The Backing Business: Backing innovations focus on a handful of aspects - Jan 2018
By Darius Helm
Over the last 15 to 20 years, carpet backings have gone through comprehensive redesigns in the development of high performance, durable, efficient backing systems. With so much of the major work behind them, carpet backing developers, both independent and from the vertically integrated mills, now find themselves focusing on a few key aspects where there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
While carpet manufacturing is still a massive $8 billion U.S. industry, it is in the midst of a decades-long loss in marketshare to hard surface flooring. However, not all of carpet’s subcategories are declining. In terms of broadloom, for instance, the PET carpet business has grown massively over the last decade. And then there’s carpet tile, broadloom’s biggest share-taker, still riding a long and sustained growth wave.
As such, carpet tile has been a target of backings producers in recent years. Traditionally, the primary backings used to produce carpet tiles have been made of nonwoven polyester, but firms like Propex in recent years have offered an alternative-a woven polyester-while nonwoven producers have enhanced their products to match the improvements offered by woven backings.
Backings producers are also focusing on chemistries, targeting those that are problematic for various reasons, like poor environmental profiles, challenging installations and inefficient production processes. At the top of the list is latex.
INNOVATIONS IN THE BINDER
Many of the recent developments in the industry have surrounded the binder material. The vast majority of broadloom is constructed by tufting face yarn into a woven polypropylene primary backing, which is then bound to a woven polypropylene secondary backing by an emulsion of latex and calcium carbonate. While latex binders have a good record on performance, like stitch bind and dimensional stability, the ingredients themselves are problematic, particularly when it comes to recycling. Generally, the binder is the only part of the carpet that cannot be remelted for reuse, and there’s also not much in the way of an end-use market for carpet binder, though California does currently offer a subsidy of $0.17/pound for recaptured calcium carbonate sold for reuse.
On top of that, latex binder makes products stiff and unwieldy, and as the carpet gets walked on and worn down, that binder slowly starts to crumble into dirt.
As yet, the industry has not produced a compelling substitute for all latex binders, though several mills and backing producers have engineered new types of backing systems that replace latex with different chemistries.
The first carpet mill to tackle the problem on residential carpet was Shaw Industries, which came out with its LifeGuard backing system in 2015. LifeGuard replaces the traditional woven secondary backing and latex binder with a single product, a modification of its commercial EcoWorx polyethylene backing that is fused to the primary backing. It’s a waterproof system, making it particularly suitable for homes with pets.
LifeGuard was rolled out on the Life Happens collection and was subsequently added to Anso Living. And last year, the backing system was added to the Anso Nylon Color Wall. The Color Wall offers a range of styles in 80 colorways in three broadloom weights and in two backing systems, the standard ActionBac and its more installation-friendly upgrade, SoftBac. Last year, the firm introduced the LifeGuard option, called Titanium, as an upgrade to its heaviest weight product, Platinum. While the upcharge from a standard backing to LifeGuard is significant, Shaw has offered dealers a promotional price when upgrading from SoftBac to LifeGuard.
The firm reports that the promotion has been so successful that it is continuing it into 2018. And this year it is also adding a new product called Bellera, using its Endurance high performance PET, both piece-dyed and solution-dyed, with the LifeGuard backing. And it comes with a ten-year unconditional warranty for the whole product. Shaw also added LifeGuard to its Property Solutions multifamily program in early 2017, also extended into this year. The program focuses on carpet in the 25-ounce range for multifamily units.
About a year ago, Mohawk Industries introduced Airo, a carpet so unique that Mohawk doesn’t even call it a carpet, describing it as a “unified soft floorcovering.” It’s a game-changing product, both elegant in its simplicity from a manufacturing perspective and progressive in terms of environmental sustainability. Airo is a marriage of four components, all of which are PET. A PET face yarn is tufted into a woven PET primary backing, which is bound to a thick needlepunched PET base with a PET binder.
As greige goods, the only difference between Airo and traditional carpet is that its primary backing is PET, not polypropylene-and it can be produced using the same range of tufting technologies as any PET carpet-but its innovative binder and secondary backing system elevate the product. Airo doesn’t use latex or filler, and the product is fully recyclable into a pure PET waste stream. And its face fiber and felt backing are already made of recycled PET from drink bottles.
Also, because it doesn’t have a latex binder, it’s much lighter and more flexible, and it isn’t manufactured under tension like traditional broadloom-so it’s easier to transport, it won’t scuff up walls and installers don’t have to stretch it into place on the floor. Instead, it is affixed with double-sided tape along the perimeter and the seams. And that needlepunched felt back replaces the need for a carpet pad.
