Key Trends in Airlaid Nonwovens

Smithers Pira’s report on The Future of Airlaid Nonwovens to 2020 states the global airlaid nonwovens market is projected to grow to $2 billion by 2020.

Airlaid nonwovens have unique advantages among nonwovens processes and products, and tremendous potential with current fast growing end uses and the future needs for sustainable, non-petroleum based products. Its modest projected growth rate for 2015-2020 of 5.0% is more a function of supply issues and regional economic issues than demand or capability issues. Airlaid nonwovens need and should see significant expansion in capacity over the next ten years (some before 2020), which will be matched by equally significant increases in demand over the same time period. The desire for more sustainable products bridges all end uses and applications; airlaid nonwovens are the most inherently sustainable nonwovens. The consumer desire for thinner, more discreet and comfortable feminine hygiene and adult incontinence pads, and even baby diapers, matches the strength and properties of airlaid nonwovens.

Growth in adult incontinence and feminine hygiene products

Incontinence may still be an issue for this population, but it no longer is a limitation. This population demands higher performance incontinence products that are more comfortable and discreet so that their active lifestyle is minimally impacted. The global population is becoming more affluent; emerging market regions now have populations which are aware of and desire the latest, thinnest, most absorbent feminine hygiene products. Adult incontinence products account for only 4.8% of airlaid nonwovens production in 2015, but will grow at 10.8% annually through 2020!  The absorbent core for adult incontinence pads, briefs, underwear, and underpads consists optimally of airlaid nonwoven. There are only older, less efficient alternative materials for the absorbent core, and no better materials.

Feminine hygiene ultrathin pads are rapidly replacing on a global basis the older, thicker, less comfortable and less absorbent maxipads. The key component for making an ultrathin pad work is its airlaid absorbent core; there is no real alternative today. Feminine hygiene is the largest market for airlaid nonwovens today, with 35% of airlaid nonwovens production in 2015. Even the mature market regions of North America and Western Europe realize continuing growth due to conversion from older maxipads to newer ultrathin pads; and huge segments of the population of emerging markets like India and China are becoming aware of, and affluent enough to, want these newer products.

Sustainability advantages

Sustainability is a global issue, one which is not only good for the planet but good for business.  Airlaid nonwovens is a process and product which demonstrates both of these concepts. The major raw material for airlaid nonwovens wood pulp. Specifically, fluff wood pulp, a grade which depends primarily on southern pine. Southern pine grows primarily in the southern US, a politically and economically stable region. Southern pine grows on and which is not useful for growing food crops, southern pine requires no irrigation, and little or no pesticides. Southern pine today is grown on large, managed plantations where three saplings are planted for every harvested tree. Southern pine plantations remove carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen. Airlaid nonwovens are composed of from 65 - 100% fluff wood pulp. Fluff wood pulp historically averages about half the price of the lowest synthetic fibre used in nonwovens.  Fluff wood pulp is biodegradable and renewable.  Airlaid nonwovens are among the most sustainable products possible.  The low density, high bulk characteristic of airlaid nonwoven products has led to research into replacing polystyrene in packaging, polyurethanes in automotive acoustical insulation, and polypropylene in geotextiles. The natural char forming property of cellulosic fibres, including wood pulp, has led to research in using airlaid in many demanding flame retardant applications. Airlaid nonwovens as a process and as products combine exceptional sustainability, low cost, and flexible performance.

Multi- and hydrogen bonded airlaid are the fastest growing processes

Airlaid nonwovens are actually produced using four process types or variants. These are latex bonded airlaid (LBAL), thermal bonded airlaid (TBAL), multibonded airlaid (MBAL), and hydrogen bonded airlaid (HBAL). Of these four types, the types that are growing fastest and have the most potential are multibonded airlaid and hydrogen bonded airlaid. Multibonded airlaid has the highest capital cost and steepest learning curve, but can make any current and future airlaid grades. Hydrogen bonded has the lowest capital cost, the lowest raw material cost, and the easiest learning curve, but can only produce airlaid products capable of addressing no more than 60% of the current market, and will be limited in addressing future grades and end uses. Still, it is ideal for the fast growing adult incontinence and food pad markets, as well as the huge potential diaper market.

Regional imbalances

Finally, there are significant differences in the major regional markets for airlaid nonwovens. North America has the tightest supply of airlaid, with utilization at almost 95%. It also is the only region with a large pre-moistened wipes market for airlaid, both in private label baby wipes and moist toilet tissue. North America is the home of the two largest airlaid producers, and the largest airlaid raw material suppliers. North America is already importing some material from Europe, and will have major supply issues if new capacity is not added by 2020. 

Europe has the highest available airlaid supply today, with utilization at "only" 87.5% and is home to the major airlaid equipment suppliers. Europe is the largest market for feminine hygiene for airlaid, as well as table top and food pad grades. Europe still has the largest installed capacity for airlaid, and the largest sales of airlaid nonwovens but economic uncertainty is likely to keep the market down. 

Asia is a very mixed market for airlaid nonwovens. There are older or smaller lines in Japan, China and Taiwan which are small and relatively slow, but meet local needs. This market is changing, with Chinese and Indian consumers starting to affect airlaid demand and quality. In China, growing number of consumers want modern airlaid based products, which the smaller, local producers cannot make and the modern, western supplied lines have no capacity to produce.  There is a real need for airlaid expansion in Asia, which is the fastest growing major region at 8.0% annual growth for 2015-2020.

The Future of Airlaid Nonwovens to 2020 contains further global market data and analysis and is available to purchase online.