Asia Pacific is fast growing in its use of nonwovens. China, in particular, is in the midst of overhauling its approach to healthcare, supported by its buoyant economy. The penetration of single use medical nonwovens is linearly related to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and is a helpful, leading indicator for the market5. GDP in China expanded 1.8% in the first quarter of 2012 over the previous quarter, yet as such represented a three-year low position6.
Currently, although the manufacturing footprint for nonwovens is one that straddles many continents, China is now the leading global exporter of nonwoven roll goods; 51% of U.S. imports are coming from either the European Union or China5. “China has a strong converting industry that is prepared to supply finished goods. So the key question that remains unanswered currently is: how will the change happen, gradually?” says Valeria Erdos, product manager, Drape, Gown and Apparel, at Ahlstrom. “Will it be sudden? Convert by product segment? And most importantly, what kind of regulations will be put in place in these new markets?’”
In the future, manufacturing, converting and use of nonwovens in the “home” market are considered potential opportunities for growth. They certainly make use of the footprint of nonwoven equipment already deployed in Asia and eliminate navigating the tortuous supply chain process to place products for sale in the U.S. market. There are numerous factors that need to be overcome by U.S. distributors, namely, navigating the geopolitical instabilities, increasing regulations, remote suppliers and the challenges with labor and currency issues and, most significantly, unpredictable fuel costs7.
Key Definitions in Medical & Hygiene Markets
Nonwovens used in medical products are designed for two purposes: firstly, to be low cost to aid in one-time use scenarios; and secondly, to perform 100% of the time8. The design and performance characteristics are driven by their end use, the need to meet the desired functionality, barrier, absorption, strength and the fact that any chemical additives need to be biocompatible; these products will come into close contact with the human body.
The cost of nonwovens, since they are typically polypropylene based, is highly dependent on the cost of raw materials (e.g., oil) and the manufacturing process itself, primarily its productivity. In addition, since much of the protective apparel market has to meet given standards in terms of performance, the products need to meet the regulations stipulated by the local approving body (e.g., FDA in the U.S. or the CE—European Conformity mark—in Europe) to achieve the appropriate approvals for sale.
The claims surrounding the final end product need to be approved, not the input materials. This fact alone has resulted in slow moving improvements to nonwovens; the suppliers alone cannot manage or steer the approval process. The convertors need to seek the required approval, and appropriate classification for labeling of the final product.
Opportunities for Material Advancements
New manufacturing processes lead to improved and enhanced finishing processes. The nonwoven process itself allows for a great deal of manipulation and creativity in the way in which the outputs can be delivered. Process changes are not limited to only one variable. They include combinations of resin type and mixture, as well as fiber size, shape, morphology, density and thickness, including spatial formation together with fillers and topical or embedded treatments that can in combination deliver a variety of performance characteristics designed to meet a range of final end user product specifications9,10.
Nanotechnology has been a technology on the horizon, waiting for an opportunity for many years, with the premise that it would have a significant and positive impact in the field of nonwovens. The expectation has been the ability to add topical coatings with active nanoparticles or to add active nanoparticles to the melt so as to embed them subsurface (in both cases producing equivalent activity from reduced concentrations). Alternatively, others have considered creating nanofibers with more surface area, leading to an increase in overall density of a nonwoven without increasing raw material usage or adding additional weight.