Berco Inc. has integrated biodegradeable linoleum surfaces into its table top offerings as an environmental alternative to high-pressure laminates.

 

     
Berco Inc.

St. Louis, MO

Berco Inc. manufactures tables for conference rooms, restaurants and training rooms. It also manufactures computer tables for schools and companies throughout the United States and exports to foreign countries.

Three Keys

1. Customers can create a variety of “custom” tables by mixing and matching a wide assortment of materials. The company offers more than 60 metal powder coatings for its table legs, 15 vinyl edgings, 20 wood edges and numerous laminate colors from Pionite, Wilsonart, Nevamar and Formica as well as linoleums from Forbo.

2. The company has integrated linoleum into its surface material offerings. The linoleum gives Berco the ability to build a “green” table called the IO. The linoleum is biodegradeable and the aluminum table legs can be recycled.

3. Berco has also implemented a lean manufacturing to create more efficiency in its production process.

 
   
     

For 25 years, high-pressure laminates have and continue to serve Berco Inc. of St. Louis, MO, well for surfacing training and other specialty tables.

In fact, Berco currently offers customers a choice of more than 5,000 laminate colors and patterns from such companies as Pionite, Wilsonart, Formica and Nevamar.

In the last couple of years, however, in response to the environmental movement that is finding its way into the architect and design community, Berco began offering a work surface-grade linoleum product from Forbo. Marmoleum, as Forbo calls it, is a biodegradeable product made from linseed oil, wood flour, rosin binders, dry pigment, mixed and calendered into a jute backing. It shares many of the same performance characteristics and fabricating requirements of decorative laminates.

“Many architects and designers these days are building offices, colleges and schools to fit environmental or the 'green movement' standards,” says Robert Beegle, general manager.

“They want the furniture in the buildings to coincide with the environmental aspects of the building itself,” adds Elliot Baum, director of engineering. “We started offering the option of tables that could meet this requirement.”

The linoleum option dramatically increases the design possibilities offered to Berco’s customers.

“We have 60 different powder coating color offerings for our metal table bases,” says Beegle. “For our table tops, we have 20 wood stains, numerous wood profiles, 15 vinyl edgings, hard PVC and soft PVC edges as well as numerous laminate and linoleum colors. We also offer custom legs and table top surfaces to match any color or decor.”

Five years ago, Berco began offering computer tables for use in training rooms, classrooms and offices. These and other standard and custom tables are manufactured by 34 of Berco’s 58 employees in an assembly-line fashion at the company’s 80,000-square-foot plant.

Why Choose Linoleum?

High-pressure laminate is a hard substance and does not scratch easily, but it has decorative paper that is laid up with layers of resins to create the laminate sheets. Linoleum, on the other hand, is a natural product made from linseed oil, which is made by pressing seeds of the flax plant.

     
 
Berco Inc.’s powered computer tables — the PowerNet Raceway — are surfaced with laminate and edged in vinyl. The training table, called IO, is surfaced in linoleum with aluminum legs to comply with “environmental” considerations.  
     

“One reason our company chose the Forbo linoleum is because it is a growing product that is also biodegradeable,” says Craig Eckelkamp, plant operations manager. “It can also heal if it is not cut deep. For instance, if you are sitting at your desk and skim the surface of the desk with a letter opener it will grow back together after a period of time.”

According to the company, the healing aspect gives it an added plus for classroom usage where tables are moved and could be abused by students. In addition, linoleum has bacterial fighting agents and biosides which are naturally present.

“The bacterial fighting aspect has made linoleum an appealing surface to health care facilities, schools and hospitals,” says Baum. “They consider linoleum a plus because of this and its other environmental aspects.”

Berco’s environmentally- conscious customers, from designers and architects to dealers, choose linoleum surfaces because it has biodegradeable properties.

“They like the fact that if you put it in the ground it completely degrades,” says Baum. “We also combined the linoleum-surfaced top with aluminum legs that can be recycled, water-based glue, ABS for smaller parts and reforested birch plywood.”

Linoleum’s Performance Trials

As with many new material introductions and innovative ideas, Berco quickly found out what linoleum can and cannot do. The company also quickly discovered it had to be handled and applied in a slightly different manner than high-pressure laminate.

According to Baum, the company applies laminate to MDF panels or plywood, but it only uses Finnish birch plywood for linoleum.

“We use plywood the most for our tables because it creates a balanced panel,” says Baum. “Tables are not supported continuously like a countertop. Because pedestals only support the table in two locations we have to be very mindful of warpage.”

According to Baum, it took some trial and error to find out that Finnish birch plywood specifically supports the weight of the linoleum best. In addition, Finnish birch plywood coincides with “green” concerns because it is reforested.

Another discovery for Berco has been that linoleum keeps its color all the way through. If a piece of laminate is scratched the phenolic could show through.

“For tables that are in classrooms and high-traffic areas, linoleum can at times take scratches better,” Baum says. “It’s softer than laminate, but it is 1/8 inch thick that is solid in color all the way to the jute. The linoleum also can be more simply reconditioned and repaired with some oils.”

