Textiles’ thriving niche
Nonwoven textiles prove to be resilent sector of N.C. economy
Premium content from Charlotte Business Journal by Ken Elkins, Senior Staff WriterDate: Friday, June 22, 2012, 6:00am EDT - Last Modified: Thursday, June 21, 2012, 11:07am EDT
Oxco Inc. of Charlotte resizes and treats nonwoven materials made by other companies. This is a folding machine that imprints and folds material to a customer’s specification. The machine was developed by Oxco. At right is company President C.T. Chu.
Think textiles and then imagine tens of thousands of jobs being created in North Carolina.
No reason to imagine — it’s already happening in the niche of nonwoven textiles. They’re used in products such as diapers and medical gowns, and are made by a growing industry in the Carolinas.
Companhia Providencia, a Brazilian company that began production last year at a $70 million plant in Statesville, is expected to start a second line by early 2013.
Two years ago, Charlotte-based Polymer Group Inc. began production at a $40 million line in Mooresville Business Park.
A half dozen other nonwovens production facilities dot the area around Charlotte owned by little-known companies: Carolina NonWovens, HOF Textiles Inc., Dalco Nonwovens and Buckeye Technologies Inc.
The companies’ products are found in household goods. They’re used in making disposable diapers, baby wipes, medical supplies, insulation, automotive components and filters for swimming pools and cars.
Bonding manmade and natural fibers by means other than weaving or spinning produces nonwoven fabrics.
“Our industry is related to the textile industry, but we don’t make yarn,” says Rory Holmes, president of INDA, a nonwovens trade association based in Cary.
Holmes says the typical car contains nonwovens in 41 components. The materials are used in seats, side panels, carpets, insulation, speaker cores and air filters. The combined weight of the fabrics amounts to an average of 33 pounds in a car.
There’s also local growth in two areas related to the production of nonwovens — machinery needed to make and shape it and processing plants for the fabrics.
Behnam Pourdeyhimi, head of The Nonwovens Institute at N.C. State, says equipment manufacturing may be the biggest growth segment for the Charlotte area. Companies such as American Trützschler of Charlotte are expanding, and others are coming to the region.
“The Charlotte area attracts companies that are equipment producers, and there are a lot of others as well,” he says.
On the processing end of the nonwovens business, companies including Oxco Inc. of Charlotte are seeing growth as the economy recovers, says Jeff Meier, co-owner.
“It has turned around in the fact that major industries that we serve are moving forward with new projects,” he says. For example, one customer, which has increased orders to Oxco, uses nonwoven fabrics as components of restraining straps in shipping containers.
As a result of the growing business, Meier expects to add about four employees to a 45-employee staff within three months.
Pourdeyhimi says nonwovens globally are expected to grow at an 8% annual rate.
Carolinas nonwovens producers grew even during the recession, Holmes says.
“Most of our members are running full,” he says. “We are at a supply imbalance — customers are looking for more product than the producers can make.”
Nonwovens have grown to the point where the state is home to the country’s largest concentration of such companies, Pourdeyhimi says. U.S. nonwovens production accounts for one-third of the world’s supply.
The lone downside of nonwovens’ prodigious growth is the limited number of jobs needed to make the fabrics. While a 200,000-square-foot textile yarn plant employed as many as 1,000 in the 1970s, the Providencia plant in Statesville will employ fewer than 90 after its scheduled expansion.
Despite modest employment at production facilities, Pourdeyhimi estimates the industry provides 100,000 jobs in North Carolina.
Gene Konczal, general manager of Providencia’s Statesville facility, says the company is in growth mode. “Our goal here is to expand in Statesville,” he says.
Herminio Freitas, Providencia chief executive, speaking in 2009, predicted the Statesville facility will become a nonwovens “supersite.” The 43-acre location, which is owned by the company, has the potential to house a $300 million complex that can turn out 80,000 metric tons of fabric each year.
“It’s beneficial to have several machines at one site for logistical and scheduling reasons,” Freitas said at the time.
INDA’s Holmes once tried to analyze what attracts nonwovens facilities to the Carolinas. He plotted plant locations on a map. His conclusion? Producers want to be near interstate highways.
“It was like an X next to a line,” Holmes says. “Most of the product is shipped by truck.”
The first facilities in North Carolina were built along interstates 95, 85 and 40. “They’re starting to build alongside Interstate 77 now,” he adds.
The new textile industry also can take advantage of another North Carolina asset — yarn and cloth workers who witnessed the decline of traditional textiles find it relatively easy to find jobs in nonwovens.
Konczal says there’s one exception to the availability of skilled hands — electrical technicians. “They are really tough to find.”
•This industry has thrived despite the decline of traditional textiles.
•The materials are used in a wide range of consumer products.
•Producers and related suppliers employ an estimated 100,000 North Carolinians.
Ken Elkins covers manufacturing, international business and economic development for the Charlotte Business Journal.