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Technical Textiles

Technical Textiles
Agriculture, horticulture and fishing
Textiles have always been used extensively in the course of food production, most notably by the fishing industry in the form of nets, ropes and lines but also by agriculture and horticulture for a variety of covering, protection and containment applications. Although future volume growth rates appear to be relatively modest, this is partly due to the replacement of heavier weight traditional textiles, including jute and sisal sacking and twine, by lighter, longer lasting synthetic substitutes, especially polypropylene. However, modern materials are also opening up new applications. Lightweight spunbonded fleeces are now used for shading, thermal insulation and weed suppression. Heavier nonwoven, knitted and woven constructions are employed for wind and hail protection. Fibrillated and extruded nets are replacing traditional baler twine for wrapping modern circular bales. Capillary nonwoven matting is used in horticulture to distribute moisture to growing plants. Seeds themselves can be incorporated into such matting along with any necessary nutrients and pesticides. Agriculture is also an important user of products from other end-use sectors such as geotextiles for drainage and land reclamation, protective clothing for employees who have to handle sprays and hazardous equipment, transport textiles for tractors and lorries, conveyor belts, hoses, filters and composite reinforcements in the construction of silos, tanks and piping. At sea, fish farming is a growing industry which uses specialised netting and other textile products. High performance fibres such as HMPE are finding their way into the fishing industry for the manufacture of lightweight, ultra-strong lines and nets.

Construction – building and roofing
Textiles are employed in many ways in the construction of buildings, both permanent and temporary, dams, bridges, tunnels and roads. A closely related but distinct area of use is in geotextiles by the civil engineering sector. Temporary structures such as tents, marquees and awnings are some of the most obvious and visible applications of textiles. Where these used to be exclusively made from proofed heavy cotton, a variety of lighter, stronger, rot-, sunlight- and weatherproof (also often fireproof) synthetic materials are now increasingly required. A relatively new category of ‘architectural membrane’ is coming to prominence in the construction of semipermanent structures such as sports stadia, exhibition centres and other modern buildings. Nonwoven glass and polyester fabrics are already widely used in roofing applications while other textiles are used as breathable membranes to prevent moisture penetration of walls. Fibres and textiles also have a major role to play in building and equipment insulation. Glass fibres are almost universally used in place of asbestos now. Modern metal-clad roofs and buildings can be lined with special nonwovens to prevent moisture condensation and dripping. Double wall spacer fabrics can be filled with suitable materials to provide sound and thermal insulation or serve as lightweight cores for composite materials. Composites generally have a bright future in building and construction. Existing applications of glass-reinforced materials include wall panels, septic tanks and sanitary fittings. Glass, polypropylene and acrylic fibres and textiles are all used to prevent cracking of concrete, plaster and other building materials. More innovative use is now being made of glass in bridge construction. In Japan, carbon fibre is attracting a lot of interest as a possible reinforcement for earthquake-prone buildings although price is still an important constraint upon its more widespread use. Textiles are also widely employed in the course of construction operations themselves, in uses as diverse as safety netting, lifting and tensioning ropes and flexible shuttering for curing concrete. The potential uses for textiles in construction are almost limitless. The difficulties for textile manufacturers operating in this market include the strongly cyclical nature of the construction industry and the unevenness of major projects, the long testing and acceptance procedures and, perhaps above all, the task of communicating these developments to a diverse and highly fragmented group of key specifiers, including architects, construction engineers and regulatory bodies. The construction requirements, practices and standards of just about every country and region are different and it has, so far, proved very difficult for any acknowledged global leaders to emerge in this market as they have, for example, in industrial and automotive textiles.

Transport textiles
Transport applications (cars, lorries, buses, trains, ships and aerospace) represent the largest single end-use area for technical textiles, accounting for some 20% of the total. Products range from carpeting and seating (regarded as technical rather than furnishing textiles because of the very stringent performance characteristics which they must fulfil), through tyre, belt and hose reinforcement, safety belts and air bags, to composite reinforcements for automotive bodies, civil and military aircraft bodies, wings and engine components, and many other uses. The fact that volume and value growth rates in these applications appear to be amongst the lowest of any application area needs to be interpreted with caution. The automotive industry (which accounts for a high proportion of all transport textiles) is certainly one of the most mature in market terms. Growth rates in new end-uses such as air bags and composite materials will continue to outstrip the above averages by a considerable margin for many years to come. However, total technical textile usage is, in many ways, a victim of its own success. Increasing sophistication in the specifications and uses of textile materials has led to the adoption of lighter, stronger, more precisely engineered yarns, woven and knitted fabrics and nonwovens in place of established materials. The decreasing weight per tyre of textile reinforcing cord in modern radial constructions is one example of this. Interior textiles in cars are also making use of lighter weight and lower cost nonwovens. Modern textiles also last longer. Hoses and belts which used to use substantial quantities of textile reinforcements are now capable of lasting the lifetime of a vehicle, removing much of the large and continuing ‘after-market’ for textile products. The automotive industry has led the world in the introduction of tightly organised supply chain structures and textiles are no exception. Technical textile producers have had to learn the language and practice of precision engineering, just-in-time supply relationships and total quality management. The ideas and systems developed to serve the automotive industry have gradually filtered through to other markets and have had a profound effect in many different areas. Meanwhile, the major automotive companies have become increasingly global players in a highly competitive market and have demanded of their suppliers that they follow suit. The supply of textiles to this market is already dominated by a relatively few large companies in each product area. Worldwide manufacturing capabilities and strategic relationships are essential to survival and many smaller players without these resources have already exited from the market. Recessionary cycles in automotive markets as well as in military and civil aerospace applications have dealt some severe blows and only those companies with the long term commitment and strength to survive are likely to benefit from the better times that the market also periodically enjoys.

