At the height of the pandemic, flooring retailers and distributors were searching high and low to keep up with the demand for rigid core flooring. They made deals with new sources. They bought and leased warehouses to stockpile as much material as possible. Flooring manufacturers had to find alternate raw materials for production when supply became unreliable. Container prices skyrocketed and shipping times slowed to a crawl.   

Product scarcity created product panic.  

Unfortunately for the market, this panic opened doors to novice manufacturers and importers who don’t fully understand what it takes to create quality rigid core floors. These opportunists are not new to flooring, but they continue to affect the market. 

“I think the chaos of the pandemic took the integrity out of the category,” said Julian Dossche, co-founder and president, International Flooring Company (IFC). “Unfortunately, we are now dealing with the repercussions of that, and it's putting a black eye on the category. I think people are quickly learning what the right product is, but I think there's still some fallout.”   

When poor quality materials enter the market, it puts businesses and consumers at risk. It increases the number of installation failures, creates disagreements among installers, retailers and manufacturers, and casts a shadow on an otherwise booming category of flooring.  

As an example, a single-family residential property was called for an inspection on a value-engineered luxury vinyl plank with a rigid core, specifically WPC. It was a floating floor installed over a concrete subfloor. The flooring had barely been down for a year before the owner noticed what is called curling. This is a condition where the outer edges of each plank rise above the plane of the center surface essentially giving the floor a washboard effect.  

Flooring inspector Roland Vierra of Flooring Forensics was called in to evaluate. The inspection found that everything was within range—surface pH, ambient conditions, plank surface temperature, etc. What was most telling was that the “attic stock” (extra flooring) also exhibited edge curling. In conclusion, Vierra determined, “Positive edge curl on both installed and uninstalled material tends to preclude site-specific or installation-related conditions and does indicate a product failure.”  

More than 85% of rigid core is imported into the United States, according to Dossche, and while domestic manufacturing is growingwith more than 13 plants constructed in the last five yearsthe market is nowhere near ready to support demand.  

“Many continued to invest in new plants in North America, in plants around the world, in major new infrastructure that would promote efficiencies in the flow of materials, in new technologies, and more,” said Resilient Floor Covering Institute (RFCI) President Bill Blackstock.  

Leadership at Creative Flooring Solutions (CFL) said it plans to invest more than $150 million in its Adairsville, Georgia, plant over the next five years. Engineered Floors recently began production of its first domestically made luxury vinyl tile in Dalton, Georgia. The company said domestic production of LVT in north Georgia “will provide unique opportunities for research and development, design, and quality assurance bringing a new level of excellence to the hard surface arena.” Mohawk, which introduced PureTech resilient featuring a renewable polymer core in 2023, reported to investors that it plans to ramp up production on the West Coast and through a new extrusion process in Georgia. 

But quality manufacturing is a big investment. The easiest way for newcomers to jump into the category is to undercut prices. “Just bring in cheap. People got used to cheap and, we've literally raced to the bottom,” Dossche said.  

Jamann Stepp, senior vice president hard surface, Stanton, and a 33-year industry veteran, agrees. He references the innovation in Coretec—which was invented by Piet Dossche, Julian Dossche’s father, and sold to Shaw Industries—as another piece of the rigid core puzzle: “We told everybody, ‘I think this is the one time in my career that we captured lightning in a bottle. At the end of the day, like everything in our industry, we have this wonderful race to the bottom in value engineering a product. When somebody creates something successful or something that's working, somebody's trying to figure out how to make it faster, cheaper and less expensive.”  

Ensuring Quality Control

Manufacturers must carefully monitor production processes to ensure that quality components are manufactured correctly to ensure product longevity. 

“Our goal is to make the best SPC and LVT products in the market that we would be proud to recommend to our families and friends,” said Martin Dettmer, director of international sales and marketing, Republic Floor. “We want to do that at the best pricing we can, but there are thresholds that we cannot cross.”

Buyer beware: value-engineered products are constructed with great variation when it comes to the components. One of those variables is the amount of iron or magnesium content within SPC’s “stone” core. High iron or magnesium content can impact the production process, and low-quality materials can affect the final outcome.  

“In the SPC category, the more filler—limestone, calcium carbonate and silica, that you can throw into the mix and leave out PVC and other chemicals and polymers and isocyanates and resins that blend it and bond it—obviously it's a little bit heavier, but it's also less costly,” Stepp said. “We've seen this value engineering going on in the SPC category mostly, where they have just dumbed it down and gotten it as thin as possible, as cheap as possible.”

Engineering too thin of a product with a click system is another pain point for rigid core. This causes issues with the click systems during the installation process. The remedy for this is to utilize click systems only on thicker rigid core products. Placing click systems—any system—on too thin of a product jeopardizes the click system, preventing it from doing its job.  Rigid core manufacturers must implement strict measures to ensure product quality. 

IFC, for example, spent years working with its partners in China to refine every step of the production process prior to opening its U.S. facility, according to Dossche. When it comes to claims, Dossche said, “We stand by our quality promise, and we are seeing that in action.” 

In December 2023, the Floor Trends & Installation team toured the Engineered Floors’ LVT production facility in Dalton, Georgia, to see the new digital printing technology that is capable of producing 35 different wood-look plank variations. During the tour, it was made clear that every aspect of the production process had to be carefully monitored to ensure product quality. 

