There's a new project underfoot at Wilsonart. It begins with a balanced panel and ends with a finished flooring product.

In Temple, Texas, Wilsonart uses a urea adhesive to bond high-pressure laminate on the face and back of a 1/4-inch MDF core. Using an automated, highly streamlined process, panels are machined into either planks or tiles for use as flooring in primarily residential applications.

"Wilsonart Flooring represents a natural extension of our product line," said Curt Haffner, director of sales and marketing for Wilsonart's Flooring Division. "The flooring is geared for kitchens, dens, bedrooms -- all areas of the house. It will be a strong item, particularly in kitchens, because of its durability and the abuse it can take. With wood, if you drop something heavy on it, it can dent. But on this floor, for the most part, if you drop something hard, it just bounces."

Wilsonart has a long history of dealing with heavy things being dropped on its laminate floors. In addition to its computer access flooring, the company has manufactured laminate flooring for bowling alleys for nearly two decades. And although a slightly different process is involved in the alley manufacturing, it provides Wilsonart with the groundwork to compete in manufacturing residential laminate flooring.

What sets Wilsonart apart from its competition, Haffner said, is the fact that the high-pressure laminate flooring will be offered in compatible planks and tiles, providing consumers with the ability to create unique designs and patterns in their homes. The products are designed in such a way that two planks (7-3/4 inch by 4-6-1/2 inch each) equal the width of one tile (15-1/2 inch by 15-1/2 inch), and three tiles equal the length of one plank.

Haffner said they got the idea of coordinating the planks and tiles by listening to customers. "One of the strengths that a company like Wilsonart will bring is design capability. We've created a product in terms of planks and tiles that can work independently or in conjunction with each other. What people were looking for (design opportunities) and trying to force fit with other materials, can now be done."

Production of the planks and tiles takes place on two separate, completely dedicated lines. Each line is automated and conveyorized, so that human involvement is kept to a minimum.

Line 1, which is used to manufacture the 7-3/4-inch by 46-1/2-inch planks, went into production late last summer. Wilsonart previewed the plank flooring at the Surfaces '96 show held earlier this month in Las Vegas. The current plan calls for planks to be available in 15 laminate woodgrain patterns: eight oak, two maple, two cherry, two ash and one mahogany. The planks will be packaged eight to a box, for 20 square feet.

Line 2, which went on-line in December, will produce 15-1/2-inch by 15-1/2-inch tiles. There will also be 15 patterns for tiles: four abstract, six stone, three marble, and two terrazzo. Tiles will be sold nine in a box, for a total of 15 square feet per package. The tiles are scheduled for sale to the public by early summer.

"The characteristics that make high-pressure decorative laminate appealing for countertops make it the perfect surfacing choice for flooring in heavy traffic areas," Haffner said. "We're not trying to mimic wood tile. This is laminated flooring and it has its own design and features which it brings to the flooring category."

Walking the plank -- line
Currently, the high-pressure laminate sheets and panels are bonded in the laminate facility and trucked a couple minutes to the nearby flooring facility. This will soon change, however. According to Jerry Malina, distinguished research fellow, Wilsonart has already begun installing a bonding line within the flooring plant.

Once the boards are placed in line for machining, the process takes minimal manual labor.

Approximately 100 4-foot by 8-foot panels are lifted one at a time from their stack by the Bargstedt vacuum feeder. The panels are first sent through the splitting station, where the Bargstedt splits the sheets into 4-foot by 4-foot panels. They are then conveyed to the second cutting station, where a Paul ripsaw reduces the pieces to oversized planks.

At this point, a Star turner takes the panels, which were in face-up orientation, and flips them face down. From there, the panels accelerate to the single-chain track Homag FL 10 Series double-end tenoner which uses diamond tooling to put a groove on one long side and a tongue on the other. "We use diamond tooling because the material is so hard that carbide tooling would wear out in a matter of minutes," Malina said.

From the FL 10 tenoner, panels pass an inkjet printer, which marks the planks with the model number/style and date of manufacture. They are then conveyed into a magazine, which feeds from the bottom into the double-end tenoner. Dogs are used in the Homag FL 20 Series tenoner to push the panels through for tongue and grooving on the short side. As the panels exit the tenoner, they are again turned, from face-down position to face up, before entering the inspection station. Between 32 and 35 planks can be run in a minute, Malina said.

