The rise of remote service and digital collaboration
Between March and June this year, with all but essential flights cancelled, the highly-globalised nonwovens industry has been discovering what can be achieved from a distance.
Many companies quickly developed platforms for new communication over digital platforms such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom, both for their internal communications and for maintaining essential contact with customers and suppliers.
“We have learned a lot about becoming more digital and using modern tools over the past few months and many of our employees are realising they don’t have to travel quite as much as they previously thought,” says Frank Heislitz, CEO of leading nonwovens manufacturer Freudenberg Performance Materials. “I have had discussions with people who’ve come back after working from home and their behaviour has changed. It’s really surprising me a little bit. I think we will travel less and think about whether a trip is really needed before we do it, not because of costs, but in terms of efficiency. There will be no substitute for some face-to-face meetings, but this will make a contribution to sustainability in the end. It will be good for both businesses and people, if not for the airlines.”
For suppliers of nonwoven production technology, the period has also proved a fruitful opportunity for both closer collaborations and the field-testing of Industry 4.0 innovations.
INDEX™20 exhibitors Mahlo and Oerlikon Nonwovens, for example, are now in the process of integrating the Mahlo Qualiscan QMS-12 system directly into Oerlikon meltblown lines, to allow full automation and process control of all functions without operator intervention.
The meltblown technology of Oerlikon Nonwovens has naturally been in high demand for the manufacture of essential filter media for facemasks, and as a key supplier of inline quality control systems for such lines, Mahlo’s QMS-12 units control the key parameters of basis weight and air permeability in which precision is essential.
“Basis weight is ultimately responsible for ensuring the correct protection level is being provided by the facemask, while the right air permeability ensures it is both comfortable for the wearer and does not restrict breathing,” says Mahlo sales manager Matthias Wulbeck.
“The key to successful meltblown production is material uniformity and precision in terms of the control of all process parameters, specifically in terms of fluid and air management,” adds Oerlikon Nonwovens Business Development Manager Ingo Mählmann.
During the lockdown period, both Oerlikon and Mahlo have also been involved in a series of webinars on facemask production organised by the German textile machinery association, the VDMA, along with other INDEX™20 exhibitors, including the nanofibre technology company Nanoval and converting machinery leader Winkler and Dünnebier.
Further collaborations involving INDEX™20 exhibitors have seen the fibre-producer Lenzing team-up with medical healthcare company Palmers to establish facemask manufacturing plants in both Austria and the UK, and in Italy, Aeris, Comerio Ercole, Ramina and Texbond have come together to address the country’s meltblown fabric shortages.
In addition to installing a number of new meltblown lines around the world, Berry Plastics – currently the largest manufacturer of nonwovens globally – has worked with the Nonwovens Institute in North Carolina, PLA pioneer Natureworks and others, on the development on alternatives to meltblown for FFP3 standard facemasks, developing an entirely new material that is shortly to be launched commercially.
Another INDEX™ technology exhibitor, Andritz Nonwoven, has been able to field test components of its Metris Industry 4.0 system.
“We started to push digitalisation of nonwovens technologies two years ago and this January opened the first Metris Performance Centre dedicated to the industry in Montbonnot, France,” says the company’s director of business development Alexandre Butte. “The Andritz Group’s digitalisation drive began a decade ago, initially with pulp and paper mills where millions of tons are being produced daily, so the benefits of optimisation come very fast. We acquired those tools and started to implement programmes so that digitalisation could also be useful for our nonwoven customers.”
Two key components of the Andritz Metris system, he adds, have proved particularly useful when travel was not possible – the Metris Remote Assistance System and Metris Predictive Maintenance.
Following its acquisition of Italian converting machinery group Diatec in 2018, Andritz has not only been able to develop an advanced facemask converting machine in record time, but also test its Metris system to the full.
“Just prior to the lockdown in Italy, we had delivered a new diaper line from Italy to a company in the Ukraine,” Butte explains. “We were then unable to send technicians to install the machine, but with the Metris Remote Assistance System we managed to talk the customer through all the initial stages of its testing and operator requirements, so that it could start on time. It is now fully operational.”
He adds that the company has also seen a big surge in demand for the Metris Predictive Maintenance service.
“Everybody is now beginning to see the benefit of this,” Butte concludes. “For globalised companies, the data allows automatic reporting graphs from all plants to be generated and shared internally between companies of the same group anywhere in the world. This allows the efficiency of a group’s entire global operations to be increased and decisions to be taken. These are the two major areas where we have seen digitalisation ramped up a lot in the last six months. Covid-19 has shown us that nothing is impossible, that it’s possible to start a machine remotely and that on-site visits by technicians don’t always have to be mandatory. As a result, we have a different picture today of how to move forward.”