Manmade Organic Fibers, Except Cellulosic

SIC 2824

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

Establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing noncellulosic, or synthetic, fibers comprise the manmade organic fibers industry. The fibers are created in the form of monofilament, yarn, staple, or tow suitable for further manufacturing on spindles, looms, knitting machines, or other textile processing equipment. Cellulosic manmade fibers, such as rayon and acetate, are classified in SIC 2823: Cellulosic Manmade Fibers.

Industry Snapshot

Although experimental organic fibers existed as early as 1913, the first commercially viable synthetics were invented during the 1930s and 1940s. Explosive industry growth occurred mid-century as new fibers, such as polyester, made synthetic materials a strong part of U.S. life. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, U.S. industry participants generated more than 3.5 million tons of fibers annually, worth more than $8 billion.

Rapid industry expansion subsided in the 1980s, as important sectors of the fiber business matured. Although production tonnage and revenues increased slightly throughout the decade, profit margins were confined by stagnant export growth and a rising tide of imports in the form of apparel and textiles. Environmental regulations and economic recession in the late 1980s and early 1990s suppressed profits further as manufacturers scrambled to consolidate and reduce costs.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, a major geographic shift in production occurred as Asian production surged to a total of about 15.8 million tons, while North American production increased modestly to a total of 5.4 million tons. By the mid-2000s, China had emerged as the world leader in synthetic fiber production. The United States, however, held onto its position as the world's leading producer of nylon. In 2007 total value of shipments in the U.S. noncellulosic organic fabric manufacturing industry reached $6.9 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Organization and Structure

Manmade fibers offer a less expensive substitute for many natural fibers, such as cotton, wool, and silk. In addition, many synthetic fibers have greater durability, hold their shape better, and are more uniform than natural fibers. Products created with manmade fibers typically afford greater resistance to aging and breakdown because of exposure to the elements. Because they can be modified to create a great variety of filaments with different physical properties and grades, synthetics provide great flexibility for manufacturers of apparel and textiles.

The two categories of manmade fibers are cellulosic and synthetic. Cellulosic fibers include such products as rayon, acetate, and triacetate, which are derived from modified wood pulp that has been dissolved in a liquid. These types of fibers are discussed within SIC 2823: Cellulosic Manmade Fibers. Synthetic fibers are derived from molecules containing various combinations of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen. Examples of products in this group are nylon, olefin, polyester, and spandex. These types of fibers are the focus of this essay.
Synthetic fibers accounted for about 94 percent of manmade fiber output in the mid-2000s. Whereas synthetic fibers, such as polyester, grew substantial in overall production between 1980 and the mid-2000s, cellulosic fibers, a small part of the manmade fiber industry, declined. Polyester accounted for 54 percent of worldwide manmade fiber production, followed by olefin at 17 percent, nylon at 11 percent, and acrylic at 8 percent. Cellulosic fibers accounted for the remaining 6 percent.

Approximately 109 U.S. firms competed in this highly consolidated industry during the late 2000s. Even among the handful of competitors, earnings were top-heavy. The combined revenues of the top five firms in the business were nearly four times greater than the aggregate sales of the next five largest companies. Moreover, the majority of the largest 20 establishments employed fewer than 200 workers, compared with between 10,000 and 20,000 employees at each of the top few companies. Extremely high start-up capital requirements, entrenched market leaders, and proprietary technology necessary to produce high-margin fibers discouraged potential market entrants from joining this exceptionally competitive business.

One of the largest U.S. markets for synthetic fibers is floor covering manufacturers. This sector uses almost 35 percent of fiber output to create carpeting for commercial, institutional, and consumer applications. Apparel producers command about 25 percent of industry production, and makers of various home textile products control 8 percent of output. Industrial products and miscellaneous consumer goods, which represent 25 percent of consumption, include items such as tire reinforcements, rope, surgical and sanitary supplies, fiberfill, electrical insulation, and plastic reinforcements. Approximately 8 percent of total output is exported.

