"Can you envision it? We can!" – Whole new story in digital inkjet laminates…

With a quiet roar, the namesake of a product we are all familiar with is taking a leap into the digital age. Formica Group, global manufacturer of the ubiquitous—and trademarked—Formica, is taking a bold step and now offers custom versions of its decorative architectural laminates to meet the needs of individual customers and designers called Formica Envision. Your restaurant’s bar counter, or your living room wall panels could thus soon feature your theme, or whatever other image or pattern that you want. Naturally, digital printing is behind the change; Formica Group will not comment on its technology, except to confirm that it some species of inkjet.

This new product introduction is significant because: (1) Formica is the most famous brand of architectural laminates in the world; (2) digital printing of such laminates is minuscule today, mainly just prototyping products for production on analog presses; (3) the same forces that have caused digital printing to explode upward in décor segments such as sign & display, textiles, and ceramic tile printing are likely to propel the laminates market as well. On the last one – the forces – designers and their customers want customized appearances in the spaces they design or plan and live in. Meanwhile manufacturers of laminate want the competitive edge that being able to create custom, short run products will give. Resulting in more manufacturers of laminates that follow Formica Group’ lead.

As to Formica Group, the company has just launched Formica Envision. This new product enables users to upload a digitized art element and order customized laminates made from it for many decorative applications, including tables, wall dividers, and countertops. The customer’s imagination is the only limit.

Formica Envision is available in sheets ranging from 3’x8’ up to 4’x12’. Although not suitable for post-forming applications (i.e., using heat to mold the sheet to shapes), these sheets are available in Grades 10 (for general use) and V4 (for vertical applications that require thicker Formica laminate). Customers will typically receive their final product within 2-3 weeks of placing the order. The minimum order for the Formica Envision is one sheet (smallest sheet size is 3’X8’ or 24 sq. ft.) at a cost of $8 to $11 per square feet to the fabricator.

For the sake of perspective, we offer some insight about the manufacturing process of Formica, again a trademarked name from Formica Group. Formica laminate was invented in 1913 by Daniel J. O’Conor and Herbert A. Faber. The manufacturing process for Formica laminate includes several key steps, including printing.

Prior to lamination onto the carrier surface, each Formica product starts with resin-soaked paper: The inside, or filler, of Formica laminate is made from brown paper bathed in phenolic resin, which is applied by rollers. The resin soaks through the paper and sets in a drying oven, giving Formica laminate its strength and thickness. The decorative side of Formica laminate – the part we actually see – is made from high-grade print paper typically using a rotary gravure press with water-based pigment inks. Once it has been printed and trimmed to a suitable size, the paper is placed into a vat filled with a clear melamine resin. The paper then goes through a wringer to squeeze off any excess. An overlay sheet makes it wear-resistant. At this point, hydraulic rams applying between 800 to 1,500 pounds of pressure per square inch press the stacks of resin-soaked paper. The press heats the paper, enabling the resins to liquefy and spread. This process bonds all the layers in the stack together into a single laminate unit. After the unit is removed from the press and trimmed, the bottom is sanded so glue will stick to it when it is applied onto counter tops, particle board, or similar surfaces.

Over the years, Formica Group has created many designs of Formica laminate that are used in décor applications, including kitchen counters, furniture, cabinets, and wall surfaces. These designs, though, are produced in large volumes, for sale to masses of customers. Meanwhile, as we have observed in other categories building materials such as textiles and ceramic tiles, there is growing demand for customized, value-added products.

Given the capabilities of today’s industrial digital printing technology, the gap from gravure mass-production printing of laminates to customized digital laminates creates an opportunity to develop new products that ease the transition from mass production to mass customization. Formica Envision provides a clear example of digital printing and product innovation coming together to expand markets and opportunities.

This new innovation from the Formica Group offers yet another indicator that digital printing technology is finding its way into all walks of life. Back in late 1980s, inkjet and electrophotography products began the digital transformation of document and product coding. A generation later, the rapid growth of digital deposition is meeting customer needs and contributing (though only a small part at this point) to key manufacturing industries. InfoTrends has been tracking these trends for quite some time. Revenues from digital decorative printing in the Sign & Display, Ceramic Tile, Packaging, and Wall/Floor Covering markets recently surpassed $57 billion worldwide, and rapid growth is expected to continue.

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