Continuous Laminate Revolution

Revolution is happening across the board, and it is beginning to change the way that designers create and fabricators produce. Like most significant shifts, the continuous laminate revolution is the result of a perfect storm of many indirectly related factors. The growing popularity of continuous laminates (3DL/RTF films, 2DL films and low basis weight papers) is well documented in the store fixtures industry. Consider that, according to Dustin Smith, National Sales Manager for Omnova Solutions, Inc. “The reports from the ARE show that the retail segment, in general, remained stagnant from 2008-2011, yet in that time frame Omnova grew double digits every year. It is a shift in market share. Our products are displacing TFL and HPL sheet goods and paint.” Continuous laminates are also making quiet but steady gains in the office furniture segment. Looking ahead, the ARE is predicting 10 percent growth in store fixtures for 2013 and 2014. Add to that the expectations for the re-shoring of manufacturing and… is that revolution in the air? 

 

As further evidence, there is an uptick in components manufactures acquiring membrane-pressing capabilities (3DL). But the leading edge of the revolution goes well beyond that into profile wrapping, inventive applications of miter folding, and even flat panel laminating (2DL). Jeffrey Jappa, owner of JMC Wood Manufacturing, a laminator and fabricator of wood products located in Bridgeton, MO, is one of the visionaries leading the charge. “I lost a million in sales during the recession of 2008-2009,” says Jappa. “So I went out and invested. I bought a Wemhöner membrane press. The economy was so bad that Stiles provided discounted pricing and set up low interest financing. It looked risky from the outside, but research and market insight told a different story, during a recessionary economy, I wasn’t going to do real risky stuff.” Although JMC is equipped for traditional 2DL panel processing, the company’s core competency began to shift. In fact, that membrane press did $3.2 million of business in 2012 alone. More recently, Jappa made sizable investments in miter-folding capabilities. “Everything I am doing now is miter folding. It happened so fast, but it was not a blind endeavor. I saw it coming for a couple of years and prepared for it. Now it is a huge program and JMC has developed integrated, exact design matching product lines that no one else has. We’re tooled up, and getting trained up, to be truly a one stop shop. I just really believe in the possibilities with continuous laminates. And I have the optimism to shape the future.” (See Tech Spec page xx for more about JMC’s equipment investments).

So what makes Jappa so sure? Design. Design. Design. There are three distinct ways to think about the design advantages of the continuous laminate revolution. Design in the sense that store fixture and furniture designers think about it. Applied design in terms of process engineering and what is possible. And the actual design of the materials as it relates to surface aesthetic and construction. 

What do we want? Clean seamless edges! When do we want it? Now! 

Many retailers tasked with keeping fixtures fresh are turning to vinyl. “Part of using the vinyl laminates, besides the obvious 3D applications, is that you can achieve covered edges,” says Rick Dalton, senior business analyst for J.C. Penney Company, Inc. Charged with sourcing for 1100 stores in North America and Puerto Rico, Dalton works closely with JC Penney’s fixture design team and pays careful attention to materials. “It is primarily aesthetic. Both HPL and vinyl perform well in a retail environment, and both are better than paint, in my opinion. But it is eliminating edge banding and the potential for seam lines on the edges of solid pieces, more than anything, that is the reason we are utilizing vinyl in some of our fixtures programs.” The continuing trend of white in general, and high-gloss in retail environments, amplifies the desire for a seamless look. 

Proponents of vinyl will point out that there are indeed inherent quality differentials between sheet goods and 3DL. “Vinyl is not pressed into the board, so it won’t chip. And the impact resistance is much greater than sheet goods. Hit with a hammer, HPL/TFL will crack, 2DL and 3DL vinyl will indent.  Another big advantage is eliminating seams all together. “Retailers don’t like edge banding because it falls off,” says Smith. “Plus, people pick at it. We have a large customer with a continuous laminate program now that was spending $2 million a year to replace edge banding and cracked HPL.”     

The Mighty Miter and Other Intriguing Processes

Most people get that 3DLs can be membrane pressed into profiles, which allows for contoured surfaces that just aren’t possible with HPL/TFL. But the potential for applied design with continuous laminates moves into another dimension with miter folding. JMC recently did a very unique job for JC Penney utilizing Omnova’s Starlight White high-gloss vinyl to make 3-inch thick parts. “Even with membrane pressing you get fiber pop on the edge because the faces of the MDF are hardened in the presses, but the middle is punkier, and that punkiness telegraphs,” says Jappa. “So we took a ¾-inch board and miter cut it.  Then, 1.5-inches up we made another miter. We glue the ¾-inch board back on itself and it wraps over, making a front edge that is 3” thick and very clean looking.”     

Part of the appeal of continuous laminate is that it offers opportunities for efficiencies. “Withprofile wrapping the machine runs 50-feet a minute inclusive, that 

 

is glue, vinyl on the board and out the door,” says Jappa. “Compare that to gluing sheets, putting them on the press shuttle table, running the press recipe that could be up to 4 minutes long, and then bringing the molding back out.  Next the moldings have to be trimmed out. Or compare it traditional moldings that have to be sanded and stained multiple times.  There is no comparison.” JMC also goes beyond conventional machining and laminating, utilizing a double end tenoner (DET) in place of a CNC to add edge profiles on flat MDF panels in preparation for 3DL processing. “The DET runs 60 feet a minute.  We also have a feed through boring machine that can bore 300 parts an hour. JMC has tremendous miter folding prowess with large miter folding equipment, and 5 miter folding centers,” says Jappa. Also, unlike  heet goods that have to be balanced, it is possible to have continuous laminate components that are only laminated on one side for applications where the back is out of sight. This can be a significant cost savings. 

Developing Materials and Matching 

Sophisticated designers love materials that match across faces, edges and profiles. But savvy retail end users tend to shy away from mixing materials. “Both TFL/HPL and vinyl have a wide range of finishes. And in some scenarios you have three choices, HPL/TFL, 3DL, or paint,” says Dalton. “It comes down to how the item is made, if the material lends itself to the process or not.” Although some fully integrated programs do exist, specifying sheet goods in conjunction with continuous laminates often results in either driving the cost of the project up (due to the necessary acquisition of the design’s intellectual property and engraving of printing cylinders), or settling for “like match” rather than “exact match.” “Typically we don’t mix materials within a certain area,” says Dalton. “The construction often dictates the specification.” 

This sensibility gives continuous laminates, which can be flat laminated, profile-wrapped, miter-folded and membrane-pressed, both design and value-engineering advantages over sheet goods. 

 

Omnova’s Harmony program offers exact matching at different laminate price points, as in same design files 

printed on the same cylinders, across 3DL, 2DL, paper laminates and their new TFL alternative Duramax. Need more proof of the continuous revolution? Pay attention to where companies are spending their material development dollars. Early innovators are already bringing quality PET and OPP film products to market, with more companies making similar efforts. 

Over the past several years Jappa has done thorough research through focus groups and customer polls. “I asked if they would prefer to work with one continuous laminate, available at different price points, that matches exactly across many constructions, or to work with four different products, TFL/HPL sheet goods, edge banding, 3DLs, each with its own idiosyncrasy in matching,” says Jappa. And the overwhelming response? They say they want a revolution!