Carpet Tile Overview: Carpet tile producers expand their programs and price points - Feb 2018

By Darius Helm

Following 20 years of rapid growth that has seen the carpet tile business more than quadruple in size to a $2 billion U.S. industry (at mill sell price), transforming the floorscape of most commercial sectors, the flooring category has in many ways matured, passing into a new phase of its existence. What began as a fusion-bonded, bitumen-backed square of bland, utilitarian flooring has developed into a wide range of high-performance, high-design, largely eco-friendly products that play a dominant role in the $6 billion commercial flooring market, accounting for a third of total sales.

While carpet tile is still growing at a healthy clip, continuing to take flooring share in all the commercial segments, it’s not gaining like it was ten years ago, which is part of the natural curve of new product categories as they find their organic equilibrium-we’ve seen it in laminate flooring and in a few years we’ll see it in LVT. In the corporate sector, for instance, the majority of projects don’t even use broadloom anymore. And carpet tile has become the dominant soft floorcovering in institutional sectors like education, in government projects, in public space projects, in healthcare, in retail. And in price-sensitive sectors like tenant improvement and mainstreet, it’s in the midst of rapidly taking over from broadloom.

A major focus for the carpet tile industry in this phase of its development is penetration of the more challenging markets, the last bastions of broadloom. The biggest market out there is of course the residential market, but that’s so far proving to be too elusive. Milliken tried it years ago with Tesserae and Legato. Interface went all in with its Flor stores, a great concept that came close but didn’t quite pan out. Others, like Shaw, have taken a careful look but held back. The big boxes have dipped their toes in the water, selling carpet tile mostly for utilitarian applications-garages and basements. Price points are one of the big barriers in the residential market, where the bulk of broadloom is well below the price points that carpet tile can currently compete with.

Carpet tile has had more success in the hospitality market, whose public space carpet design has traditionally featured large-scale patterns that could only be made on specialized broadloom technology, like Axminster looms, and whose guest rooms, on average, use broadloom at price points carpet tile cannot match. Shifts in design trends away from traditional formats, led by boutique hotels and the lifestyle and soft brands of major hotel chains, have opened the door for carpet tile. Overall, across all but the top tier of hotels, carpet tile is gaining traction.

In terms of guest room carpet, the carpet tile industry has done its best to create products at more affordable price points, but it can’t currently match those upfront costs, so it focuses on other advantages. Installation is quicker and cleaner, creating less waste, and often the carpet tile doesn’t go under the beds, reducing material costs. And tiles damaged by guest mishaps can be swapped out, instead of replacing the entire floor. Also, guest room aesthetics are developing, with LVT increasingly used in the foyer and even deeper in the room, so the idea of a piece of carpet stretched across the entire space is no longer the standard that it was.

The senior living market, which shares many of the characteristics of the hospitality market, is also still dominated by broadloom and is similarly opening the doors to carpet tile installations.

Another strong broadloom market, which is really more of a niche right now, is the high end of corporate-professional services, including law firms and financial institutions, where the boardrooms and C-Suite offices are heavy on lush, luxe broadloom and alluring hardwood finishes. And there’s also some demand in high-end retail. Carpet tile can’t really match that look, though it’s probably just a matter of time before these stubbornly traditional decors adapt to the prevailing aesthetic trends.

THE ROOTS OF CARPET TILE
Carpet tile was invented in the Netherlands nearly 60 years ago by Heuga as 10” squares with a needlepunched face and bitumen backing, serving both the residential and commercial markets in Europe. In the early 1970s, Milliken & Company, which had recently entered the carpet business with its acquisition of Callaway Mills, sent two promising young employees to Europe to seek out new carpet technologies. Ray Anderson brought back Heuga’s carpet tile concept, and Thomas Malone returned with fusion-bonded carpet.

Not long after, Ray Anderson left Milliken, securing the rights to carpet tile, and went into business with a group of investors, creating Carpets International in 1973, and got into the carpet tile business. Malone stayed with Milliken-and by 1983, he was president and COO. Both firms went into carpet tile using fusion-bonding technology on reinforced constructed backings.

