November 28, 2023

3R Trail

Feel the difference

Automotive Market Outlook | Nonwovens Industry

Nonwovens continue to make advancements in the automotive market as designers of cars, SUVs, trucks and their components seek alternative materials to make cars more sustainable and offer increased comfort. Additionally, with the growth of the new mobility market—which encompasses electric vehicles (EVs), autonomous vehicles (AVs) and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) powered by hydrogen, players in the nonwovens industry expect growth to expand even further.

“Nonwovens continue to proliferate in the automobile because they’re often a cost-effective solution that are typically lighter weight than other materials,” says Jim Porterfield, vice president, Sales & Marketing, AJ Nonwovens. “For example, in some applications they replace compression molded materials, and in substrates they might replace rigid plastic materials. Nonwovens are used in a variety of different applications many times because of a cost/performance/light weighting type of need.”

Freudenberg Performance Materials, one of the top nonwovens producers in the world, expects the growth of electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to boost growth for nonwovens as the materials fulfill lots of new requirements of electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. “Nonwovens are perfect for applications in electric vehicles due to light-weight, design requirements and recyclability,” says Dr. Frank Heislitz, CEO, Freudenberg Performance Materials. “Nonwovens offer new high-performance technologies for application areas around battery and fuel cell e.g., gas diffusion layers.”

In recent years automakers such as General Motors (GM) and Ford Motor Company have announced tens of billions of dollars in investments to increase production of EVs and AVs in the U.S. Meanwhile, in October, Hyundai Motor Group Metaplant America (HMGMA) broke ground on a new manufacturing plant at its Bryan County Mega site in Georgia. The $5.54 billion investment by the company and its affiliate suppliers includes plans to produce a diverse range of Hyundai, Genesis and Kia EVs and a new battery manufacturing facility. HMGMA will create more than 8,100 jobs over the next few years as it aims to establish a stable supply chain for EV battery and other EV components in the U.S. market. HMGMA’s new smart factory is expected to begin commercial production in the first half of 2025.

For GM, maker of Buick, Cadillac, GMC and Chevrolet vehicles, floor carpet, trunk trim, headliner and limited seating applications are common areas where nonwoven constructions are used for customer-facing parts. According to Heather Scalf, GM senior global design lead for Color and Trim Development, there are advantages and disadvantages to using nonwoven materials in certain applications.

“A main advantage of a nonwoven is the lower cost compared to knit and tufted constructions that are used in the same applications, but it is more difficult to manufacture and tend to not be as durable as woven or tufted constructions, limiting placement and usage,” she says. “Nonwoven constructions are inherently easier to have a higher amount of recycled content because of the nature of the construction and how it’s made. [Also, a] nonwoven does not need a polyurethane foam backing on headliner applications, this contributes to a positive sustainability story.”

Nonwovens have improved in some areas like printing and embossing capability on headliner applications in the last decade, she adds, but they still have a disadvantage in appearance and durability compared to a knit construction. “That is why we see nonwovens more appropriate for certain applications and vehicle segments.”

From a visual perspective, Scalf says nonwovens are limited with design aesthetic capability and quality perception. “Usually, they’re very flat and monotone. Future advancements to improve the appearance and durability could make them more desirable and fitting for other vehicle segments,” she explains.

Among the reasons why GM might consider nonwovens for EVs, meanwhile, is the value it could offer to help bring more products in affordable segments and the construction’s ability to offer a higher amount of recycled content, she adds.

Moving Forward

As the automotive market continues to grow, nonwovens producers are expressing confidence.

In March, AstenJohnson, a global textile manufacturer headquartered in Charleston, SC, announced it would build a new 220,000 square foot facility in Waco, TX; its eighth North American location.

The Waco plant will focus on nonwoven fabrics for growth markets including auto light-weighting and composite manufacturing. In addition to the startup of two state-of-the-art Dilo needlepunch lines, the Waco plant will be clean, air-conditioned, and will have a strong focus on sustainable business practices. Operations are expected to begin in the second quarter of 2023, with automotive products expected to be produced starting in the third quarter.