Packaging and containment
Important uses of textiles include the manufacturing of bags and sacks, traditionally from cotton, flax and jute but increasingly from polypropylene. The strength and regularity of this synthetic material, combined with modern materials handling techniques, has allowed the introduction of FIBCs for the more efficient handling, storage and distribution of a variety of powdered and granular materials ranging from fertiliser, sand, cement, sugar and flour to dyestuffs. ‘Big bags’ with typical carrying capacities from one half to 2 tonnes can be fitted with special liners, carrying straps and filling/discharge arrangements. The ability to re-use these containers in many applications in place of disposable ‘one-trip’ bags and sacks is another powerful argument for their wider use. An even faster growing segment of the packaging market uses lighter weight nonwovens and knitted structures for a variety of wrapping and protection applications, especially in the food industry. Tea and coffee bags use wet-laid nonwovens. Meats, vegetables and fruits are now frequently packed with a nonwoven insert to absorb liquids. Other fruits and vegetable products are supplied in knitted net packaging. Strong, lightweight spunbonded and equivalent nonwoven paper-like materials are particularly useful for courier envelopes while adhesive tapes, often reinforced with fibres, yarns and fabrics, are increasingly used in place of traditional twine. Woven strappings are less dangerous to cut than the metal bands and wires traditionally used with densely packed bales. A powerful driver of the development and use of textiles in this area is increasing environmental concern over the disposability and recycling of packaging materials. Legislation across the European Union, implemented especially vigorously in countries such as Germany, is now forcing many manufacturers and distributors of products to rethink their packaging practices fundamentally.

Sport and leisure
Even excluding the very considerable use of textiles in performance clothing and footwear, there are plenty of opportunities for the use of technical textiles throughout the sports and leisure market. Applications are diverse and range from artificial turf used in sports surfaces through to advanced carbon fibre composites for racquet frames, fishing rods, golf clubs and cycle frames. Other highly visible uses are balloon fabrics, parachute and paraglider fabrics and sailcloth. Growth rates are well above average and unit values are often very high. The sports sector is receptive to innovation and developers of new fibres, fabrics and coatings often aim them at this market, at least initially. Many of the products and ideas introduced here eventually diffuse through to the volume leisure market and even the street fashion market.

Geotextiles in civil engineering
The geosynthetics market (comprising geotextiles, geogrids and geomembranes) is nevertheless expected to show some of the highest growth rates of any sector over the foreseeable future. The economic and environmental advantages of using textiles to reinforce, stabilise, separate, drain and filter are already well proven. Geotextiles allow the building of railway and road cuttings and embankments with steeper sides, reducing the land required and disturbance to the local environment. Revegetation of these embankments or of the banks of rivers and waterways can also be promoted using appropriate materials. There has been renewed interest in fibres such as woven jute as a biodegradable temporary stabilising material in such applications. As in the case of construction textiles, one of the problems faced by manufacturers and suppliers of these materials is the sheer diversity of performance requirements. No two installations are the same in hydrological or geological terms or in the use to which they will subsequently be put. Suppliers to this market need to develop considerable expertise and to work closely with engineers and consultants in order to design and specify suitable products. Because of the considerable areas (quantities) of fabric that can be required in a single project, cost is always a consideration and it is as essential not to overspecify a product as not to underspecify it. Much of the research and development work undertaken has been to understand better the long term performance characteristics of textiles which may have to remain buried in unpredictable environments (such as landfill and toxic waste sites) for many years and continue to perform to an adequate standard. Nonwovens already account for up to 80% of geotextile applications. This is partly a question of economics but also of the suitability of such textile structures for many of the filtration and separation duties that they are called upon to perform. Current interest is in ‘composite’ fabrics which combine the advantages of different textile constructions such as woven, knitted, nonwoven and membrane materials. To supply the diversity of fabrics needed for the many different applications of geotextiles, leading specialist manufacturers are beginning to assemble a wide range of complementary capabilities by acquisition and other means.

