The Backing Business: Innovation focuses on niches in the market - Jan 2016
By Darius Helm
While the backings industry has been fairly subdued in recent years, with the bulk of the business coming from standard residential backings—woven polypropylene primary and secondary backings bound together with SB latex compounds—three key areas in the market have been driving all the innovation: carpet tile, moisture control in residential broadloom, and artificial turf.
Until the last couple of years, the bulk of carpet tile was backed with nonwoven polyester primaries married to heavy base layers generally made of PVC, polyurethane or polyethylene, but new developments in woven polyester primaries, driven by innovations at Propex, have shaken things up and added some dynamism to the business. The other dominant player, Mattex, has not only kept pace, but it has also invested heavily in a backing plant in Eton, Georgia.
The artificial turf category has been on a growth curve for several years, due to both performance enhancements in the product itself and the creation of new markets and expansions of existing ones. Suddenly, artificial turf is everywhere, from parks and residential lawns to rooftops and around the wells of trees lining city streets. Most of the major backing producers have products for this market. While artificial turf is a distant cousin of broadloom, it is constructed using similar process, allowing backing producers to adapt existing technologies to meet the structural and performance requirements of turf systems.
In the residential market, broadloom backings haven’t changed much in the last 20 years, but the recent market focus on pets and their impact on interior environments has driven a new round of innovation that has made its way into the backing business. Stainmaster launched the trend a couple of years ago with the introduction of its solution-dyed PetProtect fiber, bundling it with Stainmaster Cushion with a breathable moisture barrier. And at the beginning of last year, Shaw made a major introduction, adapting the polyethylene technology in its commercial EcoWorx Performance broadloom backing for a residential waterproof backing called LifeGuard.
It’s also worth noting that recent market conditions—most notably the extremely low crude oil prices and the strength of the dollar—have in most cases buoyed existing technologies and reduced demand for alternatives. Latex systems, for instance, long in need of stiff competition, have benefited from falling prices. And some green alternatives have been shelved because they can’t compete with the low cost of existing systems.
WOVEN AND NONWOVEN UPDATES
Propex, a leading independent backings manufacturer with a long history in the industry, makes everything from standard woven polypropylene primary and secondary backings to a range of specialized products. Its most recent efforts include a focus on the carpet tile market with its Artis backing, whose foundation is a woven polyester designed to meet the needs of carpet tile in terms of stitch lock, mendability and dropped ends, along with faster throughput. Also, Artis is largely made out of recycled PET bottles, accounting for over 80% of its total weight. Up until the Propex introduction, carpet tile primary backings were dominated by spunbonded nonwoven polyester materials.
Artis, originally introduced four years ago as Isis, has been well received in the commercial market, and in 2014 Propex added Artis FLW, with a PET fiber cap needlepunched into the backing to dull the gleam of the woven PET. The feature enables mills to create lighter weight carpet tile than they could attain with just the woven PET backings, which require denser piles to hide the gloss.
Last year, the firm added Artis Tru and Artis Fuze. Artis Tru, which is made in the firm’s facility in Gronau, Germany, bonds the fiber cap to the woven backing, which both eliminates the gloss and enhances the dimensional stability of the product, a benefit when tufting highly patterned goods. And Artis Fuze, made in Hazlehurst, Georgia, has a heavier cap that is bonded and needlepunched to the backing, so it has a lot in common with Artis FLW.
Then there’s Artis Matte, introduced in 2015 and not yet fully commercialized. Rather than fiber caps, this backing uses a low luster finish on its woven PET to achieve a similar effect.
However, the glossy shimmer of the woven PET can also enhance the design of the product. Patcraft recently came out with a carpet tile line called Deconstructed, which is tufted in multiple pile heights, exposing the backing in interesting patterns. The collection, which uses Artis backings in three colors for the effect, won a Best of NeoCon Innovation award.
The other major independent backing producer, Mattex, is based in Saudi Arabia, and until a couple of years ago all of its facilities were located on the Arabian peninsula. The firm has been in business since 1995, starting with a single facility in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and it entered the U.S. market a decade later, focusing on woven polypropylene primary backings.
Around that time, it added its second facility in nearby Dubai. Since then, it has added another Jeddah facility, this one for polyethylene backings to serve the rapidly growing artificial turf industry. It also built a facility in Jubail, Saudi Arabia for needlepunched nonwovens and staple fiber. Two years ago, the firm launched its line of PET woven carpet tile backings to compete with the nonwovens and Propex’s woven program.
Around that time, with the U.S. having grown into its biggest market, the firm decided to build a facility on American soil. It invested $70 million to construct a state-of-the-art facility on the outskirts of Eton, Georgia, and by July 2014 it was shipping polypropylene backings. And it started shipping its polyester woven carpet tile backings in November 2014.