Meanwhile, in June, AstenJohnson announced the creation of a new division: AJ Nonwovens. AJ Nonwovens combines the previously acquired businesses Eagle Nonwovens in St. Louis, MO, and Foss Performance Materials in Hampton, NH.

While the locations in Missouri and New Hampshire will remain, they will operate under the new name, AJ Nonwovens, along with the new facility in Waco. The Waco site is positioned to better serve customers in the South, Midwest and Mexico, while the existing locations will also fulfill orders for customers in North America. As a combined entity, AJ Nonwovens’ three facilities will increase production capacity and improve speed to market.

“Our goal is to be the most modern nonwovens supplier in North America,” says Porterfield. “We’re investing in all our facilities. We’re investing heavily in our New Hampshire facility to make it more modern, and we’re obviously investing heavily in our greenfield location in Waco, TX. As a family-owned company that’s over 200 years old, we certainly think to the future and to what we can do as we contribute to that future. As part of that investment, we’re also investing in additional recycling capabilities as part of our dedication to circularity in recycled content—an area where we have long been a market leader.”

In the automotive market AJ Nonwovens develops materials that are used on the rear shelf, trunks, floors, seatbacks and exterior wheel wells of sedans. It also produces materials for flooring, load floors and seatbacks of trucks and SUVs. Its facility in St. Louis also makes materials for automotive filters and desiccant bag material for automotive. The company also plans to grow and innovate in underbody shields—a market area it doesn’t currently participate in. The accelerated growth in EV’s has created new and different challenges in the market, especially in material selection. AJ Nonwovens recognizes this and is well positioned technologically to continue innovating in this high growth segment where it already participates.

AJ Nonwovens has also created several new products in the acoustics space and has developed other products that are tailored for specific applications, according to Porterfield. In addition to its needlepunch capabilities, the company makes its own fiber and provides coating, lamination and sheet extrusion capabilities.

Osaka, Japan-based Toray Industries is also in expansion mode. In September the company announced that its subsidiaries Toray Textiles Central Europe s.r.o. (TTCE) and Toray Advanced Materials Korea Inc. (TAK) have set up new facilities in the Czech Republic to expand the scope of its Airlite automotive interior sound acoustic insulation business in Europe. This material enhances passenger comfort by suppressing noise from driving, vibrations and from outside vehicles. This new investment went online in October with an annual production capacity of 1200 metric tons.

Airlite is a meltblown nonwoven sound-absorbing material made of lightweight polypropylene and polyester. Airlite delivers exceptional sound absorption across a broad frequency range. It is lighter than conventional counterparts, thereby reducing energy consumption from driving.

The new Airlite facilities will complement TTCE’s airbag fabric operations, helping it to expand its automotive materials business. TAK looks to leverage the new facilities to bolster its automotive interior sound-absorbing materials business in Europe and step-up efforts to serve automakers and leading parts manufacturers as Europe’s electric vehicle market grows.

In addition to Airlite, Toray has been developing its nonwoven nanofiber fabric Synthefiber NT. Synthefiber NT is a sound-absorbing nonwoven material made of 100% polyester for both the skin layer and block layer. It contributes to solving noise and environmental problems by demonstrating its excellent sound absorption properties in various fields such as roads, railroads and construction materials.

According to Tatsuya Bessho, manager of corporate communications, Toray Industries, the market for nonwovens in the automotive sector is expanding, and the company believes that the growth rate of nonwoven fabrics will increase. “For example, we think the spread of EVs will change the required sound-absorbing performance, so it will be necessary to develop sound acoustic insulations accordingly. And we think there is the possibility of using nonwoven fabrics in applications and areas where they have not been used before in terms of weight reduction, which is essential for reducing GHG emissions,” Bessho says.

