Innovation: Surface Technology: Technologies for hard surface flooring are poised to transform the market – March 2022

By Darius Helm

The large and expanding market for rigid LVT flooring, which first came to the U.S. less than a decade ago, grows increasingly competitive with every passing day, and one way that flooring manufacturers and technology suppliers can take on the competition is through innovation-both from within the rigid LVT category and from competing product types, like laminate and hardwood.

The wave of innovations sweeping through the market target every part of the product, from the backing and core to the joints and surface layers. A couple of the surface innovations-high-performance wood flooring veneers and high-resolution digital printing and embossing-could have a transformative effect on the industry. The wood technologies come from Välinge and AHF Products, and the digital technologies come from Hymmen, licensed through I4F, and from Agfa, Koenig & Bauer and Barberan, licensed through Mohawk’s Unilin Technologies.

Hardwood holds a unique position in the flooring market. First and foremost, it is the most desired flooring for the majority of people. People love wood-the look of it, the heft of it, the range of design expressions within it, the story of it. It connects people to nature. Wood is, after all, the only 100% bio-based, renewable flooring, and it requires very little processing compared to other types of floorcoverings. And it is extremely durable. Hardwood floors can last hundreds of years.

Then there’s the other side of wood. Despite its durability, hardwood flooring can easily be damaged, particularly on the surface. Scratches and indentations are the biggest problem, but there’s also the fact that boards can shrink and swell, warp and crack through changes in temperature and humidity.

Technological advancements have gone a long way to solving these issues of dimensional stability, thanks to the development of engineered wood. To some extent, robust coatings have helped reduce scratching, but not enough for architects and designers-who generally love everything about wood-to use it in commercial projects, which are generally much more punishing environments than residential applications. And when it comes to indentation, progress has not met the demands of the market.

Wood-look products have to some degree bridged the gap, allowing end users to get the visuals that they want without the performance limitations (or price points) of real hardwood, but also by relinquishing what is arguably hardwood’s biggest selling point-that it’s a natural product, with the material and design created entirely by nature. Yet, in a testament to humanity’s abiding love affair with the beauty of wood, these wood-look products, made of laminate flooring, flex LVT, rigid core and ceramic tile, account for the majority of all the visuals in the flooring market.

Now, another wave of innovation is coming to the market to challenge those historical limitations. Just in the last year, two compelling technologies have hit the U.S. market, one through AHF Products, the leading U.S. hardwood producer, and the other through Sweden’s Välinge.

AHF Products, which split off from Armstrong three years ago, has spent the last couple of years reintroducing its brands to the market, acquiring other hardwood manufacturers (LM Flooring and American OEM) and investing in its own facilities. And somehow it also found the time to develop a critical innovation, which it unveiled to the market last year as Dogwood Densified Wood under the Bruce brand. It’s now being introduced under Hartco as Dogwood Pro with wirebrushed visuals in several colors of oak. Thicknesses range from 3/8” to 1/2” with widths up to 7-1/2”.

The patent-pending process, which has been in development since 2018, uses heat and pressure to compress the wood veneer by 30% to 50%, depending on the species-the harder species compress less. So far, the firm has been focusing on red and white oak, walnut and hickory, along with some ash, according to Travis Bjorkman, principal wood scientist for AHF and the driving force behind the innovation, However, since the process more than doubles the hardness of the wood-Dogwood Pro is 2.5 times harder, according to the firm-the technology also opens up the door for the use of softer species that traditionally don’t perform optimally as hardwood flooring. The firm is currently working on products made from sycamore, red maple and birch, and it’s also considering pine, which has a unique look but is generally far too soft for a floor.

Once the veneer is compressed, it is stable and doesn’t require any treatment to keep it dense, according to Bjorkman. The compressed veneers end up ranging from 1.2mm to as thick as 3mm, depending on the species and original veneer thickness, and they are then fused to HDF cores and topped with a protective coat and the firm’s Cleantivity antimicrobial treatment. Thicker veneers can go on a traditional engineered plywood core. The Dogwood technology could also work on SPC cores, though so far the firm has not created these constructions.

Dogwood is manufactured at the firm’s facility in Somerset, Kentucky, where production used to be focused on rotary peeled engineered wood.

AHF also plans to roll out Dogwood to some of its other brands, as well as to the commercial market, where it will likely end up in AHF’s Parterre brand. In fact, the firm already has a case study with Per Diem, a restaurant in Lititz, Pennsylvania’s Hotel Rock. The 1,600-square-foot installation of Bruce’s Dogwood in hickory has been down since 2020 in the high-traffic restaurant.

