For simple face masks, a crowd production has been established. Europe’s sewing machines are running again, in living rooms, at theater workshops, sail producers and at still remaining garment productions. All kind of textile materials, nonwovens, woven and knitted fabrics are used.
The establishment of new meltblown production capacities is already running at full speed, but needs time, as there is only a hand full of manufacturers for suitable lines. Installation and commissioning – for which longtime experienced specialists are needed – take already 2 months. At a usual delivery time of 8 months a period of nearly 1 year has to be considered for establishing new meltblown capacities in the market. During the current situation, this is done quicker, but most probably this will not cover the tremendous increase in demand.
Are there alternatives?
Yes and no. There are ideas, but these are yet to be proofed considering the filter capability of meltblown material:
- Breathable garments
Breathable garments, protecting against humidity (rain), but allowing water evaporation (perspiration) to pass through, consist mostly of a robust woven material which is partially laminated by hotmelt with a breathable membrane. This membrane does not allow liquid water drops to pass, but allows gaseous water molecules to pass through. Most probably the necessary filter capability could be reached by such laminates, but the necessary airflow for sufficient breathing might be too low.
Instead of a membrane, a textile substrate (woven or nonwovens) could be coated with a foam or something alike, which has the necessary air flow permeability and the necessary separation capability. The textile substrate would be only used as a supporting structure.
- Split fibers
Very fine fibers, as they are generated in the meltblown process, could not be run on a staple fiber nonwovens line, especially not on the carding machine. It is possible to use so-called split fibers, where very fine fibers are imbedded in a matrix, which later will be “washed-out” in a spunlace process. Appropriate processes are established and could be developed further.
Today, there is is still an imaginary line between spunlaid and staple fiber nonwovens producers. But more and more staple fiber nonwovens producers are considering, whether it is the right time to step into meltblown and spunbond technology. Companies with such an idea are looking for answers to the following questions:
- Will the current boom continue or are there too many investments ongoing right now, which will lead to a worldwide over-capacity?
- Will there be – similar to the European “milk-quota” – a government established quota especially for protective material?
- Are there simplifying advantages and supports for executing such projects (financing, subsidies, simplified construction and other approvals) right now?
- How big is the technological risk to run such a line?
- Are there alternative line concepts? Instead of big high-performance lines, small and flexible installations? Is it possible to recreate similar results at a high-performance line on a small and flexible line?
- Are there sufficient local converting capacities to manufacture face masks from this produced material or is it necessary to ship roll goods to Asia and masks back?
Unlike staple fiber nonwovens lines, meltblown and spunbond lines usually have to be purchased as one unit. Buying a new carding machine and replacing the crosslapper in 3 years is not really possible with a spunbond line, as it would be possible with a staple fiber line. Therefore, a high investment has to be made in one go, which is however not that far away from an investment into a complete staple fiber nonwovens line.
Within the last decades spunlaid products have not only substituted staple fiber nonwovens, but also created new wide fields of applications. For functionalization of textiles – especially of nonwovens – there is a huge market potential. This also covers laminates consisting of staple fiber and spunlaid nonwovens. Companies having both technologies in-house could not only serve the separate markets for spunlaid and for staple fiber nonwovens but could in addition serve new markets for multi-layer, i.e. mulit-functional-products.
Not only for those who are already producing filter nonwovens right now, a look to a possible entry to meltblown and spunbond technology could be worthwhile. There was hardly ever a better time.
Michael Junge, Junge-Engineering, Aachen/Germany