Laminate Flooring's Quick-Step Makes Major Move in U.S.

Unilin Flooring begins production of its Quick-Step laminate flooring at a U.S. plant.

By Hannah Miller
A hand-scraped look gives the appearance of aged hardwood to Hickory natural in the Country collection.

Unilin Flooring's new Thomasville, NC, plant for manufacturing Quick-Step laminate flooring makes a statement, a bold one, about the Belgium-based company's commitment to the U.S. market.

"It shows people we mean business," says Piet Huyghe, co-president along with Stefaan Ver Eecke.

Distributors and retailers already touring the highly automated plant see a connected complex of four buildings totaling 600,000 square feet. Capacity at the plant, which started operation in October 2005, is 100 million square feet of flooring yearly.

After a second construction phase is completed by 2008, space is expected to be 1.1 million square feet, with the ability to produce 400 to 500 million square feet of flooring annually. Total cost for the entire multiyear project has been estimated at $80 million.

Quick-Step embarked on the massive project to better serve its U.S. market, which it entered with imported goods in 2001. "We've had dramatic growth," says Huyghe, estimating it at 25 to 30 percent the last several years. The U.S. accounts for 15 percent of the world's consumption of laminate flooring, he says.

$1 Billion Sales Worldwide

Huyghe declines to give Quick-Step sales figures, but when floor coverings giant Mohawk Industries Inc. bought Unilin last October for $2.6 billion, it estimated Unilin's worldwide sales at about $1 billion.

Floor Covering Weekly, in its May 2005 ReCo Market Intelligence Report, put Quick-Step as number two in laminates sales in the U.S., estimating the company had 44.3 percent market share to Mannington's 47.3 percent.

At that time, Quick-Step was still meeting 75 percent of its U.S. needs with product imported from Europe. The remaining 25 percent was supplied by a small, 50-million square foot capacity plant elsewhere in Thomasville.

Since the new plant came on line in late 2005, that percentage of domestically produced flooring has risen to about 65 percent, and Huyghe expects it to grow to 75 to 80 percent in the future.

Laminate flooring has long been a fixture in the European flooring market, but was a harder sell in the U.S. back in 2001, when Quick-Step, and Huyghe, first came to the U.S. A sales and marketing office was established in St. Louis to sell product manufactured in Unilin's headquarters, in the Belgium city of Wielsbeke.

"There's such a tradition here of hardwood, carpet and vinyl," Huyghe says. But once it gained a foothold, "people accepted it with open arms."

Early on, laminate may have been a fall-back choice for many customers who would have preferred hardwood but couldn't afford it, he says. But now, innovations in design and performance make it a positive choice rather than a negative one, he says.

"More and more, I'm convinced laminate flooring is becoming its own category," Huyghe says."

Fastest Growing Category

Market estimates seem to agree with Huyghe, showing laminates growing at a rate more than double the three other large floor covering categories. Mohawk's 2004 annual report estimated growth at 3.0 percent for carpet and rugs, 7.0 percent for ceramic tile, 20.9 percent for laminate and 7.9 percent for hardwood.

Left, The Wenge design in Quick-Step's Perspective collection mimics the dark African hardwood it is named for.

Middle, Black Opal, in the Slate division of Quick-Step's Quadra Tiles, has the contours of actual slate.

Right, Pressure points on the Wemhomer press' caul plate re-create slate's ridges and depressions for this Black Opal design.

Laminates still have a way to go, however. Floor Covering Weekly's analysis of the 2004 floor covering market, published in July 2005, gave broadloom carpet and area rugs a 62.3% share; ceramic, 12.5%; hardwood, 10.5%; vinyl, 7.9%; laminates, 6.2%, and rubber, 0.6%

Quick-Step promotes its flooring, most of which comes with 25-year guarantees against wear and moisture damage, as family friendly.

"It fits modern lives," Huyghe says, citing easy care and durability.

With the introduction of manufacturing innovations that mimic the texture, as well as the appearance of wood and stone, Quick-Step is also emphasizing fashion and appearance. "It's become so attractive, it offers possibilities people never had before," Huyghe says.