The facility is just under 50,000 square feet, and it’s on a large footprint that will allow the firm to double the size of the operation as demand increases. It is currently running at full capacity 24 hours a day, with 165 employees. The plant brings resin in at one end and ships finished rolls of backing made of polyester, polypropylene and polyethylene out of the other end.
“Carpet usage is on a slight decline but it is still the largest sector in the U.S. floorcovering market, and certain products like carpet tile are actually still growing,” said Luc Blommaert, CEO of Mattex Group, commenting on the wisdom of investing $70 million in a category—carpet—that’s losing share to hard surface flooring. He added, “Carpet backing forms the heart of the carpet, and the 35 cents per yard that mills invest in holding together $6 per yard of carpet fiber should be the very best made. Many of the smaller mills rely on us because they don’t make their own backing, but even the bigger ones are using 30-year-old technology, and our modern equipment produces a better foundation for their carpet.”
Another firm headquartered in Saudi Arabia is Etex, which was formed around the same time as Mattex, in 1994, initially to provide backing for its parent, Saudi Carpet Company, but it was soon selling backings to other carpet mills. The firm does all of its manufacturing from one massive facility in Riyadh, annually producing nearly 5.5 billion square feet of primary and secondary polypropylene backing.
Etex has been in the U.S. market for about a decade, mostly focusing on residential carpet and machine made rugs with its standard backings, but it also offers backings with higher pick counts for the commercial market.
When it comes to polyester spunbonded nonwovens for carpet tile, one of the leaders in the market is Bonar, formerly Colbond. The business is part of Low & Bonar, a global manufacturer of geosynthetics, high performance nonwovens, coated technical textiles and other performance fibers. The firm has a dozen manufacturing facilities around the world, including one in Asheville, North Carolina. The firm recently promoted Gareth Kaminski-Cook to global business director. He has been with the firm for three years.
Its most recent investment is in a backing facility in Changzhou, China, slated to come online this year. With a capacity of 650 million square feet a year, the facility will serve the Chinese market as well as other regions.
Bonar is best known for Colback, a spunbonded nonwoven that is grey on one side and black on the other, which allows mills to choose the backing color that best suits the face fiber colorways. And a recent innovation, called Colback Profloor, is a polyester-polypropylene “bicomponent material” that improves stitch lock for lighter weight products while providing a stable platform for carpet tile. It’s available on a limited basis for now.
Don & Low, a Scottish manufacturer of woven polypropylene backings, goes to the U.S. market through Norville Industries, based in Dalton. The bulk of U.S. business is primary and secondary backings to the residential market, but the firm’s new warp/weft product offerings have been gaining ground in heavier residential carpet lines as well as in commercial styles. Also, its line of primary backings for artificial turf has been in a growth mode.
LIFEGUARD PASSES THE TEXT
Last October, an enterprising retailer in Houston, Texas designed a unique promotional event for Shaw’s LifeGuard backing. With the help of some friends, Mark Carr, owner of Color Interiors, which operates out of three locations in the Houston area, built an aboveground swimming pool and lined it with a 12’x24’ piece of Shaw carpet backed with LifeGuard and had a pool party. The party included other carpet-themed entertainment, like games where children could throw water balloons at various carpets to see how their backings performed compared to LifeGuard. Carr even built a lifeguard chair for the event.
SPECIALTY BACKINGS AND BINDINGS
Dow Polyurethanes makes the Enhancer and Enforcer polyurethane backing technologies used in the commercial market for about 30 years—Enhancer is the cushioned version and Enforcer is a denser backing that conveys increased dimensional stability. The products go on both broadloom and carpet tile. Dow Polyurethanes, a global business with estimated annual sales of about $4.5 billion, is part of Dow Chemical Company (NYSE: DOW), a $60 billion conglomerate.
Enhancer and Enforcer are generally specified for high performance commercial applications, like hospitality, corporate and public space, and these days most of it is attached to carpet tile. Some goes to the residential market, but it’s a small and declining part of the overall business.
With that commercial focus comes demand for green profiles. The challenge is that polyurethane is a thermoset, so it can’t be remelted, and that closes all sorts of doors in terms of recycling. But the firm reports that it is close to launching a polyurethane that behaves like a thermoplastic, making it potentially recyclable. The chemistry is currently being tested under carpet tiles. If all goes well, it should hit the market within the year.
Another polyurethane specialist is Universal Textile Technologies (UTT), which makes BioCel and EnviroCel polyurethane backings with bio-based content along with post-consumer and post-industrial recycled content. The firm started developing the technology in 2002, and formally launched BioCel at NeoCon 2004 to accolades for its innovative approach to sustainability. In recent years, the firm has been very successful at increasing the green profile of its products and of the entire category through branding efforts and partnerships with federal and state agencies to promote the government’s sustainability mandates. The bio-based procurement mandate requires federal agencies to include bio-based products in at least 95% of all contract actions. Also, Signature Accord, which produces carpet, and SynLawn and AstroTurf, which make artificial turf, have all attained certification under the USDA BioPreferred Program because of the soybean content in their UTT backing systems.
