Using a technique adopted from the closet components market, Stevens Industries creates rounded edges for its Tot Mate Eco children's furniture line, which features textured TFM on MDF panels. Todd Wegman says the process is somewhat of a trade secret but shares that it relies on a routed-out underside and specially treated paper that bends similarly to post forming for HPL.
Born from the board side of the composite panel business, thermally fused melamine (TFM) has experienced more growing pains than its elder cousin high-pressure laminate (HPL), which has long enjoyed aggressive marketing programs. “The term HPL is highly visible,” says Rick Troxel, product manager for Roseburg. “One thing we’ve had to recognize and embrace is the fact that architects and designers have 30-year relationships with HPL specification reps. But we know that HPL took 40-plus years to mature, and now TFM, which was 10 to 20 years behind HPL, is starting to gain recognition as something other than a commodity, cabinet-liner replacement for shelves and cabinet interiors. It has been a long, tough road to educate specifiers.”
Misunderstandings about its performance characteristics, color choice availability and even its name have sidelined TFM, which uses the same decor papers popular in HPL. Also known as low-pressure laminate and melamine-faced chipboard, TFM is often mistaken for melamine paper – pinch-rolled low basis weight paper with melamine crystals – or called thermo-pressed laminate. Confusion about its very identity leads specifiers to pass up TFM in favor of HPL despite value engineering potential.
Hurdles such as shipment minimums on orders and a slimmer profit margin – somewhere between 30- and 50-percent less than HPL – present challenges for laminators. “Even if you want to renovate an entire hotel lobby, it may not use a full truckload of TFM panels,” says Todd Wegman of Stevens Industries, which laminates boards and builds finished fixtures. “Cash flow is king. It can be difficult to ship low-volume orders at the right price.” Wegman says changing TFM’s competitive focus from HPL to real wood products could produce sales numbers that favorably affect shipping costs. Stevens Industries has done just this by offering its Eco by Tot-Mate, a line of furniture and storage fixtures constructed from TFM components, in response to similar birch ply designs popular in schools and childcare environments.
Another barrier to the marketplace is designers’ tendency to select over-engineered materials for vertical surfaces. Enlightened fabricators sometimes make value-adjusted substitutions when appropriate. “TFM is becoming more competitive with HPL and has made it easier to match jobs that aren’t always specified based on HPL surfaces.” says Bob Knothe, TFM sales manager for Toppan Interamerica, a decor paper printer. “For example, 10 to 15 years ago, Steelcase wouldn’t even consider TFM but today have popular TFM lines, Nurture for healthcare and Turnstone for office furniture.”
Perceptions that its lower price equates to reduced performance persisted for decades. Lately though, exact-matching programs for complementary decorative surfaces, advances in print fidelity, developments in surface texture and widespread use on boards offering LEED credit are helping TFM panels gain respect. New marketing efforts positioning TFM as a practical design solution with many desirable qualities make it competitive with solid wood. “For some reason, a lot of people still equate quality with only ‘real’ wood,” says Willie Wanker, president of Kustom Material Laminators (KML) in Washington state. “In some cabinet door and frame markets, specifiers still think it needs to be solid wood or veneer, and it doesn’t. So much territory hasn’t been explored in TFM.”
"TFM is becoming more competitive with HPL and has made it easier to match jobs that aren’t always specified based on HPL surfaces." BOB KNOTHE, TFM SALES MANAGER FOR TOPPAN INTERAMERICA
The next frontier in TFM’s marketability is texture. Improved technology in custom-designed pressing plates and in-register ticking for flooring provides realistic surfaces that, combined with modern-day print fidelity, rival the appearance of real wood, especially in flooring applications. In recent years, laminators’ tightened purse strings and cabinet makers’ lackluster commitment to texture programs set the U.S. market far apart from European design demands, according to Brian Jones of Sesa.
“The timing is right to offer more texture in the U.S because designers want to see something realistic.” JEAN GUYON, TAFISA CANADA
Environmental benefits of TFM increase its acceptance as a substitute for hardwoods. “Green” MDF or particleboard finished with a decorative surface that closely matches the real thing achieves the same visual without affecting endangered wood. “With the acid etching (Kings Mountain International) and the plates (Hueck) we have now and have coming, you won’t even be able to tell the difference between reproducible TFM and exotic species that won’t be around forever,” Wanker says.
