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Casework for corporate offices or for medical exam rooms. One-off custom or production runs. Drawer fronts or desktops. Textured or high-gloss finishes. Doesn’t matter. Groupe Lacasse has a solution, and it invariably involves thermally fused laminate (TFL).

“We offer a variety of products, but we really go to market trumpeting our thermally fused laminate,” said Dominic Aubrey. “This is where we shine the best. This is where the customer gets the biggest value for what he pays.”

Aubrey is product manager for laminate case goods of Groupe Lacasse based in Saint-Pie, Quebec. While his current role is defining strategies for product development and market positioning, his career is rooted in furniture design. He’s been in the industry long enough to appreciate the many advances that have transformed TFL from a cost-reducing alternative for furniture and cabinet construction to a go-to product coveted not only for its utilitarian value but its versatility, resiliency and especially its aesthetics.

“Print quality, texture and new designs—those are just a few of the stand-out improvements for TFL within the last 10 years,” Aubrey said. “Texture quality due to new embossing in register technology started to improve about five years ago, and it really helped change the perception of laminates. Also, we saw the arrival of completely new designs. Some mimic wood, while some tend to look like other types of materials like leather and concrete. Others are a mix of real and invented designs.

“What’s fun with laminates is that you can modify the design and make it look exactly like you dream of it, like adding planking and tickle marks that can be toned down a little bit to look more in-line with customer expectations and tastes. Add this with the impressive synchronized texture effects, some of which are two sided, and you’ve got an impressive board to play with at a very reasonable price which will basically last forever or almost.”

Particleboard 101

Not all TFL is created equal. The longevity of furnishings made with TFL panels is largely dependent on the quality of the substrate, Aubrey noted. The truckloads of TFL panels from Uniboard and Tafisa delivered each day to Groupe Lacasse’s casework plant are made with an M2 grade particleboard as defined by the ANSI 208.1-2009 standard. The M2 rating encapsulates key quality assurance measurements, including dimensional tolerances, internal bond strength and surface and edge integrity. 

“From the untrained eye, the outside of a desk is a desk, but there are huge differences that result in durability over time—screw holding, density deflection—which is why we buy a better panel,” Aubrey said. “Combined with a quality substrate, TFL delivers impressive performance specifications very close to high-pressure laminate. It’s also maintenance-free, is impossible to delaminate and may dent but will never chip. Some of our competitors use MS, which is a lower grade level of panel. This is why we go to market using high-quality TFL that will last. In fact, we warranty our products for 25 years.”

Because casework made with high-quality TFL will endure, it’s important to choose finishes that will endear for years to come, Aubrey said.

“We need to be careful when selecting finishes because the products will still be in perfect working condition when the color trend might be over,” Aubrey said. “This is one of the factors we take into account when selecting a finish for our color palette. The finish needs to be in sync with the life cycle of the product.”

Textured Finishes Set the Standard

Regardless of whether they are used for furniture for corporate or healthcare offices, all of Groupe Lacasse’s newer TFL finishes are textured, Aubrey said.

“We still have some finishes from five or six years ago that might not be textured, but we’re not giving the choice to the customer. We’re selling a certain finish, and it comes with that texture. It’s not a big deal though because our customers are requesting textured finishes.”

Aubrey said he was initially surprised to find that finish trends for office furniture and healthcare furniture mainly follow a shared path. “These days, we pretty much see earth tones and nature-inspired colors and finishes in healthcare but see that trend in office furniture, as well. These trends sort of blend together.

On the office side, Aubrey said Groupe Lacasse is selling fewer cubicles in favor of modular furniture that can readily be reconfigured for multiple open-space solutions.

“One of our most recent introductions is STAD, a fully integrated desking system that goes one step further because it is not only serves as an individual’s desk but has the ability to be reconfigured in an open space as a lounge meeting area. This is a response to what millennial office workers want, and we’re trying to stay ahead of the curve with versatile open space furniture because we believe that there is a lot of market potential in that direction.