An automatic stacker positions the panels for packaging. A Skrea box and shrinkwrap packaging system, as well as a Cyclop stretch wrap machine, complete the job. Each package will be marked with a label indicating the style of the flooring as well as the date it was manufactured. The top of the box will be clear so that the actual face of the flooring, i.e. color and design, can be easily seen prior to purchase.

The equipment for both lines was purchased through Stiles Machinery Inc.

Line 2 readying for launch
Wilsonart anticipates launching the tile line in June, at which time it will have passed quality control inspections in actual test installations, Haffner said.

For production of the 15-1/2-inch by 15-1/2-inch tiles, panels are sent through two Paul ripsaws which cut the panels into strips and precut the squares. A Star turner flips the pieces to face-down orientation and they are then conveyed through two linked Homag FL 20 Series double-end tenoners. Again, using diamond tooling, the first tenoner places the tongue and groove on two sides of the panel, while the second does the opposite ends. As with the planks, each tile is also marked with the style and date of manufacture.

The tiles are then flipped back into face-up orientation before packaging.

When in full production, Line 2 is expected to manufacture approximately 55 tiles per minute. According to Malina, the reason the tile line will be approximately 60 percent faster than Line 1 is because although "the planks have a high rate of speed on the long cuts, you have dogs to push on the second machine and so the throughput is regulated by the crosscut speed. In the tile line, both the the machines have dogs, so we can compact the distance between tiles and get more throughput."

The tenoners on both lines are calibrated and locked into place. Therefore, planks cannot be run on the tile line and vice versa. According to Malina, locking the calibrations assures machining consistency throughout the individual lines.

There is room at the facility for a third line. Malina said no determination has been made as to whether the space will be filled by a plank line, tile line, or one specifically calibrated for accent pieces.

Specialized processes
Wilsonart Flooring is designed to be a floating floor, which means it is laid over, not anchored to the subfloor, Haffner said. Therefore, one of its advantages is that it can be installed over an existing, clean floor. Because the flooring is wood-based and will therefore expand and contract with climatic changes, Wilsonart advises users to leave 1/4-inch space near walls, thresholds, water pipes, etc.

According to Haffner, Wilsonart is the only company which currently manufactures high-pressure laminate flooring in the United States (See sidebar).

Another item which will set Wilsonart laminate flooring apart from its competitors, Haffner said, is the patent-pending tongue and groove process used in manufacturing the flooring pieces."Every other (laminate flooring) is pretty much a friction fit, using rounded tongues. You apply the adhesive and where's it going to go? There's really no control over where the glue is spreading.

"But our panel has a slight bevel on top of the tongue, which helps create a flow pattern for the glue. When the panels are joined, they are indexed along the bottom which pushes the glue up, creating a moisture-resistant bond on top," Haffner said.

MDF is used as the flooring core because of its moisture resistant properties, as compared to most particleboards on the market, Haffner added. For additional protection against moisture, Wilsonart suggests sealing edges with its glue or sealant.

The flooring has a 10-year warranty on wear, fading and stains. It will be distributed through a network of independent distributors and dealers.

Distributor/installer training
Wilsonart has already implemented a plan to train its distributors and installers on correct methods for installing the planks and tiles.

"Installation training is an important issue within the flooring industry," Haffner said. "We want to make our dealers and their installers successful, and one way we intend to do that is to provide education on Wilsonart Flooring and its installation."

Both distributors and dealer installers will undergo training using real life settings, i.e., fitting flooring around pipes, staircases, cabinets, etc. Training will be done both at the Wilsonart Flooring facility as well as in the field.

"We think laminate flooring is a natural remodeling/replacement material," Haffner said. "The beauty of this product is that it's a floating floor. There's not a lot of preparation -- it's not a complicated process. For an installer putting in wood floors, it used to take three days to do one job. Now, he can do two jobs in just one day."


The Laminate Flooring Market

Laminate flooring is making a strong push for a bigger chunk of the estimated $14.2 billion U.S. flooring market. According to Floor Covering Weekly, in 1994, the last year for which year-end figures are available, hardwood flooring, which includes laminate flooring, accounted for $861.1 million, or 6 percent of the market. The majority of sales were for carpets and rugs, which accounted for 70 percent of the market share -- $9.9 billion; followed by sheet vinyl/tiles/rubber at 15 percent -- $2.2 billion; and ceramic tiles at 9 percent -- $1.3 billion.

