The Future of Flooring: Product experts share ideas about flooring 25 years from now - Aug/Sep 2017

By Ruth Simon McRae

Aquarter century ago, the few people who had cell phones kept them in a zippered case in the car. It was called a car phone and was the size of a small shoebox. Email was just beginning to replace the memo. Microsoft Office released Windows 3.1 with the ability to drag and drop for the first time.

We asked some key industry creatives to imagine the future of floorcovering in another 25 years. At the start, each person’s ideas seemed very different. Yet as the interviews progressed, it became apparent that many of their projections were along similar lines. Some common themes-3D printing, smart floors, continued interest in handcraft as a balance to technology, the changing workplace, personalization and fast customization, virtual reality, and haptic technology for an intimate product experience.

Michael Braungart: visionary chemist – founder of EPEA (Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency – co-founder of MBDC (McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry)

Braungart notes that real innovation evolves over a long period of time. “Major technical changes take 50 to 60 years to get implemented; so we actually know what floorcovering will look like in 25 years because we are already working on it.”

Braungart sees the transaction between manufacturer and consumer becoming completely transformed, with manufacturers selling a service instead of a product. “Flooring manufacturers will use the best materials that can be used safely, that are designed with renewable resources and that are able to be reused as often as you want. When you do this, you can’t sell the material because it will be too expensive, so you are selling the use of the material, which is basically insurance. You are selling ten years of floor packaging insurance.” He is already seeing this model in Europe where Giroflex, an office furniture manufacturer, handles the full lifecycle of a chair-from repair to recycling-selling ten years of “seating insurance.”

Like others that we spoke with, Braungart projects that carpets will become smarter. He is actively working on carpets that will clean the air by absorbing fine dust. The “smart” carpet will become self-cleaning through its ability to alter electrostatics to remove the contaminants from the carpet surface and will be designed to be self-repairing and self-healing.

Braungart projects that new fibers will come into play, such as fibers from polysulfonic acid from BASF, which are inherently flame resistant and absorb smells. And that nylon 6, “the most elegant polymer,” will be one of the most important polymers of the future. Flooring systems will be redesigned to be 100% nylon in order to be fully recyclable.

He sees this happening in a few possible ways through the development of new materials. Possibly this could be through a merging between textiles and flooring systems made of thin layers of textile combined with a type of foam backing, or the top and backing of carpet could be connected with small harpoon-shaped connectors, designed to be easily disassembled.

Braungart has a positive approach to the future. “Humans are an opportunity for the planet, not a burden,” he says. “We support a human footprint that is big. We are proud to be here and enjoy being here. We celebrate life, not just eliminate potential damage.” That’s much different from avoiding, reducing and minimizing. Braungart and EPEA are influencing companies like Interface that are going from Mission Zero to Mission Positive.

David Oakey: industry design leader – founder of David Oakey Designs – exclusive designer for Interface

Oakey believes that carpet will still be around in 25 years. He sees a future of change in fiber, manufacturing and marketing.

From a fiber perspective, Oakey sees the growth of bio-fibers and carbon fibers, including materials like graphene, a fiber that is 200 times stronger than steel yet incredibly flexible. Carbon fiber is mostly used now in light and super-performing industrial products. He projects that the flooring industry’s use of fossil fuel-derived fibers will continue, although they will become more costly and less widely used. And he sees a world where nylon 6-and nylon 6,6-will become fully recyclable.

When it comes to manufacturing, Oakey says, “The last 25 years have seen a huge shift in tufting technology. We have machines now where designers can do anything they want. The limit now on designers is what to do, not what the machine can do. Going forward, we will see more on the operations/manufacturing side. Helped by advances in technology, we will see more efficiency, speed, and faster changeover times.”

Oakey also sees 3D printing becoming an important tool for floorcovering designers, noting that it is already being used for some specialized types of flooring, like the 3D printed rugs in Studio Plott’s Open Rugs series. He also anticipates a 3D knitting application, particularly in the rug market. This process knits the shape that is needed with no waste, much like the process involved in creating athletic shoes.

From a go-to-market perspective, Oakey expects product libraries to disappear. The future will be virtual and potentially augmented by artificial intelligence. Customers are already demanding virtual space planning for big projects, with designers able to see and change a product within an interior space.