Last year, Mohawk introduced eight Airo products with about 20 colors per line. And this year it is offering four new products-a tonal and a color pop in two weights each.
Engineered Floors, which is the third biggest U.S. carpet mill even though it’s less than eight years old, has also developed a latex-free backing system. It first introduced the technology in 2016 as FlexBac for its business in the multifamily market, and now it is taking it to the residential market through its Dream Weaver brand as PureBac. FlexBac is grey, while PureBac is white.
With PureBac carpet, the face yarn is tufted into a traditional woven polypropylene backing, and through a proprietary process, the greige goods are bound to a needlepunched polyester felt system using a polyurethane layer. The end result is a product that is lightweight, doesn’t scuff walls and is installed with a low-melt tape. Also, PureBac is treated with Ultra-Fresh to protect the carpet from the growth of stain- and odor-causing bacteria.
There’s a small upcharge for PureBac carpet, and for now it’s being introduced at the premium end, 50-ounce face weight or higher.
Engineered Floors’ purchase of Beaulieu’s assets include a facility in Bainbridge, Alabama that makes woven polypropylene for both primary and secondary backings. The facility, built by Beaulieu in 1978, may not have the capacity to meet all of Engineered’s needs, but it will enable the firm to be less dependent on outsourced backings.
Trinseo, which was formerly Styron and originally part of Dow, is a major producer of styrene butadiene latex, with production facilities in Asia, Europe and the U.S. Trinseo, a $3.7 billion business, also makes synthetic rubber, performance plastics and a range of basic plastics and feedstocks. The firm has been publicly traded (NYSE:TSE) since late 2016.
The bulk of Trinseo’s latex goes on paper and paperboard (the thin cardboard used in packaging multiple drinks, like 24-packs of beer or soda). And it’s also used in caulks, sealants, paint, industrial coatings and running tracks. About 25% of its latex goes into carpet. While the carpet latex market in the U.S. is flat to declining, it’s up on a global basis a point or two, driven by increasing demand in China.
Earlier this year, Trinseo came out with an alternative to SB latex for carpet tile precoat under its line of Ligos binders. The firm reports that this new acrylic latex precoat showed dramatic improvement in wet Velcro performance, which tests how well soaked carpet holds onto its fibers. The product targets PVC-backed carpet, since PVC plasticizer causes deterioration of styrenated products. It performs better than VAE (vinyl acetate ethylene) though it’s not quite at the level of high performance SB latex.
Textile Rubber & Chemical Company’s TR Polymers Group, which brings together its polyurethane, latex, thermoplastic and laminating technologies, is introducing a handful of new products this year. TR Laminates, the newest addition to TR Polymers Group, is coming out with a patented technology called Hybrex, which can use existing latex coating equipment to make precoats or coating adhesives from liquid thermoplastic polyolefins and polyesters. This flexibility in thermoplastics is advantageous, since some thermoplastics perform better than others, depending on the polymer they are binding to. And using PET specifically can be a benefit when it comes to recycling. The firm has tested the product on carpet systems, replacing latex with Hybrex, and reports better wet/dry properties and better adhesion to secondary backings. Going forward, it plans to focus on the residential broadloom market, along with the synthetic turf and automotive markets.
TR Laminates is also developing chemistries for laminating dissimilar materials, like different polymers in various constructions-textiles, films, nonwovens-including PVC, which tends to resist binding with anything but PVC. The lamination chemistries will be available in widths up to 15’ and will enable the creation of materials with a range of properties, including moisture control, dimensional stability, and soft and firm flex characteristics.
Also, TR Polymer Group’s Thermotex Group has developed a thermoplastic polyolefin technology for washable rug backings-like bath rugs-for both commercial and residential applications. Most non-skid backings are made of rubber. And its Polyurethane Group has developed a polyurethane precoat backing with improved hand and tuft bind.
TARGETING CARPET TILE
Broadloom might be in decline, but the carpet tile business is still growing, offering plenty of opportunities for innovation. Backings producers have been focusing on improving product performance, streamlining manufacturing processes and making lighter, more affordable products to target a broader swath of the commercial market.
One of the most prominent backings producers is Low & Bonar, which makes Colback nonwoven carpet tile backings. Colback is a spunbonded nonwoven polyester with a nylon skin. The firm sells its backings all around the world, with production facilities in Europe, China and the U.S. It’s been in the China market for a couple of years, and late last year it filled its capacity on its 72 million square yard production line, so it has added a second, with production starting this month. For the U.S. market, the firm has two production lines in Asheville, North Carolina, for a total of 144 million square yards of capacity. Its biggest facility, in the Netherlands, has a capacity of nearly 220 million square yards.
