Spanlace: Life outside of napkins

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Spanlace: Life outside of napkins

While the napkin market continues to dominate, more and more manufacturers of "spanlace" are looking for new areas of its application.

The spanlace market continues to grow by 4–5% per year due to the combination of the growth of the main market of this technology — napkins, as well as the diversification of new applications. While most spanlace manufacturers admit that the bulk of sales are still related to the napkin market, which continues to grow and diversify, many say that lower margins and other macroeconomic factors affect their entry into new markets.

However, the successful navigation of nonwoven fabric manufacturers into new markets is not without problems. Not only is it most often necessary to modify the equipment, often the competition in these new markets is just as high. Despite the already very diverse range of applications, there are opportunities for growth in the market of hydro-woven nonwovens, but they can only be realized through the constant introduction of innovative products in accordance with market needs. Many manufacturers of non-woven fabric "spanlace", having several production lines in operation, continue to withdraw their business for the production of spanlace outside the napkin market. The wide portfolio of spunlace properties allows us to consider this nonwoven fabric as the basis for most products in various markets, such as hygiene, home care and technical applications.

Nevertheless, the napkin market continues to dominate, and it accounts for the lion's share of the business of many specialized companies. The main challenge of this market is to serve a variety of sub-markets, where the key requirements for "spanlace" materials differ: softness and other enhanced tactile characteristics are in the first place for products of the hygiene and cosmetics segments, while tensile strength and absorbency are of paramount importance for industrial and domestic applications.

Since the napkin market segment still accounts for the main share of spunlace production, and the need for additional capacities is constantly growing, most manufacturers and processors are focused on volume and cost. They try to invest in efficient solutions in terms of line performance and cost-effectiveness. The weight of non-woven fabric and its environmental friendliness are also key trends. Manufacturers focus on lighter materials with a good ratio of strength and elongation in the longitudinal and transverse directions, as well as the use of 100% natural and/or renewable raw materials.

In search of new markets

In the pre-pandemic period, the slowdown in the growth of the global napkin market combined with aggressive investment rates in "spanlace" by manufacturers in the Middle East, Europe and Asia contributed to the situation with excess capacity in the European market "spanlace". According to industry observers, the supply in Europe significantly exceeded the demand given the installation of new Sandler lines in Germany, Mogul and Eruslu in Turkey, Suominen in Finland. However, the situation has changed exactly the opposite in recent years. The largest manufacturers of nonwovens «spanlace» focused on innovation and development of new products. Spunlace technology has become more sophisticated and combined. The usual stage of forming the primary web on a carding machine was replaced by wetlaid (wet laying), airlaid (air laying) and their combinations with carding, as a result introducing various composite spunlace structures to the market.

In addition to napkins, existing and potential markets for "spanlace" include medicine, hygiene and industry, where nonwovens may have additional advantages over traditional textiles and paper.

Norafin

Norafin is at the forefront of such efforts among European manufacturers of "spanlace" materials. This company was once owned by Jacob Holm, but then separated from it to focus on more technical applications of "spanlace". The company was able to enter the composite market due to such characteristics of its products as high tensile strength, durability, uniformity, resistance to high temperatures and fire, as well as uniform surface density and drapery of materials. Basically, this became possible due to the use of special fibers as raw materials (polyimide, oxidized PAN, fiberglass, meta- and para-aramid fibers) and special post-processing methods. In the protective clothing segment, Norafin offers durable and lightweight non-woven materials "spanlace", which provide increased protection from the effects of electric arc compared to leading competing materials. Such materials provide equivalent (or improved) performance with about 45% less base weight than competing materials. Norafin is a full range of flame-resistant products manufactured using spunlace technology, created from various types of fibers and structures that are used in protective clothing today. For example, when used in the filtration segment, the company's nonwovens demonstrate a constant filtering surface characterized by a large number of smaller pores and a uniform cross-section, which leads to an increase in filter performance. These examples show that nonwovens are "spanlace"; they can be adapted to different market segments due to a wide range of product characteristics.

Andritz Perfojet

One of the leading machine builders in the field of technology «spanlace» Andritz Perfojet reports that more and more customers are beginning to be interested in the technical applications of nonwoven fabric. In this market segment, growing demand is expected in the coming years, as more and more companies develop and design new nonwovens to solve environmental problems such as air and liquid filtration. Back in 2011, the Andritz Perfojet company built the widest hydro-coupling line that ever existed and sold it to BG Filter Group in China. This line had a working width of 6.6 meters and was intended for the production of technical nonwovens for filtration and geotextile applications.

For many years, Andritz has been paying special attention to meeting these customer requirements and is currently offering industry-ready solutions. One of such solutions is the Wetlace neXline line from Andritz. The concept of this line combines Wetlaid technologies from Andritz Küsters and hydro-weaving technologies from Andritz Perfojet. The neXline wetlace design integrates all water-consuming processes in such a way that most of the process water is returned back to the system and ensures optimal performance and energy efficiency. For the "spanlace" technology, the Andritz company offers high-speed carding machines that provide excellent physical properties of the canvases and their uniform laying at high speeds.

Trützschler

Also, premium equipment is supplied to the spanlace market by Trützschler Nonwovens (formerly Fleissner), which has focused on its Aquajet spanlace technology since 1995 and has since delivered more than 120 lines worldwide. If we do not take into account the current collaboration of Trützschler and Voith, specializing in sustainable solutions for the napkin segment (the technology of wet laying of wood pulp and its mixture with staple fibers followed by hydro-entanglement), the developments of that time included special perforating or structuring nozzles on hydro-entanglement drums. During the structuring process, the canvas was pressed into the recesses of the nozzles under the influence of water jets, without being damaged. The second AquaJet drum allowed to increase the thickness of the canvas or make it softer, increasing absorbency without compromising strength. When it was necessary to obtain a material with a perforated structure, the drum body was used "spanlace" with a coarse mesh. The effect of water jets on this system simultaneously connected the fibers of the web and pushed them apart at the bends of the cells, forming holes in the material.

"Green" trends

Returning to the napkin segment, you realize that nowhere is the product life cycle analysis more important than in the napkin market. Consumers need confidence that they are not making an unnecessary contribution to the global waste problem by choosing a napkin instead of reusable textiles or other cleaning agent. Thus, at present, the manufacturers of "spanlace" have the main task of improving the environmental profile of their materials. This can be achieved through the use of "green" energy, the use of "sustainable"; biodegradable certified raw materials, biopolymers (PLA, etc.), as well as by focusing on the issues of effective management of logistics, vehicles and related CO emissions2.

As concern for the environment grows in various sectors, and the advantages of the characteristics of natural fibers become more and more noticeable, Norafin has mastered the processing of flax fiber and introduced this type of raw material into the process of hydro-binding. Flax-based nonwovens are used as components in composite structures and offer many advantages for various applications due to their texture and properties, such as a smooth surface and a wood-like appearance. «Spanlace» made of flax offers advantages that can be used in various markets, such as window curtains or ecological roofing membranes.

Other manufacturers of "spanlace", occupying a wider and less specialized niche of the market than Norafin, are trying to introduce cellulose and viscose fibers (conventional and lyocel) originating from renewable sources into the process, thus ensuring the environmental profile of their products.

From the point of view of production, the main trends in the spanlace industry are focused, in addition to the use of raw materials corresponding to the concept of sustainable development, on production capacity and energy savings. Manufacturers of "spanlace" engaged in the production of materials for single-use applications are looking for solutions for the production of modern nonwovens that provide a balance between high productivity and simultaneous reduction of energy consumption.

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