Labor, education, look-a-like products, and the explosion of production capacity were just some of the topics keeping participants up at night at Total Solutions Plus, a collaborative event hosted by the National Tile Contractors Association, Ceramic Tile Distributor Association, Tile Council of North America and the Tile Contractors’ Association of America.

“No question that there is considerably more product on the market today that we can possibly consume,” said Mark Shannon, technical services advisor, Crossville Tile. “This represents challenges like price pressure. There is a large amount of look-a-like products that put downward pressure on product categories.”

“It’s been a healthy market and will continue to be appealing,” noted Michael Franceshelli, CEO, Florida Tile. “More capacity is likely on this way. Even though current estimates indicate 30-40% excess manufacturing capacity, each company is asking the same question: What can we do to sell that capacity?”

With an oversupply of tile and undersupply of labor, more distributors and retailers are seeing tile and stone products being switched out with alternative materials like luxury vinyl tile.

“Our primary role as distributors is to educate the consumer better and improve to provide better value for the tile as opposed to other products,” said Ray Marron, senior vice president, Kate-Lo Tile & Stone, a distributor with locations in Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska.

Part of this is creating easier ways to install tiles and manufacturer lighter weight tiles that are easier on installers.

Gauged porcelain panels, for example, are creating design solutions for architects and designers, but the realities of installing them are another issue.

“I've actually found that I've had architects call and ask me about the gauged porcelain panels, and there is usually shock and awe associated when you tell them how much it's going to cost, but a don't know that the people that are trying to sell them the products give them a full understanding of difficult time consuming and how expensive it can be,” said Brad Trustrud, president of tile contracting firm Trostrud Tile in Chicago.

In a recent job specified with 5x10 ft. panels, Trustrud proposed that the factory cut down the panels to 2.5x5 ft. to get around the high cost usually associated with the panels.

“The total cost for 3,500 feet dropped by 40%—the numbers were in line, they were happy with it, and it was a very easy job to install,” he said.

The rising costs of labor and materials extend to more standard sizes of tile as well.

“We see regularly 50 and 60 different tiles on a project,” said Martin Howard, executive vice president, David Allen Company. “I think it’s marvelous that we have that option, but that's working against trying to make it faster.”

But a lack of qualified labor is on the minds of every manufacturer, specifier and contractor.

“The last three summers were probably the most stressful periods of time ever in my life,” Trustrud said. “The labor shortage has really hit us in Chicago during the summer.”

He said a professional tile setter in Chicago can easily make over $100,000 a year with some overtime, so it’s an issue not only of recruitment and opportunity but also continuing education.

“My goal is to have the average tile setter know more than he does today and have a higher skill set and continuing to learn so the stupid mistakes don't repeat themselves,” he said.