From embossed in-register visuals to locking installation systems, laminate flooring has long been known for its technological innovations. But as the segment has matured the question becomes whether the product can continue to innovate. While manufacturers acknowledge the pace of ground-breaking innovations has slowed, they are quick to point out advancements in the category are far from over.
Two culprits are the primary cause of laminate technology slowing from its former high pace, according to Milton Goodwin, Armstrong’s vice president of product. The first is the maturing of the category. “Anytime the industry comes up with a new product, you tend to make quantum leaps in technology in the beginning. It’s hard to keep lapping yourself.” He added other product segments including LVT have taken away market share from laminate, resulting in fewer resources available for the research and development of the product.
However, Goodwin believes the industry is making the proper investments to restore profitability in laminate. “What the laminate industry needs to do is address the water resistance of the product. So far nobody has cracked that code, but if the industry can figure out moisture resistance, it will right the ship.”
One place where laminate continues to deliver is its visuals, he added. “From a visual standpoint, the technology is strong, with the ability to do long planks, random lengths and random widths. The realism is there.”
Dan Natkin, Mannington Mills’ director of laminate and hardwood business, also sees continuing improvements in the look of the product. “We are creating products that are virtually indistinguishable from real wood, and with the significant performance advantages that laminate offers.”
He sees the future of laminate tied to advancements in both styling and performance. “In styling, we strive for continual improvement in realism particularly in regard to texture and print. In terms of performance, we’re looking at water- and flame-resistant cores as the next evolution of features and benefits of the product.”
According to Carr Newton, Shaw’s laminate category manager, one of laminate’s strengths is allowing for excellent durability while presenting realistic visuals at a fraction of a cost of their real-world counterparts. “Laminate flooring can achieve stylish finishes while being resistant to wear and scratches. In the past few years, technology has improved the options for texturing, which enables the product to realistically emulate hardwood.”
He said the trend is toward narrow, single-image planks. “The use of narrower planks combined with a thicker core board, which helps the product better absorb sound, more closely mimics a key benefit of solid hardwood.”
Newton added printing technology is also evolving. “Laminate can feature an oil finish or wire-brushed look without any sacrifice in durability or performance. Handscraped and other reclaimed looks are additional examples of new finishes that can be created more easily in laminate than in other materials.”
Travis Bass, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Kronotex, which markets the Formica brand of laminate flooring, also sees advances in digital printing and manufacturing equipment resulting in more realistic laminate visuals. “Press-plate design for embossed and handscraped laminate surfaces continues to improve with ever-decreasing tolerance ranges.”
He said laminate flooring manufacturers will continue to push “the look and feel of solid hardwood, and to a lesser degree, easier installation and moisture resistance.” While consumers are not necessarily clamoring for more installation education, Bass said the need is there. “The desire is for an attractive, affordable, problem-free floor. There needs to be more consumer and installer education about the basics of laminate installation.”
Enhancements in digital inks and locking technologies are also bringing a more technologically advanced floor to market. Sweden’s Välinge Innovation has developed powder technology and aqueous-based inks designed to “make cost-efficient flooring solutions that will enable digital printing,” explained Marcus Bergelin, the company’s business development director.
“Digital printing papers today are special, expensive papers to give good printing resolution which, on top of this, need to be strong and stable in order to handle the melamine impregnation baths. These papers can be replaced with a thin layer of powder, which combined with using Välinge ink will give the necessary cost savings for full conversion to digital print,” he noted.
The company has also developed what it calls an even more cost-efficient printing technology with BAP (Binder and Powder), which prints the substrate with non-pigmented ink called “blank ink.” Pigment powder can then be applied to the surface in several passes to achieve a full-color print. The technology also allows for specific spot color. “The digital printer is always printing the same blank ink,” Bergelin explained, “and you can just change dry powder cartridges like the toner in laser printers. This also means you can easily print pigments for glimmering effects.”
Laetitia Kimblad, Välinge’s key account manager, said several Välinge technologies have played a significant role in advancing the laminate category. “The single action installation method, where Välinge’s 5G technology has played a significant role, has definitely been established as a standard in locking, replacing the traditional angle/angle or angle/snap installation method.”
Powder backing technology, which replaces backing paper with a powder derived from recycled wood powder and a binder, is also growing in popularity with manufacturers, she noted. “The simple process of mixing fibers and binders can be done at the flooring manufacturing site. The powder amount can easily be adjusted in the scattering process, where the powder is applied to the core to match the paper configuration on top, replacing the traditional backing paper.”
Kimblad also shared two other technologies from the company. Nadura is a hybrid flooring that “combines many of the key features of existing flooring categories to offer the authenticity and high wear resistance of stone, the warmth of wood, the easy installation of laminate or other floating floors as well as the embossing of vinyl floorings and even more endless design possibilities.”
She noted manufacturers are also looking for additional sustainable features, such as Välinge’s ACTiO2 technology, which “transforms the floors into an active surface that contributes actively to a cleaner and healthier indoor environment.” Floors treated with the product undergo a natural photo-catalytic process designed to break down VOCs and odors when placed into direct contact with sunlight.
With these and other new technologies, it is clear laminate is not a segment to be counted out. The product may no longer enjoy the seemingly non-stop parade of technology advancements it did at its launch in the mid 1990s, but it still has plenty of room to advance and evolve to meet the needs of an ever-changing marketplace.