New materials and technology bring increased opportunities for membrane pressing operations.

Although membrane pressing might once have been relegated strictly for kitchen cabinetry and other vertical applications, machinery manufacturers and material suppliers say new technology developments have increased the number of opportunities for this process.



“Originally the applications were in the kitchen industry, but it has branched out quite a bit,” says Dave Ortmayer, COO at Italpresse. “Some of that has been driven by new materials. For instance, the office furniture industry is taking advantage of PVCs that are designed for horizontal applications like desktops. We also are seeing [horizontal] applications in store fixture manufacturing and institutional casegoods applications, such as medical center and hospital cabinetry and fixtures.”



Gary Haider, vice president of sales for Midwest Group One, echoed Ortmayer’s statements, adding, “There is now a trend into horizontal markets that were traditionally for high-pressure laminate or melamine.”



One reason for the growing popularity, says Ken McFadden, Wemhöner product manager for Stiles Machinery Inc., may be due to consumer acceptance of other materials for these applications.



“There’s an increased acceptance of thermofoil products into other markets besides kitchen cabinet doors,” McFadden says. “I was recently at the Global Shop show in Las Vegas for store fixture manufacturers. Each year, I have seen an increase in the amount of thermofoil products each company is representing.



“Even store displays are being made of new materials like Kydex, which gives impact resistance for shopping carts,” he adds. “Point-of-purchase displays are using it, too. People might bang their shopping carts into the displays, but they will not dent. In the office furniture market, [thermoformed materials] are being used to good results, too.



“In terms of applications [for the material], the uses have expanded,” agrees Jim Barnett, business manager for American Renolit Corp.



“The market started with cabinet doors, then expanded to office furniture and store fixtures. Now we see more uses in health care, where there are performance properties as well as the safer profiled edges. The durability and chemical resistance of 3-D laminates are well suited to most of the cleaning procedures used in health care furniture and components. This performance, combined with seamless edge design capability, provides an ideal solution,” Barnett adds.



“Improved toughness and hardness have opened these new applications,” says Robert Shaw, vice president of sales and marketing for Shaw Almex USA. He notes that even five years ago, there were not the broad horizontal applications such as desktops, work surfaces, checkout counters and service desks, that are seen today. “Over half of our press sales in the past two years have been to fixture companies and institutional furniture manufacturers,” he adds.



Pressing Made Easier

“The material suppliers have contributed to the success overall of membrane pressing because of their development in the rigidity of the products as well as the different colors,” McFadden says. “For awhile, up until five or six years ago, the machinery technology was ahead of the laminating technology and now I see it the other way around. The materials manufacturers are doing their job in developing new products and that is enabling new machinery sales.”



Also helping sales has been the recent advancements in machine technology, says Haider. New developments include better fixturing and machines with special heating systems designed to handle the high temperatures needed to press thermofoils for horizontal applications.



“The materials also are known as horizontal-grade thermofoils. Materials like Kydex and Surfex have modified PVCs that require higher temperatures to get the results you need as far as contouring,” Haider says. The new heating systems also work with traditional PVCs.



Another development has been to improve the automation of these machines. “Most of the more recent developments on the equipment side have been in automating the process to a greater extent,” says Ortmayer, “and getting rid of the need for fixture panels or riser panels in the presses by using some type of automated pedestal system on the press. There are a number of systems developed that are suitable for even the smallest facilities all the way to the very advanced systems with scanning and the elimination of setup by operators.



“Another addition to production that is speeding up the pressing process,” Ortmayer adds, “is material handling systems that load and set panels into the machines and remove them after pressing, replacing what used to be a strictly manual operation.”



Shaw also notes the increased emphasis by many to reduce labor costs while increasing output and reducing rejects. “In a global economy, it is critical that producers be as cost effective as possible.” He cites automatic jig systems, automatic press loaders and unloaders, automatic trimming stations, buffing stations and automatic panel cleaning stations as examples of some of the labor saving, quality-improving systems now found in a membrane press line.



Another innovation cited by McFadden is variable pin systems for automatic fixturing. “It is an automatic fixturing system that supports the part you are pressing, instead of individual spoil boards or fixture boards for each component,” he says. “We also have a system that scans the parts on the tray and elevates the parts accordingly so you can press them. It is especially helpful when a manufacturer is doing a lot of custom production.



“Production is becoming more custom, rather than running large batch sizes,” he adds. “The automatic pin system lets them do that because they do not have to mess with the spoil boards. Other changes include enhanced features, such as touchscreen controls that make adjustments on the presses much easier and allow operators to adapt to different settings based on material thickness.”



Material Options Increase Popularity

In addition to material thickness, developments have been made to the sizes of film. “We can make films wider than the standard press widths now,” says Barnett. “This extra width enables better yields, particularly with large parts like a 30-inch-wide desktop. A normal press would press only one across, while wider films can get two across.”



Shaw and others also note that the improved appearance of the woodgrain thermofoils, which provide a more natural look and feel, have added to the growing popularity for membrane pressed products.



“The new thermofoils offer a special topcoat primer that allows glazing directly on the thermofoil and 3-D ‘ticking’ or embossing, which gives the real wood look,” Shaw says. “The softer thermofoils give an improved tactile feel, so the material feels like wood, not plastic.”



He adds, “As solid wood costs and labor costs escalate, the use of 3-D thermofoil will continue to grow. This will drive the producers to automated and robotic labor solutions. New designs, improved realism and colors are opening doors to new applications, such as marine, RV and campers, RTA and flat pack furniture, garages and workshops and closets.”



“As the materials are discovered or advantages are realized by different industries, you see more designers begin to spec the products,” adds Ortmayer. “I think the possibilities are extensive for the product as a surfacing material and they have in no way exhausted the possibilities for use. Market demand is driving it. I see growth in [membrane pressing] in some of the emerging markets due to developments on the materials side as the materials suppliers come up with more designs and colors.



For more information on membrane press equipment and material suppliers, consult the Red Book at www.redbookonline.com.


In addition to doors, new opportunities for membrane pressing include horizontal applications in office furniture, fixture manufacturing and institutional casegoods applications. Photo courtesy of American Renolit
Recent advancements in machine technology include the use of a variable pin system for automatic fixturing. Photo courtesy of Stiles Machinery Kitchen cabinetry remains one of the most popular end uses for membrane pressing.

Photo courtesy of American Renolit