Chinese polyurethane (PU) coated fabric producer Kunshan Xiefu New Material has teamed up with polymer materials supplier Covestro (formerly Bayer Materials Science) by signing up to its Insqin Partner Manufacturer Program.
The two companies will now collaborate to promote sustainable PU materials in such sectors as fashion apparel and footwear, as well as technical textiles, including automotive interior materials.
Launched in July 2015, the program connects manufacturers and brand owners across the PU-coated fabric supply chain. Partners must demonstrate an ongoing commitment to sustainability and transparency, using Covestro’s waterborne PU coating technology and processes to meet the emerging sustainability needs of brand owners.
Xiefu is the second company – and the first Chinese manufacturer – to sign up to the program, after South Korean PU synthetic materials manufacturer Duksung joined in July.
“A growing number of brands and retailers are becoming interested in sourcing sustainable materials, and they need more assurances about the origins and integrity of those materials,” explained Nick Smith, Covestro’s global head of textile coatings.
“The program was developed to link these brands with manufacturers capable of efficiently delivering innovative materials and sustainability best practices.”
Under the partner manufacturer program, Covestro will provide technical support to help Xiefu further develop its use of the Insqin technology. Xiefu will also receive verification of its production processes and management systems via a globally recognized third-party audit.
“Xiefu is committed to customer-centric innovation and sustainability to serve the world’s most demanding brands,” said Sun Guohao, chairman of Kunshan Xiefu New Material.
“We are pleased to be recognized as a key partner of Covestro, with the technology, processes and skills to deliver exciting new PU products through sustainable manufacturing.
“As a mark of our quality and professionalism, our validation as an Insqin Partner Manufacturer will help bring new business opportunities by connecting us with brand owners and retailers that want to source sustainable PU-coated materials.”
Strong focus in China
Covestro has had a strong focus in China for many years and currently has 2,500 employees there. Shanghai has been one of three regional innovation hubs for more than 15 years and is classed as a strategic decision-making center; further, the company’s largest production site globally is located in China, near Shanghai.
Under its vision “to make the world a brighter place” and with values of “curious, courageous and colorful,” Covestro’s textile coatings business unit is headquartered in Shanghai. Its facilities include a state-of-the-art pilot coating line, which can undertake both wet and dry lamination, and was installed in April 2014 at an investment of €3 million.
Enhancing and transforming
On an annual basis, PU coating is used to make 400 million outdoor jackets waterproof yet breathable; decorate two billion T-shirts; and give 300 million pairs of jeans an enhanced look.
Further, each year PU coating transforms seven billion pairs of fashion shoes, two billion bags, one billion fashion garments and one billion pairs of sports shoes.
It is estimated that PU-coated textiles have a current global market value of $10bn. Around 90% of this production is in China, where some 500 producers operate 1,500 production lines, principally in Zhejiang, Fujian, Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces, with an installed PU synthetic materials capacity of six billion meters and an annual production of four billion meters.
Smith explained that with the Insqin (“Inspiration in every square inch”) technology the PU is delivered and processed without solvents. This provides three principal benefits: a safer working environment; less pollution; and higher efficiency, as textiles can be processed with 95% less water and 50% less energy.
Further, this allows product innovation, such as three-dimensional effect printing in fewer passes or an open-mesh “paver” effect.
Rolf Irnich, Covestro textile coatings global head of application and technology development, explained that the company’s Insqin waterborne PU technology enables the elimination of dimethylformamide (DMF), a solvent that has a risk of exposure and pollution, and requires high water consumption and high-energy requirements.
In principle, Insqin can be used to coat any type of fabric substrate. Irnich added that foam plays a key role in this new, solvent-free technology: the base layer of the coating is created from a foam of waterborne polyurethane dispersion (PUD).
Insqin PUDs are manufactured in Dormagen, Germany, and Caojing, China, south of Shanghai. Covestro does not disclose global capacity, but said that €2.5 billion has already been invested in China across all its businesses with a further €1 billion planned.
Smith explained that apparel and footwear producers in particular must interact at all stages along the value chain, from chemicals and coated fabric manufacturers through to brand owners.
He noted that the apparel and footwear sector is now dominated by sustainability. This has resulted in the establishment of three key industry coalitions: AFIRM Group, which comprises 19 global brand owners; Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which groups together more than 160 members from all aspects of the industry; and Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC), which comprises 27 brands and trade associations.
“Chemicals use is one of the key points for sustainability in the apparel and footwear industry,” said Smith. Apart from social and labor issues, 60% of product sustainability comes from the materials used to produce goods in terms of energy and logistics, according to the Nike Materials Sustainability Index.
