How will the Coronavirus impact nonwovens demand? – Expert Insight from Smithers

How will the Coronavirus impact nonwovens demand? – Expert Insight from Smithers
Nonwoven facemasks and disinfecting wipes are key products in fighting the Coronavirus (Covid 19). With the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring an official pandemic Smithers’ nonwovens consultant Phil Mango examines how the nonwoven industry can respond to this global threat. 

What is the current production capacity globally for nonwoven surgical facemasks and anti-bacterial and hard-surface disinfecting wipes?

There are three major nonwoven based products that can help with the current coronavirus crisis. These are:

  • Face masks
  • ​Anti-bacterial (skin) wipes
  • Disinfecting (hard surface wipes)

In addition, general purpose medical nonwovens like underpads, gauze, and medical garments may all be useful in treating any increase in patients.

There is some controversy over the effectiveness of face masks; but the general consensus is that only a carefully fitted, special surgical mask (N95 respirator) will prevent the virus from reaching the wearer, any surgical mask has benefits. These include filtering out large liquid airborne droplets from a sneeze; containing sneezes from an infected person; and preventing the wearer from touching their eyes, mouth, nose with potentially infected hands. Some regional governments have recommended face masks to their citizens already. 

Most effective face masks based on nonwovens use meltblown nonwovens as the primary component. Meltblown capacity globally is only about 360,000 tonnes today; about 30,000 tonnes of unused capacity was available prior to this crisis.

If SMS (spunbond/meltblown/spunbond) is included, though, the current production capacity increases to almost 5.0 million tonnes with almost 1.0 million tonnes of excess capacity. Not all SMS would be suitable, though.  Already, significantly increased pricing and demand for meltblown in some regions has been reported.  The key here may be converting capacity, turning sufficient nonwoven supply into face masks.

Anti-bacterial wipes are used for disinfecting skin, usually hands. It appears that hand sanitizing wipes containing at least 60% alcohol should kill Covid 19 (it is an enveloped virus which usually is susceptible to these disinfectants); but only testing will confirm that. Already, most producers have maximized production in anticipation of increase demand. These are based on spunlace nonwovens, and globally spunlace has over 700,000 tonnes of excess capacity, much of it in Asia. Producers are ramping up production as consumer and institutional demand has increased rapidly.

Hard surface disinfecting wipes are also being recommended, even though it appears most viral transmission is through person-to-person contact via airborne fluids. Cleaning and disinfecting wipes, based on standard and SP (spunbond/pulp) spunlace with a quaternary ammonium compound-based disinfectant solution, again are expected to be effective against Covid 19. Already, producers are ramping up production.

How easy will it be for existing nonwoven manufacturers to increase production of these items?

Most nonwoven producers can rapidly increase production of needed products; converters may have a more difficult time, as they tend to run closer to full and have a more difficult time changing from one product to another. Additionally, disinfecting/sanitizing solution and chemicals may be in short supply initially.

What would be the major challenges in doing this?

In nonwovens, the only challenge may be obtaining the correct raw materials and balancing other product commitments. For example, while there is ample supply of spunlace for wipes, this is not universally true.  Spunlace supply in North America is tight, and Europe is balanced.  So, logistics may play a role.

For converters, it is more difficult as converting lines are typically dedicated to certain products. For wipes, the challenge is obtaining disinfectant solutions, and probably re-arranging/adding packaging assets; quality control resources may also be stretched.

For face mask converters, there may be an actual shortage of converting capacity, which may be impossible to address short term. Existing lines will have to be run at maximum capacity and efficiency.

How is the market for production of anti-bacterial wipes and face masks distributed globally? If supplies become stretched are some countries better positioned to cover a new peak in demand?

The actual nonwovens, spunlaid and spunlace, have more production and more available production in Asia; but converting has better availability in North America and Europe, especially for wipes. Similarly, disinfecting solutions that are specifically designed for killing viruses have more availability currently outside Asia, though this may not be as much an issue.

China is already in crisis mode and nonwoven producers, and converters are running at maximum output already. Additionally, other regions are already supplying Asia.

Face masks have been used in Asia for other reasons at a much higher frequency than in other global regions for many years, so supply lines are established already and a new peak demand for face masks should be best addressed here. North America and Europe will be starting from a much smaller base.

Wipes are just the opposite; North America has the highest production rates and utilization rates for disinfecting wipes and should have the easiest time addressing new peak demands; Asia will have the hardest time and may rely on liquid disinfecting solutions and paper or textile cloths.

Are there any other nonwoven products that are likely to see a rise in demand over the next six months?

As mentioned previously, if the number of hospitalized patients increases, other medical nonwovens may also see a rise in demand. This includes underpads, and hospital protective garments, as well as drapes.  Underpads use airlaid nonwovens while most other medical products use spunlaid nonwovens.

Due to the criticism over preparedness for dealing with contagious patients, expect an increase over the next six months in demand for protective garments outside the hospital as well. These would be mostly based on spunlaid and spunlace nonwovens.

For the nonwovens industry, do you foresee the coronavirus having any impact on pricing for raw materials or end products?

It depends on the length of the crisis; based on the fact that China has resumed production in most regions already, basic raw materials like polyester and rayon should not be severely affected. But already meltblown nonwovens are seeing increased pricing in some regions and disinfecting materials for wipes may see increased pricing short term.

If the outbreak is longer than expected or expands beyond its isolated status in most regions, impacts could be much worse.
Phil Mango has spent over thirty years in nonwovens industry, working in high-level technical and executive positions for multiple organizations. As an expert industry consultant for the nonwovens and wipes industries. He has headed multiple studies for Smithers clients, including multi-national firms and market consultancies; and authored over 35 Smithers market reports on nonwovens, wipes, and major business and technical trends impacting this sector.

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