There’s no slowing down for laminate flooring manufacturer Kronotex as it gears up for a profitable 2009.

Kronotex USA is stepping out in style, with expanded offerings available at all price points for sale under the Kronotex and Formica (licensed) brands, as well as private labeling.

Company President and CEO Norman Voss credits the company’s design capability, product development, sophisticated manufacturing, marketing strategies and logistics for Kronotex’s growth in North American sales. “We had an excellent year in 2008. I would be delighted to match those sales in 2009,” he says.

“We’ve been able to grow year after year and are doing a better job servicing the different laminate flooring channels, particularly the speciality and home center retailers,” Voss adds.

Although Kronotex has been selling to the North American residential market for years, it was not until 2005 that the company broke ground on a manufacturing facility in Barnwell, SC. Located on 342 acres within the South Carolina Advanced Technology Park, the 360,000-square-foot plant currently houses two identical laminate flooring lines capable of producing both plank and tile, and has an annual capacity of 200 million square feet.

“We’ve been selling a lot of laminate flooring in North America and our volume had grown to where the company could justify building a plant in the U.S.,” Voss adds.

Although Phase II of construction has been slowed by the economy, Voss says plans are still underway to build a high-density/medium-density fiberboard plant on the property.

Kronotex USA is a wholly-owned subsidiary of KronoGroup Switzerland, which posted an annual group sales revenue in excess of $2 billion. In addition to Kronotex USA, the KronoGroup has nine independent manufacturing companies spread throughout seven European countries.

Advanced Manufacturing

Like its European counterparts, Kronotex USA is vertically integrated to manufacture almost all of the component parts. The company currently sources its decorative papers, thermosetting resins and composite panels, though the latter will be brought in-house when Phase II of the construction process is complete. Until then, Kronotex sources various thicknesses of fiberboard from a number of companies, including Kronospan, Clarion Boards, Plum Creek Timber and Unilin, which are certified for CARB 1 standards.

“We’ve worked very hard to be sustainable,” Voss says of his company’s environmental initiatives, which also include the recycling and reusing of offal and other waste materials.

In addition, the company implements a lean production process, while manufacturing on a just-in-time basis. Supplies such as composite panels, for example, are brought in daily. “We’ll go through at least 100 trucks a week,” Voss says.

Product moves quickly through the plant. Automated carts are used to feed material into the production lines, which also are completely automated and follow the European engineering and layout typically found in other KronoGroup laminate flooring facilities.

Like its European counterparts, Kronotex uses a direct pressure laminate fusing system in the manufacture of its flooring. Panels are fed from both sides into a Wemhoner press line and placed on a backer sheet. A décor layer is laid atop the fiberboard panels, followed by the wear layer. The entire press cycle takes approximately 18 seconds to complete for standard products.

As part of the company’s quality control measures, a camera system is in place at the beginning of the line to ensure the accurate alignment of the overlays. As the panels discharge from the press, they are trimmed, graded and tested for abrasion resistance and flatness. “It is critical that the board and finished product be flat and straight,” Voss says.

The laminated boards will set for a couple of days before being cut and profiled on the Homag high-speed profiling line. For increased productivity, Kuka robots along the line are used to turn the magazine of planks, thus enabling quick and easy profiling on the two short edges, without human handling. According to Voss, Kronotex may be the only flooring company in the United States that operates robots down the flooring line.

In all aspects of the laminate flooring production, quality control is very stringent. According to Voss, every 10 to 20 minutes the line operator will check the tightness and flatness of the joints by putting together five sample planks, then further evaluate the piece using a Smartscope Flash digital measuring system. “The connections have to be very precise,” Voss says.

In addition, a series of cameras checks every plank exiting the flooring line for color, critical defects and other parameters. “We conduct a 100-

percent inspection,” Voss says.

Bar coding is used throughout to help track the work in process all the way through to packaging. The finished flooring is placed in a corrugated box, accompanied by a label and bar code. A Hugo Beck wrapper then wraps the entire package in shrink film to further protect against dirt, damage and to keep the moisture content stable during transport to retail distributors.

Sales to the redecorating market have kept Kronotex busy and offset the slowdown in new housing market construction. Although the company has moved from working seven days a week down to five, “We’re still pretty much at capacity,” Voss says, with room available for expansion.

Design and Decor

Kronotex’s wide range of styles and colors has helped the company grow its sales. It currently markets four collections under the Kronotex label: the Amazone Collection, the Ashebrooke Collection, the Herrington Collection and the Yorkshire Collection.

These groups each target a different price point. At the top of the list, the Amazone Collection is 10mm thick and features a narrow, long plank (4.45 inches wide by 54.33 inches long), micro-beveled edge and 3-D grain pattern. Backed by a 25-year warranty, Amazone is available in three oak colors and mahogany.

Both the Ashebrooke and Herrington Collections feature 8mm planks. Ashebrooke offers a unique “wire brush” effect on the wood graining, and is available in a choice of two hickory, two cherry, maple and pine patterns. Like Amazone, Herrington also has a 3-D surface texture and comes in a choice of two maple, two myrtle, pine, acacia, walnut and mahogany grain patterns. Both have a 20-year warranty. With a 15-year warranty, the classic-style Yorkshire features 7mm planks and is available in four oak patterns, maple, beech and merbau prints.

Kronotex works with printers, including Suddekor, Schattdecor and Interprint, in launching new designs, colors and textures. “We’ll refresh our product lines annually,” Voss says, adding however that a good décor can “run for years.” The company boasts more than a dozen different textures, and more than 100 different designs and colors available in its current offerings. Among the recent trends noted by Voss is the growing popularity of browns over reds in both tiles and planks, with oak still the predominant species of choice in the United States.

In addition to manufacturing product under the Kronotex brand and for private labeling, Kronotex is licensed to produce laminate flooring under the Formica brand name.

Spanning across different price points, among the collections offered under the Formica label are: Quintessa, Marbelle and Arianna. Quintessa has 12mm-thick, long planks and is available in various textures and grain patterns, including exotics. The 10mm-thick Marbelle has a four-side bevel and a piano finish and Arianna features wide, 8mm-thick planks. Patterned tiles, including those marketed under the Belleza and Sienna names, are also available.

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