The ITMA Blog

 
 

Identifying those valuable technical textile niches

by Adrian Wilson | 22 Sep, 2014

In an earlier blog for this site, Catching up since ITMA 2011, I touched on the tremendous opportunity presented by the growth of digital printing to textile manufacturers, but this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as opportunities in technical textiles are concerned.

It’s no coincidence that approaching 50% of all of the textiles now manufactured in Germany are for high-value technical end-uses, as well as a considerable percentage of those made in other European countries, and in the USA and Japan too.

The clever technical textile companies – and those who’ve survived in developed markets no longer conducive to commodity manufacturing – are those who’ve pioneered new applications.

Germany’s Freudenberg is a good case in point. As a leading nonwovens producer it tends to avoid the areas where there is too much competition – such as nonwovens for consumer wipes and absorbent hygiene products. Instead it is constantly exploring new areas with potential and invests significantly in R&D.

Water filtration
In March 2013, for example, Freudenberg acquired the UK company Aquabio, a specialist in the design and installation of turnkey systems based on membrane bioreactor (MBR) technology for wastewater recycling.

On the face of it, this would seem to have little to do with fabrics, yet a significant amount of Freudenberg’s nonwovens are now employed in such wastewater treatment systems.

They perform a vital role as the supporting materials for polymeric membranes which are so thin and fragile they can only be produced by being directly coated onto a sturdier material. The nonwoven substrate provides the membrane with the mechanical strength required to withstand the production steps through to it becoming an integral part of the finished filter unit.

These materials are specifically engineered for micro-filtration, ultra-filtration or reverse osmosis processes to suit a number of filter configurations – flat, tubular or cartridge.

Filter cartridges with pleated membranes rely on the performance of nonwovens, as supplied by Freudenberg Filtration Technologies

Filter cartridges with pleated membranes rely on the performance of nonwovens, as supplied by Freudenberg Filtration Technologies

In the continuous production process for tubular membranes, a narrow strip of the nonwoven material is wound to form a tube, welded using ultrasonics, and coated with the membrane solution. This process and the application conditions (particularly the maximum operating pressure and temperature) require nonwovens with high longitudinal and transverse strength, rigidity and good weldability. Suitability for welding in turn demands an appropriately uniform density and thickness.

Filter cartridges with pleated membranes will deliver their maximum performance only if the filter’s entire surface area can actually be used. The nonwoven fabrics make this possible by acting as ‘spacers’ between the pleats on the face side and as a drainage layer on the clean side.

Billboards and hoardings
The VDMA Textile Machinery Association has recently been carrying out detailed studies on the efficiency of the latest German machinery, as part of its ongoing Blue Competence sustainability initiative.

Among its findings is that around 400,000 tons of warp-knitted fabric is now produced each year to make large-scale advertising billboards and hoardings.

Some 3,442 square kilometres of fabrics now go into large-scale advertising billboards and hoardings each year.

Some 3,442 square kilometres of fabrics now go into large-scale advertising billboards and hoardings each year.

A particularly huge example can be currently seen at Dubai International Airport which covers an area of 20,000 square metres.

That’s the size of three full-sized football fields.

This is now a very big business, equating to around 3,442 square kilometres of fabrics each year – large enough to cover the entire metropolis of Guangzhou, the VDMA points out – and it was virtually non-existent a decade ago.

This is another good example of how manufacturers in conventional apparel textiles can often find new opportunities by turning their attention to technical applications.

Protection
DuPont is a corporation that constantly moves away from commodity manufacturing, to the extent that it largely said goodbye to the textile industry with the sale of its textile-related fibre brands to Invista a decade ago.

Yet DuPont was not surprisingly reluctant to let go of a number of its proprietary high-value fibre brands such as Kevlar and Nomex aramid and Tyvek polyethylene, all of which are employed in high value-added technical applications.

Though it departed the textile industry some time ago, DuPont held on to its high-value brands like Kevlar

Though it departed the textile industry some time ago, DuPont held on to its high-value brands like Kevlar

Over one million bullet-resistant vests made with the company’s latest Kevlar XP fabric, for example, have been sold globally since the advanced material was launched in 2008, making DuPont still a very significant manufacturer of technical textiles.

Biomedical textiles
But success stories aren’t just restricted to major corporations like Freudenberg and DuPont.

A number of highly specialised companies such as Biomedical Structures (BMS), based in Warwick, Rhode Island, are now making biomedical textiles with customised structures.