Fibertex Nonwovens is also optimistic about growth for nonwovens in the automotive sector. According to Clive Hitchcock, CCO, Automotive & Wipes, Fibertex Nonwovens, the role of nonwovens in the is expanding. “In fact, more than 30 square meters nonwovens are used in a car so nonwovens are a vital part of every aspect of the car,” he says.

Products from Fibertex Nonwovens often replace heavier and more environmentally harmful products. This applies especially to the automotive industry, as nonwovens products, being lighter, contribute to less fuel consumption and great comfort. In addition, the products are easier to recycle when the car reaches the end of its lifecycle. This way, the products contribute to responsible consumption and production.

Fibertex’s nonwovens are used in the manufacture of cars for various purposes: To reduce the weight of the car, to improve comfort and enhance aesthetics and for general insulation and fire retardancy. “But most importantly, we improve the experience and comfort for the driver and passengers, through advanced acoustics solutions and high efficient filter media,” Hitchcock says.

In terms of new applications, Fibertex sees new opportunities related to the “Frunk,” where the luggage compartment function is moved to the front of the vehicle—what used to be the engine compartment—due to the same technology being used, but also interesting aspects within cable wrapping, thermal management, and electrical protection. “In certain applications, nonwoven solutions provide an effective alternative to polyurethane foams, and other traditional solutions,” he adds.

When it comes to the new mobility market, Fibertex expects growth in these vehicles due to lightweight materials being important and used, and the company is currently examining this market. “We see opportunities within materials for thermal and acoustic insulation due acoustic management caused by the new sound frequency ranges introduced by the use of electrical motors and other electronic parts,” Hitchcock explains.

“The whole field of mobility remains an important feature of everyday life, and we continue to see a strong future in this area with continued underlying growth, requiring solid technical development,” he says. “As such, automotive is one of Fibertex’s main segments, as we see the use of nonwovens expanding in this important market, due to their customization, sustainability and ability to be designed to deliver specific performance objectives.”

For its part, Freudenberg Performance Materials (FPM) offers a broad technology platform for automotives including. products and technologies for customer requests such as high-performance lightweight solutions. Freudenberg is one of the few players that manufacture gas diffusion layers completely in-house at its own production facilities, including laboratories. In addition to gas diffusion layers (GDL) for fuel cells, the company produces materials for lightweight acoustic pads, underbody shields, headliner facings with differentiated printing technology, its nonwovens based on Lutraflor technology for automotive carpets, insert mats and interior and trunk linings, as well as Evolon microfilament textiles for a variety of applications in cars.

New solutions from FPM include Battery Pack Liquid Absorbers: Climate and moisture management for lithium-ion battery packs. “Battery packs are the core elements of mobile and stationary lithium-ion energy storage systems,” Dr. Heislitz explains. “They are used in automotive and industrial applications. Liquids leaking inside a battery pack can have a variety of causes. The humidity of the air is one major issue. Air enters into the battery pack, and moisture condenses inside the cooled pack. Another problem is coolant leaking out of the cooling system. In both cases, the absorbing fleece acts as a safety system to reliably capture and retain condensate and leaking coolant.”

Freudenberg developed its Battery Pack Liquid Absorbers as absorbent pads that can reliably take up and store large volumes of liquid. The modular design allows for scaling of the absorption capacity, which is limited only by the available space. Customer-specific geometries can even be implemented thanks to the flexible material.

Another innovation from the company is its Friction Inserts for bolted and press fitted joints. The demand for higher performance implies that screwed and press fitted connections are exposed to increased forces and torques. This applies especially for engine as well as powertrain applications in electric vehicles, according to the company. With its Friction Inserts, Freudenberg provides a solution for those higher demands. By using this innovative technology in between two joining components, customers can achieve a static friction coefficient of up to µ=0.95. This allows not only to transmit higher shear forces and torques, but also design lighter and more compact components without any sacrifice in performance.