Another theme explored by Oakey and others is the yearning people have to connect, to touch and to relate to the natural world, along with a desire for local, handmade objects. He describes the need to “respect the soul of a product, knowing that it was actually made by someone and connected to a heritage.” This seems to be a natural counterpoint to technology’s influence on our lives. There is also a desire to engage with objects and technology from the not-too-distant past, as seen in the rise in demand for vinyl records. In 2016, U.K. vinyl sales overtook sales of digital downloads. Young people seem to be intrigued by everything from vinyl to Polaroid cameras.

Kelly Stewart: Patcraft’s innovative hard surface designer

Stewart sees the line between hard and soft flooring blurring, with new categories emerging outside of the traditional hard and soft surface products. This is already evident with companies like Chilewich producing woven vinyl floors and in the prevalence of felted floorcovering products. “I think we will keep exploring and experimenting with different materials, especially with environmental materials, which will open up even more doors.”

Although wood and stone will never go away, Stewart envisions more abstract and expressive designs on the floor, making the floor more like a canvas than just something to be walked on. She expects this trend to also translate to soft floorcovering.

Like others in this group, Stewart sees the whole idea of customization as the underpinning of future product. Driven by technology, the ability to digitally print short runs at a lower cost and advances in manufacturing will create new opportunities. Designers will be able to create spaces that no one else has, possibly using something more eccentric and individualized for a small collaborative space.

Stewart projects changes in installation methods that will upend the current paradigm. “Installing and uninstalling may be much easier and quicker processes, allowing for us to update our floors more often than we currently do and creating much more flexibility from a design perspective. There could be a new flooring profile in resilient that will go down even faster.” Taking it one step further, she adds, “Maybe there’s a double-sided floor where you could flip it upside down and get an entirely new look.

“What if you could change flooring from carpet to hard surface, along the lines of double-sided flooring. You know those billboards you see on the highway that flip every 30 seconds? Triangular prism things that swivel and on the different sides you have different designs...could this technology translate into the floor?”

Inspired by seeing an arcade where people were interacting with a game projected from a screen in the floor, she suggested that paper-thin screens could allow users to switch flooring designs from one visual to another that suits their current activities or mood. 

Mac Stopa: founder of Massive Design – winner of IIDA’s 2017 Titan Award

Stopa works with many new processes to create his cutting-edge designs across a range of disciplines: architecture, interior design, flooring, industrial design, art and fashion.

“Designs and trends are driven by technology, especially in the 21st century,” says Stopa. “It changes faster every decade, creating a domino effect. This will bring a new world of super performing products and manufacturing that we can’t even imagine.” He forecasts new materials in new shapes, put together in new ways that are made of new polymers that are super light and durable.

3D printing will become an integral part of both product development and manufacturing processes, with 3D printed objects available for everyday use that span a broad product spectrum. The 3D laser printer will create a new generation of products that will be produced very quickly, lowering their cost. “In 20 years, floorcovering could be 3D printed. With its detailed control, it will be able to create layers of yarns of different properties and will offer mixing and matching of color.”

As others noted, the workplace is changing. Stopa points out that everything is being designed with an open spaces floor plan for collaboration and integration. This impacts the overall architecture, with the floor plate designed to accommodate the new office environment, creating a need for different kinds of components, different windows, different types of shell and core. This trend is spreading throughout the corporate world. “Ten to 20 years ago, only high tech companies such as Google appreciated these types of spaces. The trend spread to telecommunication companies, then to consumer goods, followed by financial institutions. Step after step. Who is not yet ready for open, collaborative spaces? Lawyers. Lawyers work in private offices, on telephones, surrounded by paperwork.” He expects this to change in the coming decades, when the technology and methods of communication change the traditional law office.

Brenda Knowles: Shaw Contract’s VP of commercial marketing and product development
Reesie Duncan: VP of global design at Shaw Contract Group

Knowles and Duncan look to the future with open minds. Duncan notes that in the last 25 years, changes in floorcovering have been steady and iterative rather than dramatic. She anticipates the next 25 years will see bigger changes where flooring is created to be more of a system that could work to alter the interior environment. This would be a material solution; currently, floorcovering has a more aesthetic and utilitarian purpose.

Knowles agrees. Everything is getting smarter, she notes, and there is more thought about how things fit together. They anticipate that smart flooring will be an opportunity for components of the built environment to come together as an integrated system of technology-along with power, heating/cooling, security and other functions-instead of as an individual material within a space.

