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Fiber World

Jump-Starting The Future

What is the man-made fiber industry doing to ensure its hold on future markets?

By John E. Luke

A s this article is written, we are engulfed by the confluence of two events. In the first, the country is consumed by a frenzy welcoming the next century and millennium (all right, be a purist and insist that the next millennium really doesn’t start until January 1, 2001. For the purposes of this article we will join the welcoming fray).

The now numerous television chronicles of the 20th century have caused us to examine some of the changes we have witnessed in man-made fibers over the years.

The second event revolves around preparation for next semester’s courses in Textile Marketing and Operations at Philadelphia University (formerly Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science). We feel obligated to instill today’s students with creative energies sufficient to keep the U.S. portion of the world fiber/fabric/ manufactured goods complex alive and healthy in an increasingly competitive arena. We constantly review product and market status to keep these perspectives and their presentation to students fresh.

Marketing classes at Philadelphia University spend considerable time studying products and the product life cycle. How does a company or industry inject new blood into a product/market through changes in marketing’s four P’s: Product, Place, Promotion and Price? How does a company or industry change the balance of the four P’s to extend/raise/restart the product life cycle?

We start this exploration by looking at changes in products and marketing approaches for fiber materials which, by virtually all measures, are well into the life cycle maturity phase in the United States and, in some cases, well past maturity and into the decline phase in world markets. Specifically, we will investigate what new products, new markets and new channels of distribution (place) are being implemented by U.S. fiber manufacturers to keep the fiber industry an active and healthy member of the U.S. and world economic scenes. Some of the developments are quite dramatic examples of the resiliency of a very mature, if somewhat browbeaten, industry and others are merely simple additions to currently successful product mixes.

The question becomes, then, what is U.S. man-made fiber doing to jump-start its future and give its product(s)/market(s) an additional kick farther up the product life cycle curve?

It is somewhat ironic that an industry that produced more than 10 billion pounds annually for the past several years now actively is searching for small corners of business which might only be worth several hundred thousand pounds per year. Finally, the fallacy of market share has come home to roost and the value of contribution margin has risen to its deserved position of prominence. Thankfully, technology has created an atmosphere where customer requirements and quick response can meet in an efficient middle ground facilitated by proximity and customer communications.

We have no illusions that the discussed niche market approaches will return U.S. man-made fiber to the glory years of yore nor do we present the list as all inclusive. We do suggest, however, that the findings in this article provide evidence of an industry finally grasping its situation and ready to direct those resources necessary to not only survive but prosper.

Fiber/Market Developments

As a general rule, and one without serious surprise, our studies suggest that those fiber producers already in mature to declining markets appear better poised to address fiber and market development for niche applications than do those producers who have ridden the commodity bandwagon since recovering from the 1990-91 recession.

Acrylic and rayon manufacturers are well down the niche development road, while nylon and polyester producers have much further to go. Granted the pressures on rayon and acrylic are of longer standing but the coming stress on polyester and nylon producers for bottom-line performance will make the rayon and acrylic experience look like a day at the beach.

Rayon

Facing continuing marketing from commodity polyester and the intense merchandising pressure from Cotton Incorporated, the U.S. rayon industry no longer can exist only as a supplier of commodity materials. However, to accomplish this reversal, the industry first must position itself as a world supplier, unencumbered by the facts of physical location of manufacturing facilities and traditional regional jealousies and turf wars.

Witness Lenzing. In the early 1990’s frenzy to replace the Avtex portion of rayon destined for production of challis fabrics, Lenzing expanded high wet modulus production and introduced their version of Lyocell, the solvent-spun cousin of traditional viscose. Suddenly, as the U.S. market was buried by polyester and cotton imported garments, rayon challis tanked as a style item. The weaving industry could not absorb sufficient quantities of high wet modulus rayon to make U.S. production economical.

In a world sensitive decision, high wet modulus fiber production was transferred to Austria where U.S. requirements could be added to needs expressed by Europe and Asia, and already existing centralized production could supply the world. Logically, reduced unit production costs offset added transportation costs; in the end Lenzing became a more responsive and viable supplier of the material.