“With the significant increase of the static friction coefficients, a number of benefits can be obtained, such as the transmission of higher torques and shear forces due to the optimized friction joint, the reduction in the number and/or size of the bolts used, or minimized micro vibrations enabling connected reduced noise,” says Dr. Heislitz. “This innovative and powerful technology also promotes the same part strategy of the automotive industry. As an example, parts of the power train of a low motorized vehicle can be used without redesigning the part in performance cars enabling higher torques.”

Meanwhile, nonwovens producer Ahlstrom offers a wide range of nonwovens for automotive end uses including interior car components, filter media for all automotive and heavy-duty applications (oil, fuel, transmission, cabin air, air intake) as well as for electric vehicles (cabin air, transmission oil, battery cooling and fuel cell air intake) and for battery separators.

On the filtration side, last year Ahlstrom introduced FiltEV, a platform fully dedicated to electric vehicles. The FiltEV platform includes a new generation of cabin air filter media that deliver higher efficiency on fine particles (HEPA), microorganisms and harmful gases for a safer journey. Also, a premium range of transmission oil media for suction and pressure filters delivers better protection of the powertrain and longer lifetime. Further, a complete portfolio of air and liquid filter media for thermal management delivers reliability and extended performances to the cooling unit. Finally, a modular concept of fuel cell air intake filter media protects the circuits and the catalyst against the finest particles and critical molecules.

To complement the filtration offering for EVs, Ahlstrom has introduced Forticell, a new product platform designed for energy storage applications. This offering features a complete portfolio of fiber-based materials for the lead acid battery industry in addition to new solutions in development for lithium-ion batteries, according to Noora Blasi, marketing manager, Filtration Division, Ahlstrom. “Our fibrous materials have unique properties, delivering enhanced benefits for the performance of batteries,” she says.

Ahlstrom also continues to support its customers in the traditional transportation segment providing better performing and more sustainable filtration media. An example is its recently launched ECO range which was a finalist for the Filtrex Innovation Award. “By incorporating a significant amount of bio-based lignin in the impregnation recipe of some of our engine air intake and oil filter media, we have been able to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of our media and drastically reduce the formaldehyde emission during the curing process at customer, maintaining filtration performances and durability of the media,” Blasi says.

Outside of filtration, Ahlstrom offers a comprehensive range of stand-alone and laminated nonwovens for interior car parts applications such as headliners, door panels, inner dashboards, etc., according to Maxence Décamps, sales and product manager, Industrial Nonwovens, Ahlstrom. “We innovate constantly to always stay one step ahead and support our customers in their demanding technical challenges,” he says. “Our two cornerstones are: Sustainability and Performance. Our know-how and versatile industrial assets enable us to embrace new applications.”

Looking ahead, Blasi says nonwovens, and especially composites, have a strong future in the automotive market. “As the needs of the filtration market increase, the solutions to be used become more sophisticated. New designs—multilayer, laminates—are introduced to bring more characteristics than a single-layer solution. New raw materials will offer added value for example in terms of carbon footprint, processability and emission reduction.”

There are also some challenges the automotive market is currently facing. Décamps adds, “The automotive business has suffered a lot in the past two years, but hard times are not over. Many hardships were overcome by our customers and many more still are to be overcome. However, we truly trust that our customers will grow stronger in the near future. Chaos reshuffles the cards, boosts creativity, makes impossible projects happen. Our role besides our customers throughout this conjunctural crisis is to support them in materializing this deep transformation journey. We are positive that on the medium-term, our customers will see the light at the end of the tunnel. We are proud to be their partner along this harsh journey. Better and stronger together, we will enjoy this renewed growth as we never did before.”

Another key nonwovens producer supplying the automotive market is Sandler, which manufactures thermally and mechanically bonded nonwovens for various automotive applications such as absorbers, molded parts, and seat upholstery. Sandler meltblown filter media are applied in fuel and air filtration. Thermally point bonded nonwovens and spunlaced materials for supporting layers and cover sheets complete the product range.