However, neither of these firms was the first to produce carpet tile in the U.S. Collins & Aikman-which later became C&A Floorcoverings, then Tandus, and now, as part of Tarkett, Tandus Centiva-started making carpet tile in 1969, using technology invented a couple of years earlier to make Powerbond, its six-foot PVC-backed nylon carpet.

Back then, broadloom had taken the residential world by storm, but carpet specifically designed for the commercial market was fairly new. And tufting technologies had not yet developed sufficiently tight gauges to make the face dense enough to hide carpet tile’s seams. Collins & Aikman used tufting, while Milliken and Interface established themselves with fusion bonding to the substrate.

Joined by Mannington later in the decade and Lees in the early 1980s, Interface, Milliken and Collins & Aikman led growth in the U.S. carpet tile industry. In those early days, carpet tile offered little in terms of pattern and design, limiting its use to functional applications in a range of commercial environments.

TUFTING ADVANCES
The next major development in carpet tile occurred in the early ’90s, based on new tufting technologies in the late ’80s that introduced narrower gauges, allowing for the creation of denser faces. From that point forward, carpet tiles in the U.S. market have generally shared a basic construction: nylon face fiber (mostly solution-dyed) tufted into polyester primary backings (mostly nonwoven, until five years ago) and secured to a backing platform, hardback or cushioned.

However, using tufting technology for carpet tile came with a learning curve, leading to a high rate of flooring failures and a new round of research and development. The tension inherent in tufting processes put stress into the face, causing tiles to curl up at the edges. Technological adjustments coupled with primary backing developments and high-performance hardback platforms by and large circumvented the problem, and that’s when carpet tile really took off.

Not only did carpet tile suit the technology-driven modern office, but its ease of transportation, handling and installation was a godsend-think about maneuvering 12’ broadloom rolls up elevators and through the corridors of high-rise offices versus transporting carpet tile on a hand cart, or installing carpet tile overnight under modular furniture versus the downtime involved in clearing an office space for broadloom installation.

The tufting advancements opened the door to design, fueling carpet tile’s growth and ushering in new producers, like Shaw. By 1993, Mohawk was in the market through its acquisition of Lees. By the end of the 20th century, Interface hit $220 million in U.S. carpet tile sales, Shaw was doing $100 million, with C&A Floorcoverings and Milliken not far behind. A fire at Milliken’s Live Oak facility in 1995 destroyed, among other things, most of its proprietary Millitron dye-injection equipment. Once the firm rebuilt, it shifted all of its carpet tile to cushioned backing. The other carpet tile producers focused their business on hardback tile.

Over the last two decades, carpet tile design has exploded. Some patterning celebrated the tile format while others subtly hid the seams through innovative design philosophies-many pioneered by David Oakey, working for Interface, who led the industry into biophilic design. Mills experimented with different installation patterns, with new adhesive systems and floating floor methods, and most recently with different sizes and shapes, including plank formats that mirror the plank developments in hard surface flooring. And as the commercial flooring market embraces LVT-leading all the big carpet mills to either manufacture their own LVT or outsource LVT programs-design philosophies are again adapting and evolving, this time to embrace hard and soft surface together. And that’s where we are today.

PRICE POINT PRESSURES
While carpet tile can be credited with taking potential marketshare away from hard surface flooring in some applications, the bulk of its share gain has come at the expense of broadloom. In recent years, carpet tile producers have made a concerted effort to make more affordable carpet tile to take on the lower priced broadlooms. Most of the success has come from using less material-producing carpet tile with lower face weights.

The strategy has helped carpet tile continue to grow. Carpet wholesale pricing has gotten down to about $12 a yard, but there’s still broadloom out there at half that price.

Face weights can go lower, though not by much. The golden rule in lightweighting carpet tile is not to get to the point where you can see the seams, and the low level-loop constructions in these lighter tiles are already a challenge to design.

Some manufacturers are direct tufting, taking their fiber from the extruder straight into tufting, bypassing air entangling, twisting and heatsetting-and their associated costs-to produce inexpensive carpet tile with face weights close to ten ounces per square yard. But without the bulk in the fibers, the tiles have the low profile of flat-woven products, a corduroy aesthetic with somewhat limited application, at least for now. And the colors tend to be more clear and clean, because they’re not dulled or blended through air entangling and twisting.

