Karen McIntyre, Editor12.07.17
The use of nonwovens in the automotives market has increased significantly in recent years and today, more than 40 automotive parts are made with nonwoven fabrics. These range from trunk liners and carpets to air and fuel filters. By building on the essential properties that are necessary for good performance and safety, nonwovens help reduce the weight of the car, enhance comfort and aesthetics and provide advanced insulation, fire retardancy and resistance to water, fuels, extremes of temperature and abrasion.
Also boosting nonwovens’ use in automotives is the fact they are easy to handle during assembly. They are tailor-made for their function and can be heat-formed, embossed, lined, coated and printed. In short they contribute to making cars safer, more attractive, longer-lasting, more cost-effective and more sustainable. Due to their versatility and numerous benefits they are also widely used in the design and construction of other vehicles and transportation means – airplanes, trains, boats, spacecraft and satellites.
“Automotives is one of the world’s largest markets for industrial performance materials applications with a more than €2 billion market potential,” Frank Heislitz, CTO of Freudenberg Performance Materials, says. “Overall, the market is growing by more than 7% per year. This is faster than the growth of global vehicle production.”
A main driver for this growth, he says, is substitution of conventional materials with innovative performance materials. These lightweight performance material solutions support the trend toward e-mobility.
According to data furnished by EDANA, nonwovens tend to be 15-30% lighter than traditional materials, which can make the car more than two kilograms lighter. Over the life of this car, the use of nonwovens would save 55 kilograms of carbon dioxide output. Therefore, if you consider that 13 million cars are registered in the European Union each year, using nonwovens would save 800,000 tons of carbon dioxide output. This is the equivalent of reducing the number of passenger cars on the road by 250,000.
Marc-Andre Drouin, of Texel, says he sees customers pushing for lighter and lighter weight materials and some are even pushing for weights as low as 300 gsm for applications typically using 800 to 1200 gsm. This has presented challenges for the company as a needlepunch manufacturer, but Texel has risen to the challenge.
“We have a bunch of same performance lighter weight needlepunch materials available at lower weights especially for headliner scrims,” he says.
Outside of its traditional automotive applications, which include headliners and some trunkliners, Texel—through its alliance with new owner Lydall—has begun to develop materials for thermal insulation in the turbo area of the cars. “We are even seeing requests for high temperature materials as manufacturers want all parts of the car protected,” Drouin says.
In addition to being greener, nonwovens usage can improve the aesthetics of the car. Nonwovens technology allows designers to engineer a fabric from beginning to end for characteristics like softness, strength, flexibility and even looks. Nonwovens manufacturers can add in features like stain resistance and perhaps even a smoother appearance.
Korean nonwovens supplier Toray recently scored a win in the prestige automotives market with its Ultrasuede fabric, which reportedly offers a luxurious feel and look. Ultrasuede will be part of the interior for the Lexus LS500 and LS500h as well as the performance line F SPORT models, three vehicles manufactured by Toyota Motor Corporation that are currently undergoing a complete redesign. These vehicles will all feature Ultrasuede in the headliner and visor, and F-SPORT will also use the material in its seats. This is the first time that Ultrasuede has been adopted by Lexus.
Produced with cutting edge Japanese technology, the smooth and luxurious feel of the uniformly textured Ultrasuede, along with its excellent adaptability to applications that upgrade the interior, was a significant factor leading to the fabric’s adoption for the Lexus models.
Ultrasuede, the original ultra-microfiber nonwoven fabric with suede texture, was developed by Toray in 1970 by taking advantage of its ultra-microfiber manufacturing and processing technology. Its outstanding texture and high functionality were developed over a 45-plus year history and have been highly acclaimed in various fields, including fashion, home interiors, general merchandise and automobile interiors. It is widely recognized as a luxury, high-quality material.
While growth in developed markets like North American and Western Europe is tied to economic cycles, prospects for new automotives is stronger and more consistent in developing markets, particularly China, Southeast Asia and India, where growth is growing above the 7% global average.
According to Detlev Kappel, sales manager at Tenowo, demand in China continues to be strong as European OEMs such as BMW, Volkswagen, Audi and Mercedes continue to grow in the region. “Tenowo is a well recognized local manufacturer in the complex supply chain network in China/Asia, and we are also very successful with Chinese OEMs where we are accepted as a important quality supplier,” he says.
Tenowo’s Chinese plant is running at full capacity and the company has developed a number of new products like NVH high performance flame retardant styles, high loft nonwovens and nonwovens for underbody parts. However, there have been challenges like uncontrolled rising raw material prices, especially fibers, which has been triggered by a new Chinese enacted law.
Automotives component supplier Autoneum has recognized potential in China and has recently announced plans to add four additional plants in the country, significantly expanding its production capacities there but also laying the foundation for further profitable growth despite challenging regional markets.
According to executives, high-volume orders from all around the world—European, U.S.-American and China— have made it necessary to boost its production capacities in China, the largest automotive market in the world. At the new plant in the Eastern Chinese city of Yantai (Shandong Province), series and just-in-time production of inner dashes and carpet systems has already started. Around 250,000 Chinese-made vehicles will use components made in Yantai each year. A particular area of focus at this new plant, Autoneum’s seventh in China, will be sustainable production processes: Production waste in the form of mixed fiber fleece and polyester will be recycled and re-used in the manufacture of components.
