Energy, economy affecting fiber usage: Nylon still king, but lead is shrinking fast

Home News Energy, economy affecting fiber usage: Nylon still king, but lead is shrinking...

It has been 25 years since the fiber industry has undergone the amount of changes that have taken place in the last five years—and this time is it not because of an explosion in technology, though there is still plenty of innovating going on.

Instead, sharp rises in energy and raw material prices, coupled with a steep, longer-than-expected economic decline mixed with changing consumer preferences—from wanting more value-based products to goods with a sustainable story—have been the main culprits.

Werner Braun, president of the Carpet & Rug Institute, said when it comes to energy and raw materials, every flooring sector, and industry for that matter, has been hit by higher prices. “But, because of the nature of our products, the category’s proportion is certainly higher than other floor covering products.”

To what extent have these factors affected the industry? One needs to only look at market share and fiber construction to see how radical the change has been.

While there is a wide swath of speculation among those surveyed by FCNews when it comes the actual market share of the various fibers, especially with regard to nylon, everyone is quick to say polyester’s (PET) overall share has grown significantly in recent years.

Steve Griffith, chief marketing officer for Invista’s Surfaces division, noted, “Five years ago, nylon represented over 60% of the market and PET less than 20%; two years ago, nylon was about 50% and PET had grown to 30% or higher.”

John Fallon, manager of product operation/residential marketing for Shaw Industries, said, “Nylon has continued to maintain the lion’s share, [but] polyester’s share has increased.”

Though numbers for 2010 were unavailable at press time, a quick look at the figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC), shows polyester’s growth has mostly come at the expense of polypropylene (ole- fin), in recent years. According to government data, in 2005, olefin had a 28% market share to PET’s 13%. Just four years later, polyester’s share was up 5% while polypropylene’s dropped 6%. (Editor’s note: a word of caution on these figures, as this type of data tends to fluctuate by as much as 5% as the government continually revises its numbers. But while the figures may not be exact, the trends rep- resent a pretty accurate picture of what is taking place in the real world.)

One other interesting thing to be gleaned from the DOC statistics; the recession clearly has taken a major chunk from the overall pie. Total usage of the three major fiber types over the five-year period declined by approximately 47%.

Griffith added one other change to take note of in the fiber realm is in the form of triexta, a new fiber classification—the first in 50 years—that is used by Mohawk through an exclusive partnership with Invista’s former parent company, DuPont.

The mill has said products with this fiber have represented the company’s greatest introduction in terms of dealer acceptance and consumer sales, and according to Griffith the numbers bear this out. In 2005, carpets made with the fiber had only been on the market about a year so it barely registered on the charts. In 2009, he estimated triexta’s market share at 8%.

Staple to BCF

The other major change in fiber usage comes in the form of how it is constructed. Whether it is nylon or polyester, both have experienced a dramatic shift from staple to bulk continuous filament (BCF).

Put simply, Fallon said, PET BCF has grown, while polyester staple has declined, and nylon staple has seen a significant switch from staple to BCF construction.”

In fact, when it comes to staple fiber production in the U.S., especially for nylon, it has virtually disappeared. Most people say staple’s demise was inevitable due to technological advances in BCF production and was already starting to shrink prior to the recession. But once the economy tanked and prices skyrocketed, the movement picked up steam because the fact is, there are more steps in the process to create staple fiber than there are for BCF, thus making it more expensive to produce.

Peter Sigmon, Shaw’s vice president of innovation, said, “New yarn capacity is expensive and many of the spun mills are depreciated so the short term cost for BCF and spun are not that much different. [However], new extrusion assets will gravitate to BCF rather than staple due to reduced complexity and lower long term costs.”

Fallon added, when it comes to technology advancements, “today we can make virtually any look in BCF. That wasn’t always true as some looks—low tight dense textures, or thick cables— were only possible with staple.” While staple polyester production has also risen exponentially at BCF’s expense, staple still has an important place in the industry and will not be disappearing—at least not as quickly—as it has in nylon. This is due to the industry’s role in taking used plastic drinking bottles and recycling them into PET fiber. Once Shaw’s ClearTouch facility reaches full capacity, the industry will be recycling approximately one- third of all the used bottles collected in the U.S.

But even here, technology has broken through and Beaulieu, Mohawk and Shaw— the three main bottle recyclers in the industry—are offering carpets made with BCF yarn from recycled bottles. And, as was the case with nylon, each company is increasing the amount of products introduced with BCF instead of staple.

Beyond the cost equation, executives point out changing consumer tastes have also helped lead to staple’s demise.

While fiber extrusion continues to advance to allow BCF to go into more dense constructions than in years past, Sigmon said, “it is more about consumer preference.”

Fallon traces it back to the advent of the bagless vacuum cleaner. “Consumers could see the staple fiber that was released during vacuuming. Al- though this was normal, they prefer the no fuzz characteristics of BCF.”

Green fibers

One thing every fiber maker agrees on is in the area of sustainability. Namely, the makeup of fibers—be it nylon or polyester—fibers will continue to be made with more recycled content and the use of alternate raw materials, such as bio- based substances, will also keep growing.

As an example, Shaw just announced the recycled content in Eco Solution Q, the company’s premium branded Cradle to Cradle Silver certified carpet fiber, has been upped to 45%— with 20% pre-consumer recycled content and 25% post-consumer recycled content.

In the area of bio-based materials, both Invista and Mohawk have found success. Since 2009, Invista has invested in bio-based with its Antron Bio_Legacy, a type 6,6, nylon that contains materials derived from renewable resources, in this case castor bean oil. Meanwhile, Mohawk’s Smart- Strand with DuPont Sorona polymer incorporates corn sugar.

-Matthew Spieler

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