This puts Lenzing U.S. in the specialty fiber business with distinctive fibers made in Austria allowing U.S. capacity to focus on home furnishings and a long series of relatively sophisticated nonwoven markets. These are sufficiently extensive to absorb the larger quantities of market-specific materials Lenzing must make in the United States. It is obvious that Acordis (formerly Courtaulds), recently reopening a portion of their Lyocell production in Mobile, Ala., in addition to that production in Grimsby, United Kingdom, is attempting the same strategy.

The U.S. Department of Commerce recently aided the internationalization of rayon by accepting the generic class definitions of the European Union. These allow high wet modulus fibers to carry the class name "Modal," meaning Lenzing can sell Modal anywhere in the world and meet the labeling requirements on each side of the Atlantic. In addition to standard Modal, Lenzing is offering a 0.9-denier-per-filament micro-denier version, labeled Micro-modal, to appeal to the increased emphasis on "softness" demanded in many apparel styles.

Precolored fiber is reappearing as a means to added business. In the rush to efficiency 20 years ago, most fiber producers dropped solution dyed or pigmented items. Now, with pressure from home furnishings fabrics producers for color continuity over long runs, we see rayon and polyester producers reintroducing color to their product mixes.

Lenzing adds value by accepting inventory risk. The customer saves finishing costs and shares the savings with Lenzing through premium fiber prices. Lenzing produces color in Austria, saving the U.S. plant to serve more generic nonwovens and home furnishings items.

Acrylic

Acrylic manufacturers in the United States have long trod the path toward reduced dependence on apparel sales. Several did not move quickly enough or discovered more profitable outlets for raw material values and discontinued staple production. The remaining producers, however, have done well in finding and entering niche markets with market-specific products.

Solutia has featured pigmented and solution dyed staple, particularly in the outdoor patio, seashore and boating industries. The company was also one of the first into microfibers. The long history and success of these technologies now is being adapted to sales in upholstery, hosiery and industrial markets.

Pigmented fibers guarantee lot-to-lot color consistency, sometimes important in industrial markets, often important in home furnishings and always important in hosiery. Solutia, by accepting the inventory risks of color translates an "old" product into one for new, niche markets. Microfibers and color add value to the niches; by accepting the distribution risks, Solutia retains a substantial portion of this additional revenue and turns a mature product into a continuingly profitable one.

The company says that acrylic fibers operate in "multiple trade areas" and plans to adapt both market-specific products and merchandising techniques to expand distribution beyond traditional U.S. borders.

Acrylic manufacturers are planning on the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts to enhance sales of their products to filtration end uses. Acrylic fiber’s natural resistance to most acids, alkalies, common solvents and cleaning agents make them naturals for filters, and producers are actively pursuing the specific fiber configurations for this market. Research and Development efforts are aimed at defining mechanical and chemical properties for a myriad of filtration applications.

Nylon

DuPont and nylon have been virtually synonymous since World War II. Unfortunately, virtual equivalency does not guarantee success so DuPont, its competitors and nylon have suffered the import tortures we all face.

Although DuPont recently announced a minimizing of investment in nylon manufacturing and distribution, the nylon business group remains confident of the product’s advantages and is making market-based moves to improve nylon’s overall health. This requires global adaptation and freedom from "turf wars" to focus financial and intellectual investment in streamlined facilities and make the remaining as competitive as current technology will permit.

Filament plants are being streamlined/specialized by product areas, and modern winding technologies, incorporating the flexibility needed to produce a myriad of specialty products, are being installed in several Western Hemisphere facilities. This time, DuPont will not repeat the 50-year ago mistake of letting the word "nylon" escape into the generic world. DuPont is focusing its apparel nylon energies on Supplex® fine-denier-per-filament continuous filament yarns and the Tactel® family of specialty materials.

It is reported that from a standing start only several years ago, these brands cover approximately one-third of all DuPont apparel nylon sales. Of the two brands, Tactel appears to be receiving the most attention. The Tactel family of fibers focuses largely although not exclusively on mechanical alterations to the basic nylon product (cross section, individual filament sizes, luster, etc.) to adapt it to specific markets.

For example, a recent addition to the Tactel line is Tactel®Ispira™, a nylon yarn that applies DuPont’s long-standing bicomponent chemistry technology to create coil/curl types of elastic properties. DuPont’s polymer variant capabilities are being adapted to such items as nylon to create new interest and solve additional market area problems. The product is designed not to compete with the power and comfort capabilities of Lycra® spandex but to provide minimum comfort stretch in knitted and woven fabrics for the outerwear and activewear markets.

