U.S. Commercial Rayon Fiber Production: A historical perspective

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Human civilization, its development has got influenced by the discovery and use of fiber. Natural fibers have been used by humans since the very beginning of human race. Later for different applications a number of fibers such as flax, cotton, silk and other plant fibers came under human usage. Natural fibers are still in use and are available as an agro produce but it’s the artificial fibers which is at present ruling the textile industry. The industry currently produces a number of artificial fibers namely Rayon, Acetate, Nylon, Acrylic, Polyester and many other fibers. But this artificial production of the fibers is just a century old. It was in 1890s that the first artificial silk, which was nothing but rayon made its beginning as a commercially produced fiber and it was in the year 1911; American Viscose Company, the first company to pioneer artificial fiber production began producing rayon. Though the fiber revolution begun in later half of 19th century, its roots have got a beginning with the description on minute bodies in the book “Micrographia” by Robert Hooks in 1665. That humble beginning got translated into the production almost two centuries later and now this man made fiber production has reached up to 24 million ton. These artificial fibers have got its application not only for apparel manufacturing but also for home furnishings, medicine and many others. Rayon and its commercial production Rayon was first artificially produced fiber and was called as artificial silk. Developed in France by Count Hilaire de Chardonnet, this fiber despite being a man-made product is still not synthetic. Its production involves wood pulp which is a naturally occurring raw material. The basic nature of rayon is very much like naturally occurring fibers such as cotton or linen. The industry as of now produces four different types of rayon namely Regular rayon, High Wet Modules (HWM) rayon, High Tenacity Rayon and Cupramonium Rayon. The production of these different types is due the use of two different chemicals and varying manufacturing techniques. The United States at one time was the leading producer of rayon with companies like Viscose Co. and DuPont being the two largest producers in US. But as of now there is not even a single rayon manufacturer in United States. Rayon still forms a major part of total fiber consumption with companies mostly from Europe and Asia are making it available to the customers. Figure 1 (Rayon) Commercial production of Rayon Fiber in United States The production of rayon made its beginning in US in the year 1911. It was the American Viscose Company (A. V. C.) who started the domestic production of rayon in United States. The company remained the sole manufacturer of this product till 1920. Later a number of other firms also started manufacturing rayon and by 1938 the number of companies who were producing rayon rose to 29 but the actual business remained in the hands eight largest manufacturers who were producing almost 91 percent of the total rayon consumption. The industry remained highly concentrated with very much oligopoly structure. A. V. C. and DuPont were controlling more than 50 percent of the total rayon market while the last twenty-one companies used to contribute just 10 percent of overall rayon requirement. Figure 2 (American Viscose Corporation, Marcus Hook) American Viscose Company as already told was the first to enter the rayon manufacturing business in the year 1911 and was founded by Samuel Agar Salvage. Before that Salvage’s firm S. A. Salvage Co. used to import rayon which was called artificial silk at that time, from Europe. It was the product from Samuel Courtauld & Co, a British company producing artificial Silk, which Salvage used to import, led to his decision to manufacture rayon in United States. With the assistance of Courtaulds, first plant of A. V. C. was set in Marcus Hook with machines giving its first yarn from viscose solution in December, 1910. From next day all the five mills of the plant started producing the artificial silk. Rayon being the first man-made fiber and a cheap substitute of raw silk became very popular. The extremely high demand of the rayon led the A.V.C to build its second plant at Roanoke, VA. . This plant started operating in October, 1917. Later years saw A.V.C. building a number of plants at Lewistown, PA. ; Parkersburg, WV. and Front Royal, VA. . In the year 1924 this product which was till then called as artificial silk was given the name “rayon”. The success of rayon in US market also attracted others to invest. Chemical giant DuPont after failing to buy into American Viscose Company, went on to establish DuPont Fibersilk Company in a 60:40 joint venture with French firm Comptoir des Textiles Artificiels. The company came into existence on April 16, 1920. The plant was established on a 90 acres plot near Buffalo, New York and started producing continuous filament viscose fiber in 1921. Later in October 1926, another firm American Bemberg set up a new plant in Elizabethton and started manufacturing rayon. The rayon industry saw the advent of another player in form of American Glanzstoff later known as North American Rayon Corporation in the year 1928, when the German rayon producing giant Vereinigte Glanzstoff Fabriken (VGF), opened rayon plant in East Tennessee. The Bemberg manufactured rayon through cuprammonium process while North American Rayon Corporation continued with more traditional viscose process. Later the number of rayon manufacturers rose to 29 with A.V.C., DuPont and six others firms controlling almost 91 percent of the total produce. The consumption of rayon in United States always saw an upward swing since its first domestic manufacturing of 1911. Per capita consumption of rayon fiber was around 0.1 pound in 1920 and it was very much clear that this artificial silk is going to make a new wave in textile industry. By the year 1939, per capita consumption of rayon increased to 3.5 pound and by the year 1940 total consumption of rayon reached 482 million pounds. The continuous growth in the consumption within the first 30 years of inception made rayon the second most consumed fiber second only to cotton from the year 1938. The textile mills used rayon in either two forms: as long continuous filaments or as staple fiber. Staple fibers were mostly made through viscose process accounting for almost 75 percent of the total while the acetate process contributed about 25 percent. The two world wars caused continuous growth in the consumption of fiber including the rayon and this rise in consumption kept all plant under operation making huge profits. Continuous research process also made great contribution in the development of rayon and its projection as a substitute to natural silk. Every major American rayon producers spent a significant amount in research processes. American Viscose being the first to produce rayon was also the first to make rayon a major research object. And at Marcus Hook, A.V.C. set up a unique textile research department where all possible methods that employed textile industry were studied. DuPont also adopted the same path and established a Rayon Technical Division Research Lab near its Buffalo plant. These researches made rayon suitable for apparel creation. Its silk like property and being cheaper than natural silk gave a new direction to the fashion of 1920s both in terms of quality and price factor. This change of taste of common public caused extensive use of it in apparel manufacture and fashion scenario and ultimately fueled the consumption of rayon to a new height every passing year. After Second World War the consolidation process begun in the US rayon industry. Smaller firms were merged with larger textile firms. Only a few continued to remain as independent market players which included A.V.C., DuPont and a few others. Beaunit Mils Inc. bought North American Rayon in 1948, American Bemberg in 1949 and Skenandoa Rayon in 1945. Few merged with the bigger firms like Sylvania Industries merging with American Viscose while the Tubize Rayon merged with Celanese, both in the year 1946. But the future of this rayon manufacturing industry set up by Samuel Agar Salvage was not even near to anybody’s dreams. United States which was at one time world largest producer of rayon currently doesn’t have a single plant producing rayon. DuPont was the first major firm to stop manufacturing rayon. The success of synthetic fibers namely nylon, Orlon and Decron made DuPont to switch over to new products and in the year 1960 DuPont produced its last yarn of rayon. Later in the year 1963 A.V.C was bought by F.M.C. Chemical, a leading company in chemical products. Again in 1973, it was resold to Avtex Corporation. But condition of Avtex became bad with the company becoming bankrupt after ten years and the revolutionary initiative in US man-made fiber production fr

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