Fiber Focus: Universal Fibers - March 2013
Interview by Kemp Harr
Universal Fibers, a 43-year-old Virginia-based company, is a technically minded producer of performance carpet fiber and an innovator in solution-dyed fiber technology. The firm currently produces carpet fiber at its headquarter plant in Bristol, Virginia, as well as in its manufacturing facilities in China and Thailand. Through its proprietary EarthSmart Technology, Universal developed Refresh fiber, using recycled post-consumer nylon carpet fiber diverted from U.S. landfills, and pioneered the greening of nylon 6,6.
Universal holds a unique position in the flooring world because it creates all three types of synthetic fiber used in carpet—polyester (PET), nylon 6 and nylon 6,6—which makes it a fairly objective resource regarding fiber performance. Recently, Floor Focus publisher, Kemp Harr sat down with Bill Goodman, Universal Fiber’s VP of sales and marketing, and asked him to provide some clarity regarding the benefits and shortcomings of the different fiber types.
Q: Increasing raw material costs have changed the mix within the carpet fiber business, and polyester now holds the leadership position at the entry-level price points in the residential sector. What technology enabled this?
A: While we do make polyester accent yarns for our customers in the residential sector, it is less than 5% of our business today, but growing. Polyester is not used in the commercial market today for two reasons: it doesn’t perform as well to commercial foot traffic, and it has difficulty passing the class-one flammability test. Additives can be added to the fibers, which enable it to pass the fire test, but once you’ve done that, you’ve taken away the cost advantage, which is the primary reason for using the fiber in the first place.
Q: Can you help me quantify the price advantage of polyester face fiber versus nylon?
A: This is where we scratch our head. Granted the polymer (chip) price of polyester runs roughly 25 to 30% less than nylon 6, but as you move toward making carpet, the cost delta is negatively impacted both by the additional drying costs associated with polyester but more importantly the bulk to weight ratio. Nylon has a density of 1.1 and polyester has a density of 1.4, so you have to use more pounds of polyester to achieve the same level of bulk you get with nylon. In the end, polyester carpet fiber is cheaper but not by as much as you might think by looking at the differences in raw material costs.
At Universal Fibers, we continue to monitor the growth of polyester, recognizing that it is one of our core competencies and market dynamics are always in flux. Polyester has some characteristics that make it a great choice for carpet. Stain resistance, for example, is an area where polyester excels. Nylon does have a better lifecycle performance track record but as I mentioned, it also costs a little more.
Q: Explain the different fits for nylon 6 and nylon 6,6 and outline when one fiber would be preferred versus the other. Is the difference simply price and performance?
A: Nylon 6,6 provides performance advantages in resiliency, product life, and stain resistance (hot liquids). Nylon 6 typically provides cost saving advantages. Both chemistries offer superior solutions depending on project requirements and end use application. Value and fiber solutions are measured in different ways. As a general rule, the cost differential between nylon 6 and 6,6 is between 5% and 10% depending on the construction.
Q: What makes nylon 6,6 more expensive?
A: The raw materials used to make nylon 6,6 are little more expensive and there are more steps in the process, so the processing expenses are higher.
Q: Can the performance gain benefit be quantified to be worth the added cost?
A: We’ve been told by some of the end users in the commercial arena that getting an extra year out of a typical carpet installation can be valued at somewhere around $0.20 a square foot. So based on our experience and using those numbers, I can see where it could easily be justified to pay a little more upfront.
Q: What makes nylon 6,6 a better performing carpet fiber?
A: The molecular model of nylon 6,6 has two times the hydrogen bonding of nylon 6. This “architecture” supports a higher melting point, lower dyeability (stainability), and increased resilience when processed equally to nylon 6. In simpler terms, the molecules have more “teeth in the zipper” and a material with that level of bonding strength is stronger.
However, there is no styling advantage inherent in either chemistry. Fiber aesthetics are influenced by cross section shape, and color palette. You can make either one just as bright and lustrous or dull and dingy.
Q: Is fiber profile just as important as chemistry when it comes to durability, aesthetics and cleanability?
A: Yes, there is a science to cross section or shape, just like designing I-beams for a building. The fiber profile is just as important as the chemistry in how the product performs.
Q: Nylon 6 can be recycled back into its core chemical make-up and re-extruded as if it were virgin polymer. Does that make it superior from a carbon footprint standpoint versus nylon 6,6?
A: Depolymerization is one viable way to put the material back to use for a second life but it requires a lot of energy and once the process is complete, there is a pile of residue left over. At Universal Fibers, we are currently working with two lifecycle (LCA) firms to compare depolymerization with both post-consumer carpet fluff cleaning and bio-nylon. Once you look at the total carbon footprint and consider all the energy, logistics, and chemical options, there are many factors to consider. We are forming an opinion that there is a balance between the virtues of cradle-to-cradle and minimized environmental impact, but they should not be assumed to be synonymous. That said, all roads advancing sustainable (not directly petroleum derived) content should be encouraged for now.
To offer a perspective, many millions of pounds of post-consumer nylon carpet are recycled annually into “under the hood” automotive molded parts. In the big picture, this equally reduces demand on oil but uses less energy than running depolymerization.
Q: Will that cradle-to-cradle technology ever evolve with nylon 6,6?
A: Physical decontamination has been alive and well for several years. Universal Fibers has pioneered improvements to permit content increases via this route for nylon 6,6. Chemical dissolution has been thought through, patented, and at least one entrepreneur has bet the farm believing it will work. This last technology appears more feasible for nylon 6,6 than depolymerization.
Q: Where is Universal Fibers putting most of its focus in terms of the next stage of growing its business?
A: Service, innovation and new frontiers. In a choppy commercial carpet market, new technology must be pragmatic and value-driven. The idea of “most of its focus” misses our strategy. We will be superiorly resourced to keep our current customers winning, while executing on addressable growth opportunities—and doing this without losing customer focus.
Q: Where does Universal Fibers see itself five years from now?
A: Our mission and strategy will continue to be in sustainable solution-dyed carpet fiber. Universal Fibers was first to solution-dye nylon carpet fiber in a broad color line, first to pre-consumer recycling, and first to post-consumer recycling using nylon 6,6 carpet fiber diverted from U.S. landfills. Our journey and quest is to be off oil with our product offering. This is our EarthSmart promise to the global marketplace.
Q: It’s been a few months since you introduced Revolve. Where are you finding demand for this product, and what are your expectations for the line?
A: Since receiving the honor of Best of NeoCon - Gold for the introduction of Revolve, demand for the product has rapidly increased. We are enjoying development activity with customers in North America as well as in Europe and Asia. Our expectations are high, and we expect to see Revolve in product launches at global trade shows, including NeoCon.
Copyright 2013 Floor Focus