The technical textiles market works its way back to prerecession production.
By Adrian Wilson
The birth and evolution of the technical textiles sector was largely a result of more companies in industrialized nations altering the nature of their businesses because they could no longer compete on price. They sought, instead, to exploit skills, investment capital, materials, processes and equipment not readily available to their emerging competitors.
By 2008, when researching and writing the second edition of my report on this sector, the majority of these companies had good reason for optimism and were anticipating continued growth—whether organic or through acquisitions—based on record performances during 2007.
The overall market for technical textiles was estimated to have an annual value of $60 billion in 2007, with growth of 3.8 percent per year experienced every year since 1985. But the global recession was already underway and it is now evident that most of the companies featured in that 2008 report, with some exceptions, have been trying to get back to where they were in 2007 ever since.
The recession years of 2008 and 2009 really taxed the ingenuity of these already highly resilient companies to the extreme—to the extent that virtually all but the very strongest were obliged to make structural changes and cutbacks, inevitably moving more manufacturing operations to lower-cost countries.
There has also been a will to simplify and streamline operations as much as possible, and to shed those businesses deemed “noncore”—primarily to private equity investors. A striking example of this is in the separation of long-established nonwoven fabric businesses that previously supplied both industrial markets with semidurable products and the consumer hygiene market with materials for disposables. Ahlstrom Corp., Fiberweb PLC and Fibertex Nonwovens A/S are among the major companies who’ve either recently separated their hygienic disposables businesses or sold them altogether, effectively cutting in half their previous structures.
Meanwhile, growth by bolt-on acquisition—a regular practice in the years up to 2008—has been largely abandoned by the majority of companies. The end-use markets mostly affected by the recession were primarily the automotive and building/construction sectors, as car sales plunged to a record low and infrastructure projects stalled, even in higher-growth developing economies. Ironically, this put companies with a wider spread of markets in a better position to cope with the recession, even as they were narrowing their focus.
In Europe—defined as the European Union, the European Free Trade Association and Turkey—the production of technical textiles certainly peaked in 2007 (Table 1). And if the European Manmade Fibers Association (CIRFS) forecast is accurate, output will not quite have returned to that 2007 level by 2017.
The importance of the European sector is underlined by the fact that, excluding Turkey, 38 percent of total fiber consumption is for technical textile end uses, with 95 percent of it in synthetic fibers. In Germany, technical textiles now account for more than 50 percent of total textile production.
Technical textiles are equally significant to the U.S., a market worth an estimated US$25-30 billion annually. Demand is emerging particularly in the e-health and medical sectors, as well as in protective fabrics of all description. The U.S. military is driving many developments, as it continues to be involved in conflicts in troubled regions.
The largest growth, however, is now found in developing markets, in the Far East, especially China, and also in Turkey.
Performance and function
Customers for technical textiles are often seeking products with highly specific performances and functions and will pay a premium for them. Traditional qualities such as aesthetics and handle are, at best, secondary considerations. Conversation between the customer and the supplier discussing precise requirements of the product is necessary.
These precise application-specific requirements mean that technical textile products belong to niche, rather than mass, markets. Manufacturers of technical textiles, therefore, have to think in terms of relatively small runs and the ability to flexibly change production among a range of often quite different products.
Because of their high degree of functionality, technical textile products also require manufacturers to develop and/or exploit technical knowledge and innovative manufacturing processes. Computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) play a relatively large role in the sector, for instance, as do the latest coating and laminating techniques, the electro-spinning of fibers, bi-component fibers, composites, plasma treatments, biotechnology and, most recently, nanotechnology and smart materials.
Manufacturers of technical textiles need to be aware of these developments, if not actively involved in them, and be able to exploit them to make the sorts of products their customers need. Inevitably, this approach requires a higher commitment to research and development. Further, to protect these investments, companies making technical textiles have needed to learn more about intellectual property rights (IPR).
A number of the companies profiled in my latest report illustrate this point, particularly DuPont, which in 2011 alone was granted 910 new U.S. patents, breaking the previous U.S. record it had set for itself in 1966 with 780 patents. In fact, DuPont’s revenue from new products introduced after 2008 was more than $10.6 billion in 2011.
Another key element in the success of a technical textile product is that customers must have confidence in its functionality claims. In the field of protective clothing for the military, for example, leading supplier TenCate points out that although its direct customers are mostly producers and distributors of industrial clothing, specifications are determined to a large extent by the end users of these materials.
The tightening of safety requirements in work situations has led to greater demand for high-quality protection in recent years and the personal protection market is now based on stringent European and North American standards. These have been drawn up for various industries, and TenCate is not alone in developing tailor-made products for them.
Consequently, far more so than in the traditional textiles sector, manufacturers must demonstrate these properties using testing (preferably by independent laboratories) and standards. They must also ensure consistency of the products through quality control. If these criteria are met successfully, the manufacturer is able to charge a premium because demonstrable functionality equates to added value.
In parallel with dealing with the effects of the recession years has been the growing call, often accompanied by restrictive legislation, for more environmentally friendly processes and products—especially within the European Union. This additional pressure, though, has proved beneficial to many companies that, in closely monitoring their operations, have found more economical practices and methods of cutting costs. It’s fair to say that, for most, sustainable practices now have little to do with altruism but have become an essential component of strategy.
Environmental issues, however, also suggest many possibilities for the future growth of the technical textiles industry. As the basis for composites, for example—whether carbon, glass fiber or natural fiber construction—there is now a considerable push toward more lightweight vehicles, which is likely to see the wider adoption of technical textile-based components. The heavy involvement of, among others, BMW, General Motors and Mercedes, suggests this will become a significant area of growth.
Typical hybrid electric vehicles contain between 50 and 70 batteries, plug-in electric vehicles with range-extending motors have 80 to more than 200, and fully electric vehicles carry 150 batteries or more. If this market takes off to the extent that is being predicted, the technical textile battery separator market will also become considerable.
Similar opportunities exist in alternative energy and fuel markets such as solar power, wind and hydrogen, while telehealth, another major emerging market, is likely to become increasingly important. Hopefully, there will be no more time slips any time soon.