Three Decades Of Innovation: Developments in construction, design and chemistry have transformed the industry - Aug/Sept 2022
By Piet Dossche, founder, US Floors & the Coretec brand
Resilient has been a flooring category for a long time but really got popular with consumers due to three developments and bundled innovations.
First, the print films and decors improved substantially in clarity and authenticity, mimicking the “real floor look” perfectly! The consumer embraced this new look and welcomed it into her home. Secondly, the invention of WPC and rigid core made resilient look and feel no longer as a flimsy plastic floor but like a real flooring plank or tile, which could now be installed over imperfect floors. And finally, as a result of this rigid core construction, all the installation techniques developed for laminate and engineered wood, as well as the surface textures like embossing and bevel enhancements, could be applied, improving the authentic flooring look even further.
The growth of LVT during the last nine years, ever since Coretec pioneered this new rigid core technology, has been exceeding everyone’s expectations. LVT now accounts for more than 20% of the flooring market, good for over $7 billion at wholesale, with a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of more than 25% over the last five years!
As the second largest flooring category behind carpet, LVT is now in every channel of distribution in residential and commercial, in big box and specialty retail, as well as online. Its popularity and consumer acceptance keeps growing, with no limit to further expansion in sight.
All this triggered a rapid and continuous innovation in new types of rigid core flooring, with an emphasis on aesthetics and waterproof first, coupled with focus on performance in scratch, sound and enhanced comfort.
The genie is out of the bottle. There’s no turning back. The best is yet to come!
By John Rietveldt, founder & CEO, I4F
The first mechanical locking system was Välinge’s 2G, which was developed in 1993 by a former Pergo employee and licensed to Alloc for laminate flooring and to Kährs for wood flooring. This development is what allowed laminate flooring and the whole glueless floating floor concept to take off. Without the development of mechanical locking systems, the laminate category would never have become so popular.
In 1997, Unilin developed its angle-angle Uniclic locking system for its Quick-Step brand of laminate flooring. It was around that same time that LVT producers started experimenting with using locking systems.
Sometime around 2005, Classen developed its Megaloc fold-down with plastic strip system, and Välinge introduced its 5G system. In 2009, I4F introduced its one-piece drop-lock system, which allowed manufacturers to increase their production speeds. It was also easier for installers to use.
As rigid LVT systems were developed, the share of flooring that used locking systems grew more rapidly.
Not only did these mechanical locking systems eliminate the need for adhesives, they sped up the time it took for professional installers to install flooring and opened the door for DIY hard surface installation.
The latest developments are focused on making the seam water resistant.
By Frank Douglas, former vice president of business development, Crossville Inc.
Up until the mid ’90s, porcelain was almost strictly commercial. Very little was used residentially. That began changing due to improvements to the material’s visuals and a growing awareness about its tough, durable nature.
As commercial and residential began pulling more closely together, three things made the biggest impact to the category’s growth: the application of digital print and mixing that with other decorations to make a good-looking product, moving the category from utilitarian to high design; the ability to make larger sizes; and the ability to make thinner tiles, which has opened up new categories including wall and countertop use and tile over other installations on the floor or the wall, which means users can create a refreshed surface without having to tear everything out.
These developments changed the category drastically. Look at homes today; porcelain is used in all parts of the home because it is durable, low maintenance and visually appealing.
In commercial, we see porcelain taking share from marble and stone, as it provides the ability to feature those looks in installations where stone wouldn’t work functionally. Carrara marble, for instance, is very soft, but in porcelain, it is super durable. And with wood looks, unlike real wood, it never needs to be refinished.
These technological advancements have enabled porcelain to combine form and function. Look at the new wallpaper designs made with digital printing; in porcelain, we can create any visual in a super-low maintenance and durable product.
By Charles Monroe, co-founder, former CEO, board member, Card-Monroe
The most significant developments in my 50 years in the business have happened in the last 30. There are two innovations that were very significant in terms of the aesthetics of carpet, and both of these had significant impacts in all carpet markets and products: residential, commercial, hospitality, broadloom, carpet tile and area rugs.
