As technology improves and demand accelerates in areas like health care, transportation, aerospace and agriculture, China is growing rapidly in both production and consumption, especially in nonwovens.
By Chuanxiong Zhang and Pan Wei
During the past several decades, China’s industrial textiles industry has experienced a period of continuous expansion. Both scale and applications have expanded, while technology has also improved. There has been extensive involvement in a wide variety of end products, including medical treatment and public health applications, as well as construction, transportation, aerospace, agriculture and new energy initiatives. The country’s industrial textiles industry has become involved in energy-saving, high-temperature gas-filtration, waste-recycling, and high-performance fibers, such as carbon fiber Kevlar® and ultra-high molecular-weight polyethylene fiber.
As part of emerging strategic industries, the core level of the development of nonwovens in China has become an important benchmark for measuring the competitiveness of the national textile industry. With the acceleration of urbanization, industrial textiles will continue to permeate all aspects of people’s lives all around the world. Nonwoven products make up more than 35 percent of industrial textile processing (nonwoven, weaving, knitting, braiding), and more than 90 percent of the nonwoven fabric is used for industrial textiles. The versatile and innovative nature of these nonwoven fabrics make them an increasingly important raw material for industrial textiles.
Industry growth continues
The Chinese government’s five-year economic development initiatives have played a leading role in this period of rapid growth for industrial textiles. The total volume of fiber has grown, while the industry has expanded in scale. The volume of total processed fiber for industrial textiles in 2010 reached about 8.2 million tons, accounting for about 20 percent of the total industry, and nonwoven fabric output reached about 2.8 million tons.
Enterprises in industrial textiles have developed with improving supply chains. Industrial agglomeration has become more evident, and the production capacity of six Chinese provinces (including Zhejiang and Guangdong) accounted for about 80 percent of the nation’s total production capacity in 2010. A number of industrial clusters in med-tech, filter and separation textiles, geo-tech, and build-tech have formed to become a foundation for future development. Business enterprises relying on technology centers, laboratories and other research and development platforms have made contributions in technological innovation, product development and personnel training.
With the pace of industrial upgrading, some traditional large textile manufacturers have become involved in industrial textiles step-by-step, encouraging new vitality for industrial textiles on the basis of their advantages of human resources, finance technology and management. In the area of spunlaced nonwovens, there are 93 enterprises manufacturing 160 lines, of which 30 are imported. In total, production capacity has reached 0.3 million tons. For spunbond and meltblown nonwovens, there are more than 800 lines, including 40 spun-melt-spun lines with a capacity of 1.3 million tons.
Textile composite materials have played an important role in aerospace, new energy sources, and high-speed transportation applications. The application of geo-tech in the Qinghai-Tibet Railway Construction Project has successfully solved the problems of geological-plateau fracture, frozen partitions, inadequate insulation and excessive seepage. Disposable surgical clothing, masks, and other medical protection products with efficient virus-blocking properties have greatly reduced infection rates. Disposable diapers, sanitary napkins, wipes and related products have become more advanced to meet increasing domestic demand. Advanced filtration materials not only efficiently capture dust (five times more than standard materials) but can also separate precious metals, making them more valuable.
Economic recovery and growth impacts
In 2010, the whole industry began to recover from the adverse effects of the global financial crisis and entered a fast-growth path. The output of industrial textiles and nonwovens is about 8.2 and 2.8 million tons, respectively.
In 2010, as investor confidence returned, the industry experienced increased investment funds. Low-level, redundant construction has been reduced, while the actual investment of three categories of industrial textiles (rope, cable, thread; textile belts and cord; and nonwovens) reached 8.9 billion yuan, attaining a year-to-year growth of 43.4 percent. The correlating number of implementation projects, new projects, and completed projects was 378, 271, and 185, showing an increase of 3.3 percent, 4.6 percent, and 28.6 percent, respectively, compared to 2009.
In 2010, the export value of 18 categories of textiles amounted to $11 billion U.S., an increase of 19.5 percent over the previous year. Import value attained $2.46 billion U.S., with a growth of 7.9 percent. Asia has taken most of the exported items, while imported goods were mainly from the United States and Japan.
High-performance fibers, breakthrough technology
Industrial textile production is characterized by high efficiency and fast technology updates. The breakthrough of wide-width forming technology has raised the capacity of a single spunbond line from 1,000 tons to 5,000 tons, reducing overall production costs by nearly 20 percent and increasing productivity by more than 200 percent.
Chinese companies continue to invest in research and development to drive innovation. The high-performance fibers of high-strength PE, aramid, PSA, and PPS have promoted the development of bulletproof composite material, high-temperature filtration material, fire-retardant protective clothing and a variety of other end products. In addition, solvent cellulose fibers, PLA fiber, bamboo fiber, and hemp fiber from China have promoted the application of antibacterial and biodegradable medical products. Chinese hemp, which is nontoxic and makes full use of land space, does not compete for land with grain and cotton. The bast fiber used for the textile has antibacterial and anti-UV performance, and is a renewable, biodegradable and recyclable fiber.