The latest addition to the Sandler portfolio is Fast Forward Fabric—a symbiosis of maximum performance and resource conservation. These materials are made from 100% polyester with up to 80% recycled fibers and are fully recyclable themselves, creating closed material cycles. The nonwovens are the base material for molded parts, supporting highly stable, complex component geometries as well as specific material configurations. Their open-pore structure combines noise dampening and thermal management for optimized vehicle acoustics inside the passenger compartment as well as towards the surroundings and a comfortable drive, according to Gerhard Klier, sales director Technical Products, Sandler.

“The roll of nonwovens is indeed expanding due to their versatility and adaptability: They can be made to suit new applications and new mobility concepts, but also adapted to the performance demands of the specific application,” says Klier. “A broad range of technologies for producing such textiles expand the areas of application and offer more choice for designers and construction engineers. Nonwovens can also be multifunctional. Flat sheets may, for example, be used as sound absorbing pads, but also as two-dimensional die cut parts or as a 3-D molded part, making one material the solution for many applications.”

Most importantly, he adds, sustainability is just as important and sought after in the automotive sector as it is in other branches of industry and, in most of the cases, nonwovens are a sustainable choice. “Being lightweight, high-performance materials, nonwovens contribute to reducing the total weight of a car, thus helping to lower fuel consumption and reduce CO2 emissions. In line with our philosophy, we focus on reducing component weight while still offering high functionality.”

Additionally, the larger part of its nonwovens for the automotive industry are single-polymer materials, made of 100% polyester, meaning they are fully recyclable after use, and Sandler is addressing this topic in close cooperation with its customers and partners.

Where it is possible, Sandler also partly uses recycled fibers, for example made from PET drinking bottles. Additionally, nonwoven edge trims from its production as well as trims from die-cut parts produced by its customers are collected and sent for reprocessing, making them available to reuse in production. Edge trims that cannot be directly reused are being collected and later used as post-production raw materials and added to fiber blends as well. 

Klier says the automotive market is characterized by vigorous competition, but also innovation and further development, and there are also challenges. “Because of their versatility, nonwovens do indeed have a strong future in this market as they can be adapted to new requirements and conditions. Nevertheless, the current situation does present the industry—as indeed any other sector—with challenges. The shortage of raw materials, components such as microchips, and freight space; the uncertainty surrounding energy supply, the sky-rocketing raw material prices, forwarding costs, and, last but not least, energy costs create a dramatic situation for suppliers to the automotive industry. Production stops cause high inventory, an uncertain supply situation, and make production planning challenging.”

Car users answered questions regarding car purchasing behavior, understanding of automotive sustainability and preferences for the automotive interior

Asahi Kasei, a diversified Japanese multinational company, conducted its third “Automotive Interior Survey” together with Cologne, Germany-based market research institute SKOPOS in the four major automotive markets: the USA, Germany, China and Japan. 1000 car users of varying income levels in each market responded to questions regarding their car purchasing behavior, understanding of automotive sustainability and preferences for the automotive interior. This survey supports the importance of Asahi Kasei’s Healthy Car Portfolio to help OEMs satisfy the needs of the end user.

Consumers still want to own a vehicle

Whether new or used, survey respondents prefer to continue to pursue ownership in the future. Car sharing or not having a car were not attractive options.

84% of car users in China prefer to buy, finance or lease a new car, and they are willing to spend an average of 31% more on their next car. With a 7% increase compared to the costs of their current car, the overall willingness of German car users to spend more money on their next car is significantly lower compared to the USA (+19%) and Japan (+10%). In addition, over half of car users prefer to purchase a new car over a used car.

