Attendees of Surfaces 2001 were among the first in the industry to get up-close looks at the latest products the laminate floor segment has to offer. Time will tell whether some of the newest advances in laminate technology and styling will catch on in the U.S. marketplace. However, one aspect of this year’s product launches is undeniable: glueless laminate floors have arrived in force -— and it looks like they may be here for the long haul.
Glueless installation systems, also referred to as mechanical-locking systems, have for years been popular throughout Europe. Although they have been available in the United States for some time, glueless floors -— until now —- have taken a back seat to the conventional glued-joint method of installation.
The laminate industry’s recent focus on mechanical-locking systems is largely based on several perceived advantages they have over traditional glued installation methods. Because they snap or click together, without the need for adhesives, straps or clamps to hold starter boards in place, glueless floors are touted as easier and faster to install than conventional laminate floors. The precision fit between planks eliminates gapping problems and related customer callbacks.
Also, glueless laminates can be walked upon immediately after installation and, because adhesive is not part of the equation, no additional labor is needed to clean glue haze from the assembled floor. Whether the floor will be laid by the professional installer or the weekend do-it-yourselfer, glueless laminates represent the industry’s latest and so far best attempt to create a foolproof floor.
“Our products were developed with the professional installer in mind,” says Peter Barretto, president and CEO of St. Louis-based Quick Step Inc. “Glueless products eliminate most installer headaches associated with laminates.”
“That joint really holds together,” he explains. “It’s the main reason why our claims rate for 1999 was only 0.35%.”
Alloc Inc. holds patents for what is probably the industry’s best-known alternative to Unilin’s mechanical locking system. The company’s Home Flooring line has a locking joint made of a wood composite and its Alloc Original product features an aluminum snap-in mechanism, says Steve Bunch, the company’s vice president of Sales/Marketing.
The composition of the joint also governs how many times a glueless panel may be locked together and still maintain a tight fit. Many wood composite systems are designed to be locked together no more than three times. Alloc’s Home Flooring line is guaranteed to click together at least five times; its aluminum locking systems can be engaged and disengaged an unlimited number of times, Bunch says.
Despite its many advantages, some installers have expressed skepticism about the mechanical-locking laminates’ ability to withstand exposure to moisture, particularly when compared to the performance of conventional laminates with glue-sealed joints.
“That criticism was real,” Bunch admits.
To combat the effects of moisture, some laminate manufacturers, including Alloc, now apply a wax treatment to the edges of each panel to effectively seal the joints. In fact, Witex’s new Country LocTec Collection includes AquaProtect, a paraffin treatment that’s given the company confidence enough to offer a 30-year moisture damage warranty.
Given the proliferation of mechanically locking products, many observers wonder whether the U.S. flooring industry is facing the end of the conventional glued laminate installation. Such a development may be in the cards, but likely only if European market trends extend to the U.S. marketplace.
“The laminate business is driven by Europe,” says Steve Newman, Witex vice president of Sales/Marketing. “If you went to Domotex a year or two ago, you’d have seen nothing but glueless laminates. Historically, the innovations of Europe eventually come to the U.S.”
In fact, he adds, Witex’s current worldwide production capacity is 80% glueless and 20% conventional laminate products. One year ago, it was 95% conventional laminate. And although Newman can’t guarantee that glueless products will take off in this country, his company is betting heavily that they will.
This leads some, including Mannington’s Himes, to wonder whether the market’s move to glueless laminates is driven more by consumer demand or by the production capacity of the major European laminate manufacturers. With virtually all of its laminate product manufactured in High Point, N.C., Mannington is somewhat insulated from the trends that drive European manufacturers and is, therefore, a bit more guarded about the long-term prospects of glueless laminates.
Foreign producers’ en masse embrace of the glueless product is a “classically European” response to a new product innovation, Himes says. “Two years ago at Domotex, the hot thing was click-in installation. This year, it was attaching a sound-deadening backing to the product,” he explains. “U.S. manufacturers want to know what’s really selling —- not what every other manufacturer is making. Our customers want something new and different.”
It is only through product differentiation, Himes adds, that the U.S. laminate flooring market can stave off the commoditization that has shaved margins in Europe.
In the final analysis, the desires and demands of U.S. consumers will determine whether glueless installation systems become a staple of this country’s laminate floor segment. Proponents on all sides of the issue can offer their predictions, but the free market will decide which products have staying power and which -— like mood rings, pet rocks and leisure suits —- become the dimly remembered fads of yesteryear.
NFT welcomes your comments about this article. Will glueless installation systems come to dominate the U.S. laminate floor market? How do feel about the styling and performance of today’s laminates? What would make the product better? Post your thoughts and questions on the NFT Online Message Board at www.ntlfloortrends.com/messageboards.