The first one is single-end yarn control on the tufting machine, which allows for each end of yarn to be controlled by its own servo motor. This occurred in the early 2000s. For scale, if we are tufting a 15’ carpet, and the gauge of machine is 1/10, that means ten needles per inch across width of carpet or around 1,800 needles total. And that means 1,800 servo motors that are working together and generating heat, so the machines had to handle that heat with the responsiveness to run productively.
What this did was allow for each end of yarn to be controlled; up until that point, you had to have pattern repeats across the width, and that created many different problems. For instance, we were clicking out 18” carpet tile, but that didn’t align with the pattern repeat. It made for some awfully ugly installations. Infinity allowed for single-end control with infinite repeats, so the pattern for each tile could be unique. You could put them quarter turn or random lay and have more free-flowing design.
The second significant development was ColorPoint, which allows for any color to be placed in any stitch location. In single-end yarn control, we can control the amount of yarn and put any color of yarn in any stitch location. This meant that, all of the sudden, anything that could be drawn could be reproduced in carpet. Around 2008 or ’09, ColorPoint became a significant part of the market. And with design and color having an ever-increasing prominence in the market sectors, floorcovering became more of a design element.
In the residential market, we used to offer basic beige carpet primarily. Today, if you look at the high-end residential replacement market, consumers are buying pattern and texture, and both single-end servo yarn control and ColorPoint are the central factors in that increasing market.
In addition, these innovations enabled carpet tile to be a design element in any commercial setting. The floor became a colorful, beautiful aesthetic design element instead of an industrial grey expanse.
I expect we will see design capabilities continue to grow. It took two or three years for people to see ColorPoint’s full design capability and its ability to adapt to various market segments.
By Don Finkell, founder, American OEM; & vice president, AHF
Aluminum oxide finish was the most significant development in hardwood flooring over the course of the last 30 years.
There are really two parts to the aluminum oxide finish innovation: the original aluminum oxide finish from Anderson in 1996 called Rhinopoly and the scratch-resistant finish from Shaw in 2010 called Scuff Resist Platinum.
Rhinopoly had a large aluminum oxide particle-all that was available back then-embedded in the first clear coat UV sealer; this greatly improved its Taber test results. At that time, hardwood was being replaced by laminate partly because the laminate finish wore so much better. After the aluminum oxide sealer coat was rolled on, it took several more coats of clear UV finish to hide the particles. Otherwise, it created a gritty and sparkly look to the finish.
Scuff Resist Platinum was a scratch-resistant surface achieved by embedding a very small aluminum oxide particle in the last UV topcoats. A Scotch-Brite pad could be rubbed across the Scuff Resist finish and not make a scratch-when the same was done with a competitor’s finish, it dulled right away.
Both of these finishes were developed by Mark Rintoul, who was first an Axalta rep to Anderson and then, after he retired, hired as technical director at Shaw Hardwood.
Here’s what led to these developments: when laminate debuted on the American floorcovering scene in the early 1990s, customers were impressed by how long the finish lasted and by the dramatically better abrasion test results achieved in comparison to hardwood. Pretty soon, they were asking why hardwood’s finish, which they had loved just a couple of years before, was so inferior. We really didn’t know.
Then one night about 3:00 a.m., I got a call from a former employee, who was now working for a competitor. “I know how they make laminate wear so long,” he said. “It’s a mineral called aluminum oxide, and it looks like table salt.” He was at a laminate plant in Germany.
I called Mark and asked him if he had ever heard of aluminum oxide. He had not. He researched it and found that it is essentially what sandpaper grit is made out of. I suggested that we just throw some in the liquid UV polyurethane and see what happened. We did, and it ultimately transformed the industry. It took a few months to work through all the unexpected consequences of putting something that abrasive into the machinery, but we eventually got it figured out.