Production Process.
Synthetic fibers are extremely long, threadlike molecules composed of hundreds of thousands of atoms strung together in chains. They typically originate from petroleum-based chemicals, which must first be converted into a liquid state by either being dissolved into a solution or by melting. The free-moving molecules that form the liquid are then extruded through small holes called spinnerets. The fine strands of liquid that emerge from the spinnerets are hardened to form long, silk-like filaments.

The three most popular spinning processes are known as dry, wet, and melt. In dry spinning, the fiber-forming substance is dissolved in a solvent, extruded through a spinneret, and then exposed to hot air. The heat causes the solvent to evaporate from the fiber, leaving a solid filament. Wet spinning works in a similar manner, except that the extrusion is jettisoned into a coagulating bath, which causes the fiber to harden because of chemical or physical change. Melt spinning is accomplished by simply melting and extruding a substance that dries upon contact with the air.

During the spinning process, the filament can be manipulated to result in various physical properties and forms. This manipulation determines such attributes as drapability, softness, elasticity, perceived coolness or warmth, stiffness, roughness, and resilience. Fibers that are formed to have a dog-bone or lobed cross-section, for instance, result in fabrics with greater density, while flat fibers give fabrics a rough feel.

After spinning, fibers go through a stretching and orientation process. During this procedure, the long molecules that constitute the fiber are pulled into alignment along the longitudinal axis of the filament. Through various techniques, the molecules can be aligned, packed, and manipulated to result in a variety of different physical characteristics. Tensile strength, dyeing properties, stretching ability, water penetrability, and resistance to breakdown are a few of the attributes that are influenced through stretching and orientation of the molecules.

Finished fibers are usually formed into monofilament, yarn, staple, or tow that can be used by other manufacturing sectors. Monofilaments are single, long strands of fiber used to create items such as nylon stockings and toothbrush bristles. Staple consists of fibers that have been cut into short lengths, usually between one and six inches. Staple can be mixed with other natural or manmade fibers to create yarns and fabrics. Tow is a fiber that is spun with hundreds of thousands of filaments bundled together into a loose rope and wound onto a spool. Tow is used like staple, but the cutting is done at a later stage to ensure that the filaments remain parallel to one another.

Polyester fiber, the largest industry segment by production tonnage, constitutes about 40 percent of inorganic fibers shipments. Polyester has low moisture retention, good electrical insulation characteristics, and high resistance to solvents, as well as other qualities. Nearly 80 percent of polyester fibers were used to produce textiles, apparel, and home furnishings. The tire industry purchases 8 percent of this segment to be used as rubber reinforcements, 7 percent for other industrial applications, and 5 percent for carpet production. Most polyester was sold in the form of either yarn or staple. Tow represented a relatively small share of segment sales.

The second most popular synthetic fiber is nylon. This fiber, which comes in a multitude of characteristics and grades, accounts for nearly 30 percent of industry output. Nylon's advantages include a high strength-to-weight ratio, excellent recovery from deformation, and high abrasion and flex resistance. Seventy percent of nylon output was used to make carpeting, while about 20 percent was integrated into apparel and non-carpet home furnishings. Manufacturers of industrial products, such as tires and rope, represented the remaining 10 percent of this market. Most nylon was sold as yarn, though a substantial share of output took the form of tow.

Much of the remaining 30 percent of synthetic fiber revenue was derived from the sale of olefin and acrylic fibers. Olefins, which were the fastest growing segment of the industry in the early 1990s, are used to create durable carpeting and other textiles. Acrylic, the smallest volume synthetic fiber at about 5 percent of the market, is used to make clothing and home furnishings, such as blankets.

Background and Development

Evidence suggests that hemp, reportedly the oldest cultivated fiber plant, was grown in China as early as 4500 B.C. Furthermore, Egyptians were weaving and spinning linen by 3400 B.C. The spinning of silk, which provided a major impetus for the creation of artificial fibers, dates to 2640 B.C. Flax and wool fabrics dating back to the sixth and seventh centuries B.C. have been excavated in Switzerland.