In Europe, these low profile microtuft constructions are actually in high demand. The look is also popular in leading design markets in the U.S., like Chicago, New York and San Francisco. And some big end users, like Apple, also favor the constructions. It could be that the U.S. market is starting to follow this trend. And if that’s the case, carpet tiles are about to get even lighter.

PRODUCER OVERVIEW
In the U.S. market, the top ten specified carpet mills all have substantial carpet tile programs, and many of the smaller mills also offer carpet tile, though some have their product backed through partnerships with the larger mills. And for most of the big mills, carpet tile is substantially bigger than broadloom.

Most of Interface’s carpet tile uses a PVC hardback, either GlasBac or GlasBac RE, which offers recycled content. It still uses bitumen backings in Europe, where the bitumen itself, derived as it is from Europe’s diesel economy rather than the lower performing bitumen in the U.S. from gasoline, meets the necessary performance requirements.

In 1998, Interface bought Heuga, the Dutch firm that had originally opened Ray Anderson’s eyes to the potential of carpet tile. And the firm still makes a bitumen-backed, needlepunched tile in niche markets in the U.S. For a closer look, visit any CVS.

The firm makes tile in two square formats-1m x 1m and 50cm x 50cm-and two rectangles-50cm x 1m and 25cm x 1m skinny planks. Face weights go from 11 ounces to 30 ounces per square yard-and even up to 40 ounces for its shag products. At the high end, it uses ColorPoint tufting technology to create highly patterned and textured products. And last year, responding to demand from sectors like hospitality, senior living and multifamily, Interface introduced a new backing, a felted polyurethane product with 85% post-consumer recycled content, called CushionBac Renew.

Interface is a truly global producer, with production facilities in the U.S., Europe, Asia and Australia. About half its revenues come from its domestic business.

Shaw Industries, which came a bit late to the game, has quickly grown to be the biggest carpet tile maker in the U.S. market. Shaw’s carpet tiles go to market through Shaw Contract, Patcraft and Philadelphia Commercial. About 95% of Shaw’s carpet tiles use its EcoWorx fully recyclable polyethylene backing, with the balance using EcoLogix, a cushioned PET backing made of 100% recycled drink bottles. EcoLogix ES, using a peel and stick application process, can be installed in moisture conditions as high as 100% RH. And about a year ago, it came out with StrataWorx, a thinner, more affordable version of EcoWorx designed to help hit lower price points.

Shaw makes carpet tiles with face weights ranging from 14 ounces to 40 ounces per square yard. Those heavier face weights generally go to upscale corporate applications, like law firms, banking and consulting businesses. Constructions for those high-end products use technology like ColorPoint to produce complex, multilevel loop and tip-sheared designs. Lower face weights are strong in price-sensitive markets like tenant improvement and mainstreet. The healthcare sector tends toward 22-ounce to 30-ounce products, because they need the density to meet the performance requirements of healthcare settings, including holding up under rolling loads.

Just over a year ago, the firm officially opened its newest carpet tile plant, T1, in Adairsville, Georgia. For the Asian market, the firm produces carpet tile in Nantong, China.

Tarkett’s Tandus Centiva produces carpet tile, broadloom and Powerbond six-foot goods. For carpet tile, it offers four backings: ER3 is its 100% recycled PVC backing and has been around the longest; Conserv, introduced in 2007, is a PVC backing with 25% less weight; Ethos, introduced to carpet tile in 2009, is made of PVB (polyvinyl butyral) including 50% post-consumer content from the sandwiched layer in automotive safety glass; and Flex-Aire, its cushioned backing, which has been growing in the corporate, hospitality and education sectors.

Ethos has proven to be the most popular backing, in part because it’s PVC free, which is important to many specifiers and end users. Also, it’s getting more difficult to recover a sufficient volume of recycled PVC-backed carpet to turn into ER3. Last year, the firm enhanced Ethos with Omnicoat, a moisture barrier that enables carpet tile to be put down, using Tarkett Tape for a floating floor installation, over any slab as long as it doesn’t have standing water.

Most of Tandus Centiva carpet tile has face weights ranging from 17 ounces with twisted yarns to 26 or so ounces for ColorPoint products. And the firm can also take its Dynex solution-dyed nylon 6 yarn directly from the extruder to tufting to produce face weights as low as 11 or even ten ounces. The firm can impart a lot of design onto the tiles, but it’s a distinct look, akin to a flatweave. Also, its Netherlands-based Desso operation, acquired in 2014, has a small line of heavily patterned Axminster woven carpet tiles that go to the casino market.

