Countertops Magazine Archive

A Tale of Two Factories: How plants across the globe worked together to meet demand

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” I’m sure many of you remember reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, which compared and contrasted two cities: London and Paris, before and after the French revolution. So taking a cue from Dickens, I’m doing the same with two OEM manufacturers of Formica acrylic solid surface material located halfway around the world from each other. I hope to provide some insight into how OEM contracts are awarded; how capability, timing and pricing play into that; and some of the things entailed in pulling off a new product introduction on a tight timeline.

One of the factories I consult for in China has been an OEM supplier of solid surface material to Formica since 2005. Because the Chinese Revolution ended a mere 65 years ago, I will call them “Factory 1.”

For the back story, after Formica closed down its solid surface manufacturing operations in the United States, Factory 1 was its sole supplier of solid surface. The last remaining Formica solid surface factory in the United States was demolished a few years ago. I spent a good portion of my life working there and, quite frankly, I get a little misty-eyed
when I reminisce about it. “It was the best of times …”

Don’t you just love and appreciate when one of those tight, demanding timelines that I call “timelines from purgatory” comes dancing into your life? I seem to get them all the time. I guess I’m fortunate in that respect. “It was the worst of times …” Well, that is a big part of my story as well.

Changing Chemistries
Formica, in a move that was long overdue, recently switched its solid surface product line to acrylic chemistry. It also picked up a domestic (U.S.) OEM supplier who manufactures the material on a continuous line. Let’s call the domestic supplier “Factory 2.” Because of the nature of a continuous line, it’s extremely arduous to manufacture patterns with extremely large particulate (larger than 4mm to 6mm) in high visual density. This has to do with the line speed and what method is used to add the larger particulate, but generally continuous lines stick with particulate that is 4mm or smaller (or occasionally up to 6mm). However, there are also certain patterns more easily produced on a continuous line.

Because Factory 1 has both a continuous line and a cell cast operation, it can produce a wide variety of appearances. However, it could not match the price point of Factory 2, so Factory 1 was relegated from producing a large number of Formica patterns to only handling five, now in acrylic.

So, last year I started working on matching various Formica colors in acrylic chemistry. Suppliers in China had to be found for acrylic resin, promoters and catalysts. I had to develop and optimize the process, then test the material for performance: tensile and flexural properties, stain resistance, boiling water resistance, high temperature resistance, impact strength, light resistance, thermal aging, seamed strength, thermoforming properties, etc.

In late July of this year, Factory 1 was asked to take on five additional Formica colors that were going to be sold in Lowes stores: Black Lava (501B); Sea Glass (505B); Bianco Mineral (759B); Bottle Glass Quartz (770B); and Copper Quartz (772B). Factory 1 had produced those patterns prior to this in a polyester blend material, but had never matched them in acrylic chemistry.

In addition to those five patterns, Formica asked us to produce a new color called Dali Mineral that had to be designed in acrylic.
Now I can’t be positive, but I suspect that Factory 1 picked up the original five acrylic colors and the six additional colors because Factory 2 either could not produce that look, could not produce it as affordably or could not develop/produce the colors as quickly. Also the finishing capability may have played a role in the acquisition of the Black Lava and other dark patterns.

When it comes to finishing, Factory 1 normally takes its sheets to a 600-grit wet-sanded final finish. However, Factory 2 provides a 220-grit dry-sanded finish (less than a matte finish) for the final product that is not as visually appealing, especially on darker colors, and requires the fabricator to do a lot of work to improve it.

Another factor that could have played into the decision is the desire to avoid keeping all of the company’s eggs in one basket. Many corporations like to have multiple sources as a contingency in case one vendor goes out of business, raises pricing or is subject to force majeure (an act of God).

This is where the “timeline from purgatory” came into play. It was extremely tight, as these colors had to be in stock in the United States and have samples made and in the Lowes stores by the first or second week in October. I stayed on-site in China and didn’t leave. I’m most likely still here as you read this.

Meeting the Demand
Formica has very talented, creative and astute designers on staff, but they are “conceptual designers” who evaluate market trends, decide what’s going to be the hot-selling look for the next year and decide upon the type of look they desire. Sometimes they send you a “design board” that has various items glued to it: pieces of broken eye glass frames, broken glass, turtle shells, sea shells, rocks and minerals and all sorts of things including post-it notes stuck on it. Sometimes they send you a written story detailing what the type of look they are seeking. Sometimes they organize it into a power point or put it into spreadsheet form. It’s different every time.

I wear many hats (R&D, business development, marketing, operations, etc.) but I’m also deemed a “materials designer,” which is the “boots on the ground” person who turns those concepts into reality. It required long days (10 to 12 hours a day) and a lot of work (six or seven days a week). I didn’t get a lot of rest and skipped many meals. However, I matched each color in an acrylic resin/ATH background, and overnighted samples for approval to Formica who signed and dated the standards and couriered them back. Most took several iterations.

Factory 1 ultimately made timeline and had the initial orders manufactured and shipped out on a container by the end of August. (They had to be out that much ahead of the deadline because the containers spend as long as a month getting to port, traversing the Pacific and being trucked to the warehouse.) By August, 42 sheets for samples were air freighted to a fabricator in order to arrive by September 4 to give that fabricator time to produce the sample chips/displays and ship them to Lowes. Formica knew from the outset of the project that was the only way we could make the deadline.

By mid-October this year, the Formica acrylic patterns from both factories were on display at Lowes. We hope you like them and appreciate the efforts that went into them from all involved at both factories. It was a truly labor of love by a myriad of individuals working at Formica and their two OEM factories with vastly different cultures, half a world apart. I was proud to be a small part of that effort.

One of my current projects for Factory 1’s Formica acrylic solid surface material is manufacturing my own acrylic resin for cost savings and enhanced performance. But that is a story for another day, so I will just say, as the radio announcers used to say back in simpler times, “Stay tuned and don’t touch that dial.”

About the Author
Leonard R. Elbon, owner of LCI, “Decorative Surfacing Industry Consultants,” has worked on projects in 17 different countries over the past decade. He wears many hats including those of a trouble shooter and problem solver, speaker at trade shows, published author and inventor of award-winning surfacing products. He has been granted 10 patents and has two additional patents in the application process. He can be reached at [email protected].