Innovation in Flooring: A look at a handful of innovative technologies, some new and some evolving - March 2021
By Darius Helm
The history of flooring is one of innovation, a constant rejuvenation of the industry with enhancements in design, performance, cost, installation and environmental sustainability-not to mention expanding the role of flooring beyond its traditional functions. Innovation often comes in waves, based on new material developments, financial pressures, new technologies and most importantly, addressing new demands in the market. And with all these forces at play, the flooring industry is currently riding one such wave.
Some innovations are outsized. Polymers developed in a 30-year span in the early 20th century, for instance, led to a profusion of new products, from synthetic fibers for broadloom and area rugs to sheet vinyl, LVT and VCT-and these products now account for two-thirds of all flooring sold in the U.S. A more recent polymer innovation that has transformed the industry is bulk continuous filament (BCF) PET technology, which hit the market in 2006, and within just over a decade, BCF PET became the dominant residential carpet fiber.
And on the hard surface side, the recent development of rigid LVT, originating through the creation of Coretec by US Floors, now part of Shaw, has transformed the market and spurred even more developments.
However, many innovations are targeted solutions, like locking systems for floating floors. They were originally developed by Välinge and Unilin in the 1990s as an essential component of laminate flooring and spread with varying degrees of success to engineered wood and flexible LVT before striking gold in the fastest-growing flooring category in the world, rigid LVT.
LOCKING SYSTEM ADVANCEMENTS
Innovations become transformative when multiple entities are working on them. Not only does it bring the innovation into the open market, but the competition leads to greater achievements and also speeds up the development process. Välinge and Unilin, for example, needed each other to drive the development of better click systems, and the arrival of I4F eight years ago drove another round of innovation, and the market has benefited.
I4F was launched in December 2013 with the invention of its patented drop-lock technology, and the timing couldn’t have been better, since it started at the beginning of the rigid LVT wave. The drop-lock technology for the short ends, as opposed to angle-angle locking technology for all four sides, was exactly what the more rigid board constructions needed. Since then, the firm has developed its licensed locking technologies across a range of widths and thicknesses.
The firm’s most recent innovations include iClick4U, a water-resistant, one-piece drop lock technology ideally suited to products that aren’t inherently waterproof, like laminates and engineered wood. The i stands for impermeable; its standard drop-lock product for waterproof products like SPC is simply Click4U.
Another critical patented technology is 3L TripleLock, a four-sided drop-lock system ideal for large square tiles. All told, I4F offers locking systems for all hard surface products in the market.
Back when Mohawk Industries acquired Unilin in 2005, it was a $1 billion vertically integrated laminate producer that had developed, patented and licensed its own Uniclic locking systems. The Unilin laminate business in the U.S. went to market as Quick-Step.
Unilin now has over 350 licensees globally. Its most recent innovations include Unidrop and Flintile. Unidrop is essentially an enhanced version of Unipush, its one-piece fold-down technology that needed to be shifted horizontally to detach. Unidrop can be de-installed by angling out the board without compromising the locking strength, and it has a higher locking strength and higher milling tolerances. And according to the firm, it works with all types of hard surface flooring.
Flintile is a locking system designed for SPC with a precision gutter for grout. Once grouted, it creates a waterproof installation, and it’s an attractive and lightweight alternative to real ceramic tile. Flintile is not to be confused with the locking system on RevoTile’s SPC base, which uses a Uniclic-like system.
Both Unilin and Välinge also have fold-down technologies that require a plastic insert, Unifit and 5G, respectively.
Välinge, based in Viken, Sweden, was founded in 1993 as a click-system innovator, and over the years it has also pioneered other flooring-related technologies. Until last year, Välinge’s solution for rigid core products was largely its 2G angle system for the long sides and its 5G push-down system for the ends, which uses an insert. But last year, the firm came out with its one-piece 5Gi “integrated push down” system that simplifies and speeds up installation.
Another Välinge innovation is Liteback, a technology for grooving the back of LVT that retains all performance characteristics while creating a lighter product with benefits including lower transportation costs, easier handling and reduced use of material, all of which translate to cost savings. According to the firm, the dematerialization can reduce the weight of the final product by up to 20%.
