October 24/31, 2016: Volume 31, Number 10
By Reginald Tucker
It’s rare that the inspiration for a breakthrough in the manufacture of an engineered hardwood flooring product comes from a distributor. But that’s precisely what happened in the case involving Swiff-Train and Alston, one of its vendor partners.
As the story goes, Swiff-Train and Alston— a China-based hardwood flooring manufacturer with U.S. distribution headquarters in California—met at Surfaces in Las Vegas and again at Domotex Asia to discuss a collaboration on an engineered product line that would be outside the scope of Chinese imports that were subject to strict anti-dumping duties. The challenge was to devise an engineered platform that deviated from the traditional three-ply layered construction—i.e., veneer, core and backing—while still providing strength and stability associated with engineered products. So with pen to napkin, so to speak, the owners of Alston—Alan Chou and Sunny Zhou—along with Jason Train, vice president of sourcing and marketing, Swiff-Train, together sketched a rough prototype of a two-ply engineered product that would change the game.
“There were other types of two-ply products out there on the market but none were dimensionally stable,” recalled Alan Chou, president of Alston. “The mindset at that time was to develop a platform without any limitations in terms of quality and performance.” What Swiff-Train and Alston came up with was a two-ply engineered product that features a veneer atop a core comprising a row of sawn fillets (see diagram). The rows of fillets are flanked by perpendicular beams that provide stability. Incredibly, the design does not incorporate a traditional backing layer.
As a result, this product was ruled by the Department of Commerce to be outside the scope of the current Anti-dumping and Countervailing case and is, therefore, not subject to any anti-dumping duties, which is currently around 19%. In addition, this invention also qualifies for zero import duty, an additional savings of 8%.
Chou likened the design to an “I” beam construction. “We took out the bottom layer but on the sides of the core we turned it and use what we call an edge beam that runs parallel with the veneer. Then we have the fillets in the middle that run perpendicular to the two beams. By doing that, we solved the problem of the product not being balanced. The edge beam solves the horizontal movement, whereas the middle layer stabilizes the veneer. It’s really simple when you think about it.”
Jason Train, who Chou says was responsible for his inspiration and the idea to eliminate the third backing layer of the traditional three-layer format, is hesitant to take the credit. “I’m not an engineer by any means; it was more timing than anything,” Train explained. “With everything that was going on that year with anti-dumping, it required people to put their heads together and think outside the box.
What Alan and Sunny created was something that’s unique and really just a great, stable engineered product.”
Actually, it’s more of a “hybrid” engineered-solid product. As Chou explained, “It’s an engineered product that still installs like a solid—you can staple it or glue it down or even float it.”
In terms of the person who actually brought the design to fruition, Chou—whose expertise is in architecture, building and design (he’s also a certified flooring installer and NWFACP wood flooring inspector, by the way)—credits his brother Sunny Zhou, who has a structural engineering degree from the University of California Irvine. Together, the brothers own a manufacturing plant in China where they have been making hardwood floors for more than 20 years. According to Chou, the facility is ISO 9001:2012 and ISO 14001:2017 certified. “Our product lines are 100% FSC certified, compliant with CARB NAF and do not contain added formaldehyde,” Chou stated.
Chou applied for the patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for this two-ply engineered hybrid product in 2012, and the company reports it has been awarded with the Patent Number: US9,340,984 in May of this year. Chou holds the U.S. patent; his brother Sunny owns the patent in China.
So far, Swiff-Train, which conducted a soft launch back in January, says the response has been positive. “With this line, Alston has bypassed the entry-level category and moved to a better product with better veneers and a great offering of species. Now we’re trying to get more of our people to concentrate on the Alston product line.”
On a broader scale, Swiff-Train believes the new Alston two-ply product addresses the pricing volatility often seen with solid wood floors. Given the fact that this is considered an engineered product that features the thickness of a solid and can be installed as such, that age-old price fluctuation issue shouldn’t be a factor. “Nationally a lot of people are moving away from solids to the engineered platform,” Train said. “That’s where Alston has an opportunity to take over some of that wood share that was solid. By using this platform it gives retailers the reach that most solid products don’t offer.”
Train also likes the product’s potential for installation beyond the home. “It’s a product that’s sold very easily from a residential standpoint, but it has huge potential for commercial business. Alston uses thick wear layers—sliced from sawn veneers that are 4mm thick—which is definitely a plus for the commercial sector. Then there’s the environmental story; Alston ruled out of the CARB-2 testing which speaks volumes. There are very few products that are out of the scope of CARB.” Furthermore, this product is also exempt from the upcoming EPA regulation TSCA-Title VI.
More importantly, the new line also provides retailers and distributors with profit opportunities. According to Alston, the new two-ply line retails in the vicinity of $7 per square foot. The product comes in three collections—including a 100% hand scraped line, a smooth line and a wire- brushed oil-finish look—and is available in five stock species: oak, maple, hickory, mahogany and walnut in ½- to ¾-inch formats. However, Chou said the plant is equipped to produce the product in acacia, red oak or exotics. “Because the foundation of the product is so stable, we are able to make it in any format or species.”
From an industry-wide perspective—particularly as it pertains to anti-dumping regulations—Chou believes the hybrid line is poised to make an even greater impact. “I think you will see a lot more people trying to do the two-ply method now that the doors are partially open. Nobody thought a two-ply would work because they don’t think it’s stable. But this changes everything.”