Yantai is one of Autoneum’s first plants designed on the basis of digital 3D simulations. Using so-called “Computer-Based Manufacturing Simulation” (CBMS), machine set-up, layout of production cells and even deployment of shopfloor workers were simulated already during the planning phase, which enables Autoneum to ideally design and utilize the plant, advance working conditions, increase production efficiency and realize associated cost savings. Knowledge gained from the use of the virtual reality application in Yantai will flow into the CBMS-based design of other new plants within Autoneum’s global production network.
On the occasion of the grand opening of the Yantai plant, Autoneum CEO Martin Hirzel stated: “We are investing in the development and expansion of our Chinese production capacities, taking into account the importance of the Chinese growth market and ever-increasing demand from international and Chinese vehicle manufacturers. In line with our strategy, we are focusing on vertical integration and sustainable production processes at our new plants.”
He further stressed: “With the regional market launch and production of lightweight components for various types of drives, Autoneum is supporting the expansion of electromobility in China, reductions in traffic-related CO2 emissions and thus sustainable mobility in the highest-volume automotive market in the world.”
The new plant in Yantai is just the start. In just a few weeks, series production of carpet systems, inner dashes and wheelhouse outer liners will also get underway for U.S.-American and Chinese vehicle manufacturers at Autoneum’s new plant in the city of Changsha (Hunan Province). Annual production capacity for the Changsha plant will amount to some 1.4 million components.
Productivity and sustainability likewise come together at this approximately 11,000 square meter large plant: Scrap from carpet and felt production is recycled on a fully-automated basis, ensuring a closed material cycle.
A plant located in Pinghu (Zhejiang Province), some 100 kilometers southwest of Shanghai, is still under construction along with a production facility in Shenyang Tiexi (Liaoning Province) in the country’s northeast. Starting in fall 2018, Autoneum will produce underbody systems for European and Chinese vehicle manufacturers in Pinghu. In 2018, Shenyang Tiexi will likewise supply models produced by German customers with heatshields, hoodliners and carpet systems.
In addition to the three fully owned plants in Chongqing (since 2006), Taicang (2010) and Shenyang (2011) and a development center in Shanghai, Autoneum jointly operates Chinese production locations with Japanese automotive supplier Nittoku in Guangzhou (2003), Tianjin (2004) and Wuhan (2013). Autoneum’s customers in China include European, U.S.-American and several Chinese vehicle manufacturers.
By expanding its production capacities in China, Autoneum is laying the foundation for further profitable growth despite challenging regional markets. It is therefore expected that contrary to earlier assumptions the company’s 2017 net sales will only slightly surpass those of the previous year due to the significant decline in light vehicle production in the U.S. The results achieved so far confirm the EBIT margin forecast of over 8% for 2017.
Autotech Nonwovens, India’s first nonwoven felt producer, was established in 2012 and the company currently has a 35% of marketshare of its domestic headliner market. In 2018, the company plans to capitalize on this success and begin exporting materials outside of India.
Targeting foreign markets will be assisted by Autotech’s latest investment, a state-of-the-art Andritz neXline needlepunch line, which offers high production capacities – from opening/blending to finishing. The scope of supply also included a double eXcelle Dynamic card, a Dynamic crosslapper, a drafter, and several needlelooms. The complete process is controlled by the ProDyn closed-loop system scanning gauge, which corrects variations in the web profile continuously in order to meet extremely demanding web requirements.
Autotech is therefore able to produce all A-surface face fabrics including but not limited to floor carpets, headliners, parcel tray, load shelves, seat back carpets, trunk and side trims. In addition, it has also penetrated into automotive filter fabrics for engine air intake and cabin air filtration applications.
According to company director Ankit Desai, when Autotech Nonwovens was found in 2012, the Indian automotive market was going through a lean patch. Sales were unusually stagnant for the passenger car segment between 2011-13 and cost reduction was a priority. “The growth potential however was never under question and it was a matter of time that the market would revive given the demographic trends of a young population combined with a high GDP growth rate,” he says. “Today, as expected, the Indian automotive market is projected to exceed 5 million cars by 2020-21.”
Several carmakers are in the process of making significant investments in the western region of India (Gujarat) for new automotive factories. These includes Ford, Tata and Suzuki, with a total new capacity of almost two million cars per year coming up by 2020. Since 2012, Ford, Suzuki, Kia, SAIC, MG Motors, Mahindra and Peugeot-Citroen have either already set up or have planned to set up brand new facilities in India.
The taste of the Indian consumers is also shifting from cheaper affordable small-segment cars, to much more expensive and feature filled premium segment sedans and SUVs. The fastest growth has been in the SUV segment. Such growth in the premium segment has prompted automakers to provide differentiation as well as a premium fit and finish to their new product launches.
