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Locking systems clicking in multiple categories

When laminate flooring first came to the U.S. in late 1993 the product was installed by gluing the planks’ tongue-and-groove system, similar to how some engineered wood floors are installed. Less than a handful of years later the first products incorporating a glue-free mechanical locking system were introduced, forever changing the course of not just the laminate category but the industry as a whole.

The first mechanical locking system for laminate was developed by Välinge 1994 and introduced by Norske Skog (later Alloc) in 1996 and is still used by the company today. Known simply as 1G (1st Generation), the locking system material was based on aluminum and was shaped and connected to the floorboard by an advanced operation in high speed in a press, explained Niclas Håkansson, who was recently named Välinge’s CEO after most recently serving as executive vice president.

In 1997, Unilin, now a business unit of Mohawk Industries, introduced its patented Uniclic system. Together with Välinge’s patented systems—from the original 1G to its most recent 5G methods—the glueless revolution began.

In fact, their rapid adoption to laminate—within five years nearly 100% of the category was using some type of click system— and proliferation into numerous other product types, from engineered and solid wood to luxury vinyl tile (LVT) and ceramic, caused FCNews to recognize both the technology behind them and their introduction among the Top 25 innovations and events over the last 25 years (May 16/23).

Interestingly, the big boxes helped spur the original revolution in laminate. Shortly after Unilin and Välinge had established themselves, Lowe’s began offering a line of laminate featuring one of the locking systems and from there the concept quickly took off.

Rob Tarver, vice president of sales and marketing for SnapStone/Avaire, a ceramic tile company that has successfully incorporated a grout-free locking system said, “Innovation in flooring over the last two decades across all segments has been in reducing the complexities of the labor component. Floating and locking flooring systems make installation easier, faster and more efficient. It also opens up the labor pool of who can install different flooring products and reduces the installed costs for end users.”

Russell Rogg, president and CEO of Metroflor Corp., which jump-started the locking revolution in LVT with its Grip Strip Technology, agreed with Tarver, noting locking systems were widely accepted “because they saved time and eliminated the complexities associated with gluing planks or tiles together via a traditional tongue-and-groove configuration. In short, these systems proved to be faster and more reliable than the previous methods. And, often times, were more aesthetically pleasing as no glue residue was left behind—plus the fiberboard wasn’t swollen from the moisture within the adhesive.”

While numerous glue-free systems have been introduced over the years, those from Unilin and Välinge are the most widely known and used and, in a sense, have become the standard by which all others are measured.

Roger Farabee, senior vice president of marketing for Unilin, said the popularity comes from the “superior design of the patented Uniclic locking system which offers the optimal balance between ease of installation and locking strength, ensuring a damage-resistant surface unrivaled in the industry.”

Beyond laminate

It is for these reasons, he noted that “our Mohawk and Columbia brands were some of the first in the industry to offer glueless installation locking technology [in hardwood]. The inclusion of click systems in hardwood has had the positive effects of lowering installation costs and expanding the market. Click systems have made the installation of hardwood floors quick and easy…and this installation method is reshaping the market by providing beautiful flooring with outstanding performance at a lower total cost for an installed hardwood floor.”

While wood was the first product category to really start using locking systems—first in engineered followed by solid— outside of laminate, it took far longer compared to laminate for them to be widely accepted. Even in LVT, the explosion only came in the last year.

Clark Hodgkins. director of wood product development for Shaw Industries, feels that even though “a large part” of both the wood and resilient categories will eventually move toward glueless systems there is a reason why things haven’t clicked as quickly as they did in laminate.

“Laminate switched so quickly,” he explained, “because it was already 100% floating. Before the advent of locking systems, hardwood was less than 10% floating and LVT did not have a floating option. Therefore, by offering glueless systems you are first convincing the customer [retailer and consumer] to switch from a solidly adhered product. That is the difficult part. Once they believe in a floating floor, glueless is an easy sell.”

Just like they did in laminate, Farabee noted the home centers “have historically led the way in the click wood category by adopting the glueless installation locking technology much faster than specialty retail channels.”

While the wood category is starting to adopt locking systems Håkansson said the acceptance rate is way behind that of Europe where Välinge estimates 80% of engineering wood is with a mechanical locking comparable to about 20% in North America. “The fact that solid floors are strong in North America makes the market slower in converting to mechanical locking systems even if Välinge can supply good systems also for this product category.”

Despite this, he added, “the trend is very clear with increasing volumes of locking products, and that means the market should convert to floating and mechanical locking at the same time.”

When it comes to tile, Avaire’s Tarver said, “There is no question the category is and will continue to move in this direction. There are so many benefits residentially and commercially for locking systems.”

One of the biggest benefits, he noted, is “they allow for products to be easily removed for future renovations and even reused, which traditional tile cannot since it is demolition work to remove it.” On the commercial side, “businesses are under tremendous pressure to complete jobs fast and eliminate as much downtime as possible. Avaire not only reduces downtime but because it is not adhered other trades can work in the room while the product is being installed.”

With regard to LVT, while manufacturers have been quicker to incorporate locking systems than wood, their use really didn’t explode until a year ago, despite the success of Metroflor.

Now, there are numerous options, explained Shaw’s Hodgkins. “The challenge will be to work through which glueless products will ultimately take market share. That has yet to sort itself out.”

Metroflor’s Rogg said the company is set on maintaining its leadership role in this area. “We are on the verge of introducing a new floating LVT variation called Engage. It will utilize Unilin’s locking profile, which we believe is the next natural evolution in the category and will nicely compliment our existing dryback and floating portfolios.”

The one area locking systems have yet to take hold are in soft surface, but Håkansson believes that will happen in due time. “This was shown by Välinge almost 10 years back when we also showed resilient materials with mechanical locking systems. Our belief is that this will be the next clear trend when the penetration level of mechanically locked LVT has gone up and showed the market that also other flooring material besides laminate and wood could be installed with a locking system.”

-Matthew Spieler