While the technical textiles industry has matured in many respects, the sector continues to grow, spurred on by a myriad of macro-drivers, such as growing populations in developing countries, maturing populations in developed economies, increasing urbanization, higher spending on road and rail infrastructure, increasing air travel in the Middle and Far East, and higher demands for environmental protection.
In the developed markets of Europe, North America and East Asia, the textile producers that have survived the past 50 years or so have largely moved out of commodity goods into technical products, which are finding ever more end-uses as they replace conventional fabrics – and even other non-fiber materials, such as metal.
Meanwhile, the growing economies of the industrializing developing world, such as China, India, Brazil and Indonesia, offer a huge potential market for technical textile producers, particularly in the construction, transport, medical and agricultural sectors, where demand continues to grow apace.
Other promising sectors include, filtration, geotextiles and protective apparel, as well as functional sports and leisurewear, such as fabrics that have hydrophilic, hydrophobic, antibacterial, antistatic, and breathable or barrier properties; the ecotextiles niche is also gaining in significance.
In 2012, Swiss consultants Gherzi estimated that technical textiles accounted for 27% of total global textile production, which represented a market valued at $160 billion and 22 million tons of fabric, including 7.7 million tons of nonwovens, 10.8 million tons of traditionally woven, knitted or braided textiles and 3.5 million tons of composites.
Meanwhile, European manufacturers saw stronger growth in technical textiles for the 2007-2013 period than its overall economy, according to a recently released report from Germany-based Commerzbank.
In particular, nonwoven fabric production, which increased by 11% from 2011 to 2013, contributed substantially to this growth. In 2015, growth in this area and other technical textiles are expected to see a moderate 2% rise.
Varied Composites Picture
However, the composites segment has not regained its high level of 2007. While German producers have steadily increased their production following steep downturns in 2008 and 2009, production declined in Europe in 2012 and 2013, particularly in Spain and France owing to weak demand from the automotive and construction sectors; the fastest growing markets were wind energy and aerospace.
Germany is also the European market leader for composites, currently accounting for about a quarter of global market volume. It is notable that Turkey as well as Saudi Arabia individually now account for higher production volumes than any other European country, with growth driven by high demand in the construction, storage tank and pipeline sectors.
Trends in the construction and automotive sectors, particularly in the premium vehicle and truck segments where lightweight components are playing an increasingly important role and which declined sharply in 2008, are likely to have a greater impact in the future.
Technology Market Leader
It comes as no surprise that Germany is widely regarded as Europe’s market leader in technical textiles – around 50%, possibly even more, of the country’s textile output is in such products. The sector comprises around 600 companies with more than 20 employees and an estimated turnover in excess of €6 billion, the report noted.
Speaking at a press conference ahead of next month’s Techtextil trade show in Frankfurt, Jürgen Grebe, corporate sector analyst and author of the Commerzbank report, said: “The German sector is regarded – also thanks to the excellent networking with the German research sector, which is itself unique worldwide – as the global technology market leader.”
The report noted the German sector is predominantly the result of a successful structural change on the part of producers of traditional textiles to become highly technical and specialist manufacturers of high-quality textile products.
In its broadest sense, “technical textiles” includes the nonwovens and composites segments.
Table 1: Global market for technical textiles by the broader definition, 2011
At present, the global market volume for fiber-reinforced materials is estimated to be around $100 billion, with the total global market volume for technical textiles (in its broadest sense) at more than $250 billion (Table 1).
The global market for “conventional” technical textiles (woven, warp- and weft-knitted, multilayer fabrics, braids and laminates) is set to grow from $130 billion to $160 billion by 2018, according to the report.
By end-use, transportation is by far the most important segment, accounting for 23% of sales in 2010, followed by industrial textiles, including filtration (17%), and sports and leisure (15%). Meanwhile, sales of nonwoven fabrics, driven largely by demand from the hygiene sector, will increase from $33 billion to more than $42 billion globally by 2017.
“Viewed regionally the best outlook is attributed to the Asian market, headed by China,” the report noted. “Yet other threshold countries are gaining in significance for German manufacturers, whose export quota for technical textiles in 2013 amounted to 62% and to 58% for nonwoven fabrics.
“In this respect German producers are increasingly worried by a lack of know-how protection and rising administrative costs, for example in the use of origination regulations for primary materials, as well as the development of energy costs.”
For composites, Grebe expects further moderate growth in Europe in 2015. “Given the progressive recovery in [key] customer sectors, growth could be even higher than for other technical textiles,” he said.
This year’s arrays of Techtextil events are likely to eclipse the record-breaking year 2013. So what can we expect to see at Techtextil (Frankfurt, Germany, May 4-7), Techtextil North America (Houston, Texas, USA, June 2-4), and Techtextil India (Mumbai, India, September 24-26)?
In Houston, around 38% of exhibitors will comprise producers of woven fabrics, laid webs, braiding and knitted fabrics, followed by suppliers of fibers and yarns (30%), nonwovens producers (27%), and suppliers of technology, machinery and accessories (27%); this breakdown is likely to be similar for the other Techtextil shows.
The continuing development of textile products has facilitated new technical applications in many areas, from medical technology to lightweight vehicle construction.
With the global shift to technical textiles has come a requirement for fiber makers to modify and extend their range of fibers and for machine builders to adapt their equipment to process new fiber types to make new fabric types.
Falling Oil Prices
According to Thomas Waldmann, managing director of the VDMA Textile Machinery Association, Germany, the current low oil price and the shale gas boom in the U.S. has clouded the picture somewhat, with energy in many regions outside Europe and North America continuing to represent a bottleneck, restricting the development and growth of many countries.
However, the slump in oil prices should lead to a reduction in raw materials costs, which should benefit the technical textiles industry as a whole. Under this scenario it will be interesting to see how textile products at Techtextil will contribute to energy generation, storage and saving, he said.
Grebe concluded that the broader technical textiles sector is characterized by continual innovation and has been particularly adept at finding new areas of application, such as smart textiles and photovoltaics, as well as new manufacturing processes.
He stressed the benefits of networking between industry and research, as in the exemplary case of Germany, and the cooperation between all members of the supply chain, including end-users. For example, machine builders are increasingly working with manufacturers to optimize end products as well as technology.
In particular, new developments in materials and prototype concepts in the field of medical engineering will be presented at Techtextil 2015, where around 400 exhibitors will show innovations in this sector.
It is reported that as many as 10 of the 16 German textile research institutes are operating in this field of research, with highlights including textile bone components and new therapeutic gloves for stroke patients.
For example, researchers at the Dresden University of Technology have developed biologically degradable and deformation-resistant flock scaffolds based on chitosan, which is a polysaccharide extracted from the treated shells of crustaceans, such as shrimps and crabs. These three-dimensional carrier structures enable the absorption of a body’s own stem cells to support the regeneration of defective cartilage tissue.
Meanwhile, Tipstim is a novel textile-based product for the treatment of stroke patients. The patient puts the sensor glove on, connects it to the pulse transmitter and starts the therapy on their own, without the need of medical attendance. Processes are directly activated in the relevant brain regions controlling the hands by a sensitive stimulation of the fingertips.
This innovative therapy, which saves lengthy training processes, is said to open up new, efficient and cost-saving ways to offer patients a convenient neuro-rehabilitative therapy for the improvement of senso-motor deficiency.