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1987 The Future Of Man-Made Fibers

By W. A. B. Davidson

The Future ofMan-Made FibersIt was during ATIs first 100 years that man-made fibers made their first appearance. Their influence has been both extensive and profound, altering virtually every aspect of the textile industrys way of doing business, from processing the fiber, through new end uses, to new and revolutionary ways of marketing.The words wool and cotton in ATIs original name, The American Wool and Cotton Reporter, echoed conditions that had existed for thousands of years in the textile industry when linen, silk, wool, and cotton were the dominant fibers.A New Age For TextilesBut with the birth of the 20th century, the textile industry was caught up in the relative rapid pace of industrial development when a cellulose filament was successfully produced: artificial silk. This happened in the early 1900s, and soon the mills were offered viscose rayon, viscose acetate, and cuprammonium rayon.But it was just prior to World War II that the most significant developments started, when the polymer fibers made from complex chemical compounds and branded pure synthetics (as apposed to the cellulosics) came on the scene.These fibers included nylon, to be followed after the war by polyester, acrylic, and the olefins. In between, there were a batch of short-lived man-made fibers such as Aralac, Darvan, Saran, and Velon, to mention a few, using a wide variety of raw materials, including casein and soybean.It is interesting to note that right from the start the man-made fibers attempted to identify themselves with the natural fibers by liberal use of such terms as wool-like, silk-like, and cotton-like. Indeed, the same references are made today and will be in the foreseeable future as fiber producers continue to modify polyester, for example, to improve its cotton-like structure while retaining the best of the man-made properties.An Overwhelming ProspectAn attempt to look into the next 100 years is forbidding. One is overwhelmed by the clichThe World of Tomorrow, particularly when considering what has taken place in recent years. One significant development after another has been compressed into a relatively short time.We can look ahead in terms of what is now known, but clearly this will change as new products and new concepts are introduced.Drastic changes have marked the man-made fiber industry in recent years. During the 1960s it seemed as if the bonanza would never end. Hugh marketing budgets were made available backed by stupendous brand advertising. But cutbacks, still being felt today, started to be implemented in the late 1970s and continued into the 1980s. During that time, both marketing and research suffered.These conditions became evident in many parts of the world, and fiber producers in Western Europe hastened early on to reduce production and to emphasize specialization. It is evident that they may have done a better job than those in the United States and Japan. But the cutbacks are viewed as temporary, and after a period of further adjustment there will be renewed marketing programs.U.S. Producer In Best SpotFavoring the United States producer will be his ability to offer local service by being located right in the middle of one of the most important markets in the world.It is obvious that he future belongs to the synthetics. For one thing, they can be more readily adapted to processing on the new machinery that will be introduced in the years ahead. Important trends already evident all require vast consumption of the man-made fibers. Just a generation ago, world consumption of synthetics was beginning to assume significant numbers, but estimates show that the next generation synthetics will be consumed at an annual rat e in excess of 20 million metric tons, or better than half of world fiber usage. In the next 100 years, the man-made fibers will become the dominant factor.Probing the future has always been a risky business, and more so today with such a high rate of technological change. And the closeness of one world, for example, affects man-made fiber operations, especially in the United States, where producers must face governments of many competing countries with business practices and attitudes vastly different from those in the United States.Over the long haul, are we going to move toward them, with the accompanying danger of lower standard of living, or are they going to move toward usMeanwhile we will see a trend where the key to the fiber producers success in the developed countries will lie in the production of fibers containing high technology and other specialized types involving high added value. Nor can the giber producer escape the effects of the trade imbalance and the import problem with their unfavorable bearing on U.S. manufacturing operations.New Foothold For RayonGeneral trends reveal that while world output of the cellulosics is on the decline, current popularity of viscose rayon, the first man-made fiber, is at peak levels in the United States, an admitted pleasant surprise to those who had budgeted for a drop in sales.While the next 100 years will likely show a decline in the market share for cellulosics, current efforts reveal new technology aimed at improving the properties of viscose rayon. Examples include solvent spinning, which will give rayon a new foothold in certain specialized areas.R and D Keeps Nylon StrongNylons market share is being squeezed, after a lengthy reign as leader among the man-mades. But while it has dropped to second place, behind polyester, nylon will continue to be a popular fiber in the years to come, banking on its many well-known advantages. Research continues in many parts of the world on new nylon developments, which include technology to improve its comfort properties in apparel. Work continues on nylon 4, offering many of the properties of cotton and silk. It may well be that other nylon types besides 6 and 6.6 will be developed in the future.Bright Future For AramidsOne of the brightest futures belongs to the aramid high performance fibers, an offshoot of nylon. Their projected use in composites is tremendous. This also applies to other fibers such as the new carbons, which, when embedded in plastic, emerge as high tech construction material offering, for example, competition to steel in the automotive industry. Their use will expand as a primary construction material in aircraft and other important uses.Polyester Gets Lions SharePolyester is the world leader, and in another 10 years will represent over half of all man-made fiber production, while nylon slips less than 25%. Polyesters popularity will continue well into the future. Its production is now outpacing that of nylon and acrylic combined. Polyester, which got its start in the U.K., has in recent years seen its most rapid production