Praveen Kumar Jangala and Huang, Hsu-Yeh
The needlepunch process was developed commercially in
the late 1800s by William Bywate Ltd., in England. Early applications were
focused on coarse animal hair and vegetable fibers for use as carpet
underlays and spring padding for mattresses and furniture. In the 1920s
and 1930s, improved needlepunch machinery was introduced. During the late
1950s, needled synthetic-fiber products were introduced to the home
furnishings and apparel markets. Several efforts were launched in the
1960s to produce simulated leather with needled fabric as a substrate.
The basic elements of a needlepunch machine are: a web
feeding mechanism; a needle beam with a needleboard and needles (ranging
in number from 500 per meter to 7,500 per meter of machine width); a
stripper plate; a bed plate; and a fabric takeup mechanism. The fiber web
(sometimes carried or reinforced by a scrim or other fabric) is guided
between the metal bed and stripper plates, which have openings
corresponding to the arrangement of needles in the needleboard. 
The needlepunch process is illustrated in
Fig. 1 and
Fig. 2 . Needlepunched nonwovens are created by
mechanically orienting and interlocking the fibers of a spunbonded or
carded web. This mechanical interlocking is achieved with thousands of
barbed felting needles repeatedly passing into and out of the web. The
major components of the needle loom and brief description of each are as
THE NEEDLE LOOM
The needle board: The needle board is the base unit into which the
needles are inserted and held. The needle board then fits into the
needle beam that holds the needle board into place.
The feed roll and exit roll. These are typically driven rolls and
they facilitate the web motion as it passes through the needle loom.
- The bed plate and stripper plate. The web passes through two plates,
a bed plate on the bottom and a stripper plate on the top. Corresponding
holes are located in each plate and it is through these holes the
needles pass in and out. The bed plate is the surface the fabric passes
over which the web passes through the loom. The needles carry bundles of
fiber through the bed plate holes. The stripper plate does what the name
implies; it strips the fibers from the needle so the material can
advance through the needle loom.
THE FELTING NEEDLE
Fig. 3 
The correct felting needle can make or break the needle
punched product. The proper selection of gauge, barb, point type and blade
shape (pinch blade, star blade, conical) can often give the needle
the added edge needed in this competitive industry. The gauge of the
needles is defined as the number of needles that can be fitted in a square
inch area. Thus finer the needles, higher the gauge of the needles. Coarse
fibers and crude products use the lower gauge needles, and fine fibers and
delicate fibers use the higher gauge needles. For example, a sisal fiber
product may use a 12 to 16 gauge needle and fine synthetics may use 25 to
40 gauge needle .
The major components of the basic felting needle are as
The crank: The crank is the 90 degree bend on the top of the needle.
It seats the needle when inserted into the needle board.
The shank: The shank is the thickest part of the needle. The shank
is that part of the needle that fits directly in the needle board
The intermediate blade: The intermediate blade is put on fine gauge
needles to make them more flexible and somewhat easier to put inside the
needle board. This is typically put on 32 gauge needles and finer.
The blade: The blade is the working part of the needle. The blade is
what passes into the web and is where the all-important barbs are
The barbs: The barbs are the most important part of the needle. It
is the barb that carries and interlocks the fibers. The shape and sized
of the barbs can dramatically affect the needled product
The point: The point is the very tip of the needle. It is important
that the point is of correct proportion and design to ensure minimal
needle breakage and maximize surface appearance.
As the needle-loom beam moves up and down the blades of
the needles penetrate the fibrous batt. Barbs on the blade of the needle
pick up fibers on the downward movement and carry these fibers the depth
of the penetration. The draw roll pulls the batt through the needle loom
as the needles reorient the fibers from a predominately horizontal to
almost a vertical position. The more the needles penetrate the web the
more dense and strong the web becomes generally. Beyond some point, fiber
damage results from excessive penetration.
TYPES OF LOOMS
There are three basic types of needle looms in the
needlepunching industry. They are,
1.The Felting Loom
2.The Structuring Loom
3.The Random Velour Loom
The felting looms are the type just described. These
needle looms may have one to four needle boards and needles from the top,
bottom or top and bottom. The primary function of this type of loom is to
do interlocking of fibers resulting in a flat, one-dimensional fabric. The
types of products made with this process and needle loom are diverse and
multifaceted. They exist in a variety of industrial products, geotextiles,
automotives, interlinings, home furnishings, etc. .
