Global spunlaid nonwovens market analysis

The Future of Spunlaid Nonwovens to 2021 states that spunlaid is the largest volume process used in producing nonwovens globally. They are also projected to have the highest annual growth rate between 2016 and 2021, at 7.5%.

Spunlaid in this report are defined as is a web-forming process in which the polymers were molten, extruded and laid down to form webs. They include spunbond, flash-spun, meltblown, SMS, and electro-spun products.  Spunlaid nonwovens participate in every major market that nonwovens are part of.  While most nonwovens processes have a major impact in either the durable or disposables segments of the market, spunlaid nonwovens dominate the largest disposables market segment, hygiene, as well as the large building and roofing market segment in durables.  Spunlaid nonwovens are also major contributors to the medical market segment in disposables, as well as the automotive, filtration, garments, agriculture, interlinings and coating substrates in durables.

There are several key trends driving the size and growth of the spunlaid nonwovens market.  These include:

Growth of the large hygiene coverstock market

There are several factors making this a key trend for the size and growth of the spunlaid nonwovens market.  First, the hygiene market, which encompasses the baby diaper/nappies, feminine hygiene pads, and adult incontinence products segments, is relatively recession proof and growing.  From emerging markets in Asia, Middle East and Africa increasing the use of baby diapers/nappies to growing adult incontinence products in North America and Western Europe, these products have moved from "wants" to "needs" with global consumers.  In 2016, the hygiene market is the largest single market for all nonwovens and represents almost 25% of all of the nonwovens consumed.  Second, the amount of spunlaid nonwovens used in hygiene products continues to increase, despite the trend toward lower basis weight products.  Since 2011, the use of "cloth-like back-sheets" in baby diapers/ nappies, which is just a spunbond polypropylene nonwoven laminated to a polyethylene film back-sheet, has continued to grow.  Core wrap in hygiene products continues to switch from tissue to spunlaid nonwovens.  "Pulp-less" cores in hygiene products rely on a spunlaid nonwoven carrier for superabsorbents.  Carded nonwovens continue to be replaced by less expensive spunlaid nonwovens.

The largest market for nonwovens with the highest level of spunlaid usage globally will continue to drive this nonwoven technology.

Replacement of other more expensive nonwoven types

Spunlaid nonwovens have low cost, lightweight, high process speed capabilities, making them lower cost and higher performance than many other nonwoven types for some end use applications.

Some obvious examples are:

  1. Spunlaid replacement for carded nonwovens in hygiene

    As described above, spunlaid nonwovens are replacing carded nonwovens in many hygiene coverstock applications, where producers trade weight and cost (spunlaid) for softness (carded).  Carded nonwovens will continue to be used in some hygiene end uses, but the majority of products will switch or continue as spunlaid.
  2. Spunlaid nonwovens replacement for wetlaid in liquid filtration

    Spunlaid nonwovens are more durable, lighter weight, stronger, and have more consistent and controllable pore size distribution than do pulp based wetlaid nonwovens.  Expect spunlaid nonwovens to replace wetlaid in automotive fuel and oil filtration as well as some food filtration and chemical filtration products.

  3. Spunlaid nonwovens replacement for needlepunch nonwovens in air/gas filtration

    Spunlaid nonwovens can be produced as low as 8-10 grams/square metre, while needlepunch is usually 70 grams/square metre or higher.  Needlepunch is one of the slowest process speed nonwovens while spunlaid is the highest.  This produces a large cost advantage for spunlaids and many air/gas filtration products are taking advantage of this.

In almost every nonwoven end use, there are opportunities for spunlaid nonwovens to replace incumbent nonwoven products.

Low requirements for entering spunlaid nonwovens production

New producers of nonwovens (and sometimes even existing producers) often have to deal with a "steep learning curve" or "barrier to entry"; this is the experience and knowledge to profitably produce a nonwoven material.  Some types of nonwovens are notorious for this "steep learning curve"; airlaid nonwovens, for example, are known for producers failing to survive entry into the market. 

Spunlaid nonwovens do not have this problem.  New producers can purchase high quality, new technology lines and produce spunlaid nonwovens with low risk and at high throughput and quality.  This has made spunlaid nonwovens the process of choice for emerging market producers, and has accentuated the migration of nonwovens production from North America and Europe to Asia.  While profitability may not be as high as for some of the more risky nonwovens processes, it is still higher than for many other commodity processes like textiles or paper.  The desire for new companies to enter the nonwovens market will continue to drive spunlaid nonwovens production and consumption.

Increase "on purpose production" of propylene

While low and stable petroleum prices will help keep raw material prices low and stable, more specifically and on a micro-supply scale, propylene supply has been an issue.  One of the reasons has been that propylene is typically produced as either a co-product of steam cracking or a by-product of refineries.  Increased use of low cost natural gas liquids in some regions has reduced the supply as co- or by- product.

"On purpose production" of propylene is a much more consistent and secure supply, but in 2003, only 3% of propylene was produced "on purpose".  By 2023, projections are for almost 10 times more of propylene to be produced "on purpose".  Propylene is the second highest volume chemical precursor, behind only ethylene.  Polypropylene accounts for about two thirds of all propylene use.  One of the issues spunlaid nonwovens has had is the volatility of polypropylene pricing.  This volatility has been much more than either petroleum pricing or other polymer pricing. 

Combining lower cost petroleum with increased "on purpose" propylene production should provide spunlaid nonwovens with a stable raw material supply in the future.

Increased need for lighter weight fabrics/substrates

One of the main issues with spunlaid nonwovens has been the fact that most are not biodegradable or compostable and therefore are not as sustainable as some other nonwoven types.  One way to improve the sustainability of spunlaids is to reduce the basis weight of the material.  Since most spunlaid products are used based on square metres covered, reducing the basis weight reduces the material used for an end use. 

Spunlaid is one of the few nonwovens to make such a dramatic shift in basis weight.  Airlaid has dropped very little, needlepunch has dropped about 10-15%, and spunlace about 10-20%.  For each application, there are also product reasons for wanting lower weight.  In automotive, it is fuel economy.  In feminine hygiene and adult incontinence, it is comfort and breathability, and for most applications it is cost.

Wide variety of available markets

Spunlaid nonwovens are one of the few nonwoven types used in almost all end uses.  Of these, spunlaid nonwovens of some type and volume are used in all nineteen end uses reported in this study; airlaid is used in only nine, wetlaid in ten, needlepunch in twelve, and spunlace in seventeen.

The fact that spunlaid nonwovens can be used in so many markets makes it likely that there will always be a market for them no matter economic climate, geographical region, or product quality or characteristics.  This makes an investment in spunlaid capacity less risky; combined with the other trends outlined above, it is very probable that spunlaid nonwovens will continue to grow through 2021.

These trends and market analysis and data are covered in the global study The Future of Spunlaid Nonwovens to 2021 by Smithers Pira.