According to Enrico Buriani, CEO of Advanced Textile Solutions-Nonwovens, RadiciGroup, before the pandemic, the production volumes of meltblown were not particularly large - they accounted for 5% of the total number of nonwovens in the world. In Europe, meltblown was mainly produced for use in the industrial sector, such as filtration, but not for face masks. "Then, in 2020, meltblown manufacturers switched their production to meet the demand for protective equipment, in addition to additional investments in new production units," he says. "Later, newcomers such as RadiciGroup decided to enter this market."
Today, according to Buriani, there is an excess of meltblown, although not all production lines installed during the pandemic are able to meet the highest quality requirements, for example, designed for FFP2/FFP3 or industrial filtration sector.
RadiciGroup announced its additional investments in a production line for the production of nonwovens using meltblown technology in January 2021. Maurizio Radici, vice president and chief operating officer of the company, cited the lack of mltblown production in Europe as one of the reasons why the company invested in this technology.
The ultramodern RadiciGroup melt blowing line was supplied by Oerlikon Nonwovens. "This line is very complex and flexible," says Buriani. "The line is equipped with two extruders, which gives high productivity in combination with the possibility of setting different process modes on two spinning beams and, as a result, obtaining two two-layer meltblown with balanced properties and characteristics."
In addition, in addition to polypropylene, the line was designed to use several other polymers, such as polyester, polyamide and TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane). Also, the line allows you to create composite materials consisting of several layers of spunbond and meltblown, the most complex of which is SMSMS. The applications that RadiciGroup focuses on include HVAC (air conditioning), cabin air filters, filtration of liquids, absorption of oils and petroleum products, medical, hygienic and protective clothing.
A new line with an investment of 15 million euros has been installed at Tessiture Pietro Radici SpA, based in Gandino (Bergamo), Italy.
For its part, Israeli nonwovens manufacturer Avgol has announced a three-tier investment in 2021 at its facility in Uzlovaya, Russia, to enhance its role in existing markets and help it enter new areas. The expansion includes the Reicofil 5 production line, the meltblown line, as well as a new line with advanced lamination capabilities.
"Avgol Industries 1953 LTD, like many other similar companies, found itself in a difficult situation at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic," explains Nick Carter, vice president of nonwovens marketing. "At that time, our focus was not on the production of meltblown-type products, but on the production of components for absorbent hygiene products. When we were looking for how we could simultaneously meet the newly emerging market needs and at the same time not harm the existing product line, we had to show some ingenuity in our initial solutions.
Avgol has applied a multi-stage approach to the introduction of materials blown from the melt. Starting with the production of the first generation at its plant in Israel, since then the company has continued both training and development of new production lines in order to create more opportunities for the production of meltblown with higher characteristics.
«The capabilities of the first generation necessarily required that we use equipment that we could quickly access, as the queue for the purchase of new equipment grew exponentially», — he continues. «We used our many years of experience adapting equipment to meet our needs combined with our understanding of meltblown production to create an initial commercial offer.
In general, the demand for face masks and respirators, according to Carter, remains high, although, he adds, the price has naturally decreased due to more efficient inventory management, restocking and increased production capacity. "Despite the fact that some markets, such as China, are oversaturated with meltblown producers, the requirements for continuous quality growth and achieving better recyclability/sustainability will continue to create opportunities for advanced meltblown producers."
In Europe, Neenah, Inc. last month announced an investment of 25 million euros in new meltblown facilities at its German facility producing filtration materials. The company aims to grow in the biological and industrial filtration markets. According to the company, its product portfolio contributes to improving filtration efficiency and reducing energy consumption. Neenah's electrostatically charged NeenahPure materials are used in heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems to control pollution and purify air, providing the best filtration efficiency on the market> 99,9%.
"Clean air and water are crucial for our communities and the environment. Meltblown technology effectively removes harmful particles from the air we breathe and from the water we drink. This new meltblown material production line activates our innovative efforts and allows us to continue to grow together with our customers," says President and CEO Julie Shertell.
