Nonwoven Fabrics

SIC 2297

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

Included in this category are establishments that are primarily engaged in manufacturing nonwoven fabrics by mechanical, chemical, thermal, or solvent means, or by combinations thereof. Establishments that are primarily engaged in producing woven felts are classified in SIC 2231: Broadwoven Fabric Mills, Wool (Including Dyeing and Finishing). Those producing other felts are classified in SIC 2299: Textile Goods, Not Elsewhere Classified.

Industry Snapshot

The nonwoven fabrics industry was not suffering the way other segments of the U.S. textile industry were as the first decade of the twenty-first century neared a close, partly because the production of nonwoven fabrics requires a substantial capital investment and a relatively small workforce. Therefore, it is generally not an attractive industry for developing countries, such as China, where finding employment for many people is a prime objective. However, the trade publication Nonwovens Industryreported in July 2009 that this could change as "the Chinese nonwovens industry is becoming a powerful force in its own right."

In 2009, the industry's estimated 156 establishments posted annual sales of about $1.76 billion with about 10,992 employees. North Carolina led the nation with almost $1.2 billion in annual sales. In the late 2000s, the U.S. nonwoven fabrics industry benefited from the development of new end uses, replacing those in the woven and knitted sector. This category requires sophisticated, electronically controlled machinery and highly trained fabric engineers, and in almost all cases where nonwoven fabrics can be substituted for woven and knitted fabrics, the result is a less expensive product.

Organization and Structure

The industry is comprised of three different specialties, including bonded-fiber fabrics except felt, nonwoven ribbon (yarn bonded by plastic), and spunbonded fabrics. A wide variety of products are made using the nonwoven process. They are generated by textile-, paper-, or extrusion-type processes. Nonwovens produced from textile-type processes include filtration fabrics, shoe furnishings, insulation padding, apparel components, wipes, medical dressings, medical apparel, coverstock, foodservice wipes, and automotive headliner. Nonwovens from paper-type processes include tea bags, surgical drape, apparel components, air filters, premoistened towelettes, and wet wipes. Those nonwovens produced from extrusion-type processes include geotextiles for use as roadbeds and erosion prevention systems, protective clothing, reinforcement fabrics, coverstock, filtration fabrics, roofing, automobile carpet backing, laundry aids, home furnishings, and regular carpet backing. Some nonwoven products are made from a combination or hybrid of processes, including surgical drape, wound dressing, sorbent media, medical apparel, and disposable components.

Background and Development

"Nonwoven" is a generic term used to describe a fabric that is produced differently from a fabric made by weaving or, more broadly, a fabric that is different from traditional woven or knitted fabrics. Like all fabrics, nonwovens are planar structures that are relatively flat, flexible, and porous. Unlike traditional fabrics that are made by mechanically interlacing (weaving) or interlooping (knitting) yarns composed of fibers or filaments, nonwoven fabrics are made by mechanically, chemically, or thermally interlocking layers or networks of fibers, filaments, or yarns; interlocking fibers or filaments concurrent with their extrusion; perforating films; or forming porous films concurrent with their extrusion.

The nonwoven fabrics industry is international in scope. The concept of making fabrics directly from fibers on needlepunch machinery achieved commercial viability in North America and Europe in the 1920s. Facilities for producing commercial quantities of fabrics using wet-laid technology were established in the United States during the 1930s. Large-scale commercial production facilities for chemically bonded nonwovens were in operation in the United States during the early 1940s and in Europe and Japan following World War II.

Terminology used in the trade to describe nonwoven fabrics has been coined from the method used to form the web, the technology used to bond the web into a fabric, the forming/bonding combination, and the end-use application. Web formation jargon includes dry laid, carded, crosslapped, garnetted, air laid, wet laid, cylinder formed, extruded, meltblown, cast film, coformed, and flashspun. Terms associated with bonding include mechanically bonded, stitchbonded, needlefelted, needlepunched, spunlaced, jetlaced hydroentangled, apertured, chemically bonded, resin bonded, latex bonded, powder bonded, print bonded, saturated, spray bonded, foam bonded, frothed, thermal bonded, point bonded, and ultrasonically welded. Examples of forming/bonding terms for nonwovens are card/bond and spunbond. Examples of end-use application terminology are disposables, durables, semidurables, coverstock, geotextiles, filter fabric, sorbers, medical dressing, premoistened towelette, and wipe. In addition, nonwovens are often described according to their fiber content such as polyester nonwoven, rayon nonwoven, polypropylene nonwoven, cotton/polyester nonwoven, pulp/polyester nonwoven or polypropylene/pulp nonwoven. Other nonwoven terms frequently encountered include film laminate, composite, SMS, and hybrid.