Flooring could also become a more experiential element, with people interacting with floors, walls and ceilings in a participatory learning experience. It could evolve into a lot of possibilities. Interestingly enough, this technology was actually imagined in the 1950s by Ray Bradbury.

They ask, “In 25 years, could the flooring be flexible enough that it could change in some way, without physically picking flooring up and putting new flooring down? Not only change in a big functional way, but also change in a design way?” For example, if it were raining outside, it could change to a colorful environment with a flip of a switch, changing the mood of the space in an emotional way.

Expanding on the idea of virtual reality, could a hologram allow people in different locations to virtually be in a meeting together? “Hologram technology may evolve to a point where you are in Cartersville, and I am in Dubai, and we could interact as if we were in the same space.”

Knowles and Duncan emphasize the importance of transparency, now and in the future. Sustainable materials will continue to be a catalyst for product design. The hope is that there are new materials that can be used and re-used that haven’t even been thought of.

Jackie Dettmar: Mohawk’s VP of product design and development – industry veteran
Dettmar anticipates that flooring materials will continue to evolve with the elimination of harmful chemicals and better solutions for product end-of-life. She expects that bio-based fiber innovations will continue to progress with sources other than corn, sources that are not taking from feedstock chains. Petroleum-based fibers will become a thing of the past.

“Something is going to make our flooring adaptable, changeable, not static, instead of being something that is part of the environment. A static material is something we don’t experience. Technology will help control floor patterns, colors, and textures to easily change based on tasks and moods. Carpet may incorporate built-in effects that would emerge under certain conditions, such as color-adapting capability that responds to the time of day and circadian cycles.” Dettmar has seen an early indicator for this in education, where some schools have lighting that changes throughout the day.

Like others in the survey, Dettmar expects the use of virtual reality to become commonplace, with haptic technology adding another dimension to product selection. “We will replace product samples with virtual reality and haptic screens, technologies that are already beginning to be used for both planning and design.” With a haptic screen, Dettmar explains, the user can touch the image and be able to experience the texture and quality of a material.

Smart floors will capture and use data to affect how space is used, taking advantage of information collected from flooring. This could include customer patterns in retail spaces and activity patterns in the workplace, as well as productivity and health-related information. She brings up a profound question: who will keep all this running? It will take a trained workforce and new systems to manage connected floorcovering.

Sara Babinski: Armstrong Flooring’s design manager for hardwood and laminate, residential and commercial markets

Babinski expands on similar themes, like 3D printing and embossing, haptic technology and smart floors. She sees 3D printing as a way to create embossed and debossed texture, possibly replacing current methods of flatbed press, cylinder or chemical embossing. The process would build up the surface in layers, with a depth of space that creates a hyper-realistic visual. “Seeing some of this on the floor, with real depth, might be unsettling. Yet it could work if used conservatively and correctly, for example for surfaces that need to be very detailed in order to be realistic, like stone or tropical exotic hardwoods.”

Babinski expects that virtual reality and augmented reality, currently used primarily by engineers and industrial designers, will become commonplace. She sees it as a wonderful tool for retailers, giving their customers the opportunity to experience a product while walking through their own space.

“I worry about, as we move into the future, whether we are going to lose a handcrafted artisan look. Haptic technology may help by bringing the touch of materials to our experience. With haptic feedback you would be able to touch the screen and feel a material’s qualities, such as satin, gloss and matte surfaces, with texture and depth. Taking it a step further, you could even create fantasy textures.” This technology would be a powerful tool for product selection for both homeowners and commercial designers. She sees a timeline for haptic technology of 12 to 15 years.

In the future, Babinski projects, flooring will likely become responsive. It could change color with seasons, be used for biometrics, or be interactive in terms of controlling other actions in the home with either sensor or voice activation. Floors might be self-healing and self-repairing when they get scratched, dented and chipped.

To the question of who is going to fix it. Babinski quickly responded, “Your robot, of course.”

