The Future of Textiles
Lenzing Fibers’ $293 million investment in its Alabama plant will make it the world’s largest producer of the futuristic fabric Tencel. It’s part of a high-tech resurgence in U.S. textile manufacture.
A $293 million investment just north of Mobile is set to propel Lenzing Fibers Inc. toward the forefront of a national textile manufacturing resurgence.
The investment is expected to nearly triple production at the Axis plant. Moreover, it’s expected to help Lenzing — an Austrian-based leader in making man-made cellulose fibers — boost specialty fiber income from 38 percent of its revenue today to 50 percent by 2020.
The Axis facility is one of only four Tencel fiber-manufacturing sites in the world. Lenzing has two more plants in Austria and one in Great Britain making Tencel, its brand name for lyocell, an eco-friendly, botanic fiber used in clothing and non-woven products.
The company bills Tencel as the “next generation of wood-based cellulose fibers.”
Lenzing’s Axis facility was the first in the world to produce Tencel commercially, and the expansion — announced in December — calls for construction of a new plant capable of producing 90,000 tons per year, making it the largest Tencel fiber plant in the world. The existing facility is slated to produce 50,000 annual tons by the close of 2017.
“From a market perspective, we were textile pioneers in developing this product and its process,” says Kevin Allen, site manager and president of the Axis operations. “We were the very first — and the smallest — but now we will be the oldest and the most technologically advanced.”
Lenzing currently employs 185 at the Axis facility, and the expansion will create 163 new jobs, most of which will be filled between the second quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019 when the new plant comes online, Allen says. Average annual pay for the new positions, including benefits, will hover between $75,000 and $80,000, he says.
“The technology is unmatched, and Lenzing’s processes represent good sustainability from managed forests to finished products,” Allen says, noting “quick and significant” future investments should be expected going forward.
Born of competition
Lyocell, the generic term for fibers made of wood pulp, is produced by a direct solvent spinning process via a closed-loop cycle. Specifically, the process dissolves cellulose from within the pulp in an N-methylmorpholine n-oxide, or NMMO, solvent. The resulting solution is then filtered and spun through spinnerets. The end result is an unbroken length of cellulose known as a filament. The filaments are then spun into water, and the spin bath is cleaned, re-concentrated and reused for solvent production with NMMO recovered at a rate of more than 99 percent.
Because the resulting tenacious fibers optimize moisture management and drape well, lyocell fibers have fared incredibly well in the global garment industry, while also appealing to home textile and nonwoven segments, such as medical, hygiene and cosmetic products. In turn, one can find the fibers in everything from “skinny jeans” and athletic apparel to baby wipes and bed sheets.
Lenzing and former competitor Courtaulds developed the lyocell technology simultaneously in the 1980s and brought it to market a decade later.
The existing Lenzing facility in Axis began as a Courtaulds rayon plant in 1981, but the Austrian company bought the lyocell unit of the United Kingdom-based Courtaulds in 2004.
Lenzing Fibers’ Allen, a native of Yorkshire, England, began his textile career, which now spans more than 40 years, as a research chemist with Courtaulds, joining the Mobile facility in 1981. He has served as site manager since 1999, and was named president at the time of the 2004 Lenzing acquisition.
“Confidence in our Alabama operations”
Lloyd Wood, director of public affairs for the National Council of Textile Organizations, says Lenzing’s investment near Mobile epitomizes the high-tech outlays textile manufacturers are embracing both nationally and globally to increase competitiveness.
“We are certainly seeing capital-intensive investments in this country that boost productivity…and Lenzing is truly a world leader in its field,” he says, noting that a “confluence of factors” such as low energy costs and a competitive tax structure is making the United States more attractive from a foreign direct investment perspective.
“Alabama had been a large textile-producing area, and while it was hit pretty hard in the mid-1990s through 2008, the U.S. textile industry has maintained a very stable share of the global market. Our industry has been basically tracking the global textile and apparel economy, so we’re no longer the outlier,” Wood says.
Robert van de Kerkhof, Lenzing’s chief commercial officer, says although it took several months of “detailed analysis” for company officials to settle on southwest Alabama rather than Austria for its latest investment, Mobile emerged as the logical choice because of significant technology upgrades to the facility in recent years, plus affordable energy and easy access to the Port of Mobile.
“This is an absolutely state-of-the-art technology package, featuring a 92-ton jumbo line that has never before been built,” van de Kerkhof says, adding that he expects a significant increase in productivity, driven primarily by aggressive research and development efforts.
“In Mobile, we have a location where we know we can access resources, and we’re able to build on the experience Lenzing already has in the market. If something goes wrong, we can react quicker, but based on the experienced leadership team and the local team’s expertise, we have the utmost confidence in our Alabama operations,” he says.
Van de Kerkhof also called the Mobile facility a “critical success factor” for Lenzing because it will pave the way for additional jumbo lines, the second of which will be announced in Asia later this year.
“So the people that are going to be building this facility are going to be a critical factor of Lenzing growth going forward,” he says.
Van de Kerkhof says the positive market reaction in the first week after the $293 million investment announcement indicates that the Mobile facility creates “a nearly instantaneous increase for Lenzing’s visibility in North America,” because leading U.S.-based brands and retailers already have begun making contact.
The bottom line, however, is volume.
“Right now (Lenzing) produces about 220,000 tons annually, and there’s a de-bottlenecking project under way in the United Kingdom and primarily Austria, but with plans to ratchet that up to as much as 255,000 tons annually — the 90,000 tons being added by Mobile is huge,” van de Kerkhof says.
Meanwhile, Allen says new hires for the expansion project will be brought in, taught the basics and then split into two working groups, with one group bound for the new plant, while the second group remains to operate and manage the flagship facility. The approach allows Lenzing to mix-and-match new hires with seasoned employees in both facilities, he says.
“We developed this knowing we need to look at alternative technologies…. Each investment along the way has added more technology, larger equipment and maintained employment,” Allen says, adding, “I know this is the future of textiles…. We just want to get the economies of scale with the Lenzing process ahead of our competition.”
Kelli Dugan and Todd Douglas are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Dugan is based in Mobile and Douglas in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.