Nonwoven technology has made a breakthrough in the areas of isotropy, uniformity, hand feel, and thickness of the products. Similarly, the progress of warp knitting and three-dimensional braid technology has broadened the field of composite-reinforcing materials, and broken the extremely difficult technical barriers of wind turbine blades, satellite frames, and rocket throat liners. High-speed heavy weaving technology and multi-layer online composite technology have promoted the industrialization of high-strength geotextiles and advanced medical materials.
Despite these advances, China’s nonwovens industry faces some challenges, including a poor link between supply and demand, expansion of end-product application fields, technology innovation, and the establishment of standards and specifications.
The country’s industrial textiles industry is still in its primary stage, with small-scale and scattered enterprises. Sales from the top 10 enterprises account for no more than 5 percent of total value of the industry. Manufacturing operations sometimes struggle with a lack of end products, shortage of advanced capacity, and poor product quality. The industry must focus on continued research as well as development of independent and innovative production techniques, especially for complicated composite technology, functional finishing, and overall molding technology.
The major industrial textiles made in China are middle- and lower-grade products and intermediate materials: Highly technical and added-value products still dependant on imports. Without an authoritative domestic testing and certification organization, it’s been difficult for Chinese industrial textiles to enter high-end markets and exports have also been restricted.
The connection between product development and market application is often poor. Factories lack knowledge of actual end-product demand; cooperative development of upstream and downstream products and processes is insufficient. It’s difficult to predict demand, especially given a serious lack of development of domestic high-end products. For example, medical textiles made in China are mainly conventional dressing; more than 90 percent of textiles for surgical implantation and external filtering depend on imports.
The international financial crisis gave birth to a new technological revolution, and has accelerated the adjustment of the international industrial structure. Developed countries seized the commanding elevation of future science, technology and industrial development by striving to develop new energy, new materials, life sciences, low-carbon environmental protection, information networks and other new industries. Industrial textiles are important basic materials in these fields; while developed countries transfer the traditional textiles to developing countries, accelerated industrial textiles becomes an important way to maintain and enhance competitiveness.
Exploring new applications and developing industrial textiles are urgent tasks as China seeks to restructure and upgrade its textile industry. Looking ahead to the next five years, China’s economy should remain stable with rapid development, and the demand for industrial textiles for various areas of the national economy will continue to expand.
With the gradual improvement of the health care system and a global concern for personal protection, disposable surgical gowns, surgical, and other protective draping, the global medical textiles market will see more than a 10 percent annual increase, and China’s disposable hygiene and medical textiles’ average annual growth rate will be more than 15 percent.
Low-carbon, efficient energy conservation and emissions reduction is becoming a new model for development. The investment cost of environmental management and recycling of resources will double. High-temperature resistance, corrosion resistance, high-performance gas filter materials, fibrous membrane filtration material, and filter material at room temperature will see increasing market demands. The potential is tremendous (with data pointing to a 20 percent growth rate before 2015) and the use of textile-structured reinforced composite materials is an effective way to respond to resource shortages and environmental pressures.
With gradual improvement of the performance of new fiber materials, a decline in cost through industrialization and large-scale application of these new fiber materials is an important basis for innovation. The gradual maturation of recycling technologies for plastic bottles and textile wastes not only significantly slashes material costs, but also reduces resource consumption and pollution emissions. The application ratio of recycled materials in geotextiles, luggage accessories, automotive compressed baffles, heating insulation materials and other industrial textiles will continue to expand, which will push the development of low-carbon environmentally protective industrial textiles.
Keys for 2011 and beyond
Chinese leaders in government, trade associations and manufacturing must continue to work together, plan for and promote growth within the industry. Within this process, industrial textiles companies will play a significant supporting role. Production processes, product standards and application requirements should connect with design and construction.
Agricultural textiles, for example, are the focus of development for the Chinese government’s initiative known as the “Twelfth Five-Year Guideline” (2011–2015). As the population increases, high-tech agricultural textiles should be supplied to guarantee that adequate food supplies can satisfy basic needs. Currently, agricultural textiles are widely applied in many fields, such as insulation, soilless culture, vertical green, pest control and more. Agricultural-release materials are used in a variety of crops as well as in fruit trees. And the light and durable water-saving irrigation, water-harvesting and water-storage materials also have a broad market.
Looking ahead, as the complexity and diversity of the industrial fabrics industry continues to build in China, the need for innovation remains critical. The wide range of applications and consumer and industrial products produced by the industry will create substantial market potentials for China.