English physicist Robert Hooke was one of the first scientists to explore the possibility of extruding artificial silk, creating a mechanical device that mimicked the silkworm. Louise Schwabe, an English weaver during the nineteenth century, was the first to produce filaments from molten glass. He forced the liquid through nozzles, which caused a strand of glass to protrude and harden into a fiber. These early experiments initiated the discovery and development of manmade cellulose filaments (see SIC 2823: Cellulosic Manmade Fibers).
Chemists carried out the first extensive research into possible methods of creating synthetic fibers after World War I. Finding that many polymers (long chains of molecules) could be dissolved in solvents, they began extruding different polymers in spinnerets. Their initial goal was to imitate rayon, a cellulosic fiber. Breakthrough synthetic fibers were produced by German chemists first 1913 and into the 1920s. Important advances occurred in 1928 when vinyl chloride and vinyl acetate were used to produce fibers. This breakthrough led to the development of the first commercially viable synthetic textile fibers in 1936.

The synthetic industry got its practical start in 1935, when Wallace H. Carothers, an American working at E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Company, developed the first nylon fiber. This important discovery prompted intense research during and after World War II that resulted in many new classes of commercially useful synthetic textile filaments. For example, the first polyester fiber was invented in 1941 by British researchers. Eastman Chemical Products Inc. introduced a vastly improved and more marketable version of that fiber in 1958 in the United States. Acrylics and other polyvinyl-based fibers were invented during the 1950s.

Rapid technological advances during and after World War II paved the way for massive synthetic fiber industry expansion during the 1960s and 1970s. Although polyester and vinyl fibers had existed for several years, public acceptance of textiles and apparel created with artificial filaments lagged behind technology. During the 1960s, however, fiber producers began making a wide variety of products. Furthermore, they opened new markets and persuaded every feasible manufacturing sector to consider their products.

Nevertheless, the fiber industry continued to be dominated by cotton and other natural materials. This began to change in the 1970s with increased public acceptance of synthetics and other influences. For instance, pivotal synthetic fiber technology was developed for the space program, as well as for the military during the Vietnam era and the Cold War. These advances inspired new products that found favor in civilian markets. Most importantly, new production and processing techniques, such as texturizing and chemical crimping, evolved that allowed competitors to vastly improve the quality, look, and feel of their fibers.

In the early 1950s, manmade fibers accounted for about 13 percent of worldwide fiber production, while synthetic fibers represented a negligible share of the total. By the late 1960s, however, manmade fibers met over 30 percent of global fiber demand, and synthetics quickly displaced their cellulosic cousins. Boosted by post-war economic expansion, worldwide manmade fiber production rocketed from just 4.6 billion pounds in the early 1950s to over 16.2 billion pounds by 1970. Furthermore, the United States supplied a major share of global exports in this new, high-tech industry.

Continued technological advances prompted expansion of the synthetic fiber industry during the 1970s. While no completely new apparel and textile fibers were invented during that decade, modifications and processing advancements were numerous. DuPont developed Antron nylon, as well as extremely lightweight, thin polypropylene fibers. Similarly, BASF AG introduced conductive nylon carpet fibers that reduced static. Popular anti-cling nylons were invented as well. "Pluscious" brushed nylon, created by Dow Chemical Co., became the preferred fiber for women's and children's sleepwear. Moreover, new polypropylene fibers with improved pigments and ultraviolet light inhibitors became popular in automotive and outdoor markets.

As industry revenues and output skyrocketed, the synthetic fiber industry adopted a more consolidated structure. The industry consisted of a multitude of innovators attempting to establish themselves as leaders in this new high-tech industry. However, commercial development of synthetic fibers proved to be an extremely capital-intensive endeavor, and research and development costs, plant construction, and ongoing fiber improvement expenditures became more than many companies could bear. As a result, many fiber-making companies merged.

