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Nonwovens / Technical Textiles

Unifi Embraces Nonwovens

Yarn processor makes big entry into nonwovens market.


It is no secret that the U.S. textile companies most likely to flourish in coming years are those, both large and small, that aggressively seek new opportunities and new efficiencies in the marketplace. As more than one textile leader has maintained, an entrepreneurial spirit is essential in todays very competitive business climate. (See Parkdale Positions For Growth, TI, this issue). It was in this spirit that then-vice president of business development for Unifi Inc., W. Michael Mebane, began looking for a new niche that would add diversity to the Greensboro, N.C.-based companys highly successful polyester and nylon yarn business. With 1999 sales of more than $1.2 billion, Unifi is the largest producer and processor of textile yarns in the United States and one of the largest in the world. Mebanes search for opportunity resulted in the creation of Unifi Technical Fabrics LLC, a $40-million plant in Mocksville, N.C., that represents the companys first foray into the nonwovens market. Exploring OptionsWe began looking for areas of growth areas in which we felt Unifi would have a lot to add, Mebane said. Especially, we began looking at different polymers and how they were used. Unifi has a great deal of experience in polyester and nylon, but we had noticed a steady rise in the use of polypropylene. What really hit our radar screen was meltspun nonwoven fabrics. When we looked in that direction, we saw a healthy growth curve, healthy and sound end-use markets, and the opportunity to be among the first to employ a step-level change in technology.The technology to be used was critical in the determination of the direction Unifi would take with its new business. We were looking for something new, but which had been deployed long enough to be proven, but not long enough that a lot of companies had converted to it. We felt we had a specific window of opportunity to diversify into markets we had not served before. It provided a definite synergy for us because we could bring all the expertise we had in polyester to the manufacture of polypropylene. In essence, we would be making products similar to those that we had made in the past, but for different markets. The opportunity to go directly from polymer to fabric was very, very interesting to us, as well.Unifi looked at different methods by which it could enter the meltspun market, including acquisition of an existing business or construction of a new facility. Ultimately, the company decided to embark upon a new venture and, in July 1999, signed a contract with Germany-based Reifenher GmbH for delivery and installation of its new Reicofil 3 SSMMS technology, which allows high-speed manufacturing of spunbond and spunbond/meltblown/spunbond fabrics. SMS technology enables the manufacture of fabric with a spunbond layer, a meltblown layer and an additional spunbond layer. The fabric can have different properties on each face. Meltblowing is a one-step extrusion process for the production of microfiber nonwovens from thermoplastic resin pellets, hot-melts and raw-material blends.At the same time as the contract was negotiated with Reifenher, a site search committee located the 120-acre site in Mocksville, a town near Winston-Salem, N.C. Ground was broken in October 1999. Machinery was delivered in July 2000, and the first piece of fabric was produced January 9 of this year.It all sounds smooth and easy, but the accelerated schedule Unifi employed to construct and operate the facility was not without a glitch here and there. One of the amazing things, said J. Allan Logie, director of operations, was that the steel got us a little off schedule. The delivery of the steel for the manufacturing area did not arrive on site until mid-May, and we were building the machine in July. We had a roof and a concrete slab, but the sides were still off the building when we began construction of the machine. That was quite a challenging time. It was a very fast-paced project. We ran polymer through the machine on December 8, three days early according to the schedule we had established with Reifenher in July 1999. We produced our first fabric on January 9 of this year. Seamless TransitionDespite the fact that Unifi is new to the production of nonwoven fabrics, Mebane said the business fits so seamlessly with the companys existing operations that he considers it one of Unifis core competencies. Unifi produces polyester fiber both in the United States and in Europe, he said. If you take a look at the suppliers of the critical components, whether they be spinnerets or other equipment, they are the same vendors we deal with in our fiber business. We are able to draw upon the experience of long-standing relationships. While it is a different process, much of what we do and how we approach it is the same.The Reicofil 3 machine installation in Mocksville is the largest in North America and among the largest in the world. Filament speed is rated at greater than 3,000 meters per minute (m/min), and the line-speed cap is 600 m/min. The installation gives Unifi immediate capacity to be a dominant player in the market. 
Our capacity is much greater than any other in North America at this moment, said Krister Erlandsson, manager of technical service and product development. We have 20-percent greater output than any other production line in the Americas. Ultimate capacity for the line exceeds 15,000 tons per year or the equivalent of more than 1 billion square yards of 0.5 opsy nonwovens.Unifi Technical Fabrics is targeting three primary markets for its meltspun fabrics hygiene, medical and industrial. The company will make cover stock for such hygiene end-uses as baby diapers, adult incontinence products and feminine-hygiene items. Other uses include garment material for the medical market and substrate fabric for industrial applications, encompassing the furniture, bedding, agriculture, automotive, filtration and construction industries. Fabrics produced weigh between 0.4 and 2.75 ounces. The market segments that we are entering have double-digit growth, very sophisticated customers and a requirement for very technically sophisticated products, Mebane said. We believe that Unifi is uniquely positioned to meet this high level of customer expectation.A considerable advantage for Unifi and one that enabled the company to plan and meet an aggressive start-up schedule was that the Mocksville plant was built specifically to accommodate the Reifenher line. Its much easier doing it this way than trying to fit machinery into an existing facility, he said. The plant currently encompasses about 90,000 square feet on the site, but room has been made for up to 10 modular expansions and, ultimately, 800,000 square feet of manufacturing space. Before making plans to add another line, though, Unifi officials will analyze the production and demand for products from the existing installation. We need to see who the customers are, what the product mix looks like and get some actual results before we move ahead, said Logie. The Mocksville plant operates four 12-hour shifts with nine people on each shift. Its total workforce numbers 57. A Formula For SuccessAlthough still a start-up operation, Mebane sees Unifi Technical Fabrics becoming an integral part of the Unifi portfolio. We will differentiate ourselves in each market segment in the same fashion as Unifi has in its primary yarn business, he said. First, we will be the most consistent manufacturer in the marketplace. We will follow the same mindset that enables our company to produce 800 million pounds of fiber a year that features excellent consistency day to day, week to week and year to year. Secondly, we will take a systems approach to the business. The way we conduct business with customers, our knowledge and application of sound business-to-business practices, will put us well ahead of many other nonwovens producers. Ultimately, our knowledge and capability, combined with the high quality of our products, will enable our customers to become more successful as a result of doing business with us.Over the years, Unifi has transitioned itself from being a domestic manufacturer and supplier to being a participant in the world marketplace. Today, Unifi maintains manufacturing plants in the United States and internationally. The U.S. plants are concentrated in North Carolina and Virginia, and the international plants are in Brazil, Colombia, Ireland and the United Kingdom.The textile yarns produced and processed by Unifi are found in home furnishings, apparel and industrial fabrics, home and automotive upholstery, hosiery, and sewing thread. In addition to textile yarns, the company also produces a portion of its textured polyester raw material and participates in a variety of other businesses. 
(left to right): Allan Logie, Michael Mebane and Krister Erlandsson inspect fabric in the Unifi Technical Fabrics lab.


April 2001



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