Interview with Pierre Wiertz

Pierre Wiertz
Pierre Wiertz

Nonwovens are one of the fastest growing fibre consuming sectors
An international association serving the nonwoven and related industries, Edana has 247 member companies in over 35 countries. Apart from disseminating information on this niche, it also organises a number of international conferences and is the sponsor of Index, a leading nonwovens' exhibition. The next edition of Index will take place from 4-7 April, 2017 in Geneva, Switzerland. Pierre Wiertz, with Edana since 1982, and appointed director in 2004, now spearheads the company's activities. Wiertz discusses the current scenario in the nonwoven industry with Mary Christine Joy.

How big is the market for nonwovens?

Almost exactly as the earth's population reached 7 billion people in 2011, global nonwovens output reached 7 million metric tons, and thus the world annual average per capita consumption figure of nonwovens reached an impressive and unprecedented figure of 1 kg. In 2013, based on Edana statistics and some estimates, global production of nonwoven almost reached 8 million metric tons. From a continental viewpoint, approximately 35 per cent of this total comes from Asia, about 25 per cent from Greater Europe and a little less than 20 per cent from America.

The global growth rate of the overall production of nonwovens has outpaced that of many other industries' output since the beginning of 21st century. Is this true?

This is right considering that such a growth rate has for many years been seven per cent or more, even if this somewhat decreased in the last few years. This compares favourably with many manufacturing industries. As far as the textile industry in a broad sense is concerned, this makes nonwovens one of the fastest growing fibre consuming sectors, if not the fastest. However nonwovens are not just textiles, as they can be made of many other materials such as cellulose, carbon or mineral fibres than what conventional classifications consider to be 'textile fibres'. This is another good reason to consider nonwovens as an industry in its own right.

China has reached a level of over 1 kg/capita in nonwoven consumption. So can we consider the Chinese market to be saturated now?

There are still huge opportunities for growth in both production and consumption of nonwovens in China as long as there are essential needs for the whole territory in hygiene, healthcare, mobility, infrastructure and water and air purification, beyond the current proportion of the country's population who can be classed as regular nonwovens goods' consumers.

I would like to quote one of your earlier statements - "Eventually, the whole question of how nonwovens and nonwovens-based products are perceived (or ignored) by individual citizens and consumers...". Why do you say that nonwoven and nonwoven products are ignored?

We say that nonwovens can at times be ignored for the very simple reason that nonwovens perform functions which may often be hidden or not recognised as such, as part of complex equipment goods such as machines or vehicles. Additionally, nonwovens can be overlooked thanks to the lack of understanding of their essential role in visually simple but technically sophisticated consumer goods such as diapers, surgical gowns and drapes or protective equipment such as personal masks.

What are the challenges facing the growth of the nonwoven industry in emerging markets?

Both the average per capita income and distribution of this among a given population play a role in the speed of adoption of nonwoven-based products. In addition, cultural factors (such as the public attitude towards single use products, where waste management infrastructure is not optimal) mean that there is no single answer for all emerging countries.

Can you cite some examples of latest technological innovations taking place in the nonwoven industry? How accepting are companies of these technological innovations?

Downgauging, which refers to reducing the amount of material in a product while still maintaining or even improving the properties and performance of the material or end product, has long been a major focus for the nonwoven industry, more simply referred to as "grammage reduction". This does not seem to have reached its absolute limits yet in all end uses, and continues to be the subject of a lot of research and development efforts, just like "hybridation" or composite technologies, whereby properties of webs made of and/or bonded by different means are combined. Other than that, there are obviously a number of individual and often confidential proprietary developments, some of which remain private at this stage, but some of which I hope to discover with the delegates in Edana's future conferences and symposia. An innovation is by definition a commercially successful development anywhere in the supply chain, from the extraction of raw materials to the delivery and end of life of a product. It is therefore often not just companies that have to develop or embrace technological developments, but also their customers or consumers, who have the power to make these successful or not, and therefore truly innovative or not. This means that marketing efforts must work together with any technical developments to deliver a successful product innovation to market. In this respect, I believe that the nonwoven supply chain is very progressive, and has a great capacity to create successful technology developments throughout its length. The catalysts created by inventors are of course still important for breakthrough innovation, but the general attitude of a value chain (such as the nonwoven and related industries) is to embrace and maximise the potential of incremental developments which, we believe, is the most important factor.

Nonwovens' fastest growing application is in filtration? Do you agree?

There is little doubt that non-mineral or non-metallic filter media are one of the most consistently fast growing nonwoven end uses on a worldwide basis thanks to global concerns and efforts to improve pollution control, indoor air quality, energy efficiency and water purification.

Are the applications of nonwoven in the filtration industry as compared to the personal care and hygiene industry higher or expected to be higher in the near future?

The trends applicable to filtration versus the personal care and hygiene application areas are different, and therefore difficult to compare or rate against each other. Industrialised countries show a relative saturation of baby and feminine care markets, whereas adult incontinence products are the growing markets there, whilst emerging countries are - on average - at a lower level of market penetration of baby and feminine care products. For filtration, the needs of national markets can vary widely based on their current level of personal or national infrastructure and the requirements of local population.

Can you brief us about the new conferences and symposia for nonwovens scheduled for 2015?

The Edana Outreach Programme, designed to spread our core message and in particular our leading product stewardship approach, enables us to move throughout the world with great efficiency, especially in helping to improve the value chain's understanding of the benefits in promoting sustainable products. Here are the planned events so far for next year: 2015 3-5 March, 2015 Outlook Plus Latin America Sao Paolo, Brazil 17-18 March, 2015 Filtrex Hong Kong, Asia 3-4 June 2015 International Nonwoven Symposium + AGM Prague, Czech Republic 23-25 September, 2015 Outlook, Athens, Greece 5-6 November, 2015 Nonwoven Innovation Academy Leeds, United Kingdom
Published on: 19/11/2014

DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of