Polyester and nylon fabrics became increasingly popular in the 1970s, and the industry surged ahead. By 1979, polyester accounted for 50 percent of shipments by weight, while nylon held a 30 percent share of the market, and olefin and acrylic fibers each comprised 10 percent. Overall synthetic fiber output peaked at about 6.5 billion pounds in 1979.

Despite this impressive expansion, industry growth stalled in the 1980s. High petroleum prices helped to depress profits during the early part of the decade, and the industry faced more fundamental and long term obstacles. In particular, the major innovations that propelled growth during the prior 20 years were no longer new, and the synthetic fiber industry entered a stage of maturity.

The declining market for polyester, the industry's mainstay, was of primary concern for struggling manufacturers in the 1980s. U.S. production jumped an encouraging 11 percent in 1983, but slipped for four consecutive years to only 3.3 billion pounds by 1986. Production in this important segment climbed only 1 percent annually between 1982 and 1991. The other major class of fibers, nylon, reflected a similar growth pattern. From 1.9 billion pounds of output in 1982, demand rose an average of just 2 percent per year through 1991, to 2.5 billion pounds.

Olefin fibers continued to realize strong demand. That segment grew an average of 11 percent per year during the 1980s, topping 1.8 billion pounds per year by 1990, when olefin fibers accounted for over 20 percent of industry shipments. Acrylic fibers, by contrast, plummeted from 624 million pounds sold in 1982 to just 454 million by 1991, exhibiting an average annual decline of 4 percent. Consumer preference for cottons and polyester served to reverse expansion in this sector.

During this time, stiff foreign competition in commodity fiber markets emerged. The U.S. fiber makers faced a serious challenge from Europe, Japan, and emerging industrial nations. Taiwan and Korea became particularly aggressive competitors during the decade, and significant additions to the market came from low-cost producers in Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Malaysia.

U.S. synthetic fiber imports reached more than $900 million per year by 1992, approaching 10 percent of domestic sales. Besides cutting into domestic profits, foreign filament producers quickly captured global market share. As U.S. apparel and textile manufacturers moved their production facilities overseas, they often turned to cheaper foreign fiber suppliers. By 1990, the U.S. share of global industry output fell to 18 percent, down significantly from the country's 50 percent market share in 1950.

In an effort to combat downward price and profit pressures exerted by foreign competitors, U.S. companies scrambled to cut costs and improve their products. Massive capital investments made during the early 1990s were used to update manufacturing facilities, increase automation, and integrate new information management systems. Investments also were used to create thinner, lighter, stronger, and more versatile fibers. Despite these efforts, however, industry sales only climbed an average of 4 percent a year between 1982 and 1990, to about $11.5 billion. Total output during that period remained stagnant at about 3.2 billion pounds. Only gains in productivity helped to buoy profits for many struggling competitors.

In addition to the challenges of heightened competition and stagnant demand, the United States experienced an economic recession from 1989 through 1991. Fiber makers were hit particularly hard by a depression in the construction industry, which is a major consumer of carpet fibers. As a result, the industry's output and revenue dropped.

Manufacturers of polyester benefited from management and production restructuring into the late 1990s, as well as from a slowdown in the growth of apparel imports that occurred in the late 1980s. Demand for polyester increased from producers of high-performance tires and nonwoven products, such as disposable medical garments. Market demand for new polyester microfibers, which give polyester the feel of silk, encouraged manufacturers as well.

Nylon producers benefited from an increase in carpet demand in the mid-1990s. Despite generally weak markets, nylon fiber makers scrambled to fill surging demand in the automotive air bag market, a lucrative niche that expanded rapidly in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The synthetic fibers industry revived moderately in the late 1990s. Although shipments for U.S. producers edged up only slightly in 1998, U.S. exports of synthetic fibers rose more than 8 percent to almost $2.4 billion. Imports trailed exports, totaling $1.7 billion. Worldwide production reached 27.8 million tons, an increase of about 2 percent, yet still well below the annual average growth of 5 percent observed between 1978 and 1998.