The first rigid LVT product in the market was Coretec’s WPC, which back then had wood powder in its rigid core. Later iterations have moved away from that construction. And the thicker, foamed cores of WPC have ceded share to the denser, thinner SPC constructions.
In the last couple of years, there has been a lot of experimentation with the core, and the most prominent development has been the use of magnesium oxide (MgO) for what is generally called a mineral core. It’s lighter weight than the PVC composite cores used in WPC and SPC, and it’s very fire resistant, and it can be used in the development of PVC-free rigid flooring. But it’s brittle too, and it has been somewhat challenging to formulate in order to meet certain performance characteristics, like resilience and stability.
At this point, many of the firms using magnesium oxide are developing their own unique formulations. While MgO itself is abundant and fairly inexpensive, turning it into a high-performance core drives up those costs.
COMPOSITE ENGINEERED WOOD
Välinge has also been at the forefront of another innovation, one that was formalized by the National Wood Flooring Association in 2019 when it came out with its official definition of real wood floors, which had previously been informally defined as solid wood floors and engineered floors with real wood plies, adding composite engineered wood into the mix.
Composite engineered wood is basically defined as a real wood veneer of any thickness atop a hard surface core of any material. It’s taken a couple of years, but the market seems to have oriented around the idea, and several manufacturers are getting in on the game.
Shaw’s Epic product was actually the first composite engineered wood to make it into the market, and that was back in 2006, with a wood veneer over a high-density fiberboard (HDF) core. And in 2011, Välinge invented Nadura, fusing a resin-based wood powder atop an HDF core, followed quickly by Woodura, which adds a fused real wood sliced veneer (0.6mm) to the top of the wood powder layer and a spruce balancing layer to the bottom.
Woodura has been licensed through European producers like Meister for several years, and now Välinge has brought Woodura technology to the U.S. through its own production in Sweden, launching its Hardened Wood collection. According to the firm, Woodura technology yields a product that is three times harder than standard oak in terms of denting and gouging, using the Brinell hardness test.
The Hardened Wood branded product is being sold through distribution for residential and mainstreet applications, and down the road, to specified commercial. And the firm intends to bring Nadura to the U.S. market next year, likely targeting the commercial market, where the product’s performance characteristics and digitally printed visuals could drive demand.
In 2019, Shaw’s Coretec brand introduced Coretec Wood, a 2mm hardwood veneer atop a magnesium oxide (MgO) core for gluedown rather than click system installation. And at the same time, Shaw Floors came out with Floorté Waterproof Hardwood, with an SPC core using Välinge’s 5Gi click system and a 1.2mm sliced hardwood veneer. Coretec Wood is priced above the Floorté product. And the firm has another version that goes through home centers.
Floorté Hardwood has a 20-color running line and species include pine, walnut, white oak, hickory and maple.
Launching this month through specialty retailers is Mohawk’s UltraWood, another composite engineered wood. UltraWood, produced in the firm’s Danville, Virginia facility, features 0.6mm sliced hardwood veneers, including European oaks and hickories, over an HDF core. UltraWood features Mohawk’s new WetProtect technology (see next section) and its Everlast hardwood protection against scratches, wears and dents, as well as its EasyClean enhanced lacquer that resists stain and soil.
Several other manufacturers are coming out with composite engineered woods. Torlys has Everest XP, comprising three wood lines. Wellmade offers both real wood and strand bamboo veneers on its HPDC rigid core. And AHF Products has Hydropel under the Bruce brand and HydroBlok under Hartco.
These new wood-topped products bring real solutions to the market, where consumers are clear on what they want. Consumers have already been primed to want waterproof flooring more than anything-even though they managed to get this far in life without it-and they’re hardwired for wood looks, and they crave authenticity (even if it’s whisper-thin). Most of these composite engineered woods give them all of that. What this trend portends for the wood flooring industry is a separate issue. But one thing’s for sure; it will shift flooring share to the wood category.
The most compelling tufting innovation in recent years is arguably Card-Monroe’s Tailored Loop machine, which can tuft carpet that is virtually indistinguishable from woven carpet. The technology was introduced in 2019 and, to date, there are about ten machines out there making both commercial and residential products, including carpet tile.