Structuring looms use what are called fork needles.
Instead of carrying fibers into a bed plate hole, the fork needles carry
fiber tufts into lamella bars that extend from the entry to the exit of
the needle loom
(fig. 4). These fork needles carry large tufts of fibers into
parallel lamella bars. These bars carry the tuft of fiber from the entry
to the exit side of the loom. Depending on the orientation of the fork
needle, a rib or velour surface is introduced. The most popular products
made with structuring looms include home and commercial carpets and floor
mats, automotive rib and velour products, wall covering and marine
Random velour looms are the newest type of needle
looms, having only been available since the mid-1980's. The random velour
looms are used to produce velour surfaces. Unlike the structuring looms,
the velour products produced by this loom are completely isotropic. It is
almost impossible to distinguish the cross direction from the machine
Unique to this type of needle loom is the
bristle-brush, bed-plate system. Special crown type needles or fork
needles are used in this loom design. The needles push fibers into a
moving brush bedplate. The fibers are carried in this brush from the entry
to the exit of the loom with zero draft. This allows for the completely
non-linear look, perfect for molded products. Random velour type products
have been very popular in the European and Japanese automotive industry.
While almost all U.S. automotive producers have the random velour machine,
this type of product has yet to become popular in this country. The most
popular products made with this type of needle loom are almost all
centered around the automotive industry.
The most important machine variable is the depth of
penetration and puncture density. The fiber travel through the web depends
on the depth of penetration of the needle. The maximum penetration is
fixed by the needle of the machine and depends on the length of the
three-sided shank, the distance between the needle plates, the height of
stroke, and the angle of penetration. Greater the depth of penetration,
greater the entanglement of fibers within the fabric because more number
of barbs are employed. This variable, however, is applicable mainly for
webs with reasonable thickness.
The puncture density, i.e., number of punches on the
surface of the feed in the web, is a complex factor and depends on
the density of needles in the needle board (Nd)
the rate of material feed
the frequency of punching
the effective width of the needle board (Nb T)
the number of runs
The puncture density per run Edpass = [n*F] / [V*W]
where, n= number of needles within a needleboard
F = frequency of punching
V = rate of material feed
W = effective width of the needle board
The puncture density in the needled fabric Ed NV
depends on the number of runs Npass; Ed NV = Edpass * Npass
The thickness, basis weight, bulking density and air
permeability - which provide information about compactness of fabric - are
influenced by a number of factors. If finer needles, finer, longer and
more tightly crimped fibers are used, if the basis weight of the web and
puncture density and depth are increased, the web density increases and
air permeability is reduced. Web density does not increase when finer
fibers are needled with coarser needles. There is neither an increase nor
a decrease in air permeability if the puncture density is increased.
As far as the strength of a needled nonwoven web, the
situation is similar to that for compactness, namely that finer needles,
finer and longer fibers, greater web basis weight and greater puncture
depth and density, result in increased strength of the needled web.
However, once a certain critical puncture depth or density has been
reached, the rise in strength may be reversed. If the depth of the barb is
decreased or the distance between the barbs is increased, the dimensional
stability is improved during needling, and the web density and maximum
tensile strength in relation to basis weight can be raised.
It's interesting to break down the U.S. and Canadian
needlepunching market which categorizes most Needlepunched fabrics into 11
Many people recognize the needlepunched nonwovens in
the autotomobile. Indeed, the automotive industry utilizes millions of
square yards of needled nonwoven fabrics every year. The most common
needlepunched areas on the automobile are the molded floor area, formed
headliners, door trim, seat backs, load floors and package trays. In
addition to some of the more obvious areas are the less noticeable
needlepunched applications in the automobile, including sound barriers,
transmission filters, battery separators, structural panels (often made
from needlepunched wood fiber), speaker housings, vinyl substrates,
catalytic converter insulation pads and much more.
