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Nonwovens: A Dynamic, Ever-changing Industry

Behnam Pourdeyhimi, Ph.D., discusses the work being done at North Carolina State University's Nonwovens Institute and NWI's contributions to the industry.

Stephen M. Warner, Contributing Editor

Technical textiles including nonwovens comprise about 25 percent of total global fiber consumption. In the United States and other developed nations, the consumption is up to 75 percent. Research into new products and new applications is ongoing. The needs and potential are enormous in areas such as water purification, medical devices and responsive fibrous systems. A number of universities in the U.S. are actively working with industry in the development of these products. However, North Carolina State University (NCSU) has emerged as the leading educational institution in the exploration of nonwovens and technical textiles.

Behnam Pourdeyhimi, Ph.D., is the Klopman Distinguished Professor of Textile Materials and associate dean for industry research and extension at NCSU’s College of Textiles. He also is director of the Nonwovens Cooperative Research Center (NCRC) at the College of Textiles. He is widely published and holds more than 80 patents. Through his work, he has made significant contributions to the textile industry, and he is a highly respected educator.
 


Behnam Pourdeyhimi, Ph.D.
 
Throughout his career, Pourdeyhimi has blended academic research with real-world industry collaboration. At the Textile World Innovation Forum 2014, to be held September 15-16 in Atlanta, he will give a presentation on recent developments in nonwovens technology.

Textile World: Is the technical textile field healthy in North America?

Behnam Pourdeyhimi: The simple answer is YES. This is an industry based on know-how and intellectual property, and it is incredibly innovative in finding solutions to new or emerging problems.
 
TW: What drives innovation in the technical textiles industry? What are factors that can influence the growth of the industry?

Pourdeyhimi: Technical textiles are driven by competition and for offering performance unrivaled by other products. The solutions to many of today’s technical textiles problems are creative, and truly unique and multidisciplinary. This industry has identified ways to integrate materials and technical solutions from a broad array of offerings in a unique manner. This industry is not protected artificially by tariffs and import barriers; it competes globally based on value and performance delivered in the final product.

TW: Tell us about the College of Textiles at NCSU. Is enrollment growing or declining in textile career development?

Pourdeyhimi: The enrollment at the College of Textiles is increasing and is steady. There is a very broad group of offerings at the undergraduate level to connect with the entire supply chain from materials to markets and beyond. The net result is that the college has a healthy enrollment of about 1,100 undergraduates that serve our entire industry as graduates.

Our graduate enrollment is equally strong, with students earning masters and doctoral degrees in technology, management and fiber and polymer and science and engineering.
 
TW: Give us a couple of examples of interesting projects at NCSU. Do you ever collaborate with industry partners?

Pourdeyhimi: The research is rather broad and touches every segment of the industry. NCSU is engaged heavily with industry in many different forms. These can take the form of distance education to e-learning to customized short courses, a pilot lab and analytical services to product development.
 
TW: Specifically, let’s talk about the work being done at the Nonwovens Institute (NWI) at NCSU. You are the executive director of NWI. What’s its mission? When was it founded?

Pourdeyhimi: NWI is a great example of working with industry. NWI currently supports more than 45 Ph.D. students from funds received from its member companies and partners. More than 95 percent of its total expenditure comes from industry.  

At NCSU, the activities in support of the nonwovens industry started with the development of an undergraduate course as an introduction to process technologies of the industry during late 1970s or early 1980s. The research in this area also started during the same time period. Gradually, it led to the formation of a faculty group of six who sought industrial funds and interactions in support of research meaningful to the industry. In time, this led to the formation of an industrial consortium of nonwovens research with the participating companies paying $5,000 for membership, annually. By 1990, the industrial membership had grown to 12 when an opportunity appeared to seek funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) under the new NSF Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers (I/UCRC) program.

NCRC was one of the first five NSF I/UCRC cooperative programs when it was funded in 1991. NSF funding was to be matched by the State of North Carolina and by the industry membership. Starting at about $300,000 in total funding annually, the NCRC budget rose to around $9,000,000 in the fourth year. NCSU cost-shared the indirect costs, allocating to industry and state parts of the contributions.

In 1998, NCRC graduated from NSF. Consequently, the total funds dropped to below $550,000 per year, with the State of North Carolina allocation accounting for around $300,000 of the funds. NCRC continued to enhance its technology, though, and membership had grown to 16 companies in 1998. A strategic planning process was begun in 1998 to ensure that the activities would become sustainable. The total membership stands at 65 companies today with an annual budget of  about $5,000,000 — the total funding in 2013 exceeded $10,000,000, but this is due to a couple of funded activities that will likely last only for a few years.

The growth in educational activities stimulated the formation of NWI in 2007. NWI was established as a university-wide institute and became the parent for NCRC. In 2013, NCRC was completely merged into NWI and is to be discontinued as a separate entity in 2014.

Today, NWI represents the largest industry-sponsored research institute in the nation in all disciplines, with 70 corporate members, 45 Ph.D. students, 25 dedicated engineers, a global network of faculty members who collaborate and participate in the NWI research activities for its corporate members, and pilot facilities that are unrivaled anywhere in the world.

