Polymer Group Inc. of North Charleston, S.C., said it will start a $26 million nonwovens production line at Benson, N.C., in December.
The line will use the firm's Apex technology, a high-pressure water process that converts raw fibers into a range of textiles. Next year, the company probably will spend as much as $70 million to install another Apex line at Benson and perhaps a few more in Europe, Jerry Zucker, Polymer Group president, chairman and chief executive officer, said in a telephone interview. Benson now has one Apex production line and an Apex pilot line.
Apex can process just about any flexible fiber, including engineering resin fiber, into textiles. It also can turn ordinary plastic films into precise filtration media or materials that look like textiles, Zucker claimed.
``Apex won't eliminate film extrusion or coating, but it allows new dimensions to what one can do with film,'' he said.
Brown-colored film, for example, can be processed to look like a grass-weave wall covering. The only drawback for film is that it loses much of its strength during the Apex process — but Zucker said that is not a problem for low-wear applications.
Polymer Group has formed partnerships with several firms to develop niche applications for its Miratec and Miracoat materials, made using the Apex process. The latest deal was last month with Guilford of Maine Marketing Co. Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich. The two companies will work on applying Miratec in wall coverings, upholstery and other interior uses. Polymer Group launched Miratec commercially in April.
Zucker said his firm could license Apex technology in three or four years to partners when demand takes off.
Polymer Groups' customer list includes Johnson & Johnson, from which it bought an early version of Apex technology through its acquisition of J&J's Advanced Materials Corp. unit. The Benson plant also came with the March 1995 purchase.
J&J was using the early technology to make medical gauze. Polymer Group refined the process as computer and laser technologies became more sophisticated.
Zucker said Apex technicians can scan a three-dimensional textile pattern using multiaxial lasers into a software program or create one with mathematical algorithms. The software controls high-pressure water jets that bond the fibers in a set pattern.
He claims Apex is faster and cheaper than traditional woven-textiles technologies. It makes fabric at hundreds of feet per minute — 100 or more times faster than a loom, and with a fraction of the labor.
Polymer Group claims to be the third-largest producer of nonwovens in the world, after Freudenberg & Co. of Weinheim, Germany, and DuPont of Wilmington, Del.
Polymer Group makes a range of nonwovens at 22 plants worldwide. It reported sales of $399.4 million and profit of $47.8 million for the six months ended July 4. The company trades on the New York Stock Exchange.