Needlepunchers producing automotive fabrics tend to be
larger companies with newer equipment. The needlepunchers in the
automotive industry also tend to be some of the leaders, in quality. This
is because the automobile companies stress quality and statistical process
control in manufacturing. They stress this to their suppliers and as a
consequence the suppliers stress quality to sub-suppliers and there is a
The biggest opportunity for U.S. producers of
needlepunched fabrics continues to be to get more needlepunched floor
coverings and headliners in U.S.-made automobiles. In Europe and Japan
there are many automobiles produced with needlepunched floor covering as
well as needlepunched headliners. However, this technology has yet to take
hold in the U.S. It is still a matter of time before the U.S. automotive
industry makes a move towards needlepunched floors and headliners. In the
Far East, Europe and Latin American countries, there are more
needlepunched molded floors than there are tufted floor coverings.
Needlepunched filter fabrics continue to be one of the
major growth areas in the needlepunching industry. The number of
needlepunchers participating in the filtration market went from 26
companies in 1989 to 30 in 1990. The type of needlepunched filter fabrics
being produced in 1990 is more diverse and unique than ever before. High
temperature liquid filter fabrics made from aramid or glass fibers
continues to be popular. Other unique needlepunched filter fabrics include
those for filtering blood. However, the more standard 6-14 oz. sq. yard
polypropylene and polyester filter bag is what most of the companies in
this field are producing.
Companies producing medical products through the
needlepunching process are few and far between. Apparently, the
needlepunching method of producing medical and hygiene related products is
not as popular as other nonwoven processes. Many of the needlepunched
medical fabrics that are now being produced are fairly secretive, so
little can be said about them. However, an example of some needlepunched
medical products being produced in 1990 include blood filters, cast
wrappings and various absorption materials.
Most of the needlepunched fabrics in the apparel
industry are either used as shoulder pads or as interlinings. Other
needlepunched apparel oriented fabrics include felts for the shoe
industry. However, as most of the shoe industry is situated on foreign
soil, there are few shoe felts produced in this country. By contrast,
however, in Korea and Taiwan there are numerous companies that produce
shoe felts. The Far East is one of the largest producers of shoes; the
tennis shoes you buy in most sport shops today are actually a
needlepunched artificial leather.
Home furnishings is the category that has the most
needlepunchers associated with it. In fact, in 1990 we see more than 25
new companies participating in the home furnishings field. The
needlepunchers in this group tend to be small-to-medium in size.
The needlepunched products included in this category
are diverse. These products include floor coverings, wall coverings,
mattress spring insulator pads, mattress top pads, ticking for furniture
and bedding, vinyl substrates, carpet cushions, blankets, felts for
vertical blinds and many others. Many of the products produced in this
category can be needlepunched on older equipment, so the capital required
to enter this field is low, a major reason why there is an abundance of
needlepunchers in this particular category. This is especially true in the
spring insulator pad field.
Because many needlepunchers are involved in the home
furnishings field, it becomes rather clear how sensitive the
needlepunching industry is to increases in interest rates. Most of the
growth in this category of the needlepunching industry is to be in the
high quality floor coverings area.
In 1989, there were approximately seven producers
needlepunching fabrics for the marine industry. In 1990 there were more
than 20 needlepunchers involved in this field. Indeed, the marine industry
has made a major move towards needlepunched fabrics in the past few years.
Many of the major producers have been replacing traditionally tufted areas
with needlepunched fabrics.
Also, needlepunched composite materials have been
introduced as hull liners on some boats in the past couple of years. These
needlepunched hull liners are actually composite fabrics and they offer
better stability, lighter weight and economic benefits over the woven
competition. Other needlepunched marine areas include floor covering, head
and wall covering areas and other applications.
Industrial felts tend to be a small segment of the
needlepunched industry. Needlepunched industrial fabrics include gaskets,
vibration pads and heavy duty wipes.
This is currently a small but growing segment of the
needlepunching industry in the U.S. and Canada. Included in this group are
needlepunched carbon composites for various applications, needlepunched
high temperature fibers for fire protection on aircraft, space shuttle
exterior tiles and many more items that cannot be discussed because of
security agreements. The companies that produce these types of fabrics
have been successful in finding "niche" markets in the industry, staying
away from commodity fabrics and producing products such as these that
yield much higher returns.