Industrial products and components
Set to rival transport textiles for first place by the year 2005 or shortly thereafter (in volume terms, although not yet in value) is the diverse field of ‘industrial’ textiles. As now more precisely defined, this includes textiles used directly in industrial processes or incorporated into industrial products such as filters, conveyor belts and abrasive belts, as well as reinforcements for printed circuit boards, seals and gaskets, and other industrial equipment. Use of nonwovens already considerably outweighs that of woven and other fabric types here; consumption in 2000 is estimated at 700 000 tonnes and a little over 400 000 tonnes, respectively. However, both are surpassed by the use of technical fibres and textiles for composite reinforcement, over 740 000 tonnes in 2000. Growth rates are generally well above average in most areas. Because of the universal nature of many industrial requirements, some large companies have emerged with worldwide manufacturing and distribution to dominate markets for industrial textile products.

Medical and hygiene textiles
The fact that medical and hygiene textiles are expected to show below average growth in volume but above average growth in value reflects the contrasting prospects of at least two main areas of the market. The largest use of textiles is for hygiene applications such as wipes, babies’ diapers (nappies) and adult sanitary and incontinence products. With the possible exception of the last of these, all are relatively mature markets whose volume growth has peaked. Manufacturers and converters now seek to develop them further by adding value to increasingly sophisticated products. Nonwovens dominate these applications which account for over 23% of all nonwoven use, the largest proportion of any of the 12 major markets for technical textiles. Concern has been expressed at the growth of disposable products and the burden which they place upon landfill and other waste disposal methods. Attempts have been made to develop and introduce more efficient biodegradable fibres for such end-uses but costs remain high. Meanwhile, the fastest areas of growth are in developing and newly industrialised markets where product penetration is still relatively low; Asia is a particular target for many of the big name brand manufacturers who operate in this area. The other side of the medical and hygiene market is a rather smaller but higher value market for medical and surgical products such as operating gowns and drapes, sterilisation packs, dressings, sutures and orthopaedic pads. At the highest value end of this segment are relatively tiny volumes of extremely sophisticated textiles for uses such as artificial ligaments, veins and arteries, skin replacement, hollow fibres for dialysis machines and so on. Growth prospects in these areas are potentially considerable although the proving and widespread introduction of new life-critical products takes time.

Home textiles
By far the largest area of use for other textiles as defined above, that is other than fabrics, nonwovens and composite reinforcements, over 35% of the total weight of fibres and textiles in that category, lies in the field of household textiles and furnishing and especially in the use of loose fibres in wadding and fibrefill applications. Hollow fibres with excellent insulating properties are widely used in bedding and sleeping bags. Other types of fibre are increasingly being used to replace foams in furniture because of concern over the fire and health hazards posed by such materials. Woven fabrics are still used to a significant extent as carpet and furniture backings and in some smaller, more specialised areas such as curtain header tapes. However, nonwovens such as spunbondeds have made significant inroads into these larger markets while various drylaid and hydroentangled products are now widely used in household cleaning applications in place of traditional mops and dusters.
Clothing components
This category includes fibres, yarns and textiles used as technical components in the manufacture of clothing such as sewing threads, interlinings, waddings and insulation; it does not include the main outer and lining fabrics of garments, nor does it cover protective clothing which is discussed later. Although the world’s consumption of clothing and therefore of these types of technical textile continues to increase steadily, the major problem faced by established manufacturers is the relocation of garment manufacturing to lower cost countries and therefore the need to develop extended supply lines and marketing channels to these areas, usually in the face of growing local competition. As for home textile applications, this is a major market for fibrefill products. Some of the latest and most sophisticated developments have seen the incorporation of temperature phase change materials into such insulation products to provide an additional degree of control and resistance to sudden extremes of temperature, be they hot or cold.

Protective and safety clothing and textiles
Textiles for protective clothing and other related applications are another important growth area which has attracted attention and interest somewhat out of proportion to the size and value of the existing market. As in the case of sports textiles, a number of relatively high value and performance critical product areas have proved to be an ideal launch pad for a new generation of high performance fibres, most notably the aramids, but including many other speciality materials. The variety of protective functions that needs to be provided by different textile products is considerable and diverse. It includes protection against cuts, abrasion, ballistic and other types of severe impact including stab wounds and explosions, fire and extreme heat, hazardous dust and particles, nuclear, biological and chemical hazards, high voltages and static electricity, foul weather, extreme cold and poor visibility. As well as people, sensitive instruments and processes also need to be protected. The protective clothing industry is still highly fragmented with much of the innovation and market development being provided by the major fibre and other materials producers. This could change as some global suppliers emerge, perhaps without their own direct manufacturing but relying on contract producers around the world, very much as the mainstream clothing industry does at present.

Ecological protection textiles
The other category of technical textile markets, as defined by Techtextil, is technical textiles for protection of the environment and ecology. This is not a well defined segment yet, although it overlaps with several other areas, including industrial textiles (filtration media), geotextiles (erosion protection and sealing of toxic waste) and agricultural textiles (minimising water loss from the land and reducing the need for use of herbicides by providing mulch to plants etc.). Apart from these direct applications, technical textiles can contribute towards the environment in almost every sphere of their use, for example by reducing weight in transport and construction and thereby saving materials and energy. Improved recycleability is becoming an important issue not only for packaging but also for products such as cars.

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