David Nelson was devoted to nonwoven technology at 3M when the Minnesota-based corporate powerhouse became a charter member of The Nonwovens Institute, which launched in 2007 at North Carolina State University. Nelson served on the institute’s industrial advisory board for six years, three years as chairman. He also served for six years on the board of INDA, the global trade association of the nonwovens industry.
After 40 years at 3M, Nelson retired but wasn’t ready to disengage from nonwovens technology. So he approached the institute’s director, Dr. Benham Pourdeyhimi, about a continuing relationship and now works part time with Pourdeyhimi as assistant director of industry education and engagement. As such, he has his finger on the pulse of the nonwovens industry and sees where it’s headed in applications for durable products.
“When you talk about launderable nonwovens, you are talking more about apparel or protective garments,” he says. “Durables is a large and diverse market space; apparel is probably the smallest and slowest-growing segment.
Protective garments transitioned from textiles to paper-based drapes and gowns, he says, “But as the market and technology developed, they evolved further into fabrics that are fairly durable and can be used multiple times.”
According to Nelson, a larger segment of the durable nonwovens market is building construction materials, where nonwovens are replacing paper-based products and dominating with house wraps. The transportation market also is doing well for nonwovens manufacturers.
“There are a lot of nonwovens going into automobiles for things like carpeting, the dash, ceiling, trunk lining, and sound insulation,” he says. “For a given weight, their properties are superior to anything else out there. They are replacing conventional textiles, especially for automobile seats, ceilings, and carpeting.”
Additionally, nonwovens are gaining ground in geosynthetics and agriculture. They are highly engineered to give good strength-to-weight ratio and are less expensive than their woven counterparts, Nelson says.
Although nonwovens are not the primary fabric in upholstery, they’re used a lot in the secondary area of home and office furnishings, such as carpeting substrates or backings for woven textiles that may be too drapey to hold a shape. They also are used in mattresses and, because of their printability, for wall and window coverings, as well as in the temporary signage market.
“There’s been a lot of work in the last five to 10 years to make nonwovens and print compatible,” Nelson says. “They’re replacing knits and wovens all the time.
“The biggest advantage that nonwovens have over wovens, I think, is their flexibility. They’re more cost-effective. With conventional textiles, you have to get the raw material and make it into a yarn, take the yarn to a web-forming process, and then through finishing operations. Nonwovens integrate several of those steps into one; you can go directly from polymer chip to a fabric.
“The other thing is that they are very good as composites. There’s a synergy between the two; you get less base weight and less cost for the same functionality [as wovens],” he adds.
“Today’s use of nonwovens is clearly differentiated from the early days when they were only substrates for wovens and knits. Now they stand on their own in the areas of durables and advanced application spaces that traditionally have high profit margins.”
Janice Kleinschmidt is a magazine editor and business writer based in San Diego, Calif.