All of the Tailored Loop machines run with Card-Monroe’s ColorPoint technology on top, and it’s that full range of colors and precision textures that creates the distinctive Wilton woven impression-and it does it faster and at a lower cost than a Wilton loom. Tailored Loop’s innovation is control of each individual loop at any height, so the low loop is as crisp and defined as the high loop and anything in between.
Tailored Loop can work with any fiber system, including wool. It’s mostly being used for residential carpet right now, but there are commercial mills also developing Tailored Loop products. And when the hospitality market strengthens, the technology will likely be in demand there as well, to compete with Axminster products, for instance.
Tailored Loop is the sort of innovation that could breathe new life into the carpet market by introducing high quality, high design products to homeowners for whom such looks would ordinarily be out of reach.
WATERPROOF INSTALLATION SYSTEMS
Just about all of these new composite woods are marketed as either inherently waterproof or can be installed to create a waterproof surface. The topical waterproof installation concept was actually started with laminates, in the form of Mohawk’s RevWood Plus, which was introduced at Surfaces 2018. With its rolled edge protecting its innards and a perimeter silicone seal, the installation was waterproof.
Mohawk has now enhanced its waterproof installation system and branded it WetProtect, which comes with a lifetime surface and subfloor warranty. Replacing a generic silicone perimeter seal is WetProtect QuarterRound, a specially designed molding with a plastic gasket that prevents water from going over. And there’s also a WetProtect underlayment with acoustic mitigation properties. The GenuEdge construction rolls the surface layers around the edge to both ensure a seal and maintain the visual. And its HydraSeal hydrophobic coating seals the edges and protects the HDF core.
The WetProtect system is also featured with UltraWood and with Pergo Elements Preferred and Pergo Extreme Ultra.
Välinge’s Hardened Wood is also designed for a waterproof installation. Its newly launched 5G Dry click system prevents water from traveling down the seams. The system requires a perimeter seal.
AHF Products’ Hartco HydroBlok and Bruce Hydropel are also designed for waterproof installations through a tight locking profile, an edge coating and a dense HDF core.
Magnetic flooring systems offer another installation alternative to adhesives. There are basically two prominent systems out there. One comes to the market from HMTX’s Metroflor, called Attraxion Magnetic Attachment Technology. The other, which Unilin is licensing, is Iobac. The fundamental difference between the two is that for Iobac, the magnetic surface is on the back of the floorcovering and in the case of Attraxion it’s in the underlayment.
Each system has its own advantages. For instance, the Iobac system can use a wider range of attachment systems: the Iobac underlayment, which comes in rolls and is generally loose laid, featuring a magnetizable top layer; a magnetizable resin that can be applied to the subfloor; and metal raised access flooring. That last option makes the product particularly appealing in the European and Asian markets, where raised access flooring is more prevalent. Also available are magnetic tabs that can be affixed to the back of floorcoverings not designed for the system, which work best in light commercial settings.
In terms of Attraxion, the base of the LVT incorporates a film infused with ferrite and the underlayment is magnetic, so when the flooring is changed out, there’s no re-investment in the magnetic component, which is the pricier part of the product. Metroflor’s Metroforms program is made up of ten custom shapes that can be used to create different patterns and combined with a wide range of designs and colors for unique installations, and the firm’s Sketchbox tool does all the calculating.
The actual magnetic intensity is low in both products, with high shear strength but low tensile strength, meaning they’re hard to shift but easy to lift. And in both cases, installation is fast and VOC-free, with the flooring immediately available for use. And floating floors of any kind, from SPC to carpet tiles, can be installed on top of either underlayment.
AROUND THE CORNER
Some innovations are still in their infancy and driven by a single innovator. For instance, RevoTile by Mohawk’s Daltile addresses one of the biggest issues in the flooring market, which is the precision and expertise needed for ceramic tile installation. Ceramic tile is the least DIY-friendly flooring in the market, but RevoTile simplifies the process to the point where an amateur can do the job. A RevoTile installation includes a looselay underlayment-essentially a moisture barrier and shock absorber-over a clean and level subfloor. The tiles, on an SPC base with a Unilin click system that allows tiles to either be angled or pushed together, leaving a recess for grouting. And once it’s grouted, it’s a waterproof installation, just like a traditional ceramic tile installation.
While RevoTile is a patented technology, other systems have been developed that perform similar functions, like DryTile by Germany’s Agrob Buchtal, which looselays tile over a cork underlayment, and CeraClick by Switzerland-based Lico, which uses a locking system and grout.
