A few years ago Thomas Baert, president of Chinafloors and its brand Lamett USA told me “China has been the low cost producer but soon it will be the source of innovation.” That was quite a statement considering in the 1990’s the country’s reputation was to partner with Westerners simply to access modern technology and information. That, like so much else is changing remarkably fast in Chinese flooring.
I have visited China about twice a year since 1992 and every visit reveals something new. I just returned from my most recent trip and can confirm that the metamorphosis continues. Just riding to the airport in Shanghai I saw more building cranes on skyscrapers under construction than probably exist in the whole US Midwest.
Only five years ago it was common to see hopeful workers standing every morning 50 deep for a job in a flooring plant. Today, manufacturers talk about the difficulty of finding good workers and the need for more automation as discussed in a Floor Covering Weekly (FCW) article, “China’s Double Edged Sword.”
Rather than the low cost imitator that China was known to be, more and more we see advancements and product improvements in floor covering coming from China. Ray Pina of FCW noted this in his article “China’s Vinyl Market Thrives on Innovation” but innovation is not limited to vinyl. In the last few years we have seen new products such as strand bamboo, high gloss laminate and click LVT coming from China. These are not low cost category killers but rather products at the high end of the spectrum in each category that have been developed in China.
|Sunyard faux wood grain created by pressing|
“Competition Spurs Category’s Competition” gives an interesting overview of the current competition. Referring to the boom in China’s domestic market, one manufacturer remarked that when LVT catches on there as it has in the US “a hundred domestic manufacturers will not be able to meet the LVT demand.”
On this trip I saw new products that reflect the country’s increasing focus on the environment and sustainability. For example, at Sunyard (Zhejiang Shiyou Timber Co.) I saw the latest version of direct printing of exotic wood patterns onto HDF and plywood with sustainable veneers. They are also working on a process to compress fast growing softwood species to create harder, dent resistant wear surfaces and they are creating faux grains in wood using pressing techniques.
In recognition of the increasing focus on the environment and innovation, the largest flooring show held in Asia, Domotex asia/CHINAFLOOR (DACF), has incorporated the theme Innovation and Respect for Nature into its upcoming show (March 22-24, 2011) in Shanghai. DACF will ask its exhibitors to submit information about their most innovative products which will then be featured for the international press to review and write about. Those of you planning to attend the show can contact me and I will direct you to those booths.
People who watched the Olympics’ opening ceremony in Beijing witnessed an example of China’s creativity, organization and ability to produce. That country first impacted the international flooring industry as a low cost provider but it is rapidly evolving with creativity of its own. According to my associate, Stuart Hirschhorn of Catalina Reports, Chinese flooring exports to the USA are up; no doubt in part because of their continued low prices, but to my point, it is increasingly because of innovation. He confirmed that US imports have changed from largely low priced goods to a much broader range that includes top of the line products.
It is interesting to watch these changes and important that we don’t underestimate what they mean to the industry. I'm happy to discuss this with you here on the blog ... just leave a comment, or feel free to contact me.
Jim Gould is President of the Floor Covering Institute