Working with industrial technology often feels like being behind stage at a play – you’re able to see all of the behind the scenes action that enables modern life. Often times articles in the popular press, and particularly tech news, will cover areas that reveal some of those special methods that go on which are hidden from view. Often times the revelations aren’t 100% right.
Charlie Stross is one of my favorite science fiction authors and bloggers and he recently covered some PR from Fabrican, which delivers a spray-can nonwoven. The video says the can holds a suspension of polymers, fibers and glass fibers (I am cringing watching the models receive the spray without wearing a facemask) and uses some sort of solvent which dries when sprayed.
In Stross’s article, The Revolution will not be Hand Stitched, he talks about how this could revolutionize many parts of society – and indeed, nonwovens have had a huge impact on the modern industrial world. The innovation of the Fabrican team is making the nonwoven a point of access product – rather than centralize production at a large PGI or Ahlstrom facility, they encapsulate the materials in a can and let the user determine where it will be used.
The argument being made is that miniaturization of nonwoven production methods will lead to greater comfort, and therefore greater use in garments. Efforts to bring nonwovens into the apparel setting (beyond the common jacket liners and high end technical gear) have not yet met with success, but do continue in niche applications such as medical barriers. I suspect that the primary drivers of comfort will come in the way that the nonwovens are made into composites, and that this ‘composite forming for comfort’ is more likelky to be driven in a conventional industrial manufacturing setting.
Spray-can nonwovens can have a big impact, which will most likely be driven in healthcare by applications such as wound care where custom fit bandages could improve outcomes and improve patient comfort. This topic is even hit on in the fashion show video above. Enabling point of use nonwoven application in industrial settings, which Stross discusses, could also be disruptive – but with the cost of a basic meltblowing line already very low, I feel that any wave of innovation done at the can level will only serve as a proof of concept for more sophisticated manufacturers.
Feminine Care in India
The Indian Sanitary Pad Revolutionary, covers an inspiring story of an Indian entrepreneur, Arunachalam Muruganantham, who has sought to bring low cost feminine care products to women in his home state by manufacturing locally, addressing significant stigma around hygiene products and focusing on how to sell the product. What Muruganantham has accomplished from an entrepreneurial, public health and women’s rights standpoint is exceptional.
The founder is sourcing cotton and cellulose locally and using women to make the goods in low volumes. That same labor force also works in distribution. He has access to cheap raw materials and has done the work to find small scale methods of producing the goods. Most importantly, he has addressed the social taboos around this market to create demand for a product. His greatest success is on mastering the channel – whether or not he needs to maintain the manufacturing methods he has established remains to be seen.
The Hacker News commentary is very thorough, with user igul2222 outlining how the 2.5 rupee cost is a near 40% discount to conventional products on the market. That’s still going to provide a very healthy margin to the large feminine care product makers, who have now read Muruganantham’s playbook and know how to access the market. Empower individual sales people with a Mary Kay type angle – perhaps even directly using a multi-level marketing program. As feminine care and nonwovens makers understand the economics and marketing needs of this market, they will invade with dedication and manufacture at scale otherwise not possible. This is like owning a general store in Rogers, Arkansas, prior to the opening of the first Wal-Mart in 1962.