Nonwoven customers look for cost-effective performance in a renewably sourced material
Eamonn Tighe, Fibres and Nonwovens - Business Development Manager of Nature Works LLC shares the organisational structure and plans, the development and application of Ingeo bio-polymers, its specialties and market potential.
Nature Works was formed with the mission of turning greenhouse gases into performance products. Today, Nature Works is the world's leading commercial scale manufacturer and global supplier of naturally advanced performance materials made from renewable and abundant feedstock, which it markets under the Ingeo brand name. The company has the capacity to meet the growing business and consumer demands for attractive, affordable and renewably sourced products that can be made from this new generation of bio-based plastics and fibres. Nature Works's key strength as an organisation is the balance it maintains and achieves between a three-fold focus on technology development, operational or manufacturing discipline and commercial or market development. Sound on Technology Nature Works has strong technology underpinnings with roughly 250 foundational patents granted and another 25 patent applications pending. The company is not standing still. For example, its continuing new product introductions in markets including durables and 3D printing, and recent investment in feedstock diversification, research and development. Nature Works has entered a multi-year joint development agreement with Calysta aimed at transforming methane, a potent greenhouse gas, directly into the lactic acid building block used to make Ingeo. Commercialisation of direct fermentation will streamline production and cut costs. In 2013, the company completed a major upgrade in its manufacturing processes at its Blair, Nebraska facility which not only increased production capacity but also led to a suite of new performance grades. Operational or manufacturing Certainly, a key organisational strength is the scale of Nature Works' global production capacity of 150,000 ton/year. This enables Nature Works to compete with a broad range of established fossil-based fibres and plastics organisations. Unlike many other newer entrants in the bio-technology space, Nature Works is not in a start-up mode. The company has more than a decade of operational experience, producing very high yields and efficiencies and offering customers a portfolio of proven products. Commercial or market development Nature Works has a globally dispersed market development team, with members on the ground in key locations of Asia Pacific, EMEA and the Americas. A significant percentage of the company's commercial team are native to the markets they now serve. These personnel bring an intimate knowledge of that market and what's needed by customers and end-users. With the breadth of its products, Nature Works has the unique ability to work across numerous end-markets including packaging, food service, durable products, flexibles, fibres and nonwovens and emerging markets such as filament for 3D printing. With this breadth of offerings and application expertise, Nature Works personnel offer deep insights into new applications and innovations for customers. A noteworthy consumer product example is the current interest we see in the market for designing a better single serve coffee package where many of these Ingeo based applications meet in a performance coffee capsule. Some of the proprietary projects, now underway in fibres and nonwovens in the health care or personal care industry for example, are going to give customers competitive, industry leading new products. While the breadth of markets served are strengths for Nature Works; at the same time, that breadth can be a challenge for what is still a relatively small organisation. Nature Works has addressed this by recently reorganising from a geographic focus to an end-market focus. Nature Works now has seven business units - each with its own business director, dedicated technical services and development and business development resources. These seven units comprise: nonwovens, rigid packaging, food service, films, new businesses - think 3D printing - lactides and durables. This ensures that diverse end-markets are best served and supported.
Made from abundant renewable materials, Ingeo polymers are naturally advanced materials with a unique physical property-set that lends itself to broad applications in the fibres and plastic markets. In the twelve years, Nature Works has been in production at a global scale. The company has gone from having a handful of different Ingeo grades to more than 20 grades tailored for specific needs. The diverse Ingeo grades deliver a comprehensive portfolio of polymer formulations with properties designed for the various markets served, from fibres and textiles to nonwovens, packaging, injection-moulded durable parts and, most recently, to filament for 3D printing. Providing new Ingeo grades with improved end-use performance, more efficient processing performance or both, has been a clear focus for Nature Works in the past 12-18 months. For nonwovens specifically, the company now has new grades that offer significantly less shrinkage when processed on both spunbond and meltblown lines. These grades also offer greater hydrolysis-resistance and higher temperature resistance. In addition to these, Nature Works has also introduced grades that can now hydrolyse faster than previous available grades which meets another required technical market needs. Successfully addressing these 'technical needs' allows Ingeo to be seen as the resin of choice from both a performance and sustainability point of view. Ingeo has a natural advantage over plastics made from petroleum. Ingeo starts life through plant photosynthesis and the capture of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The CO2 is transformed into starch. The starch is fermented into lactic acid, the building block of Ingeo and then polymerised and made into bio-plastic pellets. Subsequently, these pellets are converted into a wide assortment of consumer and industrial products. Nature Works and Calysta are now collaborating on a multi-year effort to develop a viable, commercial process for direct fermentation of a greenhouse gas, such as methane, into lactic acid. This will significantly streamline production of Ingeo and remove cost.
In technical textiles, Ingeo characteristics feature a range of applications from custom hydrolysis for geo- or agro- applications, medical or sterile applications, skin comfort in hygiene and apparel applications and window shades when Ingeo UV stability is a plus.
While today the largest end-markets for Ingeo and for fibres and nonwovens specifically are North America and EU, Asia is a key piece of Nature Works' growth strategy. Asia Pacific region is strategic for three reasons: The region has an abundance of raw materials. The company's preferred site for its second processing facility is in Thailand, which is ranked globally as the second largest sugar exporter with a natural abundance of domestic sugarcane. There are a large and growing number of manufacturing bases with the latest technologies, looking for a competitive edge in performance, price stability and sustainability as they supply both - their growing domestic markets and overseas markets. The region has a large and rapidly expanding middle-class that will, like others in the middle class in Europe and United States of America, want the benefits of polymers such as Ingeo.
Nature Works has seen a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of more than 20 per cent over the period 2005 through 2013, leading to passing the billion lb milestone in terms of aggregate volume in the market, since Nature Works started up its world scale facility. New products will fuel future growth. Nonwovens have been one of the company's stronger areas of growth. This trend should continue as additional spun melt applications develop and synergies between various fibre platforms emerge.
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 technicaltextile.net.