AHF also did a case study of sorts at DogSense, a doggy daycare in nearby Lancaster, with a five-month installation in a high-traffic space that hosted a dozen dogs daily, as well as multiple nightly training sessions, using side-by-side installations of Dogwood and a traditional hardwood, which ended up dented and marred while the Dogwood still looked fairly pristine.

And at the Surfaces show in Las Vegas last month, AHF had demos to demonstrate the product’s scratch resistance.

Välinge, which is best known for its pioneering role in the development of click system technology for laminate flooring over a quarter century ago, has come out with a slew of flooring innovations over the last couple of decades. At Surfaces 2009, the firm first introduced the U.S. market to the wood powder technology that yielded the Nadura and Woodura constructions. Both involve pressing the wood powder-in a blend with melamine, the surface coating that gives laminate its renowned hardness and scratch resistance-onto the HDF core. In the case of Nadura, that wood powder surface is then printed with a design, while Woodura uses pressure and heat to fuse a wood veneer onto the wood powder layer. The veneer compresses from 8mm to as little as 5mm, and the powder fills the voids and fissures in the wood grain and hardens, locking it into an impermeable form.

Because the veneer is infused from the bottom up, as opposed to from the top down like acrylic-infused wood, a technology that has been around for a couple of decades, the wood’s natural characteristics are distinct and unclouded.

According to the firm, Woodura is about three times harder than traditional engineered and solid hardwoods. Currently, the technology works best with oak, walnut and ash, and the firm is experimenting with other species, like hickory.

On a site visit in 2011, Darko Pervan, Välinge’s founder and, back then, still CEO, told Floor Focus that, should this technology not end up installed in the facilities of flooring manufacturer partners, he would go ahead and build a production facility himself, pointing across the street from the headquarters and innovation center in Viken, Sweden to a large lot adjacent to the complex. And, having judged that the time was finally right for large-scale adoption of the technology, Välinge did just that, building a facility with a capacity of 50 million square feet that started churning out product just over a year ago.

The firm set up offices in Alpharetta, Georgia, as well as warehousing on the West Coast in the Bay area and in the East in Calhoun, Georgia, and signed on with distributors to sell its Hardened Wood brand, and it is also partnering with flooring producers. Its first prominent partner is Mannington, which unveiled TimberPlus with Woodura technology at last month’s Surfaces, a collection of six European white oaks. According to Dave Sheehan, Mannington’s vice president of residential hard surface, one of the appeals of the technology is its high indentation resistance, which makes it a good fit with active households. Another is the 5G Dry locking system that prevents moisture from coming through the joints, enabling a waterproof installation.

For the core, Välinge sources through European partners an HDF board with a specific formulation to reduce swell rates. However, the firm is currently building a vertically integrated facility in Croatia with an initial capacity of 50 million square feet, and it should start producing flooring in less than a year. Within a couple of years after that, capacity will be ramped up to 200 million square feet.
According to the firm, Woodura products are priced well below typical engineered flooring products, more so for wider and longer formats, which are efficiently achieved at the Viken facility, where planks can come as large as 10-3/4”x94”.

Going forward, Välinge is also targeting the commercial market and is currently working with various A&D partners to launch into that market. And it is also in discussions with other flooring producers for more private label programs.

At Surfaces, Mohawk introduced RevWood Premier with Signature Technology, which uses a deep-scanning technology to gather from real wood samples 64 layers of surface data. However, rather than using a digital technology, the data is then transferred to press plates, maintaining the same level of resolution, for embossing the texture into the surface of the product. And once it is pressed, high-resolution, in-register printing, using 1,000 colors, completes the process.

Digital printing on hard surface flooring is not entirely new-the ceramic industry has been doing it for 15 years, and it has been used here and there in other hard surface flooring. Earlier versions of digital printing have largely relied on multi-pass printing, where the print head moves across the product. Much faster and more precise (and a much bigger investment) is single-pass, where the print heads are in fixed positions as the product rolls by, and that’s the direction of the new technologies, which take digital printing to a new level. The technologies are being licensed through the other two innovation and intellectual property (IP) firms (other than Välinge), I4F and Unilin Technologies. Both offer digital printing and digital embossing, using technologies from European firms.

Hymmen GmbH Maschinen- und Anlagenbau, based in Germany, was founded in 1892 by the great-grandfather of the current CEO, René Pankoke, a physicist by training who joined the firm 20 years ago. Hymmen first showed its single-pass digital printing technology at Domotex in Germany in 2008, and since then the firm has sold about 45 lines, ranging from $2 million to $4 million, mostly to European manufacturers. However, over the last few years, Pankoke determined that market demand was hampered by patent issues, so it signed on with I4F to protect the patent process and streamline adoption of the technology.

The second digital process, called Digital Lacquer Embossing (DLE), was developed about ten years ago and steadily improved. The current technology, combining digital printing and DLE for high-definition, in-register embossed designs, has been around for a couple of years.