According to Desai, Autotech is the only Asian nonwovens manufacturer other than Freudenberg-Vilene to manufacture printed nonwoven headliners in-house and the first to launch printed nonwoven headliners locally manufactured in India.
“With the shift towards differentiation as well as to give customers a premium, tailored and personalized feel to their cars, printed nonwovens are a strong alternative to much more expensive knitted/foam-backed headliner fabrics which are commonly used the luxury segment,” he says. “Printed nonwoven headliner fabrics allow OEM designers the flexibility to customise and personalize unique patterns and colors, add 3D textures and antimicrobial finishes to their headliners while maintaining a high abrasion resistance and providing a premium feel to the cabin interior.”
He adds that Autotech has a vision of becoming a one-stop solution provider for all automotive trims. “This sets us apart from our competition.”
To achieve this, Autotech has been working with market leaders and has developed printed headliner fabrics with a 3D texture to provide a premium feel to other parts of the car interior. The result is a range of nonwoven fabrics that are not only high quality in terms of being light weight but also offer excellent wear and tear resistance, long durability and are economically competitive compared to other materials.
These features have allowed OEMs to shift from the traditional bi or tri-laminate fabrics / foam backed fabrics thereby reducing weight and improving on cost and other benefits brought by lightweighting.
“With its decorative design and unique patterns offering a 3D look, currently (the headliner fabric) is the most sought after material in the automotive segment,” Desai says. “In the past, leading Indian automakers were forced to import these materials leaving a limited choice due to high cost of import and other charges as well as the absence of a local producer. Autotech has been extremely fortunate to work closely with its customers in supporting this development and bringing a positive change to the Indian market so a premium nonwoven can be offered to a larger share of the market.”
Freudenberg’s technologies also offer better opportunities for design thanks to a unique printing technology that go beyond classic nonwoven headline surfacing and its spunlaid nonwovens based on Lutrador technology contain up to 90% recycled materials, improving the green profile of the car, which is an important trend in the industry.
“Freudenberg’s nonwovens based on Lutraflor technology for automotive carpets, insert mats and interior trunk linings are lighter than competing materials and they offer automotive designers the opportunity to help save fuel and reduce CO2 emissions,” Heislitz says. “Compared to conventional automotive carpets, these nonwovens provide weight savings of up to 40%.”
Also, Freudenberg’s unique multi-layer composite for molded underbody panels and wheel liners are 100% recyclable and can be used in closed loop systems. New products, like Freudenberg’s innovative Evolon microfilament textiles offer important advantages compared to conventional solutions. The adjustable flow resistance offers excellent sound absorption, particularly in the frequency range for 600-6000 hx.
Freudenberg’s headliner facing materials are not only used in headliners but also for trunk liners and seat backs where they provide significant weight reduction potential compared to composite knitted or foam fabrics.
Other materials that can offer weight savings include unique multi-layer composites for molded under body panels and wheel liners while its Evolon microfilament textiles have an outstanding strength to weight ratio. Areas of application for Evolon textiles in cars are varied.
General Motors has added two million water bottles from Flint, MI, residents into its Do Your Part water bottle recycling initiative. The company partnered with Schupan Recycling to collect the bottles. The plastic is washed, flaked and turned into fleece to make three products: Chevrolet Equinox V-6 engine covers, insulation for The Empowerment Plan coats for the homeless, and air filters for 10 GM plants.
The program engages a supply web of 11 organizations and reduces landfill waste. The resulting social impact contributes to the initiative’s progress and expansion.
GM supplier Filtration Services Group involved the N.E.W. Life Center in Flint to make air filter panels from the 9000 square feet of fleece created since Do Your Part launched in April. After at-risk individuals participated in programs dedicated to employment preparation or life change, this nonprofit training center employs them to further develop their skills.
GM is donating enough insulation for The Empowerment Plan’s seamstresses — formerly homeless women — to make 6500 coats that transform into sleeping bags that are given to those in need at no cost. The nonprofit trains their employees in lean manufacturing and teaches them soft and hard skills to propel them to bigger and better opportunities.
“We’re committed to proving to employers that formerly homeless people can be a skilled talent pool,” says Veronika Scott, founder and CEO of The Empowerment Plan. “The end product is more than a coat: It empowers women to take control of their lives and provides the path to long-term, sustainable jobs.”
Scott says GM’s insulation provides the warmth needed for the homeless to withstand cold nights. Each coat contains 31 water bottles. The GM Foundation also supports The Empowerment Plan, providing it with $220,000 since 2013.
High loft nonwovens maker William T. Burnett has also contributed to this project, purchasing some of the recycled resin and fiber and making them into batting material used in three different projects—with Rogers Foam Corp. noise dampening covers for the Chevrolet Equinox V6 engine; the employment of former homeless workers creating HVAC filters for GM facilities and the creation of coats/sleeping bags for the homeless.
According to president Greg Davis, the projects not only keep plastic bottles out of landfills but also aid the local economy.
“Since the bottles might otherwise be shipped overseas, the project protects American jobs,” he says. “It has also revolutionized the company’s approach to recycling by opening a window onto just how much waste material might actually find a second use somehow – a benefit both to the environment and to the company’s bottom line.”