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Lenzing: Master Of Cellulosic Fiber Production

Lenzing AG Management Board Member Friedrich Weninger discusses the company's leadership role in the cellulosic fiber manufacturing sector.

Jürg Rupp, Executive Editor

A ustria-based Lenzing AG is the undisputed world leader in cellulosic fiber production. From its humble beginnings in 1938, the company has become a global player. Lenzing provides the global textile and nonwovens industries with high-quality products. The Lenzing Group is the only manufacturer worldwide to produce all three man-made cellulosic fiber generations: classic viscose, modal and lyocell. In an exclusive interview with Textile World, Friedrich Weninger, member of Lenzing's Management Board, explains why.

"Fibers are the core business," Weninger said. "Our company philosophy is to be the leading fiber innovation company."

In 2009, Lenzing produced 570,000 metric tons of viscose fibers, and 88.4 percent of the Austrian production was exported. The most important markets for Lenzing are Indonesia, China, the United States, Turkey, Europe in general, and Austria as a country of origin.

Friedrich Weninger

The Person
Weninger, a sporty engineer, holds a master's degree, and is married and the father of two children. His hobbies are golf, skiing, reading and his family. And what is his personal challenge?

Weninger: For my family, I want to provide our kids with the optimal education so that they can manage their future properly. In my job, Lenzing should achieve high profits on a sustainable basis. This shows that it is possible to survive as a fiber producer in high-cost areas like Europe — in an industry that is facing competitors mainly sitting in the low-cost areas [such as India and China]. Nearly all the former European and American fiber producers shut down their [domestic] units and left the industry. But Lenzing is still expanding in Europe and the U.S. The key elements are commitment and innovation.

R&D At Lenzing
TW : As an innovation-driven company, does Lenzing have machinery or process patents?
Weninger: "As a global market leader, Lenzing holds about 2,000 patents. The Lenzing Group as the leader in technology and innovation has been setting standards in the world of cellulosic fibers for decades. Continuous development of viscose, lyocell and pulp technology ensures that Lenzing will continue to enhance its lead in the future.

TW : Where do you set priority in your R&D work?
Weninger: We are setting priority in innovative applications of all our fibers, especially in new applications for nonwovens, technical applications and high-end textiles. Some 150 people are directly involved in R&D.

TW : You call Lenzing an innovation leader. Can you give some current examples?
Weninger: With pleasure. Tencel® [lyocell] in powder form enables enhanced moisture absorbency: Lenzing and Eurofoam [a division of Germany-based Greiner Group] - a leading European producer of foam plastic - jointly developed cellpur, an innovative filling material for mattresses, making it the first successful incorporation of Tencel in foam plastic and creating a material with high moisture absorbency. It not only provides first-rate moisture management, but breathability and permeability as well. Body moisture released while sleeping is absorbed and transported, thus creating an even more comfortable sleep.

TW : At Heimtextil 2010 in Germany, you mentioned that you will launch Tencel in carpets.
Weninger: This is another example of innovation: This year, we launched Tencel as the first cellulosic fiber worldwide to be used in carpets. For the first time, we can transfer all the advantages of cellulosic fibers into the wall-to-wall carpeting industry. The special moisture-management properties inherent in Tencel help to optimize the indoor environment and to avoid mold. We can combine soft touch with perfect durability and a maximum of hygienic standards - absolutely moth-free for decades. We expect a very strong market perception for this innovative application.


Large Fiber Portfolio
The viscose process covers all cellulosic fibers except Tencel lyocell, which has a totally different technology approach. Lenzing's  fiber production is based on the four pillars Lenzing Viscose®, Tencel, Lenzing Modal® and Lenzing FR®. Weninger said viscose is the most important fiber at the moment regarding turnover.

TW : What is the environmental impact of each process? The lyocell process is a closed loop, but what about the other viscose processes? Is Lenzing's rayon process more environmentally friendly than other rayon processes?
Weninger: In the lyocell process, no critical chemicals are involved. The viscose process is a bit more challenging in terms of environmental issues as there are chemicals involved like sulphur, zinc and others. Lenzing developed a production technology with almost closed process cycles that enables us to produce viscose fibers on a very environmentally friendly basis.

TW : Buhler Quality Yarns Corp., Jefferson, Ga., now offers a MicroTencel® yarn in the United States. What is the difference between Tencel and MicroTencel?
Weninger: Microfibers generally spun into yarns give a different feel, touch, softness and optical effect because more fibers are in the cross section of the yarn. Fine yarn counts need finer fibers.

Market Situation
TW : How do you see the current market situation? Was Lenzing hurt by the recent financial crisis?
Weninger: After a very challenging first quarter in 2009, we saw a market upswing in all major fibers markets in the course of 2009. Up to now, we are faced with very encouraging demand for Lenzing fibers, and the absolute top seller at the moment is Lenzing Modal.

TW : Lenzing's reputation is to be a market leader. What do you think are the reasons for that image?
Weninger: Well, we are the world leader in cellulosic fibers in terms of fiber capacity, innovation, technology and service. We are setting the standards — in the last decades, all major developments came from Lenzing. We are the only company worldwide that can provide all three generations of cellulosic fibers - viscose, modal and lyocell — on an industrial basis. We are proud of what we have achieved in the last 70 years, but this does not mean we will stop our efforts to serve the textile and nonwovens markets with the highest possible innovation and service in the next decades.

TW : Comparing today's market requirements and those of 10 years ago, what are the biggest differences, and why?
Weninger: China has boosted the viscose industry by high expansion — viscose is not seen any more as a niche product, but as a substitute for cotton now. China and India have become big end-consumers for textile and nonwoven products as their per capita income has risen. This will boost global fiber demand. These countries look very much for specialties and differentiation.

TW : Is there any influence from the retailers?
Weninger: Retailers are looking much more for differentiation. They want new products and not just [price differentiation]. I think it's much easier to innovate new ideas with retailers than it was 10 years ago.

Lenzing's headquarters site in Lenzing, Austria, is home to the company's largest integrated pulp and viscose production globally. Photograph courtesy of Lenzing AG

The Future
TW : What will you do to keep your market position?
Weninger: We will keep our position as the global market leader through our speed of innovation, the highest R&D expenses in the industry, an excellent technical service and support as well as our global distribution power. We provide our customers with optimum quality for their individual purposes. They get the best technical support and service worldwide. And we guarantee reliability and environmentally sound production of our fibers.

Weninger is very optimistic that the strong demand for cellulosic fibers will continue over the next couple of years, stating, "Reasons are the growing wealth in the emerging markets, the fact that world cotton production has come to a limit, and the demand for fibers based on renewable resources and produced on some environmentally friendly basis will steadily grow."

May/June 2010