FCNews Ultimate Guide to WPC: July 17/24, 2017
In the mid-1990s, Pergo paved the way for a brand new category—laminate flooring—in the U.S. market. Initially, the category generated a lot of buzz and excitement (and perhaps some overzealous product claims) before experiencing a fairly rapid shakeout of players. During that same decade, other innovators such as Anderson and Mannington introduced the industry to rustic and hand-scraped floors. Not too long after that, virtually every hardwood flooring manufacturer had some variation of scraped or distressed product in their offerings.
Fast-forward to 2013, when USFloors broke new ground with the creation of an entirely new category of flooring, WPC, which is based on composite core technology. In the few years since the launch, the WPC category has caught the attention of retailers and distributors alike. More importantly, it has seized a greater share of dealers’ showrooms, nipping sales from competing hard surface categories. At the same time, recent iterations within the WPC category have spawned the creation of exciting new products that stand to impact the overall composite core sector in many ways.
FCNews managing editor Reginald Tucker recently sat down with Piet Dossche, CEO of USFloors, to hear his assessment on how WPC has evolved since the initial launch and where the market is headed.
What are some of the main advantages of WPC vs. other composite core products such as rigid core?
There’s a lot of confusion in the market regarding where WPC and rigid core boards (RCB) fit. In my mind it is very clear, one category is not better than the other; they both complement each other. The analogy I use when I try to explain the differences between WPC and RCB is carpet. Most people know what carpet is all about, and most people know the difference between level loop commercial carpet vs. cut pile/saxony/plush type of carpet. I take a piece of 10-gauge level loop in one hand and a 40-ounce saxony carpet in the other hand. The 10-gauge level loop is my RCB product, and the 40-ounce saxony is my WPC product. Both products are made for certain purposes. Carpet 10-gauge level loop is not made for comfort; it is designed for performance. It’s a tight, dense construction that provides durability. The 40-ounce saxony, on the other hand, is a cut pile and has a more open construction. It’s plush, warm, soft and comfortable—you can really lie down and live on that floor. You wouldn’t really lie down on a 10-gauge level loop product.
You can make exactly the same comparison between WPC and RCB. With a rigid core construction, you have a very dense, tightly packed core with a high percentage of minerals and calcium carbonate in the formulation. It’s made more for performance as opposed to comfort. It’s designed for applications where indentation resistance is the most important factor.
With WPC, on the other hand, there is a foaming agent in the formulation, which creates air pockets within the core during the extrusion process. Inherently, these air pockets act as insulators for both sound and temperature, providing a higher level of comfort for the consumer. For example, if you have a customer who operates a hair salon, she needs a product designed to withstand heavy foot traffic—most likely high heels. That floor also has to be waterproof and resistant to chemicals. From a performance point of view, the RCB product will best fulfill the requirements in this situation.
But for the homeowner/housewife with an active lifestyle—kids, pets, etc.—she will want something that’s more comfortable, warmer and sound dampening like WPC. It will perform very well under these conditions, be waterproof in case of a spill and provide the level of comfort she is looking for.
Both products are perfect examples of how this composite core category has evolved since USFloors launched its COREtec collection about four years ago. WPC started and basically took hold of the market, then RCB came into the picture. I look at RCB as an extension of the solid LVT 3.2mm/4mm click LVT. In the end, I see these products complementing each other and helping to build the overall composite core category. WPC was just the start and RCB followed. Without a doubt you are going to see many products that follow on that path.
Do the various construction methods involved in WPC and RCB production factor into the final cost of the respective products?
Yes. For example, WPC with an LVT top layer is a more complicated product to make. It requires more capital investment. First you have to extrude the WPC coreboard. Then you have to create your LVT top layer (usually 1.5mm) through a calendaring process. A print film and wear layer are consequently pressed onto this LVT base. This slab then goes through an annealing process, which “shocks” the product to create the stability required. This top layer and WPC extruded core are pressed together and depending on the product, an attached underlayment is glued on the back (cork or another material) before the board is cut into planks or tiles and profiled with a click system. Several processes, steps and various pieces of equipment are required to make a WPC product.
By comparison, RCB, for the most part, entails a one-step process. The core, which is extruded with a high-density format, is fused with a print film (decorative layer) and wear layer before again being cut into planks or tiles and profiled with a click locking system. It’s a much less capital-intensive process.
So it sounds like there is a lower barrier to entry with respect to RCB-type products.
Yes, the RCB manufacturing method has resulted in many companies in China jumping on that wagon. Due to the issues with formaldehyde in some Chinese laminate products over the past few years, many Chinese laminate manufacturers were left standing with all this manufacturing profiling equipment. They saw their business dwindle because of the reduction in orders from the U.S. Making WPC was too expensive a process for some of these manufacturers. But when rigid core products were introduced into the composite core segment, it provided a very simple process for manufacturers who did not want to make the capital investment required to produce WPC. For many of those former laminate manufacturers in China, it made for a very easy entry into the RCB category. And because it’s a cheaper product to make, it usually sells for less money than WPC at the retail level.
Does this lower cost structure give some companies advantages over others?
Sure, in an effort to get some traction in the market, many of these newcomers revert to lowering their prices to sell their products. It’s one thing to price it lower, but it’s quite another to import the product and distribute it. Only the professional companies who can properly bring the product to the market and service the channels efficiently will be successful.
Looking through your crystal ball, how do you see rigid core’s market share growing as a piece of the overall composite core pie?
Right now RCB is still in its infancy, although it is being introduced into the market at a fast and furious pace. However, WPC has had a four- or five-year head start and it’s still growing strong. There’s no doubt about the popularity of the RCB category. Here at USFloors we are also coming out with a COREtec rigid core construction, because we don’t see it as a cannibalization of WPC. Rather, we view RCB as a complementary item that’s needed in our lineup. My sincere hope is the rigid core market becomes as big as it can, which can help to grow the category overall. Could it become as large as 50% of the total composite core category? Who knows. But even in that case, I don’t necessarily see it as WPC giving up half its market share to the rigid core category. As the market continues to grow, and when the dust eventually settles, it will transition to a more normal growth track compared to the high, double-digit growth curve we’re seeing today. Over the next three to five years, when all this stabilizes, I predict the composite core market will probably be three to four times as big as it is today. By then I expect rigid core will have taken a sizable market share next to WPC. With RCB construction more focused on commercial applications and WPC more residential, the residential share will be larger than the commercial volumes. Who knows—in three years’ time there could be three or four different composite core constructions on the market.
Speaking of the ongoing evolution of the composite core category, what are your thoughts about some of the early iterations we’re seeing?
It just confirms what I’ve been saying. We’re only on the cusp of innovation. These products are brand new in the market, and I believe they will be successful if they bring a solution that previous versions did not provide. But if we begin to see new products that are merely a gimmick, or a change in the core or construction just for the sake of change, then they’ll face an uphill battle. But if these new products are bringing certain advantages over existing constructions, then they will be successful.
What’s the next step for USFloors?
We are in the midst of commissioning our first WPC/COREtec plant at the state-of-the-art Shaw facility in Ringgold, Ga. We started up production in the last two weeks and we’re already making product. We are the innovator and leader in this category and are committed to remain in this position. We’re very excited about the future; the best is yet to come. Stay tuned!