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Use of natural fibres in the German automotive industry

Michael Karus and Markus Kaup

nova-Institut, Goldenbergstr.2, D-50354 Huerth, Germany
phone: 49-2233-943684; fax: 49-2233-943683; e-mail: <nova-H@t-online.de>


In the 1980s, several studies predicted considerable market potentials for composites from flax fibres. However, market development proved to be far more difficult and lengthy than expected. The ambitious German flax program, sponsored with DM 60 million (ca. Euro 30 million), did not survive.


Table 1. Use of natural fibres in the automotive industry in Germany in metric tons (Nova 1996, 1999)
  1996 1999 2000 (projected)
Flax - ~ 11,000 Slightly increasing, compared to 1999
Kenaf - ~ 1,100 Possibly increasing, compared to 1999
Hemp - ~ 1,100 Increasing, compared to 1999
Jute - ~ 700 Same to decreasing, compared to 1999
Sisal - ~ 500 Same to decreasing, compared to 1999
Total ~ 4,000 ~ 14,400 ~ 15,000-20,000


Actual industrial demand for natural fibres has developed only over the past few years. Today, the use of natural fibres has become common in some applications, a development for which, five years ago, nobody had dared hope. The most important customer is the automotive industry. According to research by the nova-Institut, about 4,000 metric tons (t) of natural fibres were used in the German automotive industry in 1996 (Nova 1996). A survey of natural fiber use by 54 automotive industry suppliers and manufacturers in Germany and Austria was conducted in September 1999. A total of 16 manufacturers responded to the survey, which encompasses about 80?90% of the suppliers processing natural fibres. The manufacturers participated in the survey under the condition of confidentiality of the data and publication of totals only. It is thus not possible to portray the data separately by manufacturers. The results of the survey are summarized in Table 1.

The total 1999 volume of ~14,400 t is higher than expected and surpasses all previously published or presented estimates (e.g., DuPont 1999). The demand is expected to increase short-term to 15,000? 20,000 metric tons per year; medium-term this is expected to increase to 20,000 to 45,000 metric tons per year (Kinkel 1998, 1999). Depending on the car model, the demand will rise by 500 to 3,000 metric tons per year with each model change.

Flax has been the most relevant natural fibre for the German automotive industry for years, with about 11,000 metric tons in 1999. About 80?90% of the flax fibres originate from Eastern Europe, especially from the Baltic countries. No accurate data are available. In a publication dated November 1999, the Commission of the European Union (EU commission) estimated imports into the EU of about 9,000 metric tons per year of flax for technical uses. An increasing fraction may be expected from France, Belgium and the Netherlands, where the technical sector for tow from long fibre production is now taken with increasing seriousness.

Kenaf and hemp are the second most important natural fibres. The use of kenaf fibres is a relatively new development. So far only one German supplier uses kenaf; the fibres originate from Asia. Further development will therefore largely depend on that manufacturer.

The use of hemp fibres in the automotive industry constitutes a new development with particular dynamics. The use of EU-grown hemp fibres in commercial full-scale production began only in 1998. In 1999, almost all of the 1,100 tons used were grown in Germany. Since fibre quality and price are attractive and there is sufficient processing capacity already in operation or in planning, it is expected that the use of hemp fibres will increase considerably over the next few years. The German hemp industry alone could provide about 10,000 tons of hemp fibres per year for the automotive industry in the near future (Frank 1999). Hemp fibres from Vernaro (Gardelegen, Sachsen-Anhalt), available since Summer 1999, represent the best qualities produced, so far, on short fibre processing lines. In addition to the German capacities, Great Britain, France and the Netherlands, and (presumably) Austria in the near future, also produce hemp fibres. Currently, no hemp fibres are imported from Eastern Europe. Considering recent investments in Romania, it is likely that about 5,000 to 10,000 tons per year of hemp short fibres will be imported from that country in the next few years. Their prices are comparable to EU levels (see Table 2).

Sisal and jute fibres have been used in the German automotive industry for years, but their share is decreasing. Reasons for this are the declining use of recycled fibres and the price levels for virgin sisal and jute fibres, which are higher than those for hemp or flax fibres (see Table 2). The supply of recycled jute and sisal fibres is less and less reliable (e.g., coffee sacks are increasingly replaced by shipping containers, floods in cultivation areas jeopardize harvests) and the fibres are often contaminated (pesticides, oil, coffee/cocoa residues) which results in fogging problems (Kinkel 1999).

The two major jute producing countries ? India and Bangladesh ? show opposite trends. In India, less and less areas are available for renewable resources, because arable land is needed for food production. Thus, jute production will decrease in volume and importance. Bangladesh aims to develop new markets and to improve the quality of the virgin fibre by quality management (K?ner 1999). The development of the jute market in Bangladesh depends on the social and economic development of the country. Currently, the fibres are manually extracted by farmers using antiquated methods and generate only a marginal income. Minor structural changes may thus drastically increase jute prices.