We introduced the finish in Las Vegas in 1996. We actually had two finishes we developed then: one with the particle in the first clear coat then covered up by the later coats, and one with the particles in multiple coats, including the topcoat. The first one we called Rhinopoly because our old finish was called Rhinotuff, and this new one had a particle in the polyurethane. You couldn’t tell one from the other.
We named the second finish, which had dramatically better Taber test results and wouldn’t scratch, Sharkskin, because that’s what it felt like. It also sparkled because the particles were big enough to see with the naked eye.
As engineering/manufacturing types, we couldn’t decide which one to go with: the one that looked pretty or the one that blew the Taber tests out of the water, so I decided to do half our booth in Rhinopoly and the other half in Sharkskin. The feedback from customers was instant and undeniable. They loved the added performance of Rhinopoly. And we never sold one square foot of Sharkskin. The moral of that story is, “If it ain’t pretty; it ain’t nothing.”
It was another 14 years before they were able to perfect the grinding and sifting of the aluminum oxide particles to get a really small, uniform particle to put into the topcoats that couldn’t be seen. That finish ended up being the Scuff Resist Platinum. Today, every manufacturer across the world uses some version of these two finishes.
By David Oakey, founder, David Oakey Designs
Carpet tile is by far the biggest change in the carpet industry. In the ’70s, there were two mills in LaGrange, Georgia-Milliken and Interface-pioneering the new product category. Back then, it was fusion-bonded, a slow, expensive process. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, new tufting technologies led to the option of tufting carpet tile, and this suddenly changed carpet tile’s growth. It changed the cost structure, leading to a product more comparable in pricing to broadloom. That’s the biggest change.
It was around 1992 when we really started to use tufting machines to make competitive products in the marketplace. We started to not design it to look like broadloom. We let the seams show-quarter turn and parquet. And new tufting technologies could hide a seam or make a seam show or make a transitional product.
At Paul Hawkens’ suggestion, I read Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry, about learning from nature. We had a workshop with Janine and her team around 1998, where she asked, How would nature design a carpet tile? We started to think about how everything we see outside is different in color and design, and everything we make in a synthetic way had a sameness to it. So we said, let’s try to design a product where each tile comes out a little different in color and design. The result was Entropy, the first random placement tile, released in the market in 2000.
Interface uses this design process maybe 60% of the time. Where we use it a lot is in residential Flor products, where the tiles often go randomly on the floor in different ways.
In 1992, carpet tile was largely used in corporate and open office. It could go up in elevators; tiles could be replaced. But the design aspect needed to change to go into other segments-residential, hospitality, healthcare, education. The technology of tufting pattern into the product enabled carpet tile to go into these other segments and grow.
It’s all up to the mills now to take it to the next level. I believe we have the technology, the capability, to make it look like an Oriental rug, an abstract painting-there are no limitations on design and color. I see no reason why carpet can’t grow through design and marketing.
One more thing: I think our industry, through consolidation and integration, has taken as much cost as possible out of making our products. Now, we’ve got to start to design great product and market it. I don’t think we’re going to be able to make the product any cheaper.
By Rich Pattinson, president, Beverly Knits
I see three major fiber-related areas that changed things up, and they are interrelated: lower DPF yarns driving softness; turn-key, commercially available extrusion platforms for investment; and advances in polyester polymer technology.
Early on, well before 1992, staple yarns dominated the synthetic carpet yarn market and were generally produced by large chemical companies, led by DuPont. Others such as Allied Signal and BASF followed on. To further define staple yarns, they took a cue from Mother Nature and designed them to mimic natural fibers, like cotton and wool, which had filaments with short lengths, and then combined them to create yarns through a series of “yarn spinning” steps. Synthetic fiber was extruded, chopped up and blended (to create uniformity), and then run through similar assembly (spinning) equipment (as was used for natural staple fibers) to create yarns. There were many steps in this manufacturing process, and the resulting yarns attracted the associated costs of those multiple steps.
