In drawer slides, customers want soft-close and handle-free systems
August 15, 2011 | 10:40 am CDT

Woodworking manufacturers know the basic questions to ask when it comes to selecting a drawer slide: What is the type of installation, what length is needed and what are load capacity requirements?

"A cabinetmaker should consider how the drawers they are building will be used by their customer," says Dennis Poteat, marketing manager at Blum Inc. "A deep drawer, as an example, could hold quite a few heavy pots and pans and could quickly reach 50 or 60 pounds. Cabinetmakers should be aware of the load rating of a drawer runner and consider the application that each drawer may have in the cabinets or kitchen they are building. 'Real-life' tests of drawer runners are also a good idea."

Purchase Considerations

"What is often overlooked is how a drawer slide performs when drawers are fully loaded. That is when the tracking ability, the smooth feel, can decrease drastically. How much wiggle/side-to-side play is there? How much downward deflection in the open position is noticeable?" says Herb Schmidt, vice president at Fulterer USA.

"The first considerations when choosing a drawer slide should be weight capacity, size of drawers and high/low usage drawers," Schmidt adds. "Second are functional options such as partial extension/full extension, self/soft closing, push/touch to open. The aesthetic choices such as undermount, euro slide and/or ball-bearing, are often determined when making the choice for weight capacity because all have their limitations."

Mark Mrozik, national sales manager at Hettich America, notes that accessibility also plays an important role in the decision-making process. He notes that more and more customers “are requesting full access to the drawer contents by either a full extension slide or a full access slide."

Dean Bradshaw, marketing/customer relations manager at Ferrari America Inc., concurs, adding that "Once it is determined how much accessibility is needed by the customer, it is then essentially a process of elimination to determine the best type of slide." Factors to consider, he adds, include performance, appearance and price.

Price, as well as ease of installation, were also cited by Jan Fitzpatrick, customer and market relations manager at Grass America Inc. The flexibility to be able to use the same system on multiple cabinet lines may also be a consideration, she adds.

According to Claudia Tuttle, marketing manager at Accuride Intl, special features, such as locks, soft or self closing, touch release, action-assist, environmental factors and reliability, should also be considered.

"Special features are a large part of the selection process and are generally dictated by the specific application requirements," Tuttle adds. "Let's start with the locking mechanisms, which secure the slide in an open or closed position. For example, a pull-out butcher block in a kitchen would be ideal for a slide with a lock-out feature because it would hold the surface in place while in use.

"Features such as easy close (or soft close) may be a good choice in applications where quiet performance is desired, such as a baby's room, or cabinetry installed in a library or museum. A self-closing feature, which ensures drawers close and stay closed, is popular in storage applications found in professional offices or retail environments," she says.

Soft-Close Features

"Soft-close mechanisms are becoming a standard in medium-priced kitchens as well," says Matteo Fregosi, marketing manager at Salice America.

"A lot of customers are demanding more for their money and a soft-close mechanism for doors and drawers offers a possibility for the cabinetmaker to give a relatively inexpensive upgrade to his customers."

"By far, quiet-closing or soft-closing is the most popular feature customers are requesting for their drawers," agrees Poteat. He adds that customers often will request the technology both for wood as well as metal drawer systems.

"Soft-close mechanisms are basically [becoming] standard in concealed undermounts and double-walled drawer slides," adds Mae Holler, product manager at Häfele America. “Many companies are now offering ball-bearing slides with integrated soft-close mechanisms and others are offering stand-alone soft-close mechanisms which can be retrofitted."

"They are still the most popular feature customers' ask for,” adds Grant Nuckolls, purchasing manager at Hardware Resources. “We have added this feature to our undermount and ball bearing slides."

"Soft-close features are definitely a popular amenity for drawer slides, but I believe the most important feature in any drawer application today is 'concealment,'" counters Bradshaw. "Most homeowners today desire to have a hidden drawer system in their cabinets in order to showcase the entire drawer when fully opened. The less the hardware is exposed, the more appealing the unit becomes for the buyer."