Mohawk has been a major player in the carpet tile market since its acquisition of Lees in 2003. In fact, Lees’ original Glasgow, Virginia carpet tile plant, which currently produces 95% of Mohawk’s carpet tiles, is undergoing a $10 million expansion with the addition of a new extrusion compounding line. And with the imminent opening of its carpet tile facility in Belgium, the firm anticipates being more of a global player in the category.

About half of Mohawk’s carpet tile uses its EcoFlex ITC vinyl hardback. But growing faster is demand for EcoFlex NXT, made of recycled polyolefin bottle caps, and EcoFlex NXT Air, a cushioned version. Both of the NXT backings are Declare Red List Free. In floating floor installations using Mohawk’s FlexLok tabs, carpet tile with an NXT backing can handle moisture up to 99% RH. For primary backings, the firm uses spunbonded nonwoven PET, woven PET and Low & Bonar’s Colback, a nonwoven PET with a nylon skin.

Mohawk produces tiles with face weights from 14 ounces to over 40 ounces, in 24”x24”, 12”x36”, 24”x48” and, if needed, 36”x36”, with most of the growth coming from the plank formats. The heavier face weights are strong in the upper end of the retail and corporate sectors, where it’s often used to highlight a particular zone, coordinating with lighter face weight products.

Since the mid 1990s, Milliken’s carpet tiles have all been polyurethane cushion backed. The cushion comes in two standard thicknesses, called Underscore and Comfort Plus. And face weights range from 14 ounces to 30 ounces and up. In the early part of this century, the firm went to the residential market with carpet tile programs, which wound down several years ago.

Milliken is best known for its Millitron dye-injection printing machinery, and it uses that technology on a lot of its carpet tile, but in recent years it has ramped up its solution-dyed offering as well. The firm has a well-established hospitality business, largely thanks to that printing technology, which can create large-scale broadloom patterns for public space installations, and over the last few years it has seen a growth in carpet tile in that sector, both in guest rooms and public space.

The firm reports that its higher face weight products serve not only executive spaces in owner-occupied buildings but also sectors like education, where colleges are competing to attract students.

Mannington has been making carpet tile for decades, and in recent years its carpet tile business has grown so rapidly that it’s now twice the size of its broadloom business. Ten years ago, Mannington entered into a joint venture with J+J Flooring (back then, it was J&J Industries) using a Mannington facility and adding a line for polyolefin backing. The firm was already making PVC backed tile. That JV ended soon after Engineered Floors’ acquisition of J+J in 2016, replaced by a supply agreement that will phase out as Engineered Floors’ carpet tile facility comes online.

The termination of Mannington’s partnership with J+J means that, going forward, Mannington has additional capacity, and this is spurring the firm to grow its business, offer new price points and target new markets.

Most of Mannington’s carpet tile is built on its Infinity and Infinity RE PVC hardback-Infinity RE features 10% post-consumer recycled content from reclaimed carpet. Its Revolve polyolefin backing fills a sizeable niche, but the firm reports that demand for PVC-free products is not as strong with specifiers and end users now that everyone wants to use LVT. Mannington also offers a foamed PVC backing called Infinity Cushion.

While the bulk of carpet tile is tufted into nonwoven primary backings, Mannington, which used to tuft into woven polypropylene, has embraced Propex’s Artis woven PET backing-in fact, Mannington even collaborated a bit during the development of the backing. The firm also uses spunbonded nonwovens for some of its products.

Face weights on Mannington carpet tile range from 14 ounces to 35 ounces, across all commercial sectors. Its standard tile is 24”x24”, but there has been a major migration toward its plank shapes, 18”x36” and 12”x48”, and it can also do 36”x36”.

J+J Flooring offers two types of backings, the Nexus PVC hardback and a cushioned PVC. It no longer makes a polyolefin backing, due to lack of demand. As part of Engineered Floors, the firm also makes carpet tile for Engineered’s Pentz mainstreet division. By the end of this quarter, the new carpet tile plant in Dalton, Georgia should be up and running, and the firm will end its reliance on Mannington’s facility.