Table 2. Market prices of natural fibres for the automotive industry (nonwoven mats and composites), Germany 1999.
Flax (Trading companies France + Belgium)
Hemp (Producers Germany + Great Britain + France)
Jute (Virgin fibre, Bangladesh)
Sisal (Virgin fibre, Africa + South America)
Kenaf (Bangladesh)
Market prices in DM/kg
0,09 - 1,20
1,00 - 1,20
1,20 - 1,30
1,20 - 1,30
1,00 - 1,20

Prices and Quality Management

Prices for natural fibres have be-come predictable. In Germany, hemp fibres suitable for the automotive industry are traded for DM 1.00 to 1.20 per kg. Virgin jute and sisal fibres currently cost more than DM 1.20 per kg. Prices for flax fibres are fluctuating considerably (fibres suitable for composites: DM 0.90 to 1.50 per kg) due to their dependency on textile fashion changes and the resulting temporary supply shortfalls or oversupply.

In the EU, flax and hemp cultivation receive substantial area subsidies. To keep production costs and market prices fairly stable under continually decreasing acreage subsidies, a considerable increase in productivity will be needed.

Of even greater importance for the development of a natural fibre economy in the EU is perhaps the establishment of a quality management scheme from cultivation to harvesting, through fibre processing and nonwoven mat production to the final product. As the use of natural fibres expands, the demand for better and reproducible fibre qualities ? independent of climatic factors during cultivation, harvesting, and retting ? is growing.

Should the young fibre industry be able to consistently meet the manufacturers? price and quality demands, hemp and flax will emerge from hibernation and become another important natural raw material resource for industry, next to oil and starch plants.


From a marketing perspective, there is a demand for optimization. In this respect, the natural fibre business can learn from earlier experiences with other successful applications based on natural resources, like biofuels and lubricants. The success of these products lies in the systematic compliance with all parties relevant to the market (politics, society, competitors, potential clients etc.). Such a systematic approach may result in an effective public alliance that is able to execute an optimal marketing strategy, in spite of limited financial means.


Technically speaking, the use of natural fibers in automotive applications involves primarily press-molded composites, produced by the pressing of a nonwoven mat with a binder. Typical uses are in door panels, hat racks, and trunk liners. Two production technologies are commercially employed:

a) a blend of natural and polypropylene fibres is processed into a nonwoven mat and pressed into the desired shape under heat ("thermoplastic matrix");

b) nonwoven mats are coated with duromers, or thermosets, such as epoxy resin or polyurethane and molded ? the ultimate material is generated by polymerization and hardening of the resin ("duromeric matrix").

Almost all German car manufacturers ? Daimler Chrysler, BMW, Audi, Ford, and Opel ? use press-molded parts containing natural fibers in their new models in such applications as door panels, hat racks and spare tire covers. For example, hemp fibres are used in inner door panels of the S-class (Daimler Chrysler) and the back shelf of the Opel-Astra.

The main reasons for the use of natural fibres are:

Blends of natural fibers (e.g., flax and jute or flax and hemp) are particularly interesting. The finer flax fibers impart high stability, but because they impede complete soaking with thermosetting binders, fractures may develop. Only the mixture with coarser sisal or hemp fibers achieves an optimum balance between stability and complete saturation with the binder.

The location of the companies involved in the German flax and hemp industry are shown in Figure 1.

locations of factories using natural fibres
Figure 1. Locations of factories using natural fibres.

More information

More information about the german and european hemp industry can be found at the "MarketInnovation Hemp - Internet Service Center" (www.nova-institut.de/mih). In the frame of the EU-project "MarketInnovation Hemp" nova-Institut (Hürth) and Fibre (Bremen) created a huge database (2,000 pages!) for information about techniques, markets and economy, and marketing. Moreover a news-ticker, an address database, and statistics and charts are included. The information is available only in German, and costs 50 Euro/year for access to the database. Free access is possible for four weeks (please refer to: www.nova-institut.de/mih).


Bohndick, F. (VERNARO) 1999. personal communication, February 1999 and September 1999.

DuPont, A. (Johnson Controls Interiors) 1999. Zukunftschancen harzgebundener Naturfaser-Form-pressteile. Presentation at the technical seminar MarktInnovation-Hanf "Verbundwerkstoffe mit Hanf-fasern, Märkte & Ökonomie", Wolfsburg, May 26, 1999.

Frank, B. (BaFa) 1999. Personal communications, January and September 1999.

Güthe, Th. (Polyvlies) 1999. Personal communication May 1999.

Kinkel, W. 1998. Hanffasern in der Autoindustrie. Presentation at the trade show "Marktinnovation Hanf", Köln, 14.05.1998.

Kinkel, W. 1999. Naturfasern im Automobil: Einsatzgebiete, Prozesstechniken und Marktvolumina. Presentation at the technical seminar MarktInnovation-Hanf "Verbundwerkstoffe mit Hanffasern, Märkte & Ökonomie", Wolfsburg, May 26, 1999.

Körner, Th. 1999. Marktüberblick und Eigenschaften tropischer Fasern für Geotextilien. Presentation at the technical seminar MarktInnovation-Hanf "Geo- und Agrartextilien aus Hanffasern - Märkte & Ökonomie", Rheine, 06.10.99.

Nova 1996. Das Hanfproduktlinienprojekt, Erarbeitung von Produktlinien auf Basis von einheimischem Hanf ? aus technischer, Ökonomischer und Ökologischer Sicht. nova-Institut Hürth, IAF/FH Reutlingen, ifeu-Institut Heidel-berg, Faserinstitut Bremen and Kölner Akademie für Markt- und Medienpsychologie, Hürth, December 1996.

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