Also coming to flooring is the Internet of Things (IoT), and one big player getting into the game is Shaw Contract. Its Sole with SensFloor technology, launching this month, is a 3mm pad developed for senior living that goes under floorcoverings and uses capacitive sensing technology to detect and track movement. The data is collected from a grid of sensors and channels to a chip that communicates wirelessly with a base station.
This technology, which is an unobtrusive alternative to wearable sensors, will detect slips and falls, which are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries in seniors. The system can be programmed based on the needs of the patient and will provide instant alerts to staff when help is required. It can also track other patient behavior, as needed, to help maintain wellness.
There are already a handful of locations testing out the system, and Shaw is in contact with senior living operators around the country.
And possibly the most impactful technology set to transform the industry is high-definition digital printing. True, digital printing isn’t new to the flooring industry. Over the last ten or 15 years, it has swept through the ceramic tile industry, paving the way for new realms of visual expression. And it’s used here and there in other flooring categories. Tarkett Commercial, for instance, has been using digital printing for several years on LVT lines like Collections Infinies. Mills like Shaw, Mohawk and Milliken can digitally print on carpet. However, it’s still in the early stages in terms of mass use for the big categories, like rigid LVT.
There’s certainly plenty of demand. There’s lots of interest in direct printing on SPC cores, for instance, as well as printing décor papers for laminates and resilient flooring in general, replacing the gravure cylinders and impregnation and their inherent limitations in visual resolution and pattern repeat.
Advanced digital printing technology will pave the way for wider design capabilities, more customization (including smaller custom runs) and the ability to pivot readily between patterns. And ultimately, it should cost less than the cumbersome, multi-step gravure process.
Unilin has been working on the development of primers for décor papers so that the paper can accept Agfa water-based inks without bleeding, as well as the development of scan printing and single-pass printing. The single-pass equipment, RotaJet by Koenig & Bauer, has a printhead with a 1200 dpi native resolution and a print speed up to 440 feet per minute.
And at the beginning of the year, I4F entered into a patent partnership with Hymmen GmbH Maschinen- und Anlagenbau, a German industrial machinery firm with expertise in digital printing systems. More than 80% of digitally printed flooring around the world is produced using Hymmen technology, according to the firm. Its Digital Lacquer Embossing technology won an Interzum Red Dot award in 2019. In addition to licensing and related issues, I4F will also work with Hymmen to promote digital printing opportunities in the flooring industry.
Küberit, a German firm founded in 1863, started making metal profiles about 100 years ago, and now offers over 400 different profiles and 16,000 SKUs, including solutions for LVT, click systems, cushion-backed carpets and much more. Of particular interest to today’s residential and commercial markets are profile ranges that can be curved across a space, providing a much-needed solution for the large expanses of the modern open-office plan, as well as applications in other sectors, like hospitality and even multifamily.
Küberit launched its U.S. business last year through Alabama-based TMT America, the same firm that sells Schönox in the U.S., founded by Thomas Trissl, who also founded Centiva, now part of Tarkett, in 1996. Küberit is going direct to the U.S. market, served by its customer service center in Florence, Alabama, though it can also quickly and efficiently ship from Germany. Küberit is also on the Spec-Intel flooring contractor material management software tool, and it will be on the A&D tool Spec-Intel is in the process of launching.
Küberit’s KO (Küberit Original) profiles and KT transition profiles both include products in a wide range of heights that can be bent, either by hand or with a specialized bending machine, to curve the anodized aluminum or stainless steel profiles through large spaces where there’s a shift from one type of flooring to another and over subfloor expansion joints to prevent telegraphing.
The profiles, which come in silver, sand and bronze, offer more freedom to specifiers and A&D in terms of how they design flooring across these large, open spaces. Küberit also offers profiles that can be custom colored to match specific LVT colors and wood grains.
Copyright 2021 Floor Focus
Related Topics:Shaw Floors, Lumber Liquidators, AHF Products, Shaw Industries Group, Inc., Mohawk Industries, Coverings, Metroflor Luxury Vinyl Tile, RD Weis, The International Surface Event (TISE), Engineered Floors, LLC, Tarkett, Armstrong Flooring, HMTX, Daltile