 “It is interesting to see and analyze which finish sells more with different types of products,” he added. “We find that in open space and collaborative settings such as with our new STAD collection, white is the number one finish. When we go into more executive or workstation types of desks, we see more woodgrains.

“My interpretation is that a woodgrain looks good if there isn’t too much of the surface that you are looking at. In a single office or a single workstation, wood looks really good. But if you look across an open space, woodgrain can be pretty heavy on the eyes. So it helps to go with a softer finish or lighter color to make the general visual feel of the open space lighter.”

A Marvelous Manufacturing Material

Aubrey also gave TFL high marks for its ease of machining and handling without the muss and fuss that goes with applying a spray finish.

Groupe Lacasse stocks 24 standard TFL finishes; 14 of them are part of the company’s quick-ship program. Quick-ship orders are processed within five working days ready to ship.

“All of our products, including our quick ship, are made to order,” Aubrey said. “The trick is that we select products that are not only good for their high demand but also because they are using the ‘fast-track’ path into the facility,” Aubrey said. “Our quick-ship finishes are also part of a quick replenishment program with our suppliers.”

Groupe Lacasse’s laminate casework plant and its adjacent upholstered seating factory employ more than 525 people. Key equipment of the casework plant includes IMA edgebanders, various Homag and CMS CNC routers and multiple drilling machines from Homag and Alberti.

“We make sure that our machines have the ability to adapt their own setup on the fly,” Aubrey said. “We can manufacture parts one by one in different colors, different sizes, different thicknesses and different edgebands. This is a huge advantage for us. We can machine a part from walnut to cherry to maple TFL, and the edgebanding on each part can be a different color and thickness.”

“We’re small enough to have a quick turn-around for specials, but we’re big enough to be able to leverage our engineering to modify our machines to bring some innovations to the market,” Aubrey said.

One example of Groupe Lacasse’s in-house engineering creativity involved modifying an edgebander to render custom knife edge profiles on TFL panels, an upgrade offered on conference tables and other worksurfaces.

“A knife edge is something that is typically hand-crafted,” Aubrey said. “We modified the infeed of the edgebander and also adapted other components including the glue pot to do more than just 90-degree angles and to accept different edge sizes.”

Another example of Groupe Lacasse’s ingenuity is the metal inserts it developed for assembling its reconfigurable modular furniture.

“The metal insert we designed and engineered especially has the advantage of passing the BIFMA leg strength test where you simulate someone dragging a desk across the floor and hitting an obstacle. Our inserts are so strong that it prevents the leg from ripping apart. This is the kind of benefit that the customer receives with our furniture.”

Bought and Bought Back

Groupe Lacasse’s story began in the classic tradition of 20th century woodworking enterprises: in the Lacasse family garage in 1956. By 1976, Groupe Lacasse had become Canada’s “most significant” maker of sewing cabinets. The company launched its first laminate casework products in 1990 then sold its holdings to Haworth in 2000. Twelve years later, the company regained its independence, buying itself back through a 50-50 partnership of the Lacasse family and Sylvain Garneau, president and CEO.

One of the most significant moves the then-newly independent company made was cracking into the healthcare market. That crack was substantially widened in 2014 via the strategic acquisition of Neocase, a North Carolina-based manufacturer of modular healthcare furniture. Groupe Lacasse reinforced its place in the healthcare niche with the introduction of Haromonia, a collection of modular healthcare furniture solutions for nursing stations, patient rooms and waiting areas.

“Healthcare furniture was a natural fit for us in terms of manufacturing,” Aubrey said. “There are some key differences, like using solid surface countertops for lab furniture and adapting designs to minimize seams and joints, but there are even more similarities.

“The basic casework can be built out of thermally fused laminate using the same construction techniques and same hardware. This is why we offer a great array of finishes and options. We know that within any given facility, there will be many different people with many different needs, and we need to be able to answer all of them.”