“The combination of a visual and tactile component increases the realism of TFM, makes it look less artificial and gives credence to the woodgrains,” says Cathy Barrett, design and specification manager for Flakeboard, which recently launched its AuthenTICK texture as a standard option for panels. “In some of our newer contemporary designs, the untrained eye might think AuthenTICK is in-register texture.” Barrett says Flakeboard is active in improving matching programs for textured TFM, 3DL and edgebanding.
“The timing is right to offer more texture in the U.S. because designers want to see something realistic,” says Jean Guyon of Tafisa Canada, which launched its Smoothwood finish several years ago as a more durable alternative to the North-American standard orange peel TFM. According to Guyon, the idea behind Smoothwood was to offer something mimicking wood furniture. It has very fine ticking like that seen in maple, cherry and birch. Guyon says Smoothwood’s success in North America spurred a line of textured surfaces to debut at IWF 2010. The collection has five new modern colors available in Softwood and the recent Urbania textures, featuring straight grains such as riftcut and quarter-sawn oak.
Urbania’s milk chocolate tones are meant to mimic the look of bamboo but as an even more artistic rendering of bamboo itself, Guyon explains, noting that Urbania is an expanded line of the Lago design now marketed through California Closets with Tafisa as an exclusive supplier. “It’s more modern than anything we’ve done before. The North American marketplace is ready for this kind of texture, but it has to be used with popular woodgrain prints because investing in texture plates can be quite expensive, roughly $150,000 per texture with multiple plates, so offering it has to make sense financially.”
Another option that’s pioneering the texture movement is release papers, which give surfaces their final appearance and feel. Used to create a finish for either TFM or HPL, release papers are placed over the saturated print during lamination and then discarded or reused. For example, Suddekor’s new D.Release is coming soon to the U.S. market and offers a range of finishes and textures from high gloss to super matte. “It will allow for embossed finishes at a fraction of the cost of steel plates,” says Fran Vahle, director of sales for Suddekor.
From a decor paper printer’s perspective, creating more prints with pearlescent details also adds realism to the product, especially with embossed finishes. “Design helps to take historically consistent TFM from uses primarily in cabinet interiors to more visible decorative applications and therefore makes it more value-added,” says Marcel Albert, director of design for Suddekor.
More and more, TFM laminators are creating educational outreach efforts to forge new and real connections with specifiers. Addressing misconceptions, they’re positioning TFM panels as a sophisticated, value-engineered option that goes way beyond the “wags”, white, almond, gray (and black) commodity boards. Markets served, niche focus, specialty services and integration level dictate companies’ tactics, which range from the Uniboard Academy launched last year to Roseburg’s tabletop presentations at AIA chapter meetings and Greenbuild trade show participation. Stevens Industries has mobile showrooms in three themed buses that travel east of the Rocky mountains to display TFM-surfaced furnishings for healthcare settings, furniture for children’s environments or science lab fixtures.
“What TFM offers in terms of value-engineering a project is relatively unknown in the architectural community,” says Wanker. “At KML, we only offer one thing, and we’re reaching out across the country to promote TFM’s role, especially in vertical applications where impact resistance is not key. For our lunch-and-learn visits at top architectural firms, we show actual decor papers and tell how the pressed melamine becomes an integral part of the substrate. We emphasize similarities between TFM and HPL such as scratch resistance and how it doesn’t ring.”
At the fabrication level, manufacturers of store fixtures, office furniture and closet systems, which specify panels based on their bottom line, were the first to embrace TFM. Today, laminators are reaching out to architects and designers who spec for commercial fixtures, hospital casegoods and school furnishings with a particular aesthetic in mind. “We’re seeing more fabricators coming back to the architect to suggest TFM as an alternative to exotic veneers or materials that are either over- or under-specified,” Troxel says. “To be involved in that communication, we’re creating value propositions with a message that goes way beyond price.”
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