The ability to produce uniform synthetic filament yarns (BCF, bulked continuous filament) took place prior to the last 30 years. But this, by itself, was a game changer. BCF carpet yarn production was generally an efficient, single-step process that yielded uniform synthetic yarns that, due to bulking technology-tiny crimps in the filaments-behaved like a bigger yarn, creating fuller, thicker-feeling carpets. BCF carpet yarns gradually obsoleted staple carpet yarns.
Engineering advances enabled a drop in denier per filament (DPF) of those BCF carpet yarns and led to softer-feeling carpets. DuPont pioneered this approach in the ’90s and branded it “Tactesse,” and other producers of BCF followed. Dropping the denier per filament meant that more smaller holes were added to the spinneret through which the polymer was pumped-think of a showerhead with the filaments being the individual water streams flowing out. This increase in the number of holes and making them smaller resulted in much finer filaments in a given denier of yarn, which created a softer tactile experience to the hand.
Denier per filament of BCF carpet yarns was historically 20 DPF-think relatively coarse, builder-grade, entry-level carpet-but dropped to 12 DPF with the first versions of Tactesse, then moved to 9 and 6 DPF. These days, some of the softest carpet yarns go down to 3 DPF, so that means that for a typical 1,400 denier BCF carpet yarn, once upon a time there would have been 70 filaments or 70 holes in the spinneret, but today, the spinneret for that 1,400 denier BCF carpet yarn may have up to 450 holes to produce a 3 DPF super soft yarn!
This required advancements in extrusion and winding technologies, precision machining of the metal spinnerets and extrusion platform designs with larger spinnerets to provide the real estate required for more holes. By the way, each of these holes in the spinneret are not just round holes, they are trilobal, a complex triangular shape, to enable forming individual filaments that have more strength and ability to “bulk.”
Early on, synthetic yarn production was dominated by the large chemical companies. These multibillion-dollar corporations had the resources to fund massive research and design centers to develop the extrusion equipment needed to run the chemicals and associated polymers-nylon 6 and 6,6-that they manufactured. Fifteen years ago, companies like European equipment manufacturer Oerlikon developed BCF yarn extrusion systems that could be purchased and installed by much smaller companies. Its off-the-shelf, turn-key technology enabled a range of smaller extrusion operations to start up in the U.S. and for carpet manufacturers to invest and extrude their own yarns. These extrusion systems were refined to enable the development of tactilely softer yarns with high yield and faster winding speeds, helping both productivity and cost. The systems were also adapted to help with the next major development, the use of next-generation polyester for BCF yarns.
The polymer resin market is a very capital-intense business, so only large-scale companies supply polymers to the competitive BCF extrusion market. Over time, the evolution of polymer technology has changed the mix of polymers used for BCF carpet yarns. Traditional polymers such as nylon were manufactured by the large chemical companies-DuPont, Allied Chemical, BASF and later Solutia (now Ascend)-that developed and installed their own yarn extrusion equipment to create nylon BCF yarns. Because of its toughness and higher melting point, alternate end uses for nylon 6,6 began to escalate its value. For example, nylon 6,6 became the preferred material for the engineered plastics market for the light-weighting of motor vehicles to increase their fuel efficiency. It is also commonly used for airbag fabrics in vehicles, so it gradually became a more expensive polymer.
Parallel to the nylon 6,6 demands of the engineered plastics market, the polyester resin manufacturers advanced their polymer recipes. It was actually polymer developments for the bottle resin market that completely changed the carpet market. In the early 2000s, the polyester resin suppliers discovered an additive that made polyester resin capable of being formed into low-haze, high-clarity bottles. Shortly thereafter, one-piece clear polyester bottles were formed-a great cost reduction for the beverage industry.
Thirty years earlier, carpet manufacturers had attempted to use polyester for carpet yarn, but these carpets had very low value as they crushed and “walked out.” Those polyester yarns were weak, incapable of being properly bulked and simply could not stand up to foot traffic, so the first generation of polyester filament carpets was a failure.
