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A.Celli interviews Matt Carey: an outlook on the nonwovens industry during COVID-19

COVID-19 | Simone Morgantini, 4 June 2020

The COVID-19 emergency has put the world into a tailspin. However, this situation proved to be an advantage for the nonwovens industry, which has had to significantly ramp up the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) that healthcare staff, first responders, and other essential workers need. In addition to that, the rise in the use of facemasks by the general public has added to the demand.

At A.Celli, we wanted to get an overall view of what effects the COVID-19 pandemic and the demands that come with it are having on the nonwovens industry and market. And for that, we talked with Matt Carey, publisher at Nonwovens Industry, who has had the possibility to keep a close eye on the market and the industry as a whole and has some light to shed on what has been happening.

Q: How is the nonwovens market responding to the current emergency situation?

A: The nonwovens industry is, in some ways, uniquely suited to prosper in these emergency times. Other markets, such has automotive, filtration and apparel, are meeting headwinds right now and could experience some turmoil this year. However, as raw material prices remain at historically low levels, nonwovens remain a highly efficient and competitive value, so I expect to see positive results returning to these and other areas by 2021.

Q: Tell us more about the consumer demand of hygiene, medical and wipes and how that’s driving nonwovens production.

A: The hygiene, medical and wipes legs of our industry are all running at high capacity because consumer demand has surged in these areas. So heavy is the demand for meltblown, the primary fabric for face masks, that leading technology supplier Reicofil has publicly committed to a six-month delivery to assuage eager customers.

David Price of the consulting firm Price Hanna reports in one of the Nonwovens Industry webinars, “Adjusting to the Health & Hygiene Future”, how hygiene markets have experienced a similar surge this year as stockpiling has pushed a significant amount of SS/SMS suppliers into full utilization.

Q: In what ways are industry players responding to the increase in demand?

A: Aside from ramping up production, there is an increasing focus on near-sourcing, which is the act of developing more localized supply chains. This is projected to have a strong effect on nonwovens production. In the same webinar, Pricie Hanna focuses on how the so-called “strategic supply" of pandemic resources will shift the weight of spunmelt manufacturing back toward Europe and North America, assuring continued world-wide investment in localized capacity. This comes even as Chinese investment also grows rapidly for domestic consumption.

This process is also detailed in an exclusive interview given by David Parks of Berry Global to Editor Karen McIntyre. In the segment, Parks narrates the re-deployment of his company’s global spunmelt assets to meet this demand and describes the kind of capacity increases he feels will be necessary to meet future requirements, both in medical markets and also in wipes where spunbond is playing an increased role in disinfectant markets. Between wipes and medical markets, the evidence suggests that the stress on available spunmelt supply will challenge the otherwise steady supply for hygiene products, even as manufacturers and brands try to balance their resources for evolving consumer preferences.

Q: Despite the emergency, how do you expect the market to evolve in the near future, in terms of things like new trends, investments and products?

A: As this situation develops and even when the COVID-19 pandemic will subside, there will be continued world-wide investment in the hygiene, medical and wipes markets. Spunbond, meltblown, spunlace and airlaid capacity should continue to grow and find increased efficiencies from technology.

Not only that, but raw materials will encounter new opportunities and challenges in shifting sourcing patterns as the producers themselves look increasingly to near-source, seeking more local sources for fibers and chemicals. 

We are in the “new normal”. Manufacturers are forecasting growth in some areas where new consumer hygiene habits – masks, disinfectants – represent a permanent, or nearly permanent factor in nonwovens production. At the same time, disposable hygiene goods have withstood the test of the pandemic shock; they were among the “essentials” that consumers hoarded in March and April 2020.

Q: How do you think the economy will affect these trends?

A: While a global recession is forecast for the next 12 months, according to our sources, the primary affect on hygiene may be toward more value brands. As with meltblown and masks, large-scale re-deployments of manufacturing capacity to disinfectant wipes is leaving other areas of wipes markets underserved.

Clorox, RB and private label suppliers are all announcing that full availability is still months away, so the race is on, not only to fill the shelves, but to meet projected household disinfectant demand over time.

Q: How will the industry respond to these shifts?

A: Capacity should continue to grow and also find increased efficiencies from innovations such as the R5, as well as improved line automations. Raw materials will encounter new opportunities and challenges in shifting sourcing patterns.

In addition, synthetic blends should increase as sustainability concerns among consumers align more pragmatically with health and hygiene priorities, although the full lifecycle implications of mass-produced facemasks has yet to be felt and is likely to be an issue in coming months and years.

Q: What advices and suggestions would you give to players involved in the nonwovens industry?

A: My recommendation is to stay aggressive and focus on those areas where your company provides both quality and value. Chasing marginal volume is a risky strategy.

Right-size your company, take advantage of technology and focus your energies on delighting the widest possible base of customers with service excellence. And be sure to balance efficiency with flexibility as much as possible. It’s also important to keep in mind that the best technology investments are made with the goal of empowering people rather than replacing them.

For further information on how A.Celli can help increase the production of nonwoven materials for PPEs, contact us today for a free consultation.