Biomedical textiles as supplied by BMS are increasingly replacing traditional rigid materials like metals in medical devices

Biomedical textiles as supplied by BMS are increasingly replacing traditional rigid materials like metals in medical devices

These are increasingly replacing traditional rigid materials like metals in medical devices – providing life saving grafts, heart valves, spinal stabilisation and artificial ligaments, to name but four applications that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago.

BMS is employing the full range of fabric technologies for its customised products for this market, including braided, knitted, woven and nonwoven products based on special medical fibres. We’re not talking about thousands of square metres, of course, but very highly-priced engineered components.

Absorbable and permanent biocompatible textiles can be tailored to provide major benefits such as strength and flexibility, as well as ease-of-use for surgeons and improved patient outcomes.

The performance and value of such materials have become critical in the medical industry as a result of a number of challenges. Changing patient demographics and expectations, for example, are adding new pressures to already strained healthcare systems globally. Highly informed patients are becoming more demanding and people are living longer, putting more pressure on services.

Changing economics have taken their toll as well. Two decades of steady healthcare cost increases followed by a global economic recession have had a marked impact on all companies engaged in the delivery of healthcare products and services. And there’s no question that tighter management of healthcare costs will be paramount in the future.

But it’s not just these macroeconomic and demographic forces that are honing the industry’s focus on performance and value. Sophisticated new treatment options are fuelling the need for medical tools and technologies with higher performance characteristics.

Surgeons are embracing minimally invasive approaches to cardiovascular and orthopaedic procedures, for example, and require smaller, stronger and more flexible materials to promote those treatments. They are also looking beyond approaches that simply support, replace or repair damaged tissue, cartilage and bone and to those that actively re-grow or restore them.

Not surprisingly then, biomaterial innovations are capturing the attention, and while fabrics, textiles and plastics made from biomaterials for orthopaedic implants and other medical applications have been around for more than half a century, it’s only recently that they’ve been going into the body.

‘Colour catchers’
Some very unique products in an entirely different field have meanwhile been developed by the Italian company Orsa, drawing on northern Italy’s heritage in finishing and a specialisation in the production of microfibres.

They include so-called ‘colour catcher fabrics’ – the strips that are employed in household washing machines to capture any loose dye particles and ensure clothing comes out the same colour as it went in. The effect relies on a cationic resin which is impregnated and thermofixed into the fabrics. Other household products made by the company include strips for tumble dryers that are impregnated with perfumes and fabric softeners, in addition to anti-static treatments.

Italy’s Orsa has developed brightly coloured and attractive microfibre nonwoven fabrics that are being employed, among other things, in beach robes

Italy’s Orsa has developed brightly coloured and attractive microfibre nonwoven fabrics that are being employed, among other things, in beach robes

Orsa has also developed brightly coloured and attractive microfibre nonwoven fabrics that can, in many cases, replace cotton layers, being moisture managing and wind resistant due to their very closed structures. Other wool-containing products have been double-printed on both sides as entirely crease-free blankets and similar items. Laminates of 60% merino wool and 40% microfibres meanwhile, combine breathability and warmth to make them similar in performance to Gore-Tex-type products, but much less expensive.

Industrial niche range
BWF Protec is a family-owned company with 60 employees based in Hof in Northern Bavaria and involved in so many industrial niche markets its range of needlepunched nonwoven fabrics is perhaps the widest available from any single source.

Industries supplied with its materials range from the aerospace, automotive and transportation sectors to aluminium, glass and steel plants and on to the furniture, protective clothing, medical equipment and grinding and polishing markets.

The staple fibres which it processes include all natural and conventional synthetics, in addition to high value performance fibres such as Nomex, Kevlar, Panox, Kermel, Basofil, Sigrafil, P84, Kynol, PTFE and Zylon. The company even manufactures certain products with Bekinox stainless steel fibres, in addition to many special blends.

In some applications, low melt fibres are introduced into its production and once activated, make a fabric that’s rock-hard like wood and produced in thicknesses of up to twenty five millimetres.

One application for such materials is as a manufacturing component in the systems used to press steel.

A second application is as the protector pads on the tips of chair-legs which ensure there is no scratching on wooden or marble floors.

Who would have thought that such an application for technical textiles existed?

Or that it was profitable enough to be worth pursuing?

Yet the market is both substantial and highly valued – that’s often the secret to success in the niche market manufacturing of technical textiles.