TFL Performance Is Built Right In
By Teong Tan, Arclin Vice President, Business & Technology
and Joe Medges, Arclin Technical Sales Manager, Decorative Surfaces
It’s no secret to any of us in the decorative surfaces industry that TFL, or thermally fused laminates, may just be the least understood surfacing option on the market. Lack of “brand” identity (and especially strong recognition of its closely allied product, HPL) or lingering perceptions tied to once-imperfect manufacturing standards—who’s to say what exactly is to blame.
But as technologies have vastly improved and the application of TFL continues to grow throughout the world, we thought the opportunity ripe to offer a little insight into the product category. And as a couple of technical guys with combined resin and treating expertise, we wonder if a little “how it works” background might gain the market better understanding about just what you get—and can expect—from TFL. It does, after all, meet very specific market needs for high performing, lower-cost surface options for a wide variety of applications.
WHAT SUCCESS LOOKS LIKE
What goes into TFL and how it’s made contribute equally to its performance success. And just what does success look like? Let’s start there.
All North American-made and sold TFL must meet NEMA (National Electrical Manufacturers Association) performance standards for impact and scratch resistance, cleanability, UV light resistance, surface wear durability and more. A number of other organizations, including the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), provide criteria—and often certification and regulation—for air quality and sustainability.
- they get there is a combination of the complementary efforts of suppliers along the manufacturing supply chain—and smart chemistry.
From an environmental standpoint, paper suppliers meet FSC standards for sustainably harvested fiber sources. Printers of décor papers are largely using environmentally friendly water-based inks. Paper treaters’ (of which Arclin is one) plants are typically FSC chain-of-custody certified. Our resin systems also meet all CARB Phase II compliance regulations for air quality and may contribute to LEED credits for air quality as set forth by the U.S. Green Building Council. The laminators we work with prefer industrial grade substrate materials (typically particleboard or MDF) that meet a variety of industry standards for environmental sustainability and safety and are also fire rated and moisture resistant.
Performance characteristics are also built in, ensured by a number of steps and contributions along the supply chain.
HOW WE GET THERE
Not only do all of us in the TLF supply chain have a stake in making sure the final product meets performance standards and market demand, many of us are also committed to continuous innovations that improve performance still further. By leveraging enhanced technologies, we’re ensuring that end customers reap the benefit of products that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are high performing and cost effective.
- “It used to be, we’d prop a piece of wood up against the wall and take a picture,” said Bill Schmittgens, U.S. national sales manager for printer Schattdecor, of the process of capturing designs to transfer to décor papers. Just a few short decades ago, poor design fidelity made surface overlays a weak substitution for real wood surfaces. Not so anymore. Highly creative and high fidelity designs are being driven by printers’ often-global design teams and technological advancements that have customers scratching their heads asking if this is “real wood.”
Ink technologies have also come a long way. “We solved any fading issues many, many years ago,” Schmittgens said. Today, technology enables printers to consistently replicate colors with exacting accuracy and ensure those colors not only hold up under persistent light exposure, but also hold their consistency under a variety of light sources (e.g., sunlight, florescent and incandescent).
Treating. The most critical element of successful TFL production is the resin systems employed during the treating process. We can speak only for our own manufacturing approach, but Arclin uses a proprietary multiple-coat treating process. First, décor papers are “dipped” into thermoset resins that fill the gaps, so to speak, in the paper core—much like a sponge absorbs water. We then coat the top and bottom of the paper with resin layers that hold the key to many of its ultimate performance characteristics. The “inside” resin ensures the paper holds up—it becomes virtually impossible to tear apart. The “outside” layers seal the paper, providing a top that is heat-, scratch-, water- and chemical-resistant, and color stable. The resin on the bottom serves as a glueline that reactivates during the lamination process to ensure a strong and consistent bond on the panel substrate.
Resin systems can be and are altered for a variety of reasons: They are often customized for individual laminator manufacturing environments. They can be engineered to enable the application of textures, effectively and without weakening the fibers. And they can include additives that offer additional attributes like antimicrobial properties—namely for hospitals and schools—and smudge resistance. Seals can be included in resin systems to make it possible to erase pencil marks, for example, and so a hot cup of tea won’t leave a mark.
With customization, these same treated papers can also be used for flooring. In this case, chemicals are added to ensure greater wear resistance. A cap sheet, applied during lamination, provides extra protection.
Complex and varied in purpose, the right resin system is essential to product performance. (Arclin has the benefit of producing our own resins, which allows us to affect the attributes and outcomes.)
The treated paper is cured (dried) and provided to the laminator in single sheets, cut to their manufacturing specifications.
Lamination. The laminator then uses a combination of heat and pressure to fuse treated paper and substrate. By heating the paper, the partially cured resin is chemically reactivated, becoming sticky and ready for lamination. Laminators manipulate heat, resin flow and curing speeds to ensure proper bonding and surface integrity. “Time, pressure and temperature, that’s our formula,” noted Gary McGillivray, head of sales and product development for KML Designer Finishes in Tacoma, Washington. How much of each goes into the process predicates the success of the finished product.
Texture and surface finishes are added at the lamination stage, created by various press plates and enabled by additives to the resin system.
You can see that there are a lot of moving parts to this manufacturing process. There are just as many safeguards to make sure the finished panels hold up to every standard we’ve outlined, plus meet the market’s increasing demand for these high quality and versatile panels.
Printers govern color consistency and design integrity. Treaters first check for paper and design/color consistencies. Arclin’s resin batches are tested extensively to ensure they meet what we call “golden batch” criteria. We have electronic monitors along the treater to check for defects and sight monitors that go through papers as they are cut and bundled. Quality laminators use industrial grade substrate panels to guarantee even resin distribution for smooth surface finishing. They also employ their own set of quality control measures.
And we all work together throughout the manufacturing process, monitoring, evaluating and customizing our products to net an end product worthy of its application, whether stylish kitchen cabinet or high-end desk system, custom closet configuration or boutique hotel lobby fixture.
Together, we’ve come a long way. And still, the market is changing rapidly. As demand for the product grows, so do expectations for, for instance, deeper and more detailed textures (often called EIR, or embossed in register) and greater performance, including enhanced abrasion, impact and chemical resistance. Arclin is leading the way in the development of chemistries to meet—and drive—market expectations.
We all know that the more the downstream market knows and understands the processes and properties of TFL, the more opportunity it creates for everyone in the industry. The more the industry works together to innovate and educate, the better our collective outcomes.