Brand loyalty is still a concern for OEMs

In addition, the results regarding brand loyalty confirm the findings of Asahi Kasei’s surveys from 2019 and 2020, that consumers are willing to change brands quite easily. When it comes to purchasing a new car, on average only half of the car users in Germany would choose the same brand as the current car. However, while car users in the USA and Japan saw a similar trend to Germany, there was a stark contrast in China. In the world’s biggest automotive market 72% of car owners will consider a different car brand for their next purchase.

These figures convey that a significant share of car users are not loyal to a single brand and must be convinced when shopping for their next car.

Cleanliness continues to play a major role in the interior

While fuel/power consumption, drivetrain technology, running costs and driving performance remain as dominating decision factors, the interior design has been gaining importance in recent years. One of every two car users in the four main markets will take interior design into account for their next car purchase. With growing electrification and automation, it is expected that the interior will become the main differentiating factor in upcoming years, and its importance in the car purchasing process will further increase.

A key finding of the first survey from 2019 showed that car users worldwide highly value the cleanliness inside their car. Also in 2021 64% of car users in Germany put a great emphasis on the cleanliness of their car, trumping intuitive operation (38%) and personalization (46%). A similar trend was seen in China (78%), Japan (72%) and USA (62%).

Car users see high benefit in repellent and easy-to-maintain surfaces

Whether it is a dirty floor, stains and scratches on the interior surfaces, or smell, the general understanding of cleanliness differs among the regions. While car users in China are clearly annoyed by “unpleasant odors” (48%) and the so-called “new car smell” (23%), the share of car users annoyed by these factors is significantly lower in the other regions. In contrast, “scratches on visible surfaces” are bothering one of every four car users in Germany (25%). This share has further increased compared to 2020 (21%). The same can be observed in the USA, with 29% of the car users being annoyed by scratches (2020: 19%). “Stains on fabrics” are also an annoyance factor for 30% of car users in Germany (2020: 26%) and 32% in the USA (2020: 26%).

A major share in all regions sees a benefit in “water and dirt repellent surfaces,” with 74% in China, 70% in the USA, 65% in Japan and 63% in Germany. “Surface and seating materials that are easy to wash” was also in high regard, especially in the USA (81%) and in China (80%).

Heiko Rother, general manager Business Development Automotive at Asahi Kasei Europe, comments, “Cleanliness was highly valued by car users even before the pandemic. The last two years have further fueled this desire, and the definition of ‘cleanliness’ has broadened.”

Mike Franchy, director of North American Mobility at Asahi Kasei America, continues, “With the cost of vehicles increasing consumers have their vehicles longer and want surfaces that are highly durable, easy to clean and continue to look new over time. In addition, our Healthy Car portfolio of anti-microbial textiles and plastics, along with technology to ensure interior air quality, we have solutions for the OEMs to address these needs of the market.”

Changing perception of sustainability

The findings of the survey show “Sustainability” is no longer only defined by the drivetrain technology, but also by the choice of materials. For example, roughly half of the car users in Germany, China and the USA characterize a sustainable car based on “materials made from highly recyclables.” In contrast, car users in Japan prioritized hybrid drivetrains to recyclables when characterizing sustainable automobiles.

This growing awareness towards sustainability in automobiles is also reflected in the car user’s willingness to spend more money on a sustainable vehicle. In China, two out of three car users would pay more, in the USA and Japan every third, and in Germany every fourth.

Rother concludes, “The definition and the perception of sustainability in automobiles is changing. Car users are looking more into the materials being used – electrification alone is not enough anymore. More sustainable interior surface materials that are also good-looking, durable, easy-to-maintain and clean will get more attention from car users. In the end, a ‘long-lasting’ material quality is being recognized as more sustainable.”

Franchy adds, “With our extensive product line of engineered plastics from Asahi Kasei Plastics North America, textiles from Sage Automotive Interiors and UVC technology from Crystal IS for interior air purification, we can collaborate with OEMs as a trusted partner to develop the interior functions and features the consumers demand.”