“Meanwhile, consumers continue to demand product innovation and new experiences, which also requires a focus on innovation in the production process,” he said. “Insqin offers both product innovation and sustainability. It is compliant with the highest standards, such as the ZDHC Manufacturing Substances List, the Bluesign Standard Substances List and Oekotex.
“Brand owners are concerned about the lack of transparency in the value chain, such as knowing where and how these materials are made. Covestro offers the possibility to address these needs through the Insqin Partner Manufacturer Program.”
This connects brand owners with reputable manufacturers that are able to produce these new sustainable materials. It is a voluntary program in which partners submit themselves to a third-party audit of facilities and production processes. “This aims to break down supply chain barriers and foster best practice collaboration,” said Smith.
He added that the program has already achieved considerable interest from the apparel and footwear industry. Covestro plans to sign up another partner by the end of 2015, followed by a further three in 2016; these will most likely be Chinese producers.
Bio-based raw materials
While Asia, and especially China, remains the major focus for Covestro’s textile coatings activities, the company is already well established in the technical textile field, particularly in Germany.
In the automotive interiors sector, Covestro is continuing to develop the Insqin technology, for example, for soil-resistant and scratch-resistant materials.
Earlier this year, the company introduced a range of waterborne, bio-based PUDs under the Impranil Eco name (part of the Insqin program) with a renewable content of up to 65%.
These products are based on a renewable carbon feedstock – bio-succinic acid from BioAmber –, which is derived from field corn starch and not produced in competition with the food chain.
Smith explained that the price of oil is not the only factor in the choice of precursor for the manufacture of PU: “Size of the market and efficiency are also important. The availability of bio-based raw materials is currently nowhere near the scale of fossil-based raw materials, so there has to be a wide range of polyols available.
“Bio-based raw materials also have to be in the right price range. Covestro will not put a price premium on the new Impranil Eco products, but these are not yet available in industrial quantities,” he stressed.
Tailored product developments
In addition to the bio-based grades, Covestro has launched further new grades in the Impranil range.
Impranil DAA was developed specially for tie-coats in apparel and footwear applications. The product can be used to produce soft materials that retain this property even at low temperatures, which is particularly sought after in the clothing segment.
In sports footwear applications, Impranil DLE enables the development of footwear upper materials that meet the highest industry specifications, particularly with respect to bonding strength.
Meanwhile, Impranil DLC-T makes it possible to produce automotive interior materials that combine the highly matted surfaces sought by the automotive industry with the highest level of abrasion, hydrolysis, and light and heat resistance.
With 2014 sales of €11.7bn (up from €11.2bn in 2013), Covestro is among the world’s largest polymer companies and the fourth largest chemicals producer in Europe.
Its business activities are focused on the manufacture of high-tech polymer materials and the development of innovative solutions for products used in many areas of daily life.
Its key products are polyurethanes, polycarbonates and raw materials for high-value coatings, adhesives and specialty chemicals. The main segments served are the automotive, electrical and electronics, construction and sports and leisure industries.
The former Bayer MaterialScience has been operating under the Covestro name since September 1, 2015. The company is now legally and economically independent, but will remain a subsidiary of Bayer.
Covestro raised €1.5 billion through an initial public offering in early October, when a 31% stake in the company was sold on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange.
The company has 30 production sites worldwide and employed around 14,200 people at the end of 2014.
In 2014, the Bayer MaterialScience business unit reported earnings before interest, taxation, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) of €1.19bn (excluding non-recurring items).
Europe accounted for 38% of total sales, followed by Asia/Pacific with 28%, North America 22% and Latin America/Africa/Middle East 12%.
Kunshan Xiefu New Material was established in 1989 and covers an area of 89 hectares in Kunshan, Jiangsu, China. The company has 1,000 employees and a total capital of CNY320m ($50m).
Xiefu synthetic leather products are deemed a “famous Chinese brand” by the China State Administration for Industry and Commerce, the National Bureau of Quality Inspection and the Chinese Names of Selection Committee.
With a focus on research and development, Xiefu operates imported equipment and technology from Italy, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
With 15 production lines, Xiefu has an annual capacity of 40 million meters. Machinery and processes include dry PU/PVC artificial leather, electrostatic flocking, wet PU synthetic leather, and waterproof and breathable production lines.
Its products are widely used in manufacturing clothing, footwear, handbags, luggage, furniture, toys, electronic packaging, sports goods, fitness and medical equipment, and automotive interiors.
In 1993, Xiefu and Achilles of Japan established a joint venture – Kunshan Achilles Artificial Leather – using Japanese equipment, processes and technology. Products include films, coating, composite fabrics and synthetic leather for cars, luggage, yachts, motorcycles, skiing, mountaineering, sports shoes and interior decoration.