DuPont remains committed to supply staple nylon to the carpet industry and filament nylon to the carpets and mechanical rubber goods industries. Unfortunately, a major competitor for nylon staple in carpets is bulked continuous filament nylon and the competitor for nylon in tires is filament polyester.

Polyester

Of all our analysis, U.S. manufacturers of polyester appear to be least niche oriented among fiber producers and those with the furthest road to travel toward market-specific production and distribution. Considering that the polyester family of man-made fibers is the most widely used, it follows that polyester producers have the most to do.

During the ’80s, polyester producers invested in competitive yarns for the industrial market by creating efficient production through in-line spin draw operations with the elimination of the costly, separate drawing process.

These upgrades proved competitive until the late ’80s/early ’90s spending binge in Asia for more efficient machinery for industrial products. As a result, when the recent surge of imports threatened and reached our shores, domestic producers found themselves at a disadvantage sufficiently large to demand either abandonment of the market or reinvestment in equally productive equipment.

Short-term problems were solved with price concessions but long-term strategies involved reinvestment comparable to that recently announced by KoSa to upgrade spinning technology in the Shelby, N.C., plant. This is important as most industrial markets are specification driven, provide above average returns to the manufacturer and are worthy of price and productivity protection from opportunistic offshore producers. Recent filament success in penetrating the mechanical rubber goods industries at nylon’s expense, with the attendant insulation from imports therein, has prompted polyester producers to focus on additional market-specific industrial filament developments, expanding into coated or laminated fabrics for signs, billboards, membrane roofing and tents and tarpaulins.

KoSa long has produced specialty products for the industrial markets; a high modulus low shrink industrial filament for tires, hoses and belts and a low-denier, high-tenacity, low-shrink fiber for sewing thread.

These material, produced in Shelby soon will be made on world-class equipment providing KoSa with the ability to deflect imports with technological advantages to add to their marketplace presence. Package types and fiber specifications are designed for the specific needs of the customer; individually not large markets but collectively large.

KoSa also has adopted several development strategies for their non-industrial filament and staple product lines. Products in the pipeline include a series of high value added fibers including several application-specific filament and staple bicomponent materials, including several with self-bonding characteristics, aimed at filtration products in woven, knitted and nonwoven constructions, a new family of staple microfibers and the recently announced commitment to Shell’s PTT filament and staple products.

KoSa plans to introduce a family of solution dyed and easy-dye polyester materials directed toward those markets requiring the color fastness and continuity available through solution dyeing and pigmenting or the ease of dyeing, depth of color or lower temperature dyeing available with easy-dye or deep-dye technology.

PTT (Polytrimethyelene Terephthalate)

The man-made fiber precursor receiving the most publicity this year has been the PTT offering from Shell Chemical. Touted as providing a com-bination of characteristics, particularly stretch and recovery, softness, bulk and easy dyeing, PTT definitely has made inroads into the carpet market.

To date, this material still qualifies as a niche material, not yet up to measurable volume in carpets alone but apparently well on the road to full membership as a viable carpet material. Several months ago Shell announced a distribution agreement with KoSa and just now has announced that KoSa has become a production licensee and will produce filament and staple PTT on modernized equipment in Shelby and Salisbury, NC and Octolan and Queretaro, Mexico.

Shell plans to be producing upwards of one million tons (200 to 250 million pounds) of PTT within 10 years and has started commercial development of apparel filament deniers with a division of Asahi Chemical Industry Co., in Japan. Definitely a niche player in apparel and non-carpet home furnishings, PTT appears to be on the road to major player.

Other

A new is the recent Meadowbrook Inventions introduction of Angelina™. A polyester-based "glitter" material, available in fine-denier staple sizes, Angelina is finding uses in an apparel fashion market very interested in the shiny, glittery look. Recognizing that the vagaries of fashion which brought the product to market can kill it just as fast, the company is expanding into markets offering the potential for increased utility like reflective safety clothing.


Editor's Note: John E. Luke is owner of Five Twenty Six Associates Inc., Bryn Mawr, Pa., a consulting firm specializing in strategic marketing and operations facing textile fiber and fabric manufacturers. He is also a professor of textile marketing at Philadelphia University.


February 2000



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