The long-term health of the U.S. synthetic fiber industry was questionable at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Opportunities for impressive productivity gains seemed limited. Most competitors were already operating at low costs compared to foreign producers, especially those in Europe and Japan, and gains allowed by automation and information technology had been largely exhausted. The value of industry shipments fell to $7.18 billion in 2002, down from $10.02 billion in 2000 and $11.94 billion in 1997.

The automotive industry was the largest consumer of nylon in the United States, accounting for nearly 40 percent of domestic use. A slowdown in the automotive industry contributed to a decline in North American nylon sales, which totaled less than 1.3 billion pounds in 2006. North America's polycarbonate production surpassed that of nylon, however, reaching 1.7 billion pounds in 2006.

Although increasing raw material costs were of concern to the industry, the movement of manufacturing to overseas locations was the primary cause for the overall decline in total value of shipments of U.S. manmade fiber industry. Because of increased overseas manufacturing of goods using manmade fibers, China in particular rapidly expanded its capacity to produce manmade fibers. While worldwide global production of nylon dropped 2.3 percent between 2004 and 2005, China's output increased 16 percent to reach 716,600 tons. By 2007 China was producing 1.85 million tons of fiber annually.

China's forward progress amid a globally shrinking market struck some producers as suspicious. In June 2006, three U.S. companies--DAK Americas LLC, Nan Ya Plastics Corporation USA, and Wellman Inc.--filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Commerce, seeking investigation into the "dumping" of polyester staple fiber in the U.S. market by Chinese manufacturers. In May 2007 the International Trade Commission determined that the Chinese companies were guilty of selling merchandise below cost, and levied duties against the companies in question.

Current Conditions

Manufacturers of noncellulosic organic fiber in the United States posted revenues of $7.4 billion in 2008, according to a report by Supplier Relations US LLC. That year the United States exported $1.4 billion worth of product; imports were valued at $2.2 billion.

Globally, an ongoing trend toward reduced nylon usage began in the early 2000s, as consumer preferences shifted toward newly developed polyester/cotton blends. According to the American Chemistry Council, nylon resins sales and domestic use in North America decreased by 10 percent in 2008, reaching only 1.2 billion pounds. Demand in the automotive and electrical sectors fell by 57 percent and 62 percent, respectively. Asia continued to be a major consumer and producer of nylon, accounting for 47 percent of the world's supply and 45 percent of consumption, according to figures from Research and Markets.

Other issues affecting the industry included the publication of studies in 2007 and 2008 that showed that bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical used in the production of polycarbonate, could be a factor in such conditions as infertility, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Such publicity caused some companies to look for other materials for the manufacture of products traditionally made of polycarbonates, such as water bottles. According to a 2008 article in Sporting Goods Business, "Although concerns over BPA have been around for a few years, substitutes couldn't match the durability and clarity of polycarbonate--until now."

Industry Leaders

INVISTA B.V., a subsidiary of Koch Industries Inc., is a major producer of synthetic fibers. Its brand names include Stainmaster, Dacron, Lycra, and Thermolite. In the mid-2000s, this Kansas-based company increased its synthetic fiber operations by opening a $128-million spandex plant in China in 2006 and acquiring Honeywell's nylon 6 bulked continuous filament assets in the Asia-Pacific in 2007.

Wellman Inc., based in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, is another leading U.S. producer of synthetic fibers. In 2006 Wellman, which reported revenues of $1.3 billion and employed 1,540 workers, was also a leading global producer of polyethylene terephthalate, which are used in food and beverage packaging. In 2009 the company sold some of its fiber manufacturing facilities following its emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Milliken & Co., headquartered in Spartanburg, South Carolina, is a global leader in textile production. Its synthetic fiber operations include materials for carpet and rugs as well as specialty materials, from tennis ball coverings to apparel. Privately owned by the Milliken family, the company operated more than 55 plants worldwide in 2009. Annual sales were $2.2 billion in 2007.