Mechanical Systems

Handle-free systems are slowly gaining a following among North American consumers, though so far it seems to be in high-end and commercial applications.

"In Europe, the trend is to handle-free," Mrozik says. "[Here] we have seen demand among the high-end design-driven projects. That is, the design community is looking at this for their most sophisticated customers."

"Demand has been slow to grow, with affordability and complexity being the detractors to many of the automated or assisting systems," Tuttle says. “However, the simpler, more economical options are attracting more attention."

Fitzpatrick agrees. "This request is continuing to rise. For the sleek European look, this is perfect. The technology is better than ever for these types of drawers offering anything from a light touch to open a drawer to a push-touch effect.

"The spring-activated technology will be the first to gain popularity in the market, primarily because of the cost," she adds. "However, the electronic version will catch on even more. As our population continues to age, this will become a primary application for the ease of use of drawers."

"[The] touch-to-open feature is a great solution for a handle-free design," Poteat says. "Imagine grabbing a handful of tomato peels with both hands and stepping towards the waste drawer wondering how you are going to open it. With [this system] you could just touch the drawer front with your knee and it would open for you."

However, Fregosi notes, "[While] push-opening systems are gaining in popularity, [they] are somewhat curbed by the American market still being very oriented to 'design' knobs and pulls as a mean to finish the kitchen/bath products."

Nuckolls also noted a continued preference for knobs and pulls among American consumers. "We presently don't see much demand for this feature. The majority of our customers use our decorative hardware along with our slides, so they are not going for a handle-free look," he says.

Price, too, is a deterrent for some customers. "Most people find this feature fascinating; however budget restraints limit the demand," Holler says.

"There is a large grey area where opinions differ vastly," Schmidt adds. "Are there really any ergonomic advantages to the user? Definitely yes, for the physically challenged. Other than that, it is purely design-driven. Affordability is also questionable, especially with electric systems."

"Although these types of drawer systems [push-button or touch-sensitive] are very appealing and futuristic at first glance, the 'affordability factor' soon positions them as impractical for the average homeowner," Bradshaw says. "I do see some practical usages for these types of drawer systems in commercial or institutional applications, but I do not see this type of drawer system in the average home for many years to come. It is a little bit ahead of its time."

On the Horizon

Looking forward, Tuttle says, "I believe mechanical and electronic enhancements will continue to grow, evolve and become the new standard in hardware. In addition, I see the expansion of hardware features that benefit an aging population. Cost-conscious consumers also expect upgraded features to provide value and reliability."

Load capacity continues to be an issue for consumers. "Customers are demanding slides that are stronger and have more weight capacity as the drawers in the kitchen become bigger and bigger," Fregosi notes. "Something on the horizon for us is a system of undermount slides that would be push-opening and soft-close at the same time, without reverting to electrically powered devices which are very expensive and somewhat not user-friendly as far as maintenance and installation," he adds.

"Customers are always looking for a more cost-effective way to get the job done. They want to see ways they can cut cost without sacrificing certain elements," Nuckolls says.

Mrozik agrees. "End users are asking for more features at less price. They are requesting soft close, drawer organization systems, smooth running quality. We have seen an increase in demand from end users in the area of organization," Mrozik says.

Meanwhile, he adds, "Cabinet manufacturers are often looking at price versus features. They are still looking for full-featured slides such as full extension and soft closing, however, feel they are not able to offer this at every price point. They prefer to leave the organization to the end user. Today, with increased competition and falling margins at the cabinet level, they are reluctant to add anything to a cabinet that increases its costs."

"Drawer systems are definitely becoming more important in the overall construction of kitchen cabinets," Bradshaw says. "This is primarily due to the fact that drawers give the homeowners more utilization of the space within the cabinets and ease of access. This makes space utilization even more important when designing a kitchen layout. So I guess you could say that people are looking for 'more bang for the buck' when it comes to providing maximum space utilization, and drawer systems provide this for them."

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