Those figures may soon change to the benefit of hardwood/laminate flooring. According to Curt Haffner, director of sales and marketing for Wilsonart Flooring, manufacturers are banking that the trend in Europe -- laminate flooring gaining popularity at the expense of carpeting -- will happen in North America.

'Floating' floors
Laminate flooring is designed to be a "floating floor" in that it is laid over, not anchored, to the subfloor. This means that it can be placed over clean, existing floors.

The typical makeup of the laminate used in the flooring consists of a surface wear layer (also called performance layer), a laminate surface, core material and backer. Core materials are typically 1/4-inch MDF or high density fiberboard because of their moisture resistancy, although companies such as Willamette are now manufacturing a 1/4-inch moisture-resistant particleboard specifically geared to the flooring market.

"The laminate floor manufacturers need the substrate at 1/4 inch," said Jeff Lundegard, Willamette's Duraflake sales manager. "And since one of the expected uses of the laminated floors is in the kitchens and bathrooms, a substrate with the ability to withstand moisture is key," he added.

In addition to kitchens, laminate flooring is also being found in living rooms, dens and bedrooms, as well as commercial applications.

North American manufacturers target laminate flooring market
North American companies are jumping on the bandwagon to manufacture laminate flooring for the U.S. and Canadian markets.

Wilsonart, which debuted its flooring line earlier this month at the Surfaces '96 show, is the first to manufacture high pressure laminate flooring in the United States, said Haffner.

"Why are we getting into it now? Because the market is right for it now. We watched what was happening in Europe and saw laminate flooring growing and developing there. The timing was right, the demographics were right in that consumers are looking for alternatives to carpeting," Haffner added.

Perstorp Flooring is also following the demographics. The Swedish-based company has announced plans to manufacture its high pressure laminate flooring at a new facility near Raleigh, N.C. Production of Pergo Flooring is scheduled to begin this summer at the Garner plant. According to the company, Perstorp Flooring has nearly 50 percent of the European laminate flooring market.

"Since we introduced Pergo in select markets in the U.S. in January 1994, sales have surpassed all expectations," said Lars von Kantzow, Perstorp Flooring president and CEO. "As part of our aggressive marketing and expansion plans, we are building a plant in the U.S. to increase production capacity, shorten delivery times and provide better service to our customers."

Uniboard and Pickering can add their names to the list of companies entering the laminate flooring field. A few months ago, Uniboard began marketing the melamine laminate flooring which it manufactures at its Montreal facility.

Tacoma, Wash.-based Pickering Inc. also recently announced plans to manufacture a full line of melamine laminate flooring beginning in June. Under the name PickPickering Flooring, the flooring will be offered in both planks and tiles. Initial plans call for eight patterns and 12 woodgrain styles, comprised of oak, maple, cherry, walnut, knotty pine and pearwood.

According to Jeff Pickering, co-president in charge of marketing and product development at Pickering Inc., the transition from laminator to flooring producer was a natural one. "This has been something we've been talking about for about four years," he said. Pickering added that the benefits which laminates bring to the flooring market -- durability and stain resistance -- will help make it a big seller.

Other companies are also banking on laminate flooring becoming popular in the United States. Georgia-Pacific will begin marketing laminate flooring later this year, said Kathy Ziprik, public relations manager for the Building Products Group. "We previewed it to some of our distributors at the Builder's Show in Houston (in January), although it won't be ready for sale until the second or third quarter of 1996," she said. Under the trade name ExternaFloor, the laminate flooring will be available in seven wood tones and will be sold in packages of eight 8-1/8-inch by 47-1/2 -inch planks.

Armstrong World Industries will also join the laminate flooring market. The company has formed an alliance with F. Egger Co. of Austria to market Egger's laminate flooring in the United States. Although laminate flooring is not expected to contribute greatly to Armstrong's sales in 1996, the company does "expect it to become a significant product line" over the next several years, said Frank Riddick, Armstrong's chief financial officer.

In related news, Mead Specialty Paper and Interprint are also showcasing laminate products designed especially for the flooring market. Interprint's American Traditions collection debuted at the Surfaces Show in Las Vegas, held earlier this month. The collection was created by Sue Connell for Interprint and inspired by Native American culture and the colors of the old Southwest.

Mead also displayed its product at the Surfaces Show. The company says the Duraline protective overlay can be applied to traditional woodgrain, store or abstract patterns.

-- Karen Koenig

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