Global spunlaid nonwoven applications and trends

Global demand for spunlaid nonwovens is set to grow strongly across the next five years according to the latest exclusive data from Smithers Pira.

In its latest market report – The Future of Spunlaid Nonwovens to 2021 Smithers Pira has conducted a comprehensive industry analysis, which shows that spunlaid is the largest volume production process used in the global nonwovens industry. This equates to a market value in 2016 of $15.6 billion. Most significantly it is also the fastest growing segment and is forecast to have an impressive annual growth rate of 7.5% for the 2016-2021, period.

Spunlaid advantages

Spunlaids are produced via a web-forming process in which polymers are molten, extruded and laid down to form webs – there are several reasons for its current and future predominance in this market.

  • First the spunlaid process, as supplied by equipment and line manufacturers, has one of the easiest learning curves in the nonwovens industry, making entry into this business simple and relatively free of risk.
  • The spunlaid process is also one of the highest throughput (lowest process cost) processes in nonwovens, and spunlaid products are among the lowest basis weight products in nonwovens and hence the lowest product cost per square metre.
  • In addition spunlaid processes all nonwovens to be produced directly from polymer raw materials, eliminating the fibre forming intermediate step, reduces product/process costs.

Spunlaids can be made in a variety of forms – spun-bonded, flash-spun, melt-blown, spunbond-meltblown-spunbond (SMS), and electrospun fabric. This affects their performance characteristics which can be tailored to a range of end-use applications.

And while spunlaid nonwovens are not always the lowest cost nonwoven for every end use market, the ability to supply products below 10 grams per square metre (gsm) usually makes them the lowest cost product per square metre.

In 2016, spunlaids are also benefiting from the current glut of petroleum on the market and a resulting dramatic reduction in price for its feedstock. This contrasts with higher petroleum/natural gas prices, volatility and inconsistency of supply, that have historically been restraining factors for spunlaid producers.

Moving forward, these process advantages of spunlaids will align with rising demand from many segments that can be accessed at an increasingly competitive price.

Hygiene products – nappies (diapers), adult incontinence products, and feminine hygiene products – will remain the largest volume market for spunlaids across the study period, accounting for over 1.5 million tonnes in 2016. Smithers Pira analysis however has detected strong growth in several other segments; especially in non-disposable durable applications. These are examined here:

Figure 1 Spunlaid nonwovens market share by end use, 2016 ('000 tonnes)

Medical

Spunlaids – especially SMS – has replaced spunlace and textiles in the major medical end uses of surgical drapes and surgical gowns; and is also seeing more demand for use in instrument wraps, bandages, and underpads.

This has made the medical market is a large one for polypropylene-based spunlaid nonwovens. In terms of tonnes consumed medical products accounts for around 7% of the global spunlaid nonwovens market in 2016.

Smithers Pira’s projection is for medical end uses if for demand to grow year-on-year at a rate of 8% for 2016-2021.

Liquid filtration

Spunlaids are also used widely in liquid filters. This includes both food and beverage applications – tea bags, coffee filters, edible and hot oil filters, milk filters, and water filters; and other use with other liquids – pool and spa filters, blood filters, and oil and fuel automotive filters.

Pore size and distribution, wet resiliency, wet strength, and uniformity, are key considerations in selecting spunlaid products in this segment. Spunbonds are used extensively as either a support substrate or for coarse particle filtration as they have coarser fibres than meltblown nonwovens and larger pores.

The year-on-year growth for spunlaids in liquid filters is estimated by Smithers Pira to be 8.5% for 2016-2021.

Air and gas filtration

Spunlaids are also widely used in air and gas filtration systems – where the same properties, with the exception of wet strength, are important. Air and gas filter applications can be sub-divided into three categories:

  • Domestic or in-home: In heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC); and vacuum cleaners
  • Industrial: including commercial and industrial HVAC, and particulate filters for factories and power plants
  • Automotive: use in vehicle engine air filters and cabin air filters.

All three sub-segments have potential and are scheduled to grow at a rate slightly below the spunlaid market average through to 2021.

