Kimberly-Clark Celebrates 50 Years in Nonwovens
Five decades after the development of its first reinforced scrim, nonwovens pioneer and absorbent products leader looks back
Fifty years after it developed its first reinforced scrim material, a distant ancestor of today’s nonwovens technology, Kimberly-Clark (K-C), today a technology leader and consumer products giant, and its Global Nonwovens (GNW) division, continue to focus on innovation. The technology, made in 1966 as an offshoot of absorbent gauze material, set the stage for multiple nonwovens technologies that would lead to dozens of new product categories—not to mention one of the largest consumer packaged goods companies whose brands have become an indispensable part of people’s lives around the world.
To celebrate five decades of nonwovens production, K-C’s GNW team held a celebration in August at its Roswell, GA headquarters. The event was attended by more than 150 people including K-C CEO Tom Falk and other senior K-C and GNW leaders who recognized GNW for its continuous focus on innovation, high-quality and safety.
As part of this celebration, the GNW team composed a timeline of events within its business. It included its first scrim material and Lurgi process to more modern technologies like spunbond technology, the Coform process and elastic laminate technologies that continue to be honed to offer improvements to K-C consumer brands like Huggies, Depend and Kotex as well as for external customers.
“It was really interesting,” says Jerry Baker, president of GNW. “We’ve had this team for 35 years and each of the employees could point to the year they started and the projects and significant developments they touched over the years.”
For Baker, who has been with K-C for 33 years and has led the GNW team since May of this year, the origination of nonwovens in Berkeley, NC is particularly sentimental. He grew up in the area and both his father and grandfather worked at the mill before K-C purchased it in the late 1950s.
It was after this purchase that K-C began looking at the woven gauze process and opportunities to improve it. In 1966, the company introduced Scrim-Reinforced Materials (SRM) in Teri Towel, a disposable industrial wipe and in Kimbies diapers as a liner material. Both products were not long for K-C’s business, but nonwovens development would help shape and define the company over the next five decades. These roots, combined with the company’s interest in the up-and-coming absorbent products market, led the way to nonwovens development.
“Developing nonwovens was probably a collision of two factors: heritage in textiles and weaving, and a growing interest in absorbents,” Baker says. “We were already in feminine hygiene producing gauze for our Kotex brands but our scientists and engineers were looking at developing absorbent nonwovens to help improve other products.”
In 1968, K-C began its first dedicated nonwovens operation in Neenah, WI. One year later, the company acquired the Lurgi process, an early meltspinning technology that could make nonwoven webs with basis weights ranging from 20-30 gsm.
“It was a reasonably nice nonwoven,” Baker remembers, “with a fine denier and high strength, but energy consumption was horrendous. We knew it wasn’t sustainable as a long-term process.”
In 1971, K-C offered an improved meltspinning technology still based on the Lurgi process, known as spunbond nonwovens that was developed at the Neenah facility. While the first commercial applications for spunbond nonwovens were automotive seats, mattress pad backings and bedspread backings, it soon expanded into hygiene. A second plant was added in Berkeley in 1973 and, one year later, spunbond began being used as cover material for Kotex and New Freedom feminine hygiene products, providing absorbency and softness to users.
Around this time, K-C was becoming more interested in diapers but its Kimbies diapers were not performing well in the marketplace. While many of their features—triangular shape, an absorbent core and adhesive tape fasteners became mainstays of later diaper generations—these products did not last long in the marketplace. But, as we know, K-C was destined to strike gold in diapers with its Huggies line introduced in the late 1970s.
“We had to go back to the drawing board when it came to diapers but we knew the technologies we were developing could help us succeed in the market,” Baker says. “That really accelerated the development of this technology.”
Next up for K-C’s nonwovens development was the Spunbond-Meltblown-Spunbond (SMS) now commonly known as spunmelt, which was developed to support the growth of K-C’s healthcare business by its ability to repel fluids by leveraging the improved barrier that the short and extremely fine meltblown fibres provided.
The 1980s saw the development of new nonwovens technologies and the construction of several more nonwovens plants—one in Conway, AR, which held the first Coform machine and made material for K-C’s first premium wipe products, and another in LaGrange, GA where treated spunbond/meltblown laminates fuelled the growth of the K-C healthcare business.
In 1986, K-C completed work on nonwovens operations in Lexington, NC and Korea, the company’s first international nonwovens operation. This global expansion continued in 1987 when machines were installed in Australia and Mexico, largely fuelling the growth of Huggies diapers around the world.
In 1988, K-C developed stretch bonded laminates for elastic side panels, a development that led to the creation of Pull Ups training pants, a new product category.
“Kimberly-Clark is dedicated to making the best consumer products in the world and developments in nonwovens have aided this,” Baker says.
The early 1990s saw product enhancements that dramatically changed diapers. In 1992, the introduction of SMS flaps in Huggies, first by K-C Mexico and later by K-C in North America, marked a step-change in product leakage providing a soft flexible side barrier repellent to fluids, which became a category must-have. One year later, the commercialization of point un-bonded loop material allowed for the global introduction of Huggies Supreme with Velcro tabs as an attachment system.
Huggies Supreme also contained micro-embossed nonwoven film laminate outer covers. Around the same time, high-loft bico spunbond nonwovens found their way into European diapers and the first in line film spunbond laminate was used in Huggies. This helped significantly improve skin health. That same year, outside of the diaper market, hydroentangled substrates were used in some of K-C’s wipes.
In 2001, the development of Vertical Film Laminate (VFL) brought high-performance side panel and waist band materials for baby and childcare products sold throughout the world. This technology was expanded into K-C’s Poise adult incontinence pads in 2005.
For the next decade, K-C continued to embark upon international capital expansion projects that leveraged new technologies created by the GNW team. These included dramatically thinner and more cloth-like disposable diapers, more discrete adult incontinence and feminine hygiene items and higher performing products in the medical, house-wrap, filtration and critical cleaning markets.
“Our GNW organization is devoted to developing the nonwovens processes as well as the materials themselves for the globe while managing manufacturing operations in North America,” Baker says. “We also partner with our businesses around the world as the global centre for nonwovens development.”
While K-C also sources much of its nonwovens and chooses to not make any of the material in some world regions, its nonwovens teams are responsible for working with partners to define the needs of its businesses and engage in sourcing decisions.