The first extrusion operations dedicated to making fabrics directly from polymer melts were opened in the United States and Europe during the mid- to late 1960s. By the mid-1990s, about half of the worldwide nonwoven fabric production capacity was located in North America, a third were in Europe, and an eighth were in Japan. Capacities in these areas expanded at annual growth rates between 6 and 10 percent through both productivity improvements and the installation of new facilities. In addition, new nonwoven enterprises were being launched throughout Asia and South America. At that time, about two-thirds of all nonwovens were made directly from fibers, and one-third were made directly from polymers.

The history of technical, market, and product emphasis has occurred during the relatively short period of nonwoven industrialization. The early drive in nonwoven use emphasized replacing traditional woven and knitted fabrics. During this initial phase, proprietary technology was used not only to produce fabric structures that performed better than the items they were designed to replace, but also when traditional fabrics could not be used. As a result, new applications and markets were established, and the industry expanded.

As the industry matured and technology became publicly available, emphasis in the various sectors of the industry changed. By the mid-1990s some portions of the nonwovens industry were technology driven while others were market driven. A number of firms were proprietary technology-based while others were turnkey plant operations. Some were commodity roll-goods producers, while others were more oriented to niche markets with high value-added products. Many nonwovens producers continued the quest for new markets and more opportunities to compete with traditional textiles, papers, and plastics.

Production of nonwoven roll goods in the United States climbed over the 2.5 billion pound level for the first time in 1992. The majority of card/resinbond and card/thermalbond fabrics went into coverstock, while interlinings, wipes, and carrier sheets accounted for most of the remainder. Interlinings were one of the largest growing markets for nonwoven fabrics with 40 million pounds of fiber going to meet interlinings demand in 1995.

In the early 2000s, more than half the highloft volume was used in furniture and sleeping applications. Filtration, apparel, insulation, health care, and geotextile products accounted for most of the remainder. Stitchbond fabrics were used in bedding, shoes, and a variety of coated products. Automotive trim and geotextiles accounted for 50 to 60 percent of needlepunch fabrics. In addition, as much as two-thirds of spunlace fabrics were used in medical products. Medical product applications also accounted for about one-third of wet laid nonwovens. Finally, most bonded pulp fabrics were used as wipes or absorbent components. The largest yardage applications for spunbonds were coverstock. About half of meltblown nonwoven roll goods were used in filtration and medical applications. Porous film applications included coverstock, medical products, and laminating media. Nonwoven hybrids were used in absorbent products, wipes, filtration, and barrier applications.

One of the fastest growing segments of the nonwoven fabric industry in the 2000s was consumer wipes, including those marketed for babies, personal use, and household cleaning. Sales of wipes rose from about $1.6 billion in 2000 to nearly $2.9 billion in 2006. Baby diapers dominated the sales figures of absorbent hygiene products, accounting for about $4.2 billion of the segment's $10.67 billion.

Current Conditions

Wipes continued to be a major segment of the industry into the late 2000s, according to the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA). Ian Butler, director of research at INDA, stated in an April 2009 press release, "We are astounded at the phenomenal growth of the wipes industry, with some markets growing in the double-digit range per year." Butler also maintained that "the worldwide nonwovens industry's prospects are excellent."

INDA reported that 5.75 million tons of nonwoven roll goods (equal to 144 billion square meters) worth $20.9 billion were produced globally in 2007, up from 2.69 million tons a decade earlier. This represents an annual growth rate of about 8 percent. INDA predicted this growth would continue at least through 2012, when nonwoven roll goods production should reach 8.41 million tons.

Regarding the four basic nonwoven technologies, in terms of volume, the market share for carded technologies rose during the period from 1997 to 2007, in part due to spunlaced and needlepunched technologies. Spunlaid volume was increasing at a faster pace and surpassed carded volume in 2008. INDA attributed the growth in the spunlaid nonwovens segment to the technology's expansion into China and India.

Trends in the industry in the late 2000s included a move toward lighter materials as well as the incorporation of antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. Nonwoven companies were also dealing with an increasing public concern regarding sustainability and worked toward devising more environmentally friendly manufacturing methods and products.

Industry Leaders

Based on revenues, some of the larger companies whose primary product was nonwoven fabrics in the late 2000s were Wilmington, Delaware-based E. I. Du Pont de Nemours and Company (DuPont), with $31.8 billion in total 2008 sales; Kimberly-Clark of Irving, Texas, with $19.4 billion; Owens-Corning of Toledo, Ohio, with $5.8 billion; and Buckeye Technologies of Memphis, Tennessee, with $825.5 million. Other industry leaders included Hollingsworth and Vose Company Inc. of Walpole, Massachusetts; Johns Manville of Denver, Colorado; and Propex Fabrics of Germantown, Tennessee.

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