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Narrow fabrics market outlook

Feature, Markets | March 1, 2012 | By:

Flexibility, versatility and value help keep the narrow fabrics industry on track.

For at least 15 years, the U.S. textile industry, and to some extent the European industry as well, has been plagued with a variety of financial onslaughts, leading to considerable losses in labor and output. But reports from the Department of Commerce have also made it clear that different parts of the industry have been affected differently.

If you remove apparel, home goods and many textile commodities from the equation, the outlook changes. According to our 2012 State of the Industry report (published in the February issue of the Review), overall business and sales figures improved in 2011 for many segments of the specialty fabrics industry—especially for companies that implemented production and distribution efficiencies and are focused on value and product innovation. Growth is especially strong in markets such as construction, transportation, recreation and the military.

U.S. specialty fabrics manufacturers do have opportunities in the national and global marketplace, and narrow fabrics suppliers are holding their own as well, finding both traditional and novel applications in areas such as aerospace, automotive, emergency response, industrial , medical, military and safety and protective applications … using fibers and fabrics ranging from organics to thermoplastics to a variety of high-performance synthetic materials.

Structural resilience

Hans Reiser, executive vice president of Jakob Müller of America Inc. in Charlotte, N.C., agrees with that premise. “While the infrastructure of the U.S. textile industry has shrunk drastically over the last decade, the narrow fabrics industry has remained very resilient. Especially, small to mid-size companies have found their niches.”

Reiser’s Swiss firm has weathered market turbulence for more than a century. Today, Jakob Müller produces a multitude of machines for weaving and knitting, dyeing and finishing, printing and coating, software systems and more. But economic uncertainty remains a challenge for Jakob Müller and its customers. Hard times have forced staffing cuts and restructuring, which also have resulted in leaner organizations. Reiser says the decline of the U.S. dollar led to price adjustments that “could only partially be retrieved.”

“The upside of this situation, however, is that now our industry has become very price competitive,” he observes. “Combined with great U.S. worker productivity improvements, we see now the trend that our industry is becoming highly competitive and can (to some degree) even compete again against Asian imports.”

“Ever since the difficult year 2009,” Reiser adds, “we see an ever-growing positive trend of business returning to our hemisphere.”

Material advantages

This sense of optimism also persists at AEC Narrow Fabrics (formerly Asheboro Elastic Corp.) in Asheboro, N.C. According to Gifford Del Grande, director of specialty products, AEC “made substantial capital investments in expansion, technology, equipment and staffing” during the last two years at plants in El Salvador and in North Carolina, where 47 people were added in 2011.

Maintaining good communication with clients and vendors has been instrumental in streamlining company operations. “When the economy experienced a downturn, many companies had excess raw material and finished goods inventories. It took a long time to work those inventories down.”

In Del Grande’s view, companies must strike a balance between meeting customer needs and limiting products on hand. AEC achieves this by working closely with suppliers to “ensure readily available raw materials,” which has had a positive impact on domestic manufacturing.

The investments in new machinery have enabled a considerable transformation. “Although we got our start working with basic polyester fibers and still use them, we’re embracing the more challenging fibers such as the aramids, glass, carbon fiber, PEEK [used in wire harness and hose braiding applications], etc.”

New materials increase AEC’s opportunities and stimulate the inventiveness of its R & D teams. “Creating something brand new is always inspiring,” says Del Grande, “and perhaps our best motivation is to achieve a challenge that has eluded others.”

Seeking skills

Wendy Horowitz at American Cord & Webbing Co. Inc., Woonsocket, R.I., believes that fewer qualified workers are available to narrow fabrics employers. “Manufacturing jobs haven’t been on the forefront and fewer and fewer people are going for them … It’s not a career path that people are taking.”

Her own substantial experience, including more than 25 years in the narrow fabrics industry, can be traced to degrees obtained in textile technology and textile management from Philadelphia University and North Carolina State University. Both institutions still support textile programs.

According to Horowitz, “People don’t know how to read specifications and weave diagrams any more.” Competitions such as the annual Safety Products Student Design Challenge—sponsored by IFAI’s Safety and Technical Products division and Narrow Fabrics Institute, and in which she has been instrumental—may spur interest among the next generation of college graduates. However, these opportunities won’t “correct the problem of floor workers” who require other skill sets.

At Wayne Mills Co. Inc. in Philadelphia, Pa., president Martin Heilman says that success is dependent upon the right training. High-speed needle looms working cotton and polyester yarns are essential to Heilman’s operation, which has been in business for five generations and now boasts 80,000 square feet of facility space. The firm primarily creates basic woven narrow fabrics, with a workforce of 60 people.

