Engineer Yasuhiro Matsukawa still remembers the moment he saw wood grain patterns being printed on a plastic film for the first time when he visited a Dai Nippon Printing Co., Ltd. factory during a training session for the company's new employees in 1995.
“After I started working at DNP, I asked to be sent to the lifestyle material section because I was intrigued by the fact printed materials were used even for decorating the surfaces of furniture, floors and doors. I had never imagined these surfaces could be printed on,” Matsukawa said. “I was stunned to see realistic wood grain patterns being printed on a film, not all at once but in several stages.”
Matsukawa's first assignment was to ensure the stable and effective production of items printed on film made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). At around that time, the Japanese government had become increasingly concerned about the environmental and health hazards of some plasticizers used in PVC products as well as hydrogen chloride gas and dioxins emitted when they are burned.
DNP's environmental breakthrough
A DNP research center was given the crucial task of developing environment-friendly, non-PVC products to replace these materials, which potentially pose risks to the environment and people's health. Although Matsukawa was not directly involved, he witnessed how strenuously DNP researchers worked day and night. “Every researcher was very dedicated and willingly worked as a team member to develop non-PVC products, and they were so enthusiastic,” Matsukawa said.
The researchers' endeavors culminated in the development of non-PVC decorative sheets for flooring, whose main ingredient is polyolefin resin. When burned, polyolefin resin will change to water and carbon dioxide, emitting no hydrogen chloride gas or dioxins. The film surface is hardened by electron beam (EB) exposure, one of DNP's key technologies, which enhances resistance to abrasion, dirt and ultraviolet rays.
About 20 years have passed since then. Composite flooring laminated with decorative printed film has gained popularity among Japanese, and it accounts for about 60 percent of flooring used in houses*. The composite flooring can mitigate problems associated with genuine wooden flooring, such as color fading due to sunlight, uneven colors and cracking due to drying.
* according to our research
Entering European, Asian markets
Matsukawa, now a general manager of Okayama Plant's section developing and customizing flooring surface films in line with each client's needs, believes DNP has a good opportunity to expand sales of eco-friendly film in overseas markets.
In Europe, low-pressure melamine surfaced panels have been commonly used for flooring. But European flooring producers have apparently shifted from melamine resin to PVCs since the Multilayer Modular Flooring Association (MMFA), an organization representing major flooring producers and suppliers in Europe, was established in Munich, Germany, in October 2012.
Environmental concerns over the use of PVCs are beginning to be voiced, particularly in Germany. “European people are becoming aware of the environmental and health hazards of some plasticizers, hydrogen chloride gas and dioxins associated with PVCs. A similar situation unfolded in Japan 20 years ago,” Matsukawa said.
Matsukawa's original aim was to introduce non-PVC flooring surface films made for Japanese clients to the European markets. But he soon found Europe's distinct cultures and lifestyles demanded different functions for flooring materials. For one thing, Europeans wear shoes inside their homes, so flooring surfaces require higher scratch and abrasion resistance than Japanese homes do.
DNP investigated each European country's unique lifestyle and culture to grasp its specific preferences and needs, and ensured its EB technology-based products met quality standards set by the European Union. Its efforts finally paid off in 2015 when some European companies decided to use DNP films for laminate flooring to be marketed for the European market.
Furthermore, DNP's EB flooring films have been introduced to the Asian market. Robust sales have been reported in South Korea since last year.
Wood grain pattern design essential factor
Developing technologies to make flooring surface films environment-friendly and durable is essential, and designing wood grain and other patterns for decorating the laminate flooring is equally important. After all, many consumers choose flooring for its design over other factors.
Enter Yasuji Kusumoto, the chief designer at Okayama Plant. He is one of the 100 or so designers in Japan (and about 500 around the world) who specialize in surface patterns.
Kusumoto designs wood grain patterns based on data gathered from scanning real wood. “Our job is to design wood grain patterns so natural—with the right wood grain structure and balance—that people feel comfortable when they see the flooring,” Kusumoto said.
Visiting Europe, a leader in interior decorating
Kusumoto travels to Europe several times a year to buy wood that he uses for wood grain pattern designs. He also visits trade shows and talks to potential customers to grasp European trends and client needs.
European consumers have a good eye when it comes to interior design, Kusumoto says, and each European country has distinctive tastes in wood grain patterns. According to Kusumoto's broad observations, Italians admire simple design; Germans like clearly defined wood grain patterns; Britons lean toward country styles; and French people prefer pastel or light colors.
“There are trend cycles for wood grain patterns,” Kusumoto said. “A few years ago, flooring with showy wood grain patterns, often with gnarls, was popular among European consumers. But now, subtle, elegant designs are fashionable, which provides a good opportunity for us.” One of DNP's strengths is creating delicate, elegant patterns and textures identical to real wood. Many DNP surface films are embossed to give a feel resembling wood.
Kusumoto originally wanted to design advertisements and posters when he joined DNP in 1990, but he was instead assigned to design wood grain patterns, which he initially thought were rather dull.
“I started to like my job after five or six years, when I began to frequently visit abroad to get a feel for trends overseas,” Kusumoto said. “When I was young I wanted to be famous for design, but now I take joy in being an anonymous designer.”
Common habits outside factory
Matsukawa and Kusumoto may have differing tasks in producing surface films, but they have one thing in common: a fascination with laminate flooring outside the workplace.
Kusumoto often unwittingly turns his eyes to wood grain patterns on floors, doors and other fittings at such places as shopping centers and public facilities. Kusumoto says he can instantly tell, by looking at the pattern, which maker designed the fittings. “Once when I visited a hospital with my son, I immediately identified wood grain patterns used on the fittings as my design,” he said. “My son was amazed.”
Matsukawa, on the other hand, is more concerned with the surface properties of laminate flooring at commercial and public facilities. “When I see them, I have to resist the urge to peel off the covering so I can examine it,” he said.
Eyeing global market
Both Matsukawa and Kusumoto are currently focusing on the European market, a global trendsetter. If many flooring companies in the region adopt DNP's non-PVC films, the company can use it as a springboard to market its products worldwide.
With this target in mind, DNP will exhibit its products at Interzum, the world's leading trade fair for furniture production and interior design, to be held May 16-19 in Cologne, Germany. At the DNP booth, flooring and other fittings newly designed for the trade fair will be showcased for visitors from around the world.
“We want to increase surface designs for high-end products, in addition to niche items, such as products with stone surface patterns, metallic prints and other designs that European printers do not produce,” Kusumoto said.
DNP is aiming high. “After Europe and Asia, we'll aim for the entire global market by establishing the DNP brand for flooring surface film,” Matsukawa said. “We have to look beyond Japan if DNP wants this line of business to prosper for decades to come.”
- * Publication date: May 15,2017
- * DNP department names, product specifications and other details are correct only at the time of writing. They are subject to change without prior notice.
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