It is expected that the new Meltblown line will be put into operation in mid-2024.
Elsewhere in Europe, Irema, headquartered in Ireland, has also increased meltblown capacity in response to demand during the pandemic. Irema develops a progressive multilayer product to achieve a low pressure drop while achieving a high filtration level.
From non-woven material, meltblown Irema produces Facemate Irema face masks, as well as surgical and respiratory masks OEM for medical use. The company also produces inserts for air filters and HVAC filters in accordance with international standards.
According to Sean Cook, Irema's strategic development manager, Irema was one of the few companies still producing surgical face masks in Europe before Covid-19 broke out. "The company employed 44 people who produced 36 million surgical masks and 1.2 million respiratory masks per year both under the Facemate brand and as a contract manufacturer for companies such as TE Connectivity and other large companies," he says.
With the Covid-19 outbreak, the company expanded its production capacity by switching to a round-the-clock week and investing in additional production lines. The number of employees has increased to 180 people, and the production capacity is currently more than 200 million surgical masks and 28 million FFP2/FFP3/N95 respirators per year. Irema has also doubled the production of meltblown; in 2020, the company added an additional machine for the production of nonwovens for face masks.
«Most of the additional investments in meltblown were made specifically to meet the demand for filter materials for masks, — says Cook. «Irema spent time developing an air filtration system, as the indicators led us to an increased understanding of the need for significant improvements in indoor air quality control systems. They will need to be serviced with air filters, and Irema is ready for this market.
From Cook's point of view, the demand for meltblown is still high because health services in countries are changing their rules and encouraging people to wear medical and surgical masks. For example, in Germany, Italy and Austria, people must wear FFP2 masks, which were previously worn only during surgical interventions. In Ireland, surgical masks or FFP2 masks are recommended for those who test positive for Covid-19 and their close contacts. Since December 2021, FFP2 masks must be worn in all medical institutions in contact with patients, and not only in operating rooms.
As the world approaches endemic status, he expects demand to be higher than in 2019, because, in addition to government guidelines, some people will prefer to wear masks to protect themselves as much as possible from respiratory infections and polluted air.
In Turkey, the manufacturer of nonwovens Mogul has installed its fifth and sixth meltblown production lines focused on medical and industrial masks and respirators. On both lines, electrostatic charging units of the material are installed, capable of producing material for masks with an efficiency of N95 and higher, as well as for high-efficiency filtration and other industrial applications. According to CEO Serkan Gegus, before the Covid-19 pandemic, Mogul had been producing meltblown since 2000, focusing on sorbents (oil spill control), filtration, napkins, medical bags and dust bags.
«Currently there is still less demand compared to the peak period of 2020, but [it] still exists», — he says. «In addition, due to problems with transport, it is still There is a shortage of supplies from Asia, so when the pandemic ends and Asia starts supplying finished products to the US and the EU again, we will see the real picture. This will create a lot of excess power and a lot of free lines. There will always be a certain demand for masks, the oil spill control market will continue to exist as before. The napkin and filtration markets, too. Therefore, excess capacity will either push players to search for new markets and applications, or some lines will be idle.
Meanwhile, in North America, Kimberly-Clark produces meltblown, used in filter materials for N95 respirators and industrial wipes, as well as non-woven spunbond materials, which are an important component of many disposable hygiene products.
According to Lori Shaffer, vice president of Kimberly-Clark's global nonwovens business, throughout the pandemic Kimberly-Clark has operated as a core business, providing consumers with access to its core products. This, she said, led to a $140 million investment in a nonwovens manufacturing facility in Corinth, Massachusetts, in 2020.
"meltblown's production capacity has increased significantly over the past two years, as we have shifted our recent investments to the production of products that require properties that meltblown material can provide, including clothing, respirators and disinfectant wipes," says Schaffer. "During periods of capacity expansion, supply often outstrips demand, but given the steady healthy growth rates in these categories, supply and demand will eventually equalize. At the same time, it is likely that these new capacities will be used to stimulate growth in new categories.
