Creating solutions with 3D laminates
October 15, 2009 | 7:00 pm CDT

Back in 1988, if you had told Don Casebier that one day he would be president of a company that fabricated 3D laminated components, he probably wouldn't have believed you. "I'm a wood guy," Casebier says.


However, that changed when Casebier who at the time was working for a millwork manufacturing company took a trip to Europe in 1989 looking to find a way to apply wood veneer over MDF raised panels. It was there that he encountered membrane pressing, also known as 3D forming a procedure whereby panels are surfaced with 3D laminates. Membrane-pressing was a relatively new process in Europe. For Casebier, the process was clearly an excellent method to manufacture raised panels using MDF core. He subsequently ordered a Wemhoener membrane press and began using 3D laminates to cover kitchen cabinet doors and drawer fronts.


When the company that Casebier worked for was sold in the late 1990s, Casebier, together with brothers David and Dan, and Peter Tronquet, founded Bierson Corp. in Central Point, Ore. Bierson manufactures parts for consumer electronics, musical instruments, office furniture, closet systems, store fixtures and commercial interiors, as well as kitchen cabinets.


Now, Casebier finds himself spreading the word about 3D forming and 3D laminates to those who don't know about it. "For many people, this is a new concept," he says.


Building awareness

For many designers, the planning stage is often the best time to introduce 3D laminates, Casebier observes. "(Designers) will send us drawings or sketches, and then we'll help with the design to provide the most cost-effective solution," he says.


Because 3D laminates form so closely to the contours of substrates, designers are freed from square shapes, sharp corners and seams that are the result of traditional laminating processes. Designers are learning that 3D laminates can be 3D formed over compound curves, profiled edges and recessed pockets; for example, 3D laminates can be pressed into intricate product logos that have been routed into the MDF substrate.


Casebier has noticed that stores using 3D laminates for fixture parts have a tendency to first order a few small specialty items, such as point-of-purchase displays. After seeing the displays installed, clients are often so enthusiastic about the results that they specify 3D laminates for items such as shelving. In a typical store, there are often thousands of shelves, as well as mouldings and other parts that are easily covered with 3D laminates. As a result, what may start as a small job may ultimately end up being a much larger one.


Product loyalty

For Bierson, American Renolit has been a reliable source for their 3D laminates. "Horizontal grade films offer greater scratch and mar resistance than other high-pressure laminates, allowing us to use it on components of store fixtures and other commercial interiors," Casebier says.


Bierson specifies American Renolit 3D laminates in whites, solid colors, woodgrain patterns, marble patterns, metallics and abstract patterns. This is important, because aside from needing to find the appropriate laminate for a project, Bierson must also be able to match it to high-pressure laminates (HPL) and thermo-fused melamine (TFM) laminated parts used in the same project.


"Being able to order rolls of laminate as short as 50 linear meters enables Bierson to remain competitive and avoid being saddled with hundreds of meters of excess inventory," Casebier says.


Bierson utilizes MDF from a number of suppliers, including LEED credit-qualifying, no-added formaldehyde, sustainable density fiberboard (SDF). The SDF used is made from 100 percent recovered and recycled wood fiber substrates such as SierraPine's Medite II and Arreis.


Hidden advantages

Bierson's cabinet doors can be used in medical and dental environments because their construction helps with bacteria control. "Doors laminated with traditional materials have seams on the front edges where germs can collect, but our doors covered with 3D laminate are seamless, allowing spills and grime to be removed with disinfectant. The only seam is at the bottom edge, between the film and the melamine backing, which is seldom touched," Casebier explains.


In retail environments, 3D laminates also offer an advantage in that shelving and tables with seamless, rounded corners and edges may reduce the potential for injuries.


Although parts covered with 3D laminates can initially be more expensive than their 2D counterparts, Casebier notes that in the long run, the durability of 3D laminates makes them more cost-effective. "Traditionally surfaced parts commonly fail due to chipping, cracking or delaminating of the high-pressure laminates and edgebanding."


Process overview

Bierson is an approved vendor to ISO companies, so after a drawing is received for a job, Bierson follows a controlled document process quality system. "I believe our ability to offer this to ISO companies really makes us stand out," says David Casebier, vice president of sales and marketing.


After the quality document control steps have been taken, components are machined on one of two Heian CNC routers, then sanded and sprayed with adhesive. They then go to a Wemhoener membrane press. For many components, the process ends there, with excess film trimmed off. Components are then packaged and shipped.


However, some components require secondary machining, which is done on a Weeke point-to-point machining center.


According to David Casebier, secondary machining can at times be very involved. "One of the upper-end components that we make is for pianos that's one of the more involved parts that we do. There, the part has to be flat pressed with black high-gloss 3D laminate on one surface, and then it's machined, sanded, sprayed with adhesive, 3D pressed and trimmed. Then it goes into another room to the Weeke machining center and has some very complex secondary machining performed to the backside. There, we're creating channels and pilot holes for fit, so when our customers receive those components, they're ready to be assembled to their cabinet."


Bierson also does sub-assembly on some projects. This can include among other things attaching cleats, hinges and mechanical glides to components. Over the years Bierson has been asked to do such things as screen print or apply vinyl decals to pieces. On occasion they've been asked to drill and insert dowels into components as well.


Opportunities ahead

"We believe as designers and architects understand the design capabilities that this process offers, the opportunities are going to grow considerably," David Casebier says. "I think what's going to happen is that there's going to be considerable growth for us as a fabricator, as people understand what our process brings to the table. For ourselves, our ability to do high-gloss finishes, deep draws and secondary step processing for our customers is going to play a big role in that."

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About the author
Ken Jennison

Ken Jennison was a senior editor at CabinetMaker and FDM magazines from 2006 to 2008, writing more than 70 articles about cabinet and furniture manufacturers. He is currently director of acquisitions at Hearland Historical Properties LLC in San Francisco.