The company at first recommended three standard solid colors and patterns for its linoleum products. That is until it discovered linoleum can have the same problem with scratches on certain solid colors as laminate.

“We have discovered that a patterned linoleum is better to use than a solid color linoleum,” says Beegle.

Baum adds, “We discovered the solids can show more of the scratches just like glossy laminate. Now we are encouraging people to pick the patterned linoleums because it is harder to see any scratches.”

Processing with Care

Through trial and error, Berco has learned how to handle the linoleums differently than laminates. It can require a bit more care at some steps of the process.

Berco gets its laminates in nine standard sheet sizes and its linoleum in 79-inch-wide cut-to-size rolls per order.

     
Improving with Lean Manufacturing

Berco Inc., like many wood product companies, has implemented lean manufacturing to better achieve productivity and delivery goals. The company needed to better integrate its metal shop materials to come together with its table tops as well as to be able to offer multiple edging, surface and material options to its customers.

“Our workers are packing right off of the workstation now,” says Craig Eckelkamp, plant operations manager. “At times we would have materials and work-in-process on floor. Now if an order comes in for tables with all of the same bases and tops, we can move it all straight through the process in two days.”

Berco orders materials on an as-needed basis. According to Eckelkamp, the largest part of the company’s lead time is in waiting for surfacing materials. With more than 5,000 laminate colors and patterns offered, the company relies more and more on its suppliers to provide materials on an as-needed basis.

The company has also reduced its cycle times and its two assembly lines down from 80 feet to 12 and 35 feet respectively as well as implemented more quality controls.

“It used to take 20 minutes with six to seven people just to assemble one leg which has 57 or 58 different parts,” says Eckelkamp. “Now we can do both legs in three minutes with two people. We can have the full table assembled in under the time it used to take us to assemble one leg.”

The table base manufacturing operation is now coordinated with the company’s table top production because the top production has more constraints and takes more time. By integrating the two processes, table bases do not stack up waiting for tops.

“Now we are not really getting behind on things or ahead, but staying right with the production schedule,” says Eckelkamp. “Now if someone calls in with an ‘emergency’ order and says, ‘I need three tables as soon as possible,’ we can get them to the customer quickly because we have built in reaction time.”

— Bernadette Freund

 
   
     

The first major step in processing is acclimation for both the surfacing materials and the substrates.

“We will not use any core unless it has been sitting at the back end of this (laminate and receiving) room for at least two weeks for acclimation,” says Eckelkamp. “When the laminate and linoleum come in the door they have to acclimate overnight at least to reach moisture content balance before we will start to use them.”

Laminates and linoleums are cut and then acclimated with the backer in a large shelving unit. This assures that they come out at the same moisture content. According to Baum, if the backer and linoleum or laminate are not stored together they could vary in length as much as a 1/4 inch, which creates the potential for serious warping.

     
 
Workers build up a stack of fully-surfaced panels and then roll the stack over on conveyors to the Black Bros. press. After the stack is pressed it sits for 24 hours even though Berco manufactures on a two- to six-hour cure. This assures the workers that boards have a tight bond.  
     

The company uses National Casein PVA water-based adhesives for application. There is only one main difference between the laminates and linoleums when they go through the spreader.

“We were hand rolling all of our linoleum tops at first,” says Eckelkamp. “Now we have it down to where we can actually roll it through the spreader. It can get tricky when there are five or six tops run at a time because of the pre-cure issues on the glue.”

Step by Step

The linoleum is cut to size in the same manner as laminate sheets on an Altendorf America F45 sliding table saw. Then the board is fed through a Black Bros. glue spreader to apply the water-based glue. Next, the board is placed on top of a low-phenolic paper backer sheet and then the linoleum sheet is applied.

The process is then repeated until a stack of linoleum panels is made. The stack is then pushed along on roller conveyors to a Black Bros. cold press. After the stack is pressed it sits for 24 hours to cure.

“We manufacture from a two- to six-hour cure,” says Eckelkamp. “However, we let them sit for 24 hours just to make sure there is a tight bond. Maintaining proper film thickness of glue helps with the space between the jute on the bottom of the linoleum, eliminating pockets that could be torn by the router.”

The panels are machined on a Komo CNC router for round tops or curved tops or a Celaschi double-end tenoner for squared tops. They then have ABS edgebanding applied by a Brandt edgebander for the linoleum or “green” tables. Profiled solid wood edges or t-mold vinyl edges are applied to the laminate panels by hand.

The finished linoleum panels then are joined together with the aluminum legs from the metal shop. The leg mechanisms are put on the legs; the legs are assembled with the tops and the entire order goes out the door.

“We spent a lot of time experimenting with the linoleum,” says Eckelkamp. “Now we have its application down to a science.”

“Now we can offer an environmentally-sound table in the same amount of time as a laminated or veneered table,” Beegle adds. “Using linoleum has helped us keep up with the demands of the market and allowed us to offer our customers something specific that they want.”

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