However, by 2010, the carpet industry had taken note of the advancements of PET bottle resin. It was the combination of the new polyester bottle resin with the newest extrusion equipment that enabled the production of high-value polyester BCF yarns that had enough backbone to yield carpet that could perform. Polyester BCF made with bottle resin was now capable of being extruded into lower DPF trilobal filaments. These filaments responded very well to improved bulking technology on the newest extrusion platforms. Because polyester yarns are not quite as robust as nylon yarns, the yarn engineers figured out that they had to add a bit more twist during the twist and heatset stage of yarn production to get them to hold up over time. The result was a family of soft polyester BCF carpet yarns with lasting bulk that mimicked the look and feel of more expensive nylon carpets.
The cost of all synthetic yarn resins ultimately relates back to cost of a barrel of oil. Polyester does cost less than nylon alternatives. Polyester resins are produced by several major manufacturers with enormous scale. Their operations are global and produce billions of pounds of material annually. They service packaging and yarn applications, including apparel, automotive, industrial and flooring. Generally, polyester resins average close to half the unit cost per pound of nylon resins and are much less volatile than the cost of polypropylene resins. The resulting economics transformed residential carpet. In the residential market, polypropylene carpet yarns in the U.S. have virtually disappeared, and nylon yarns have lost share to polyester yarns at all but the highest price points. But nylon yarns still dominate the commercial soft flooring market.
Investment in polyester BCF extrusion capacity has been extensive for the past 12 years and created a billion pounds of expansion for polyester resin producers. The off-the-shelf extrusion assets were also quite modular, so carpet yarn manufacturers installed smaller units with precision additive feeders that enabled them to economically extrude smaller lots of solution-dyed yarns. The use of solution-dyed yarns created very color-uniform yarns and solved some of the side-match installation uniformity issues of dyed carpets. The resulting “multicolored” aesthetics enabled residential carpet designers to emulate other natural surfaces in the consumer’s home, such as wood and granite.
By Roger Farabee, former president of North American wood products, Mohawk Industries
While laminate visuals have been continually enhanced, the process has, more or less, stayed the same. But as technology has evolved, it has allowed for a greater level of detail or realism, and that’s what sells a product. The more laminate looks like the real thing, the more appealing it will be. There is nothing more important in the selection of one product over another.
Most of today’s laminate is still produced using the rotogravure method, which is the equivalent of stamping an image onto a piece of paper. The better the etched image to be overlaid, the better the result will be, and in this case, that starts with capturing the details of a piece of wood, which is the majority of what is still used for laminate. It’s really about finding the right number of elements so that you don’t have to do a lot of modifications. That requires judgment, taste and an understanding of how well that will translate through all the processes the product goes through to get the desired result-which is just as important as the technology. Today’s technology can capture more of the image’s details than 20 years ago. And there have been new advancements in the actual engraving of the print cylinder, with some producers moving from the standard chemical etching to laser engraving, creating crisper visuals.
There is also more nuance through color. The standard four-color rotogravure printing has evolved to five-color printing-sometimes custom color printing or some metallics-not only on the typical decor paper, but on semi-transparent decor paper that can be added on top to create some special effect.
However, the biggest advancements are happening now as more producers go to digital printing. Some companies, Unilin for one, have gotten patents for processes in which a primer is applied to the decor paper before it’s digitally printed that enhances the colors and realism. And while many have come up with ways to introduce more plank visuals to a single rotogravure run, digital offers a whole new world without those limitations. Nature doesn’t repeat itself; each board is unique.
We’re also seeing advancements in 3D digital printing, in which the texture can be printed instead of applied via press plates. Producers are looking at edge treatments and how they can make those look more realistic as well.
As better processors come along and better digital processing software allows producers to capture and realistically create more of the original than before, the category gets ever closer to the unlimited natural variety of a piece of wood, and that opens up the audience to customers who may only have considered hardwood in the past.
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