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.
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
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.
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.