One of the biggest challenges to overcome in the apparel market is limitation on fit and conformability in nonwovens, so a major issues to address in the future is the development of two-way stretch and more conformable nonwovens. Stephanie Earley, marketing development manager, Elastic Nonwovens for Kraton Performance Polymers Inc. has seen increased customer focus on this issue with demand created by specialty applications of nonwovens that come into direct contact with skin. On the other hand, Sterile Barrier Systems (SBS)—which include sterilization wrap, overwrap and pouches—use a significant amount of nonwoven materials. SBS are designed to protect the integrity of sterilized products/instruments in the hospital environment and are used during transportation of surgical instruments from room to room. However, in this product group, there is less demand for comfort and more for strength and durability.
Nonwovens are also turning up in smaller niche applications, where the volume component will be less, yet cost pressures will also be less since they represent higher valued targets. Product offerings in this category are those supporting Advanced Wound Care (AWC), as well as traditional bandages, pressure garments and prosthetics. In addition, nonwovens are being deployed for implantable devices such as sutures, vascular grafts and artificial ligaments. Nonwovens are also beginning to play a role in extracorporeal devices, such as artificial lungs, hearts and kidneys, as well as ligament repairs and other skeletal scaffolds, yet these are still rare compared with their other uses16.
Within the wound care industry, the goal is to create thinner dressings that have similar absorption to the properties of foam dressings. Thinner dressings are less bulky and more comfortable for the patient. Due to the absorption properties of nonwovens, there is potential to replace foams as the material of choice for the absorption layer. “At the moment, foams continue to be used as the reservoir layer for multilayer moist wound care dressings,” says Anne Havens, marketing/sales from Creative Foam Medical Systems, Bremen, IN. “However, as the market develops, the desire for a thin, absorbent material with improved physical properties, and superior to foam, is growing. Absorbent materials with physical properties such as vertical wicking, low-to-no swelling, increased wet physical properties such as tear and tensile strength, are desirable for AWC, and will be increasingly in demand.”
Remote surface monitoring technologies incorporated into future medical products, specifically those utilizing nonwoven materials, would be advantageous and provide opportunities for improved patient care longer term. For example, if monitoring technologies were included in advanced wound care dressings, in addition to antimicrobial agents currently used to minimize the potential for infections, it would provide the ability to assess the speed and progress of wound healing; these are key performance indicators for the nursing staff. Similarly, if antimicrobial components are embedded into materials used to manufacture hospital bed mattresses, covers and linens, the potential for infection transmission would be reduced too. Furthermore, there are opportunities to include other “smarter” technologies in nonwoven materials resulting in “active” surfaces that prevent the occurrence of pressure ulcers; pressure ulcers are considered a “NEVER” event in the healthcare space, and as such reportable and non-reimbursable. Finally, developing alarm alert systems for the incontinence market, including antimicrobial agents in all products, would minimize the potential for infections, and diminish other common issues linked to this condition17,18. Areas of opportunity for growth in nonwoven products exist even within the U.S. market, for example, in Home Health and Ambulatory Care Centers. These segments present a set of unique, unmet needs. Avery Dennison proposed the idea for soft and comfortable nonwoven bed sheets that function as cotton but are disposable and are at a lower price point than current bed sheets. In aging populations, there is a higher risk of incontinence, which leads to increased opportunities for infections, unless appropriate laundering takes place; hence disposable sheets would have a key role to play. More Voice of the Customer (VOC) is required to establish the exact product requirements. There is, however, speculation that the home healthcare market will continue to grow beyond simple bandages and pain management, as healthcare protocols and treatments are aligned closer to the Point of Care (POC).