TW: NWI is known for being a hub for research and knowledge creation, and for bringing the nonwovens community together. How do you do it?

Pourdeyhimi: The knowledge creation has to be truly focused on knowledge creation and no more. In a shared environment of many diverse sets of interests, we have to focus on basic and fundamental yet relevant research that is focused on identifying solutions to specific knowledge gaps. While this may be a piece of the big picture, it can empower our member companies to use such knowledge to innovate and perhaps create the next generation of innovative products that perhaps they could not have done alone. The experiential learning to which our students get exposed prepares them for the corporate world; they are learning the secrets of problem solving and how to break down a major problem into manageable pieces, formulating solutions that are based on science and engineering principles. Their solutions matter and do not end up in a closet. The training and mentoring offered by our corporate members over the three to four years a Ph.D. student spends with us prepares them beyond what any university education alone would offer. In our short history, we have trained some 130 Ph.D.s who are leaders in various industry segments we serve.

Core projects do not often lead to intellectual property (IP), and that is no accident — we focus on science and engineering and not product development as part of our shared research activities. In our history from 1991, and even before when we existed as a small consortium, no more than four or five patents have come about from the core research. This surprises almost everyone with whom I discuss our history. To me, this is a key element in our success — we are fulfilling our mission of knowledge generation, training future leaders for the industry and beyond in a shared environment without creating any unnecessary conflicts and without being focused merely on IP generation, spinoffs and the like. This model works — you can bring competitors and the entire supply chain to the table when the research is focused on solving grand challenges that everyone faces. The IP will ultimately arise from how one would use the information generated from these research activities.

Our core programs are strongly focused on knowledge generation only, and that has become the hallmark of how we manage our shared environment — all of our members contribute to the agenda, the discussions, the identification and, ultimately, the selection and stewardship of our core research agenda. This model works in a shared environment that has to be relevant but noncompetitive, and only if we achieve operational excellence in transparent communications and a collaborative environment.

TW: How about the “non-shared” or one-on-one arrangements?  

Pourdeyhimi: We receive calls almost on a daily basis to help companies develop “new” products. These are not core research programs, and we have traditionally referred to them as non-core.

We see non-core activities as being also important in that they help with the bigger role we can play in terms of technical assistance provided to corporations, economic development and job creation. Some time ago, we instituted a program dealing with such activities that help translate science into reality and are designed to move technology towards market using a decision-making process based on sound stage-gate processes. Our guiding principles are that such programs must be transformative in that the new product or activity challenges what is possible, disrupts existing learning curves and leaps beyond today’s technologies.

Therefore, we do not engage in reverse engineering or helping create a “me-too” product. In the last 10-plus years, we have been quite successful at creating some new products/ processes, and these have led to a number of patents and commercial products. These activities are driven towards using our know-how and the knowledge gained over the years to help develop a new product/process and, inevitably, these activities lead to patents. These non-core patents are owned by the university but are offered to the sponsors of these programs for licensing and product development. The net result is that we have many more patents arising from non-core research programs sponsored by individual companies.

In summary, our core programs are focused on knowledge creation and not on IP, and we believe our role in the core programs is to enable our members to learn, find solutions to common problems and provide the tools necessary that would help our member companies to innovate.

In non-core activities designed around specific needs for one company, we can create and have created new products. These, we believe, do not create any conflicts in that such products are new, and while they might replace a product in another field, they bring possible new opportunities to the nonwovens industry. We see these activities as being synergistic.

The research programs fall into three categories: materials; functionalization; and micro and macro modeling. Below are a few of the current activities:
  • materials for sensing and analysis of nonwoven structures;
  • durable, self-extinguishing, and halogen-free flame retardants for nonwovens;
  • micro-and macroscale modeling of filter aging: effects of particle deposition on filter performance;
  • modeling of meltblowing process conditions;
  • predictive theory to estimate the thickness and porosity of nanofiber nonwovens;
  • parametric modeling of compression performance of nonwovens;
  • patent intelligence for nonwoven technology forecasting; and
  • heat transfer during the thermoplastic nonwoven molding process.

TW: What are some interesting examples of products developed through NWI?

Pourdeyhimi: There are numerous products that are commercial — examples include the Novolon molded spacer fabrics used in wipes, backpacks, bedding and such; and the Winged Fiber™ used in air and liquid filtration. There are numerous other products that are commercial but remain confidential for the time being.

TW: What do you feel is your most significant accomplishment within the nonwovens industry?

Pourdeyhimi: The most interesting and significant aspect of our industry is that it is not static. What we used to teach only a decade ago is already obsolete due to many incredible developments that have emerged over in our industry the last few years.

This industry remains dynamic and reinvents itself every few years. While others talk about it, our nonwovens industry does it. Take, for example, the concept of nanofibers — most believe this is a new endeavor. However, the nonwovens industry has been making and selling nanofiber-based products for over 60 years. The industry chooses to keep many of its developments away from publicity. This industry is built around know-how, trade secrets, good and sound science and engineering; and will continue to innovate and be successful in a global economy for many years to come. As an educator, I am thrilled to be part of this community and with being a small part of its growth and success story, and to be able to train future leaders who will serve this incredible industry.

July/August 2014



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