Roby Isaac: Mannington’s VP of commercial design

Isaac sees big changes coming in fabrication technology and customization. He expects 3D print technology to become a catalyst for the design process. “No one has touched 3D printing in flooring. It’s a slow process, but it is not going to be slow forever. It will challenge creative people and also challenge operations. I would love to be involved with 3D processes in product development.” With 3D printing, you could approach sustainability in a new way and create material from the outset that has the sustainable attributes you want. It would be possible to design in wellness attributes and incorporate chemistry and engineering to address comfort, sound and indoor air quality.

The ability to personalize interiors is key. “Today you can almost get whatever you want as quickly as you want it.” Isaac anticipates changes throughout the custom carpet process. He sees tufting machine manufacturers continuing to drive innovation in pattern and design technology, mentioning the Colorpoint machine as an example with its increased number of colors and ability to create complex pattern. This technology has allowed manufacturers to get closer to what the customer wants.

Looking forward, he notes, “Right now, jumps forward are little jumps. We’re still living in the little jumps. Whoever figures out the next leap will get a lot of attention, if they do it right.”

Terry Mowers: VP of product design, commercial products, Tarkett NA

Mowers sees the future in positive terms, adding that, “the near future is not a post-apocalyptic nor a ‘crystalline utopia.’ The near future is not an unpleasant place to be. It is a world of pleasurable experiences, a future where you can have what you want.”

What designers want is to express their visions while offering a positive and productive environment for the people who work in their spaces. Mowers looks forward to a time when designers can get any design, color, texture, size, shape and construction or content they want. Every product would be bespoke-a British term referring to high-end custom tailoring-and completely personalized. He sees a day when the large corporate customer will attract and retain the best talent with the appeal of its own personalized workspace within the corporate environment.

This customization may need to be on a very small scale. While workplace design becomes increasingly seamless and intuitive with spaces flowing into each other, employees may also have smaller, personalized workspaces that are as quirky and different as they are. Along with workplace design evolving, so too will employees’ roles. The role and knowledge of facility and HR professionals will evolve, becoming a more nurturing and enabling role, in order to create healthy and productive environments.

Mowers is looking at what it would take in terms of process and technology to manufacture these small, personalized runs, projecting technical advances in many manufacturing processes that will make it possible to drive down to zero minimums for custom projects. Digital printing, with its greater speed and serviceability, is one technology that will help achieve this goal.

“The future is not going to be so drastically different. What I hope I have accomplished and will leave with my staff is a continued drive towards refinement, curation, simplification.”

Todd van der Kruik: VP of design at Bentley Mills

Van der Kruik also thinks that while technology has made amazing advances, in the world of flooring, not a lot has changed. “Evolved a bit, sure, but really changed? Not so much.”

The greatest change has had more to do with sustainability. “I think what has changed is our level of awareness, our attitude toward the environment and to what degree the materials we use affect the quality of our lives in general. I think all of these thoughts will continue to guide us into the future, and the process of developing product within this ‘awakened’ mindset will become the catalyst for much bigger changes moving forward.”

He expects the floor to become transformative, restorative and in many ways beneficial to the environments in which we live and work. “In the last couple of years, we have seen how the rise of technology has altered the way we use traditional office space. Flooring systems will help designers find solutions for this complex, ever-changing environment, not only accommodating the shifting workplace, but enabling it.”

In addition to being a layer of design within a space, flooring provides many utilitarian functions. Van Der Kruik sees that, going forward, flooring will become more multi-functional in the widest sense, as well as interactive. “Perhaps there will be a day when flooring can actually improve the environment by acting as a colossal filter, or harnessing the collective energy of foot traffic. It will most certainly become a method of relaying information, through embedded LED or similar technology-alerting you to the nearest exit in the event of fire or guiding you to a gift shop as you exit the museum.

“It’s hard to say exactly what the future holds, but I do feel like big changes will come-and I’m excited to see what the next evolution of flooring will be.”

Like others in this group, David Oakey expects that the use of robotics will become commonplace for manufacturing. Robotics will change how we work. Although tens of millions of jobs will likely be lost due to robotics, human workers could segue into new kinds of jobs.

Michael Braungart anticipates that most companies will use robots for hard physical work, and that they will be rented, not owned. Robots will handle processes such as dis-assembly, installation and take-back systems. People will be needed for customer facing roles-like educating, giving advice, transferring information-and for managing the robotic systems themselves.

Copyright 2017 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Interface, Shaw Industries Group, Inc., Armstrong Flooring, Tarkett, Mohawk Industries, Mannington Mills