At this month’s Domotex show in Hannover, Germany, Low & Bonar will launch an array of products under the Colback Green label, including a product with high post-consumer content and low antimony content-antimony, a catalyst used in PET production, can be toxic to humans with sufficient exposure.
The firm has introduced double-end twillers in its spinning operations, allowing for a finer yarn, which enables the production of a thinner and more even backing. While this impacts carpet tile, the bigger impact could be on the cushioned sheet vinyl market, where Low & Bonar competes against fiberglass scrims.
Also, there’s growing interest in using Colback as a secondary backing, according to the firm, which would reduce the amount of latex required. This year, the firm is introducing a new product targeting that part of the backing system. The strength of the Colbond backing reduces dependence on latex to hold the product together.
Low & Bonar has also improved the stitch hold in ProFloor, a high performance Colback product introduced four years ago. And to increase collaboration with designers and mills, the firm has created a platform called In4nite that allows for interaction on functionality and aesthetics throughout the value chain.
The most prominent independent backing firm is Propex, which does most of its business in broadloom with a range of woven and hybrid backing products. And about six years ago it entered the carpet tile market with Artis (in its first iteration, it was inconveniently named Isis). Artis is a woven primary PET backing, competing against nonwovens, touting its better stitch hold characteristics and mendability, fewer dropped ends, and increased throughput. The product features at least 85% post-consumer recycled content from drink bottles.
Artis has grown into a major program for Propex, which offers the product in a range of pick counts, widths and even colors. The firm worked with Shaw’s Patcraft on its Deconstructed Metal carpet tile collection, a design that exposes the Artis primary-in bronze, graphite and titanium-through variations in fiber pile heights. Propex also supplies Artis backings for Mohawk’s Airo carpet.
Mattex, a major Saudi backings producer, supplies Mohawk with a similar product, called Link. The firm makes Link, a woven polyester primary backing that can come with an attached nonwoven fleece, along with polypropylene primary and secondary woven backings, at its facility in Eton, Georgia. Its facilities in the Middle East focus solely on polypropylene backings.
The firm reports that demand for Link, which is made of 100% virgin PET, continues to grow, with part of the demand driven by its recyclability. Last year, Mattex experienced moderate growth in the residential and turf markets, as well as in commercial carpet tile.
Mohawk itself has been working on backings for its carpet tile programs. The firm has three carpet tile backing systems: its PVC backing is EcoFlex ICT; its polyolefin backing is EcoFlex NXT; and its most recent introduction, EcoFlex NXT Air, which is its cushioned carpet tile system. NXT Air, launched in 2016, uses a PET cushion with a minimum 90% post-consumer content. The cushioned system is in high demand in the modern office environment, where people are sitting less and standing more, making comfort underfoot increasingly important. Cushioned carpet tile is also in demand in the hospitality sector, in both rooms and public space.
Mohawk has now taken that technology and applied it as attached cushion on the broadloom side as Weldlok Air and Unibond Plus Air.
Shaw has also been working on its carpet tile backing systems. The firm introduced a modified version of its EcoWorx backing last spring with StrataWorx, a more affordable backing that is lighter, easier to cut and easier to install, and its lower price points are designed to broaden the reach of Shaw’s carpet tiles across all three contract brands-Shaw Contract, Patcraft and Philadelphia Commercial-as well as in its Mainstreet by Philadelphia division.
Signature Flooring, part of a family of companies that include Universal Textile Technologies, recently teamed up with Georgia Tech Research Institute to produce carpet with piezoelectric sensing technology embedded in the backing. Piezoelectric materials-like the quartz crystals in watches-generate electric current when under pressure, and that current can be used for a range of functions, from lighting up LEDs to gathering data on movement on the carpet.
For instance, synthetic turf with piezoelectric sensors can be used to gather vast amounts of data on athletes, from speed, acceleration and endurance to reaction times, pivot and torque data, and movement efficiency.
It also has huge potential in healthcare facilities. At the annual Leading Age conference a couple of months ago, Signature showcased its “living floor” technology. Installed in senior living facilities, this type of flooring could be used to gather data on activity levels, footstep counts, speed of locomotion and many other health-related data points. And it can also signal emergencies, like when a senior slips and falls.
The technology from Georgia Tech is patent pending. Once the technology is scaled up and ready for mass production, it will be in high demand throughout the built environment. After all, if there’s one thing modern society craves, it’s data.
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