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Nonwovens – Airlaid, A Pioneer

Nonwovens – Airlaid, A Pioneer

By Susan Stansbury, Industry Consultant (contact/bio on LinkedIn)

This begins Part 1 of three articles about those fantastically creative nonwovens fabrics. I begin with airlaid nonwovens, somewhat associated with paper and its heavy use of pulp cellulose. Below: some history, some mechanics, and features of airlaid driving market success.

Woman wiping face cloth

First, it helps to know what are nonwovens?

  • Nonwovens substrates are neither papers nor wovens (wovens are textiles such as cotton fabrics). They were developed from two different approaches…textile mills trying to create a lower cost textile and paper manufacturers trying to create a more “textile-like” paper.
  • According to ISO terminology, a nonwoven is a manufactured sheet, web, or batt of directionally or randomly orientated fibers, bonded by friction, and/or cohesion and/or adhesion, excluding paper and products which are woven, knitted, tufted, stitch-bonded incorporating binding yarns or filaments, or felted by wet-milling, whether or not additionally needled. The fibers may be of natural or man-made origin.
  • Nonwovens have a special ability to be “designed” whereas other textiles and papers are more limited. Papers generally are manufactured using one stream of pulp in the process. In contrast, nonwovens can include three or more streams of fibers, plus additives in the manufacturing process.

Airlaid Nonwovens Origins

It is generally asserted that the former James River mill in Green Bay, WI, was the first to commercially manufacture airlaid nonwovens. On the other side of town Fort Howard Paper Company was developing airlaid materials in the same era. These materials came out of the Danish Inventor Karl Kroyer’s efforts in the 1980s and manufacturing was referred to as “the Kroyer method.” Because of the use of pulp in the process, early materials were called air-formed paper or airlaid paper. Using special “fluff pulp,” the airlaid was made using about 80-85 percent pulp and a latex-like binding material.

James River and Fort Howard together became Fort James, and later Georgia Pacific became the owner of the Green Bay facilities with the primary aim to acquire the tissue branded products including toilet paper and napkins. Though the airlaid roll goods materials were a profitable unit, it was quite small compared to the tissue volume where the emphasis was on the consumer tissue brands including Brawny®, Angel Soft®, Vanity Fair®, Mardi Gras Napkins and Quilted Northern® items. When I worked there around year 2000, we were 23 salaried and airlaid management people in a small separate building across the way from the 2,000 across the street where our airlaid machines were lost among the giant tissue machines.

Some of the Fort Howard expertise went to another entrant in the airlaid industry, developing operations in Canada as Merfin, and later, Buckeye Technologies. Buckeye was acquired by Georgia Pacific in 2013 and later all airlaid operations were moved from Green Bay to Tennessee and North Carolina.

In 2021 Glatfelter purchased those airlaid operations. (Glatfelter had once had a paper mill in Neenah, WI, which had originally been a Bergstrom mill dating to 1904.) Now, Glatfelter is the airlaid leader in the Americas (also having other global operations). In 2021, Glatfelter’s overall sales exceeded $1 billion. As reported by Nonwovens Industry, Glatfelter was able to increase market demand despite the effects from pandemic-driven inflation and global supply-chain disruptions. The company became a leading engineered materials company by accelerating growth through acquisitions.

Back in the early 2000s, installation of new airlaid machines led to over-capacity. However, the airlaid nonwovens market is now set to grow 7.7 percent annually to 2027, according to a Smithers Report. Wisconsin companies are major of converters of airlaid-based products ranging from specialty napkins, to dry wipers and baby wet wipes.

Nonwovens Industry Associate Editor Tara Olivo states that last year airlaid markets were valued at about $21 billion.
“Among the factors driving the market forward are global growth in the wipes sector, the increasing use of period care products in developing countries and the rapid rise in the aging population in developed countries—leading to more users of adult incontinence products. Additionally, airlaid producers are looking outside of these traditional markets for growth,” said Olivo.

In the U.S. and Europe, airlaid also plays a roll in napkins and rolled wraps around restaurant silverware.
According to Murray Godwin of Northern Engraving and Machine, it participates in wipes, hygiene, medical, automotive, bagging, and packaging products where embossed patterns can be applied.
Embossed-patterned baby wipes in tubs were the first sizeable product category.

Global consumption of airlaid is expected to rise from 574,750 tons in 2022 to 768,800 tons in 2027, according to The Future of Airlaid Nonwovens to 2027, the report from Smithers.

Properties of nonwovens which are tested or evaluated include:

  • Determination of thickness
  • Determination of tensile strength, tear resistance and elongation
  • Determination of absorbency rate, capacity, and retention of liquid
  • Determination of time for liquid strike-through and liquid run-off
  • Amount of drape and softness
  • Amount of linting
  • Ability to incorporate additives such as antibacterials and superabsorbents
  • Hand is the way the fabric feels when it is touched–like softness, crispness, dryness, silkiness.

Summary of Airlaid Properties

  • Can be embossed, printed and incorporate synthetic fibers
  • Strength varies, with mix of fibers & thickness; not as strong as many other nonwovens
  • Can be produced in thin or thick versions. For example, thickness is high for pads.
  • Drape, such as for table materials, is somewhat dependent on use of the adhesive-like binder.
  • Can be highly absorbent when designed for pads (panty liners etc.) and wipers.
  • Linting can be somewhat controlled.
  • Can have a “two-sided” appearance & properties with different forming head fiber feeds.
  • Currently, special interest in airlaid due to designing without plastics and synthetic fibers.

With the current growth in airlaid nonwovens output, there are still many options for new abilities, product line extensions, and categories.

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