“We have signed an exclusive partnership with Hymmen to collectively promote the digital printing technology and to really transition the market to this new era,” John Rietveldt, CEO of I4F, told Floor Focus at last month’s Surfaces show. “The philosophy is to print directly on the board and to emboss also through the ink.”

To date, Hymmen Jupiter lines have been purchased by two domestic producers, Engineered Floors and CFL, and licensed through I4F. The lines should be up and running by the middle of next year. And at least a dozen more U.S. manufacturers are considering investing in the system.

The technology is a production line nearly 500 feet long. Panels are first covered with a base coat and UV dried, and the décor is then digitally printed on the white coating-at a speed of about 80 to 110 feet per minute. On top of the printed décor, the liquid wearlayer and the digital embossing-in multiple layers-are applied, and the whole system is then hardened. According to Pankoke, the technology can be applied to any type of board, from HDF to SPC cores.

The technology was entirely developed internally by Hymmen, with the exception of the print heads themselves.

Pankoke points out that most existing digital printing technologies, like those used on ceramic tile, have resolutions around 120 to 150 dpi, with some going as high as 300 dpi. However, Hymmen’s tech offers a resolution of 1,000 dpi.

Rietveldt notes that one of the biggest selling points is the elimination of the décor film, which also reduces dependence on the supply chain for the film component. He adds, “And you save more on inventory, and you’re much more flexible to the market … and the design freedom is, of course, unlimited.”

Belgium-based Unilin, the division of Mohawk Industries focused on innovation and intellectual property, was, like Välinge, at the very forefront of locking system developments back in the 1990s, and over the years has both developed and licensed a huge range of technologies related to the production of flooring. And in its arsenal are several programs that offer high-resolution digital printing and embossing through its Digicor and Digitouch technologies, for use on roll-to-roll laminate and LVT production using paper layers and print film, as well as for direct printing on the board, like the Hymmen system.

According to Jasmine Geerinckx, Unilin’s business development director for IP, direct-to-board technology is driving demand in the U.S. market where manufacturers want to set up their own production lines.

For the laminate process, the key parts of the technology include a special water-based ink developed by Agfa, a primer developed by Unilin to stop the ink from penetrating through the décor paper and a Koenig & Bauer production line that runs product through at about 440 feet per minute. It’s worth noting that the Unilin primer not only helps yield a higher resolution image, but it also saves a lot on ink.

One of the advantages of this technology is that it only means replacing one component, switching out the rotogravure with the digital system.

At last month’s Surfaces show, Unilin showed a laminate on the floor with a décor layer printed with high-resolution images of flowers and leaves in startling detail. The Quick-Step product will be rolled out this spring.

According to Geerinckx, while there are other high-quality, single-pass machines in the market, the fastest comes from Germany’s Koenig & Bauer.

The roll-to-roll LVT process, currently in the final testing phase, uses UV inks and a multi-pass Agfa Jeti Tauro machine, with the UV ink and primer technology sandwiched between the print film and the wearlayer.

The direct-to-board process covers the entire production line, but it also brings with it a range of cost savings-no cylinders, no stockpile of papers, and only a single set of inks. Other advantages include a 1,200 dpi, a wider range of colors, longer repeats (or none at all) and customization for runs of any length. Boards pass through an adhesion promoter, then a white UV coating primer, atop which the design is printed. Then comes the Digitouch digital texturing, followed by a UV protective coat. For this system, Unilin uses machinery from Spain’s Barberan.

At last month’s Surfaces, several manufacturers offered enhanced bevels. In some cases, the bevels were designed to prevent moisture from seeping through the joints or to help prevent ledging, but most of the focus was on the aesthetics, offering pillowed or pressed edges instead of painted bevels.

Shaw, for instance, introduced a new integrated bevel design on its Coretec+ line of 7”x60” planks, achieved by pressing the board in at the edges so that the décor paper essentially rolls over the edge, maintaining the hardwood visual.

Mohawk’s Unilin has also developed a pressed bevel technology for rigid LVT, with the first products currently rolling out. The licensed technology has already attracted the attention of flooring manufacturers, and Unilin expects to announce new partnerships in the next few months.

Mannington came out with CraftedEdge beveling technology that not only presses the décor layer at the edges of the product but also adds to the realism by creating a hand-chiseled texture to the bevel. The patent-pending technology is currently offered on WPC and SPC products in the Regency and Calico collections.

Copyright 2022 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:RD Weis, Coverings, Fuse, Armstrong Flooring, Domotex, Engineered Floors, LLC, AHF Products, Mannington Mills, Mohawk Industries, Fuse Alliance, Shaw Industries Group, Inc., Parterre Flooring Systems