Global Textile Services and Textile Coating, which are sister companies to UTT, specialize in commission finishing, and for the last five years those firms have been working with Cargill, using its BiOH Fusion chemistry, derived from a modified vegetable base of both corn and soy, as a direct displacement for a portion of the styrene butadiene latex used as a binder in carpet backings. Currently, the firms use BiOH Fusion to replace 25% of the latex, which is as high as they’re inclined to go as commission finishers, though a vertically integrated mill could probably go as high as 35% to 40%.
Both operations, which are based in Dalton, use the bio-based technology on all but specialty applications, like marine products or those that use natural rubber. The firms continue to work on increasing the BiOH Fusion content, which at 25% latex displacement makes up about 8% of the total backing weight.
Trinseo, which was called Styron until about a year ago, was one of a bundle of Dow businesses sold to Bain Capital in 2010 for $1.63 billion. In the summer of 2014, Bain took it public, and the name change followed a few months later. Trinseo is a leading global producer of styrene butadiene latex, with production facilities all over the world, including three in the U.S.
Due to overcapacity of latex and shrinking margins, Trinseo and other producers have been doing some consolidating. Omnova is closing its Calhoun, Georgia facility, and just last month Trinseo shuttered its plant in Gale’s Ferry, Connecticut. The firm also has several plants around the world, in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America.
Though latex as a carpet backing binder is feeling the pinch as carpet loses share to hard surface, most of the overcapacity is driven by shrinking demand for paper, which is an even bigger market for SB latex. Also, the strong dollar has been driving paper imports, further squeezing domestic producers.
Despite huge demand for green alternatives, there has not been that much progress, in part because of performance characteristics of latex. In recent years, most of the attention has focused on vinyl acetate ethylene (VAE). It started out as a promising alternative, but SB latex overcapacity combined with low energy and raw material costs have hobbled VAE’s prospects.
The other major SB latex producer is Omnova, headquartered in Beachwood, Ohio, where it has a production facility. Another facility is in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Calhoun facility that it is closing makes latex binder for carpet as well as binder for tire cord within automotive tires.
Omnova’s binder goes to both the residential and commercial markets, with residential somewhat larger. The firm also makes some specialty products. Demand is up for its moisture barrier products, like OmnaBlock, that can be used in sectors like hospitality and healthcare, and for the growing pet care market.
Omnova also makes a binder specifically for printed carpet, one that can handle all the water and steam processing that printed products face. It’s part of the firm’s GenFlo line made at its Green Bay, Wisconsin facility. Omnova’s Novagreen, a high solids emulsion polymer, has been made in Calhoun, and down the road will be produced in Green Bay. The Calhoun location will continue to serve as a distribution center.
Shaw Industries, the largest carpet player in the market, has been vertically integrated with backings for over a decade. It has also developed some unique backing products, like its EcoWorx polyolefin carpet backing as well as EcoLogix, its attached dense fiber pad made of reclaimed PET green bottle flake. But its most common broadloom backing is still the standard polypropylene primary and secondary bound together with styrene butadiene latex.
The biggest news in backings at Shaw is its residential Lifeguard backing, which replaces latex with a polyolefin compound that fuses the primary and secondary backings, forming a waterproof layer. It’s a version of the firm’s commercial EcoWorx Performance broadloom technology, modified for the residential market. It’s a one-step process, with the extruded thermoplastic layer applied as a precoat. The product has been on the market for about a year.
The second biggest carpet manufacturer, Mohawk Industries, is also vertically integrated with backings. Like Shaw, most of its broadloom uses standard polypropylene backings with latex binders. For carpet tile, it offers either a PVC or a polyolefin backing. The polyolefin, called EcoFlex NTX, also has some performance attributes—it can be installed over old adhesive and it also performs better in higher moisture areas than PVC backed carpet.
Last month, the firm officially launched NXT Air, a cushion-backed version of its polyolefin backing, with green PET bottle flake bonded to the back of the tile. It features 95% post-consumer recycled content.
Mohawk’s Lees program has its own backing called Unibond, recently reengineered as Unibond Plus with added flexibility and backed with a secondary. An acrylic polymer is used as a binder. Later this quarter, the firm plans on launching its Unibond Air product, using the same recycled cushion technology as NXT Air.
MP Global Products has some of the greenest underlayments in the market. Recycled content goes from 94% up to 100%. Its biggest seller, QuietWalk, is made up of 95% post-industrial content. It also produces underfloor heating systems, including QuietWarmth Film, which has been out for a couple of years and is made of polyester with a conductive ink. It’s sold through distribution as Perfectly Warm.
Copyright 2016 Floor Focus