Spunlaid performance is important in each application for a variety of reasons. In HVAC filters it can directly affect a system’s efficiency for removing pollutants and allergens. This in turn has implications for the total energy consumption of air purifiers a significant concern for equipment suppliers.

In industrial filtration this also directly impacts the ability of factory owners to regulate particulate emissions from their industrial plants and meet figures mandated in environmental legislation. There is also increasingly a need to treat filters with antimicrobials or flame retardants as well.

In automotive filtration, performance in engine fixtures can aid in fuel efficiency, while good cockpit filter can promote overall driver health operator health.

Building/roofing

In the building and roofing segment spunlaids are predominantly employed in house wrap and roof underlay fabrics. They prevent outside air and rain water from penetrating a house, while allowing humid air inside to escape from the inside. Because of this high moisture vapour transmission, low airflow, liquid water resistance, and bio-resistance are key considerations for users.

In 2016, total consumption was 729,700 tonnes. The most commonly used nonwovens for building and roofing are spunbonded polyethylene, like DuPont’s Tyvek brand; and coated spunbond polypropylene, such as Typar from Berry Plastics. Additionally, spunbond polyester is sometimes used as reinforcement for modified bitumen roofing, as well as in conventional built-up roofing.

Growth rates for nonwovens in building and roofing are directly tied to new housing starts, which are recovering strongly in North America and parts of Asia. This will be reflected in demand for spunlaid nonwovens, with annual market expansion in this application running at slightly above the market average for 2016-2021.

Civil engineering, underground and geotextiles

Nonwovens are also sold for use in civil engineering, subterranean and geotextile applications. For example in asphalt overlays, to separate dissimilar materials, lining systems, for the reinforcement of weak soils and in drainage or filtration systems.

Spunbond polyester and polypropylene are the principal classes of spunbond nonwoven used in these applications. Key performance criteria for these applications include high tear strength, UV resistance, bio-resistance, chemical resistance, freeze-thaw stability, and resistance to other long-term environmental exposure.

Historically high and fluctuating oil costs, coupled with low pricing, have made geotextiles a challenging market for nonwoven suppliers to make profitable. Still stimulus spending programmes across the world are building demand for geotextiles, and demand for nonwovens from this segment will increase a 10% year-on-year for 2016-2021.

Furthermore new infrastructure projects in emerging markets in Asia and Africa, coupled with the replacement of obsolete infrastructure in developed regions, will keep this overall market buoyant through to 2021.

As a consequence, Smithers Pira predicts a market that will consume 184,800 tonnes of spunlaid nonwovens in 2016 will grow at an annual rate of 10% for the next five years – though this will not be uniform across all geographies.

Automotive

For automotive producers, spunbonds account for around half of global nonwoven consumption, which in 2016 will be just over 500,000 tonnes.

Future demand again enjoys a close linkage to broader industry performance. In 2016, vehicle sales are recovering, albeit unevenly, with booming activity in North America and Asia capitalising on low fuel prices and the evolution of fuel-efficient vehicles.

For 2016-2021, an annual increase of around 9.5% is indicated by Smithers Pira’s data.

Agriculture

Spunlaid nonwovens – and especially spunbond products – are widely used in agriculture as ground cover – for erosion control, weed prevention, insect and bird barrier, moisture retention, and protection against adverse weather; seedling mats; root wrap; and shade cloth.

As the drive to boost per-acre yields continues, irrigation resources are being strained in most world markets. This in turn creates a requirement for retaining moisture in soils; and reducing losses from weeds, insects and birds; both of which require products that make use of spunlaid nonwovens.

This will be manifested in slightly above average market growth for 2016-2021

The data from Smithers Pira shows that there will be significant growth opportunities for spunlaid suppliers, and the nonwoven industry generally, across multiple applications in the next five years. The proposition and performance requirements however vary across the diverse range of applications, meaning firms will have to analyse and tailor their offerings to maximises returns.

These factors, supporting data, regional analysis and other key drivers and trends are examined comprehensively in the global market study The Future of Spunlaid Nonwovens to 2021 by Smithers Pira.