Mohawk Industries’ sourced products are monitored by a team in Shanghai, according to Adam Ward, VP of resilient, Mohawk. He said that Mohawk has “recipe cards” that have to be adhered to; they perform routine testing on everything they manufacture; and they send products to third party testing labs to ensure the products are meeting the required specifications. “All of those things, while it adds additional cost, it gives us peace of mind and better control over quality versus taking the supplier's word for it,” Ward said.  

According to Stepp, Stanton has employees in China who work locally to communicate with suppliers. They ensure the chain of command of the raw materials and where its being sourced. They also schedule inspections before finished product is loaded on the container. “We definitely don't want to have ourselves in a situation where containers are being seized, or we're under the radar importing an inferior product or a value-engineered product that's not going to last, work and perform like it's supposed to,” Stepp said. 

The Need for Product Knowledge

Educating retailers and installers key component to ensuring quality from concept to completion.

“Thin products created so many problems,” said Rotem Eylor, founder and CEO of Republic Floor. “We're going to do two moves. One move is keep educating the market. The other move is doing thicker, better, higher-end products.”

CFL, Engineered Floors, IFC, Mohawk, Stanton and Republic Floors indicated that they start education with their sales force. The sales force then reaches out to the distributor or retailer to make sure they understand the nuances associated with each new product—construction, application, installation, etc.  

Mohawk works with organizations like RFCI to educate the industry; they offer education sessions to their retailer and distributor partners as well as internal installation techs on hand, according to Ward.  

IFC’s Dossche describes their relationship with retailers and installers as a three-pronged approach: manufacturer/retailer/installer. “The retailer, in the end, probably has the strongest relationship with the installer, so it’s really making sure that our leg is educating the retailer side,” he said. “It’s also on us to make sure that, in lockstep with the retailer, we're educating those installers to give that same message, that same story and that same promise to our shared customer, which is the end consumer.” 

Store owners and installation leads also need to understand the nuances of installation for each rigid core product.  

“You should read everything first,” said Nicole Harding, VP learning and development at CCA Global Partners, who manages training initiatives for the flooring retailer cooperative. “I don't want them to get into the notion that, ‘This is what I do every time for perfection.’ No, you read it every time. We’re really trying to, especially for our more tenured folks, we're really trying to make sure that they're not taking anything for granted or making assumptions.” 

At the 2023 International Certified Flooring Installers (CFI) and the Floor Covering Installation Contractors Association (FCICA) joint convention, Matthieu Dekens, president of i4F North America, and two technical team members put on an education session on their drop-lock technology. The space was standing room only with flooring installers lining the walls to learn more about the click system. According to Dekens, the purpose was to educate installers on the system but to also get feedback. Over the course of the session, installers asked a multitude of questions—some basic, some complex. It was quickly apparent that the need for education on the click systems was much needed.  

Roland Thompson, owner, Thompson Flooring & Installation, attended the session and offered responses to some of the questions. “I get this all the time in trainings,” he said. “Installers do not understand the difference between WPC and SPC. There’s a difference in what it can do and where it can go. They are still installing it the same way they did when LVP first came out, thinking they are installing to the standard. But the industry says 3/16” for deflection, and when it exceeds that, the end joints break. The next issue is that installers don’t know the difference between a drop lock, angle/angle or angle/tap system.” 

I4F has partnered with several organizations that have direct access to flooring installers to further their education efforts on the drop-lock system as well as proper application of rigid core products through their licensees. In addition to CFI and FCICA, they are working with Advanced Flooring Technology (AFT).  

“Installer engagement is critical; it is a key part of what we want to do,” said Dekens. “Our main effort within the installer community is to not only promote but to also educate and train. There are so many different systems on the market, but if an installer is used to only one, he needs just a couple of things to understand how to use the other ones. This is what we are promoting with our partners in terms of education.” 

The Future of Rigid Core

Mohawk’s Adam Ward predicts sustainability and recyclability will drive innovation going forward. He sees products going the opposite direction in terms of thickness. “You're going to see thicker products coming out of the rigid core category as people are concerned with bad quality and their response to that is ‘I want to go thicker because I feel protected by that.’”  

Stanton’s Stepp sees a completely different innovation for the rigid core category for 2024: hybrids.  

CFL Flooring introduced its PVC-free Eco-Composite flooring that is being marketed as "an alternative to SPC and WPC.” This wood product flooring combines wood with a mineral core and cork backing, touting 100% recyclability.

Swiss Krono came to market with its Kiwi hybrid product that is wood-based and PVC-free. Mohawk launched PureTech is a PVC-free product made from 70% total recycled content. Its organic core contains 80% renewable, plant-based material. 

Stepp also forecasts a hybrid laminate: “I’lI call it hybrid laminate because it's PVC-free, but it's also not an HDF core. I think you're going to see more of these mineral fiber cores that are completely waterproof unlike HDF, but these mineral fiber products with their waterproof capabilities also have a melamine resin decor, not a PVC film decor. So, it truly is the best of both worlds.”   

There are amazing mentors, call it founding fathers, of this beautiful industry,” Dossche said. “It’s now our time. I’m not sure we're going to ever fill their shoes, but it's our time to ensure that the path that was built stays strong, stays clear.”