Needled felts made from fiberglass, ceramic fiber and
certain aramid fibers fall into this category. Those needlepunching
ceramic fiber mats have been extremely busy in the past two years.
However, the Environmental Protection Agency is currently evaluating the
reclassification of ceramic fibers as a carcinogen. This would create
obvious problems for those currently needlepunching this fiber. Because
the cost to get into the processing of ceramic fiber is extremely high,
the market is dominated by very large, multimillion dollar companies. The
cost of processing glass fibers and aramid fibers is much less, however,
so medium sized companies are more common with these needlepunched
Paperfelts consist of large continuous belts of
monofilament and synthetic fiber materials that are installed on paper
machines and carry the paper stock through three stages (forming, pressing
and drying) of the paper production process. Paper felts, which are custom
designed and manufactured, can have a considerable effect on the quality
of the paper being produced as well as the efficiency of the paper
machines on which it is used. Paperfelts can sell at prices up to $90,000
a fabric, they may exceed 30 feet in width and have a life on the paper
machine that ranges from 30-90 days.
The companies that produce these very technical fabrics
are all fairly large. The looms needed to produce these felts can cost in
excess of $4 million. The felting needles used to produce these felts are
also very specialized. The paper industry in the U.S. has had great growth
in the past few years. Not surprisingly, the companies that produce these
paperfelts have also grown. It is perhaps the one needlepunching category
that has had the most companies investing money into new equipment.
However, many economists see slower times ahead in the paper industry.
There has been a decrease of companies involved in the
needlepunching of geotextiles. Because the geotextile market is controlled
by the fiber producers themselves, it is very difficult to compete in this
very price sensitive market. For those thinking about getting into the
market, you better think twice. The competition is fierce and the margins
are low. The sheer volume of needlepunch fabric is indeed very high, with
340 million sq. yards of total geotextile fabrics forecasted to be sold in
1990 alone. The market has grown nearly 50% since 1986 and this growth is
expected to continue.
1. Tennis Court Surfaces
2. Space Shuttle Exterior Tiles
3. Marine Hulls, Headliners
4. Shoe Felts
6. Automotive Carpeting
7. Automotive Insulation
9. Vinyl Substrate
11. Primary Carpet Backing
12. Fiberglass Insulation Felts
13. Fiberglass Mats
14. Wall coverings
16. Blood Filters
17. Tennis Ball Covers
18. Synthetic Leather
19. Carpet Underlay Pads
20. Auto Trunk Liners
22. Papermaker Felts
25. Shoulder Padding
26. Ceramic Insulation
27. Kevlar Bullet Proof Vests
MARKET & PROSPECTS
In the U.S. the needlepunching sector of the nonwovens
industry has always been the black sheep of the nonwovens industry.
Needlepunching still has the connotation of being a slow, non-technical
technology. Internationally, however, it is interesting to note that these
negative connotations relating to needlepunching are not so prevalent.
This is especially true in Asian markets. The simple fact of the matter is
that many U.S., companies do not fully understand the needle punching
process nor the emerging and developing markets. Additionally, companies
cannot see a profitable future in needlepunching. Needlepunch production
levels approached 200 million lb and 725 million yd
in 1990, and 250
million lb and 900 million yd
Needled felts used for filtration forms only about 10%
of the total consumption, which accounts to approximately $400 million.
The Pacific Rim countries like Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, India and other
Southeast Asian countries are currently investing heavily in pollution
control which will naturally increase the market for the needled felt
Needlepunched nonwovens industries are rapidly growing
in Latin America too. Due to the extensive use of needlepunched nonwovens
in automobiles and due to the expansion of the automobile industry in
these countries, there is tremendous potential for growth.
Nonwovens industry,March 1984, p56
Nonwovens industry,March 1985, p12
J. Robert Wagner, Bonding Nonwovens, The Technical needs : Nonwovens
for medical/surgical and consumer uses, p76-77.
Klauss G Maitre, Frontiers of Needle punching; Nonwovens an advanced
Nonwovens industry, Octl '90, pp 27-28.
Nonwovens industry, April '94, p 64.
- Nonwovens industry, Nov. '93, p 50.
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