By Edward C. Gregor, Editorial Advisory Board Chairman, International Filtration News
The CEREX® spunbond nylon technology was developed by Monsanto in the 1960s and commercial production began at the Pensacola plant in 1970. Monsanto’s initial market objective was to create a synthetic packaging material that would replace burlap and provide a new outlet for its nylon 6,6 polymer. The CEREX brand spunbond fabric was very strong with higher-temperature, abrasion resistance, and very durable compared to other nonwoven fabrics available at the time. These properties provided advantages in a variety of industrial durable markets including filtration, military and automotive. James River Corporation acquired the spunbond nylon business from Monsanto in 1985 and expanded the product offering with thermal point bonding technology that created the PBN-II® family of products. The PBN-II spunbond fabrics opened new market opportunities in automotive safety components, home furnishings and protective apparel applications. In 1994, management with the support of an equity sponsor acquired the business and created CEREX Advanced Fabrics, Inc. From 1994 through today, the business continues to focus on providing innovative spunbond nylon solutions in a variety of demanding markets and create long term “win-win” relationships with customers through exceptional service and responsiveness.
Ed Gregor: How long have you been with CEREX Advanced Fabrics and what enticed you to take the leadership role in the company?
Jim Walker: During the mid-1980s, I was working for James River at their Simpsonville, South Carolina campus and had been provided some very good management training during my early career. I guess I was in the right place at the right time and was offered the opportunity to relocate to the Pensacola CEREX facility in 1989 as the Operations Manager and was promoted to Plant Manager in 1990. I was intrigued by the specialty nature of the spunbond nylon business and saw significant opportunities for growth in the industrial durable markets that CEREX served. I also saw the talent and capabilities of the people working at CEREX and realized that with the right guidance, the business could become very successful. I believed in CEREX and led the management buyout in 1994. We focus on the customer and find ways to add value to their business. We hire talented people that can propel the business forward, and we work together as a team to innovate and develop new product offerings.
Ed Gregor: What are a few of the properties that differentiates CEREX’s products from other nonwoven fabrics, beyond it’s made from nylon 6,6?
Jim Walker: The nylon 6,6 polymer gives our spunbond fabrics several physical property advantages including high-tensile and burst strength, high temperature resistance, abrasion resistance and a wide range of chemical compatibility. In addition, our proprietary process technology delivers the superior spunbond web formation uniformity and a thin cross-section profile without finishes, binders or low melt co-polymers.
Ed Gregor: What markets (and any applications you care to highlight) in filtration have yielded the company’s largest successes, especially in recent years?
Jim Walker: Filtration accounts for 40% of our total sales and is by far our largest market. Our spunbond substrates are used in a variety of different products in both the air and liquid segments. Liquid hydrocarbon based filtration applications like lube oil, fuels and hydraulic fluids are our largest market segment. Our spunbond fabric isn’t the filter media, it’s what helps make the filter media perform better over longer service lives, higher pressures, increased operating temperatures and in combination with the many different types of chemical performance additives used in today’s systems. Customers count on our fabrics to deliver protection and support for the fragile micro-glass and synthetic filter media during production and while in use. Nylon’s chemical resistance to alcohol in fuels, to ethylene glycol contamination in lubricating oils and to flame retardant chemistry in hydraulic fluids make it an excellent choice for these type of filters.
Ed Gregor: CEREX is used as a base substrate for nanofibers as listed on CEREX website, which I assume are primarily polyolefin or polyester. Do you have a market for nylon 6,6 nanofibers with CEREX substrate base?
Jim Walker: Nanofiber technology is definitely an interest for CEREX and we are active in this market space. We have found that many electro-spun nanofibers are made using nylon 6 and so our nylon 6,6 substrate provides a natural affinity for these materials. The web uniformity of our spunbond fabric is also a benefit and many nano-fiber producers are discovering that they can produce better performing nanofiber media when they utilize our more uniform spunbond as the substrate.
Ed Gregor: It would seem to me neither polypropylene or polyester spunbond have many advantages over CEREX’s spunbond, yet polypropylene and polyester dominate the market. What are the larger filtration markets, and is CEREX not able to compete one-on-one?
Jim Walker: Spunbond polypropylene has a much lower melting point than either spunbond polyester or nylon, and is typically used in air filtration applications where temperature and chemical resistance are not a major concern. Spunbond polyester has higher temperature and strength properties than polypropylene and has a different set of chemical compatibilities, which can make it more competitive with nylon. Nylon spunbond is more of a specialty product and is used where durability, strength, uniformity and chemical requirements demand a high-performance material.
One of our competitive advantages is our ability to be responsive to our customers and provide excellent customer service that is often lacking in the larger spunbond polypropylene and polyester suppliers. We recognize that our customers count on timely delivery of high quality products to operate effectively. We treat our customers as partners and work to build long term relationships that are mutually beneficial. We believe providing great customer service and making it easy to do business with us matters.
Ed Gregor: I tend to think about CEREX for liquid application, but assume it’s used in air filtration as well, correct?
Jim Walker: Yes, our CEREX brand spunbond fabrics have been used in air filtration applications for over 35 years and provide a strong, burst resistant backing for micro-glass air filter media. Some of our customers favor it, because the nylon nonwoven backing can help achieve a UL 900 Class 1 fire resistance rating.
We also have applications in the production of cast membrane filter media and the uniformity and thin profile of our CEREX brand product makes it a great substrate for these applications.
Ed Gregor: Do you foresee anyone building a nylon 6,6 line to compete with CEREX?
Jim Walker: Over the years there have been several attempts by potential competitors to build or modify a spunbond line to produce a nylon fabric. Fortunately for us, there is a considerable amount of technical know-how required to make a commercially viable nylon spunbond line, and these efforts have all been unsuccessful. It takes a lot more than just high temperatures to spin nylon effectively, and I would venture to guess that the investment in R&D necessary to develop a nylon spunbond line would be significant and not economically justified.