Rustic Expressions Oak (pictured in Conestoga Oak) features Shaw’s TouchableTexture registered-embossing technology.

Pictured is Wilsonart laminate in Smoked Oak, part of the company’s Red Label Flooring Collection. The collection includes six plank designs, four wood designs, three granite designs, and two marble designs.
Laminate is a constantly evolving flooring product. From glueless installation systems and micro beveling to embossed-in-register textures and joint-sealant advances, laminate is a bellwether of emerging floor design trends and technologies. NFT spoke to several leading manufacturers to get their takes on what the future holds for the segment.

According to Juan Flores, general manager of Faus Group, current design limitations in laminate are going to be shattered with the help of Faus' previously unveiled InterPlank Design technology. This technology creates a continuous pattern along two planks, and incorporates a self-alignment system to ensure that pattern remains unbroken. This innovation, Flores says, will figure heavily into the company's Surfaces 2005 offerings, which will consist of three new wood- and three new stone/ceramic-look introductions.

"Perfect alignment between planks is a great innovation that will be the base for further innovations to debut at Surfaces," Flores explains. "We are creating a new generation of flooring with our product innovations and features. We are going to further the design possibilities of laminate flooring."

Coupled with the company's patented Embossed-in-Register surface texture technology, laminates using InterPlank Design will greatly increase the number of surfaces Faus can adequately mimic, Flores says.

"We believe that our new innovations, design possibilities and capabilities will enable us to provide a wider range of products that we can successfully imitate or resemble," he says. "We are going to outperform ourselves. New products that [otherwise] would not be possible will now be possible."

Faus InterPlank Design technology allows for continuous patterns across planks, an innovation that will bring to light increased realization in surface texture, and the possibility of customizable laminate, according to company General Manager Juan Flores.
Flores also hints at Faus offering customizable laminate, as it will be "part of the design revolution in laminate flooring made possible by our innovations." He says that with Faus' technical capabilities, the company can customize a number of its designs.

"We will have custom-made products very exclusively, available to the customer at a high-end price, and make it more essential to the market," Flores explains. "We will make this possible without compromising the level of quality or aesthetics."

Faus may dip its toes in the waters of the commercial laminate market in a year or two. "Our latest residential innovations will open up new opportunities in the commercial avenue, as our products will appeal more and more to architects," Flores says. "First, we want to get there in the residential avenue, then we'll provide products to the commercial avenue."

Rob Tarver, national marketing manager for Wilsonart International, sees "plenty of room for innovation in laminate flooring." Specifically, he adds, the seam strength of the product, as well as sound abatement, will remain top initiatives for Wilsonart.

Tarver also anticipates ongoing laminate design advances in the future. "Designs have gotten real good," he says. "But we're still going to see format changes to the product that will make it look more realistic. Print technology is always getting better - you can achieve better clarity, resolution and accuracy than you could even a few years ago."

While oak is the mainstay design for laminate, Tarver says that more interesting, exotic and rare wood types soon will be making their way into the product segment. After all, he says, "style and design are still the No. 1 reason people are going to buy a floor." But Tarver believes there is another reason, too - conservation.

"A lot of the woods out there are extremely rare," he explains. "Cutting the tree is not possible. Laminate gives higher-end customers the opportunity to provide that look, giving it a unique advantage."

Alloc Classics Microbevel laminate in Burled Oak showcases Alloc’s Microbevel feature, which incorporates a slight beveling on plank edges for a more rustic wood appearance.
As for the company's Surfaces introductions, Tarver avoids tipping his hand but says Wilsonart will be releasing laminate flooring focused on "new and exciting things in high-end design."

Tim Tipton, director of marketing for Quick-Step (which recently received a patent related to the production of its beveled-edge products), is mum on what his company will be debuting at Surfaces, but he talks about the innovations in current products like Quick-Step 800 Double Planks, which consists of double-plank designs printed on a 5411/32-by-61/6-inch plank.

"We've begun to focus our attention on enhancing the traditional 8-by-48-inch visuals," Tipton says. "We're moving toward elongated and narrower planks, going to a 6-by-54-inch plank. We've just recently introduced patterns in a two-plank visual resulting in the look of a 3-inch-wide plank with registered embossing."

Quick-Step has also developed a process of applying a dark- and white-wash look to its oaks, designed to replicate a more antiqued or worn visual. In addition, the company is offering more realistic-looking stone tile with micro beveled edges and recessed grout lines.

"I see the laminate segment continuing to grow at its rapid pace," Tipton says. "I see styles and innovation narrowing the gap between hardwoods and ceramics."

Tipton also pins his hopes on the receptivity of the builders market. "With our visuals and innovations, I see laminate now becoming more of an option for the builders," he says. "It's the ideal product, you can install it during any part of the building process and, in many situations, you do not need to hire a specialized installer - which benefits all parties involved.

"We are aggressively going after all the business, no rock unturned," he adds. "Flooring is not rocket science. There are only so many opportunities, and [laminate manufacturers] are all going after them."

Quick-Step 800 Double Planks, here shown in dark varnished oak, is a two-plank visual with registered embossing that offers a 3-inch-wide plank appearance.
David Wilkerson, vice president of marketing for Shaw's Hard Surfaces Division, says that his company will continue to pursue the possibilities of its TouchableTexture registered-embossing technology.

"What this really entails is having a specific imprint or embossing plate for a specific style," Wilkerson says. "It's a visual more like a natural wood floor from the standpoint of surface texture. The first and second generations of laminate flooring had random textures. Now they are more specific to pattern and style. It's important to give consumers that option."

He says that the essential components that make up Shaw's laminate have been modified "to a certain degree," but nothing significant or major enough to garner undue attention. "Where the changes have really taken place is in the application of the pattern and the registered embossing of the surface texture," Wilkerson says.

He adds that the company is planning to introduce some beveled-edge products later in 2005.

Claes Wennerth, president of Alloc, believes that the market for laminate flooring "will continue to grow at a healthy low double-digit percentage in the next few years." He points to a continued strong housing market, increased consumer acceptance of laminate, improved designs and textures, new plank and tile sizes, increasingly competitive prices, and greater awareness in the architectural and designer communities as factors that will spur growth.

Inhaus laminate flooring (here pictured in Brazil Nut) utilizes the company’s EasyConnect system with Isowaxx technology for increased joint integrity.
Wennerth says that technological advances will continue to help Alloc's position in the market. "Our association with Valinge Innovation gives us access to the cutting edge in technology," he adds. "The technological advancements will be introduced as they become commercially viable, and are bound to play a significant role in our development."

Federico Feuermann, marketing manager for Inhaus, says that style and innovation will continue to be a driving force in the laminate segment. "I think the next phase of innovation will take place in the raw materials used to make laminates, such as printing methods and overlay technology as well as in the manufacturing equipment utilized."

Inhaus laminate flooring offers an innovation via its EasyConnect system with Isowaxx, which was developed for enhanced joint integrity, says Feuermann. Isowaxx is injected into the plank joints and, according to Feuermann, penetrates the cellular structure of the wood to provide excellent moisture resistance.

"With regards to technological innovations, I think that laminates have come a long way in terms of performance and styling since their initial introduction to the market," Feuermann says. "I believe that we will soon see new laminate sub-categories that will take styling, performance and value to the next level."