“The bulk of our employees are hired at the ground-floor level. Our supervisors and department managers all come up through the ranks from the bottom,” Heilman says. As they ascend the company ladder, staff members—some of whom have 25 years of experience—carry the fundamentals of products and procedures with them, creating a deep knowledge base.

“We added a dye range in 2006 to add to our skein dyeing capabilities. New markets and customers were leaning towards wider goods,” Heilman says. Updates and changes in production methods, in turn, require his frontline employees to be familiar with electronic equipment. Admittedly, he adds, “Today most of it makes the job easier to do.”

Coming and going

Most sources say that they obtain most of their raw materials from domestic suppliers. Manuel Avila, president of Avila Textiles Inc.. in North Dighton, Mass., estimates that 90 percent of his materials are from U.S. sources. Avila Textiles exports products all over the U.S., U.K. and Canada, including elastics for the aerospace and medical industries.

Flexibility in the company’s production methods allows them to offer both small and large runs, depending on the client’s needs. Avila says that a strong emphasis on technology is necessary to meet new customer demands and to eke out company growth. His clients are requiring “lighter, stronger, and more durable” fabrics, including flame-retardant treatments.

“The only raw material we import in large quantities is latex,” reports AEC’s Del Grande, “but that is only because there is no domestic production. Many of our products are exported to Mexico, other Central American countries, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.”

His company’s U.S. facility in central North Carolina collaborates with the textile program at North Carolina State University, “an advantage for our R & D team as it works with newer fibers and technologies.” But AEC’s reach is much broader. “We have distribution facilities in Mexico and Central America, as well as a strategic knitting operation in Europe with a key client.”

Bob Martin, sales executive at Lea & Sachs Inc., Des Plaines, Ill., is circumspect about the future. His company has been in business for more than 70 years, delivering innovative elastics, cords, webbing and more to military, automotive, and other industrial clients.

“Our biggest challenge in going forward is uncertainty in the cost of raw materials and the continuity of sources of supply. Narrow fabrics is a fairly small market in the textile world. We aren’t the ones keeping yarn suppliers and dye houses in business. So even if our business is good, they may shut down because of their other business.”

In Avila’s more blunt assessment: “We need to apply restrictions [on behalf of] our United States manufacturers to survive.”

Future strategy

Bill Joos, vice president of operations with Lawrence Schiff Silk Mills Inc., Quakertown, Pa., exudes a sense of confidence informed by the realities of the industry. Founded as a family business in 1918, the company produces a variety of ribbon as well as lightweight industrial binding tapes and specialty items for the packaging industry.

According to Joos, Lawrence Schiff’s performance and distribution of lightweight products abroad is heavily influenced by the compliance requirements of both NAFTA and the Berry Amendment. Among other things, the company offers a value-added process in printing, including the digital camouflage used in ammo belts and backpacks.

“Commercial grade textiles,” Joos says, “are certainly subject to imports.” However, as a manufacturer of MIL-SPEC products for the federal government, his company is attuned to deliberations in Washington, D.C. “We have no idea what political decisions will take place that might affect military contracts.” The recent U.S. exit from activities in Iraq, the tenuous commitment to a presence in Afghanistan, and projected defense cuts reported in the mainstream press are likely to have an impact on many firms serving military clients.

Alternate markets may see more competition, and Joos believes that buying American-made goods and growth in the outdoor and recreation markets would help many U.S. manufacturers. Federal funds directed to infrastructure would also put construction firms to work on buildings and roadways.

“If we see construction go up,” notes Joos, “we see an increased demand for safety equipment and their components.” Lawrence Schiff provides nylon tape used for suspension webbing in helmets and colored products for safety vests.

Tom Sutkins, a production manager at Lawrence Schiff, finds that post-consumer recycling has become a key issue. Customers are more focused on smart packaging practices and apt to request natural materials. “Leaving a smaller global footprint is more important,” he says. Producing locally can help accomplish that goal. “Everything we do nowadays has an impact on the entire world.”

Lea & Sachs’ Bob Martin points to other concerns. “There is a lot of pressure to keep inventories minimal throughout the supply chain, which means that lead times are longer from our suppliers, while our customers are demanding shorter lead times because their inventories are smaller.”

Because narrow fabrics are so essential to so many other products, Martin believes that demand will remain steady. And what of the history of off-shoring? “The cost savings of off-shore manufacturing carries risk and uncertainty of its own,” he says. “So I think there will continue to be domestic demand. We’ve seen some business return because of the realities of off-shore production.”

Bill Joos believes that the more immediate innovations will be in materials rather than production technique. He best summarizes a prevailing industry sentiment: “Are we forecasting a banner year? Probably not. Do we think we’ll keep up with last year? Yes.”

For 2012: cautious optimism.

John Gehner is a freelance writer and editor based in Urbana, Ill.

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