During the pandemic, Kimberly-Clark began manufacturing N95s respirators certified by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) at its manufacturing facility in Lagrange, Georgia. According to Shaffer, the company originally manufactured respirators to help protect its manufacturing employees around the world when the Covid-19 pandemic began. «The work was carried out in an accelerated mode — from concept to production in a record 45 days. We have expanded production to make these non-medical respirators available to our customers who serve essential infrastructure workers outside of healthcare (e.g. pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, etc.)"raquo;," she adds.
While most of the investment in meltblown over the past couple of years has been focused on meeting the needs for masks and respirators, manufacturers of nonwovens have been looking for other applications.
In addition to masks, there are wide possibilities of using meltblown in air filtration, fuel filtration and use as sorbents.
In general, the air filtration segment is being upgraded due to Covid, as well as due to growing air quality problems. Meltblown has the smallest pore size among all nonwovens and can be charged electrostatically, which makes it able to remove larger and smaller particles.
As companies around the world prepare for the return of employees to the office, Cook from Irema confirms that the demand for air filters and filter materials for heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems has increased dramatically. "Facility managers have always wanted to ensure that the air in the building is clean to protect workers, but Covid has made it vital," he says. "The quality of the filter material is more important than before, and the Irema filter material meets all international standards and norms."
Cook expects the meltblown nonwovens production growth to continue, and therefore the company has added another meltblown production line in anticipation of an increase in demand for air filter materials, and due to a decrease in demand for face mask materials, the company's production of air filter materials has doubled over the past 12 months.
Meanwhile, in response to the growing demand for nonwovens for industrial use, Mitsui Chemicals announced last month that it was expanding its meltblown manufacturing facilities at its subsidiary Sunrex Industry Co., Ltd. in Yokkaichi, Mie, Japan. The investment will increase Mitsui Chemicals Group's total meltblown production capacity by 30%. Mitsui also expanded its meltblown capacity by 50% at Sunrex in January 2021, in response to market demand for substrates for industrial applications.
As part of the new long-term business plan Mitsui Vision 2030, the Japanese manufacturer will position nonwovens as a growing business in the Life & Healthcare Solutions section of the revised portfolio. Therefore, Mitsui Chemicals aims to supply nonwovens not only as hygienic materials for products such as disposable diapers, but also as industrial materials for various applications. Products designed for this purpose will include Tafnel, which can be used as an oil-absorbing material, a structural material for car seats and a material for civil engineering; Syntex, a structural material for filters and masks, and other similar high-quality nonwovens. In particular, it is expected that Syntex nano - a material consisting of ultrathin fibers - will find application in products such as high-tech precision filters.
For Kimberly-Clark, an important use of meltblown, in addition to masks and respirators, is the production of wet wipes for cleaning and disinfection of hard surfaces. "Meltblown is compatible with various chemicals and provides a good balance of strength and cleaning efficiency, which makes it a logical choice for this application," says Schaffer.
The company's Kimberly-Clark Professional (KCP) trademark has recently entered the wet wipes segment for surface disinfection, borrowing technologies from its consumer baby wipes business and knowledge of the dry wipes market. Scott's 24-hour disinfecting wipes are the first wipes on the market that maintain surface disinfection for a full 24 hours, destroying 99.9% of bacteria even after repeated touching.
As for raw materials, KCP has fully developed the lotion formulation independently, and during the development process, the company tested the formulation with both substrates developed by KC and substrates obtained from outside. Napkins made of meltblown material are impregnated with this solution and further processed with their own patented mixture of chemicals.
Scott 24 Hour Sanitizing Wipes are ideal for easy wiping of surfaces and help to constantly protect surfaces that are often touched, such as door handles, elevator buttons, keyboards, keyboards, countertops, armrests in airplanes, sports equipment, school desks, etc.