Ascend Performance Materials of St. Louis, Missouri, was created in 2009 when former industry leader Solutia Inc. sold its nylon business to S.K. Capital Partners. Under its new name the company continued to manufacture nylon 66, producing finished products such as carpeting, tires, and apparel. Brands included Wear-Dated and Ultron carpet fibers.

Other conglomerates with U.S.-based operations or subsidiaries that include synthetic fibers in their wide array of product offerings include BASF Corporation, the Dow Chemical Company, and Honeywell International Inc.


Reflecting an employment decline that began in the 1980s, employment in the noncellulosic organic fiber manufacturing industry totaled 14,684 in 2007, a decrease from 18,100 in 2005. Although many jobs moved overseas to factories in low-cost regions, workforce reductions were largely a result of huge productivity gains. For instance, heavy investments in labor saving automation resulted in the elimination of many production workers. Similarly, new information systems reduced the demand for managers and support staff.

Despite unenthusiastic expectations for workforce growth, those established in the industry were relatively well paid. In 2004, for example, production workers in resin, synthetic rubber, and artificial synthetic fibers and filaments manufacturing industry averaged , which comprised about 82 percent of employees in the noncellulosic fiber sector, averaged $18.91 per hour, significantly higher than the average for all other U.S. manufacturing sectors. The highest paid workers in the business were generally scientists and engineers, particularly highly educated chemists involved with management or research and development. In 2004 chief executive officers earned an average of over $162,000 per year, and general managers made around $122,000.

America and the World

According to PCI Fibres, in the mid-2000s the largest synthetic fiber producer was Formosa Plastics Group, located in Taiwan, with 1.38 million tons in annual production, followed by Reliance Industries, of India, with 1.29 million tons. Although Yizheng Chemical Fiber Company, China's single largest synthetic fiber producer was fifth on the global list with 855,000 tons, nine of the top ten global companies had operations in China, and approximately 52 percent of all polyester worldwide was produced in China; no other country accounted for more than 10 percent.

China experienced a rapid expansion of capacity and production during the mid-2000s. According to Saurer, a textile machinery firm, China's production of polyester staple fiber jumped 21 percent during 2004 to 4.4 million tons, which accounted for 43 percent of the 10.3 million tons produced globally. In addition, China's production of polyester filament yarn increased by 22 percent.

European production of synthetic fibers continued on a downward trend during the mid-2000s. In 1982 Eastern and Western Europe held a respective 17 percent and 23 percent of market shares. By 2002, those shares had fallen to just 2 percent and 13 percent, respectively. The North American market share fell from 23 percent to 14 percent over the same time. Conversely, Asia's market share more than doubled from 30 percent in 1982 to 65 percent in 2002.

Research and Technology

Research and development in the 2000s focused on blending synthetic fibers with natural fibers to obtain the quality characteristics demanded by consumers, including breathability and noncreasing. Stain resistant fibers were especially in demand for such uses as clothing, carpeting, and car interiors. A rapidly expanding division of the synthetic fiber industry was woven and nonwoven wipes.

Although polyester grew in popularity for its durability, washability, and overall easy care, natural fibers, such as cotton, have better absorption and sweat removal qualities. As a result, in 2005 Yizheng Chemical Fiber was working on improving polyester's ability to absorb and remove moisture.

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News and information about Manmade Organic Fibers, Except Cellulosic

Top 10 Border-Crossing Industries.
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...radiotelephone. 5. Electric services. 6. Commercial banks. 7. Crude petroleum and natural gas. 8. Manmade organic fibers, except cellulosic. 9. Cigarettes. 10. Other communications services. Sources: UNCTAD; Thomson Financial Securities...
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