WAKEFIELD - Welcoming industry stakeholders, manufacturers, convertors and end-users from across the industry, the first Sustainable Nonwovens webinar explored the major issues around facemasks and the complexity of the PPE supply chain in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Key topics explored at the webinar, Face masks and Covid-19: The new Golden Fleece of fabrics, included bottlenecks in the supply chain, the robustness of (or lack of) PPE supply chains, and what lessons governments could learn for future pandemics.
Speaking at the webinar, Adrian Wilson, consulting editor, Sustainable Nonwovens outlined how meltblown nonwoven fabric has become the hottest commodity of the coronavirus crisis. "A spate of new meltblown line installations in the West has been announced in the past couple of months and many other companies have repositioned their existing capacity to making N95 face mask materials," Wilson said. "In addition, the two leading manufacturers of spunmelt nonwoven machines – Reifenhäuser Reicofil and Oerlikon Nonwoven – both based in Germany, have introduced shortened delivery times and turned over their own pilot lines to the production of emergency supplies for face masks around the clock."
Wilson also noted how PPE shortages have exposed a major fault line in the globalized world order that existed before Covid-19 and is already being forensically scrutinized for the future. "Many questions will be asked, and not least about the environmental impact of the world’s complete reliance on single-use, plastic based products," he said.
The webinar also examined why meltblown nonwovens are so crucial to facemask production and why there has been such a bottleneck. Matthew Tipper, business director, NIRI (Nonwovens Innovation and Research Institute), explained that without the particle capture properties provided by meltblown fabrics, you don't really have an efficient facemask. "The meltblowing process itself creates very fine fibres with lots of surface area and that's good for capturing particles," he said. "There's a bottleneck because there is not a lot of capacity, the process is not high volume and there is limited capacity for mask materials. That market has been very stable and very predictable for many years so people have not introduced a lot of capacity. However, since Covid-19, this has seriously interrupted the market dynamics and created these bottlenecks."
Exploring these bottlenecks in the UK, Andrew Halloway, technical director, Warren Nonwovens, highlighted the issues around the growing number of UK apparel manufacturers keen to play their part in the response. "Because the nature of the nonwoven is that you can cut it and sew it and you don't need to overlock it, it's quite a resilient material," Halloway said. "We’ve had so many conversations with companies who were making clothing for various industries and they've been able to offer themselves to manufacture garments such as gowns. The key thing for them to understand is that it's not just about purchasing a nonwoven off a shelf even if it comes with a technical approval. It's essential that the end manufactured product gains the approval."
Observing how the growth of PLA as an alternative to polypropylene could play a role, Eamonn Tighe, European business manager, NatureWorks and Robert Green, Americas business manager, NatureWorks, explained how the company has been working with the Nonwovens Institute at North Carolina State to explore alternatives to meltblown for face masks. "As we look at other options for meltblown, the NWI has released an interesting spunbond product and within that technology you are leveraging bi-component fibres," Green said. "The process here is leveraging a spunbond process in combination with a bi-component technology to produce these small fibres at a much higher rate. The other interesting aspect is that we also get a significant amount of strength as compared to conventional meltblown fabric and so that basically allows this product to be cut and sewn for use in facemasks, potentially giving it a broader range of use."
The panel also addressed issues surrounding supply and demand and in particular, the need for more robust supply chains. "There has been a great challenge with so much of the specific PPE needing to come from the Far East," Tighe noted, adding that there was a strong argument to have more locally based supply chains. "But that is a big question," he admitted. "Maybe there are opportunities for local companies to work to put those in place. In the absence of those, so much comes down to really good long-standing relationships. I suspect there is opportunity in the UK and Europe and even the US for more local based supply chains."
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