He points out flooring made to look like wenge, the dark-colored wood from Africa. "Who can afford real wenge?" Huyghe asks rhetorically. The wide range of authentic-looking laminates, he says, "makes people so excited. They can have fun in decorating."

Quick-Step considers its product middle- to high-end, and its distributors sell it exclusively through specialty flooring stores. Suggested retail prices for Quick-Step products range from $2.99 to $4.39 per square foot.

Shortly after Quick-Step opened its St. Louis sales office, the company bought the 50 million square foot capacity plant in Thomasville, where it began U.S. production using the DPL (Direct Pressure Laminate) method that it continues to use today.

Fully Integrated Manufacturing

Then Quick-Step bought a Mount Gilead, NC, MDF and HDF plant, making it the only U.S. laminate flooring maker controlling the entire manufacturing stream. "You don't control all your own materials just for price," Huyghe says. "We do it to be sure of what we're getting."

Once it had all the raw materials for large-scale production of flooring, moving to the new Thomasville plant was a logical step for Unilin, Huyghe says.

Computerization, robotics and automation drive the new plant, which runs three shifts and has more than 200 employees. Even the forklifts are computer-equipped, so that operators can scan and record the loads they transport from one department to another.

"We never buy just the machine off the shelf," says Huyghe. Quick-Step designers custom-tailor equipment to their needs.

Vits paper saturation equipment starts the manufacturing process, applying computer-mixed melamine resins to paper bearing flooring designs. After the saturation is completed under high heat, the paper is dried and cut into segments that are transported by forklift to the press room.

On the conveyor belt feeding the Wemhoner press, the sheets of paper are robotically laid atop HDF substrate and a bottom sheet of resin-treated paper. A clear top coating of paper treated with melamine and aluminum oxide, for durability, is laid on top, and the substrate and paper sandwich goes into the press. Pressing at 450F melts the resin and melds the materials together.

To create the uneven surface that gives the flooring its wood or stone feel, up to 40 pressure points in the press' top or caul plate serve as a mold. They are programmed to strike the clear coating in various patterns. They can create random nicks or cuts, called nonregister embossing, or they can make cuts that follow the printed grain, called register embossing.

Like, It's Groovy

To create an aged look for several products, including Quick-Step's Country collection, the pressure points create the more pronounced waves or grooves that hardwood acquires through wear or hand scraping.

Saws rip the pressed flooring vertically into boards or units to be installed. The boards are tongue-and-grooved on sides and ends to achieve Quick-Step's patented, glueless Uniclic fastening system. They then have to pass human inspection before heading to the packaging department, where the boards are shrink-wrapped and packaged. "Every board is inspected by human eyes," says Janet M. Byrd, manager of auxiliary services. She adds that sometimes those eyes are even assisted by cameras.

New SAP integrated software ties together manufacturing and sales data. "Our whole process is monitored and controlled through one system," says Huyghe. "We have perfect knowledge of our product flow. If a customer is calling, we always know where every order is, and how long it will take."

Huyghe thinks the main impact of the new plant will be seen in quicker delivery. When product is imported, he says, "it's four weeks on the water at a minimum. It can get stuck in customs.

"What it [the new plant] is going to do is make sure we have better service. People are going to see a dramatic effect," Huyghe says. "We anticipate deliveries to be made within one week from the time an order is placed."

Quick-Step has no plans to try to make 100 percent of its product in the U.S., he says, but will instead strive for a balance. Most research and development is still done in Europe, "but we have huge input in that," he says.

From the start, Quick-Step has been thinking ahead to the second phase of construction scheduled by 2008. Some exterior walls were built of metal so that they could be moved to accommodate the expansion to 1.1 million square feet.

The exact timing, Huyghe says, depends not only on market demand but on developments in the industry. Before the company invests in new technology, he says, Quick-Step's designers want to make sure it's going to be adequate for the future.

It is a future he has high hopes for. "Laminate flooring really is just beginning in the U.S.," he adds.


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