J+J also manufactures another soft surface tile, Kinetex, which is made entirely of PET. Thanks to sophisticated styling, Kinetex has found traction in the higher education and corporate markets. It’s a breathable product, so it does well around moisture. And when installed with J+J’s PreFix mill-applied adhesive, it can handle up to 99% RH.

The vast majority of J+J’s carpet tiles are in the range of 18 to 22 ounces, though they go as low as 14 and as high as 32 ounces or so, with those heavier weights, tufted on advanced technologies like ColorPoint, going mostly to corporate and hospitality applications.

Last year, on the heels of its J+J acquisition, Engineered Floors bought the assets of Beaulieu shortly after it declared bankruptcy. Beaulieu’s residential business has been declining, but its commercial division, Bolyu, has remained a viable entity, with sales close to $100 million, including its Aqua hospitality business. Bolyu sells both broadloom and carpet tile-its carpet tile has a unique backing made entirely of PET-and it also offers a PET soft surface tile that it came out with at about the same time as J+J introduced Kinetex.

Bentley Mills, located in City of Industry, California, makes both carpet tile and broadloom, with tile accounting for over 70% of sales. Until 2014, when the firm introduced its Affirma polyolefin hardback tile, Bentley’s carpet tile was largely backed with its NexStep polyurethane cushion. And less than four years later, two thirds of its carpet tiles have Affirma backings-and carpet tile has climbed from 40% to over 70% of Bentley’s total sales.

Last year, the firm came out with a floating floor installation system called Affixx, which attaches carpet tiles to each other using a hook and loop system, like Velcro, enabling installations over high-moisture subfloors. And it also expanded its carpet tile operation, doubling capacity, and added a second ColorPoint machine. The firm plans on adding another ColorPoint later this year.

Bentley’s carpet tiles range in face weight from 12 to 50 ounces, in 24”x24” squares, a 18”x36” rectangle and a 9”x36” plank.

Last March, Bentley Mills was acquired by the Balta Group, the largest carpet producer in Europe, and in June Balta went public on the Brussels Stock Exchange. Balta’s product offering includes Modulyss flatwoven carpet tiles, which Bentley has started marketing in the U.S. Also, Balta brings a global presence and network to Bentley Mills, which last month exhibited at Domotex in the Balta showroom.

Masland Contract, part of the Dixie Group, introduced its first carpet tiles in 2007, and those first tiles were all 24”x24” with face weights from the high 20s and low 30s. Now it has running line carpet tile with face weights as low as 14 ounces (and as high as 40 ounces), and new sizes include 12”x36 and 36”x36”.

Dixie’s commercial operations also include Atlas Carpet Mills, the West Coast manufacturer acquired in 2014. Atlas’ tiles, which are backed at Masland’s Alabama facility, can include even heavier weights, though it has recently been expanding its program into lower price face weights and price points.

Masland’s carpet tiles are available in a PVC hardback and a cushioned backing made of a needlepunched polyester with high post-consumer content. The cushioned backing has been growing, particularly in the higher end owner-occupied corporate sector. And last year, the firm switched its precoat from PVC to EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate).

LOOKING AHEAD
These days more than ever, carpet tile’s growth demands a high degree of finesse and sophistication. In terms of marketshare and market penetration, the low-hanging fruit has largely been picked. Future growth will rely on more intricate strategies, targeting the remaining niches with new performance attributes and elevated, focused design.

The trend toward floating floor installations is still in full swing. Eliminating adhesives reduces the rate of flooring failures, particularly in the fast-paced construction cycle, which never seems to leave enough time for concrete to cure.

Floating floors also bring to mind Interface’s Flor concept, marketing carpet tiles as customizable area rugs rather than as replacements for wall-to-wall carpeting. Considering the office trends toward flexible spaces and a wider range of environments, and the growing consideration for environmental issues, floorcoverings that can be easily disassembled and reinstalled in different configurations or even different locations may sync nicely with the next wave of trends in the built environment.


Related Topics:The Dixie Group, Engineered Floors, LLC, Beaulieu International Group, Domotex, Mohawk Industries, Masland Carpets & Rugs, Shaw Industries Group, Inc., Interface, Mannington Mills, Tarkett