growth in Taiwan, South Korea, and China.China is an entirely new area as a fiber producer, with access to world technology helped by the United States and the U.K. Fiber producers in the United States have noted a decline in export business, and a decline in shipments to Asian markets is one reason, as these countries, particularly China, become self-sufficient in these products. Such a trend will have to be taken into consideration when peering into the future.There is great emphasis on super-soft, ultra-fine dpf polyesters, pointing up the importance that fiber producers attach to comfort perception for polyester in apparel. In newer industrial areas, research continues in engineered fibers where such properties as strength and wear resistance are necessary.Much of the so-called comfort factor is being achieved by moisture vapor transport, which moves moisture away from the skin and through the fabric into the air. Already fiber producers are saying that the new polyester staple will replace the old staple in a matter of 5 years, and then something will come along to replace the new, and so on and on.One can see how the pace will quicken while the future unfolds numerous technological advances. Polyester, with its durability and aesthetics, will be around in one form or another for a long time.Acrylics Might Level OffAcrylic is holding steady, but in the long term it faces decreased demand. But right now, in many countries acrylics are enjoying boom conditions, largely because of good fleece and sweater business. However, these conditions will not last forever, and U.S. producers have already made plans on how to operate profitably at reduced levels.Acrylic competition is evident from the Far East and developing nations. Meanwhile, producers in developed countries will cut production while at the same time coming up with new products such as improved producer-colored types and high growth industrial applications such as carbon fibers. While the olefins, polypropylene in particular, represent a relatively small percentage of world man-made fiber production, they are making tremendous strides and they must be considered in any valuation of the future.Indeed, the world fiber production trend shows increases for polyester and polyolefins, while that for nylon and acrylic indicates decreases.PP Meets Special NeedsPresent growth for polypropylene (PP) is noted mainly in the United States, Japan, and Western Europe, where these areas account for upwards of two-thirds of total production. Polypropylene fiber production in the Unites States has been increasing at a rate of 5% a year and, according to suppliers of resin and extrusion equipment, it should continue to increase for some time.In placing PP fibers into the future, it must be considered that they are not a general purpose product but, as of now, are limited to specific areas, which include floor coverings and thermal bonding applications in nonwovens. The technology for PP production is relatively simple and is readily available. While the world markets are dominated by several large companies, there are many small concerns in the business; and this affects prices from time to time.Some of the research in PP fibers covers improved bulk continuous filament (BCF) for floor coverings and the possibility of continuous filament for apparel, especially in the area of activewear, where a fine denier PP might be acceptable.Comparatively inert PP fiber is of significance in fabric construction, and its popularity in geotextiles is on the increase. Geotextiles reportedly are the second largest end use for nonwovens in Europe, and they are growing steadily. Market reports state that PP in granule or fiber form is the most important polymer used n the European nonwovens industry, mainly because of the increase in the spunlaid area and higher production of heat-bonded nonwovens.Extended Chain PE WinsAttracting considerable attention and due for expansion in the future are the extended chain polyethylene fibers, which are said to be 10 times stronger than steel and 75% stronger than any other organic fiber available. Such a fiber gained praise when it played a part in sail construction which helped return Americas Cup to the United States.A Ready Market For FilmNoteworthy for the future is the growing use of recycled polyethylene bottles into film with textile applications, especially in the floor covering industry.It is expected that the future will see more use of the films, which are likely to replace certain nonwovens in the years ahead. Right now the film industry ha so many possibilities that it has not turned full attention to textile replacement. It is anticipated that development of more discontinuous film surfaces will aid this movement.Imagination The Only LimitAs to the fiber spinning process itself, the future holds nothing but increased automation as computers and microprocessors, for example, take over more and more responsibilities. As one producer says: Automation in the fiber plant is limited only by the imagination.Basic Robot With 14 HandsOne of the chief goals in any fiber producing plant is to reduce the amount of labor. Formost fiber producers in the developed countries, this has been a high priority and much has been accomplished. However, the trend to further automation in plant production particularly in the use of robotics, is steadily increasing, and there is no doubt but that such a trend will affect fiber production in the coming years.The co-founder of Unimation, the Worlds first industrial robot company, point out that even today a basic industrial robot can be outfitted with a wide selection of attachments, such as 14 different kinds of hands and several different styles of fingers. Already the Japanese have moved in the direction of plant robots to the extent that union membership has become involved!Computers Designed FibersAs we move into the next 100 years it is obvious that the old order will be challenged to a much greater degree than at the present time.The fiber producer is becoming caught up with the new faster information requirements of Quick Response and its related developments such as electronic data interchange (EDI). The world computer assisted design (CAD) has entered the world of the fiber producer and it is bound to occupy an ever-increasing role. Only recently a domestic nylon producer introduced a new nylon apparel yarn offering a new computer designed cross section.Cooperation And New AttitudesFiber producers have also become closely involved with the trend to automation in the garment industry, as evidenced by participation in the (TC)2 program now in the hands of a sewing machine manufacturer. This step was taken in the knowledge that the future must witness a close cooperation between fiber producer, textile manufacturer, and garment maker with completely new attitudes.