published Friday, March 30th, 2012

German tech helps Belgians create faux wood flooring

IVC’s Dalton production plant is where workers produce 1,000 rolls of vinyl flooring per day.
IVC’s Dalton production plant is where workers produce 1,000 rolls of vinyl flooring per day.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

IVC VINYL PLANT AT A GLANCE


• Location: Dalton

• Company: IVC US

• Employees: 200

• Size: A 44-acre plot holds a 250,000-square-foot plant and a 270,000-square-foot distribution center

• Capacity: 1,000 rolls of vinyl per day

• Revenue: $100 million per year

• Parent Company: IVC Group, with sales of $380 million per year

• Possible expansions: 500,000 square feet, two additional shifts

Source: IVC US

DALTON, Ga. -- An endless stream of what looks like hardwood cascades over a metal cliff before gently undulating through a series of rollers.

The wooden river looks and feels like a flexible hardwood floor, but it's actually the newest type of vinyl flooring that's realistic enough to pass for stone, tile or wood.

This special type of vinyl is so popular that IVC US sold $100 million of the material last year, capturing double-digit percentages of the North American market, according to Xavier Steyaert, CEO of the Belgium-based company that set up shop here in 2011.

"You will not see this technology anywhere else," Steyaert told a group of visiting diplomats. "This is not off-the-shelf, this is very unique."

The optical illusion of flexible wood owes its appearance to heat, pressure and a convincing paint job, Steyaert explained. That, and a very expensive chemistry set.

Globs of liquid PVC are spread evenly onto a sheet of flexible fiberglass, which then is painted, heated, re-coated and cooled into 1,000 rolls per day.

IVC's plant has the capacity to produce 5,000 miles of vinyl flooring per year in its 250,000-square-foot plant, and store 25,000 rolls in its 270,000-square-foot distribution center.

The company in February expanded to a third shift and added 30 positions to the existing workforce of 150.

The CEO already is talking about another expansion. The 44-acre site has room for IVC to nearly double the plant's size, and he wants to add two more shifts. The extra shifts will enable IVC US to run the plant 24 hours per day, eliminating costly restarts, he said.

"The question is all about size," he said. "Size matters in America."

Steyaert's advantages over competitors are twofold. He has the world's longest vinyl production line in the world, served by the longest heating oven in the industry, which allows him to run his production line faster. As an added bonus, the plant contains enough printing presses to keep the line going 24 hours per day, he said.

"This is the most technologically advanced part," he said, gesturing to the 12 printing rollers that apply increasing levels of detail to the blank vinyl. "This is where we make money or lose money."

The final roller adds lines of simulated grout between tiles or spaces between wood, and adds a special chemical inhibitor that comes in handy when the vinyl is heated.

Ever wonder how they make a piece of plastic feel like wood? That part happens in the oven, when the flooring expands and becomes thicker -- except in the chemically inhibited areas meant to simulate grout or spaces. Along with a mechanical device that adds a grainy texture, these two finishing methods create a product nearly indistinguishable from the real thing at first glance.

"I'm impressed," said Lutz Gorgens, the German consul general from Atlanta. "I'm biased toward natural materials, but this looks very much like wood."

Europeans tend to open their manufacturing plants in the Chattanooga and Dalton areas for two reasons, he said.

Products can reach 80 percent of the U.S. population from here, and the Southerners work hard.

"Investments like this may replace some of the lost jobs from the last few years," Gorgens said.

The equipment is German, the technology is developed by the Belgians and the plant is staffed by Americans, something that diplomat Benoit Standaert found fitting.

Standaert, who serves as consul general in Atlanta at Belgium's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said IVC US "best exemplifies the relationship we have between the U.S. and Europe."

"You have to start a relationship at the foundation, and I believe flooring is very close to the foundation," he said.

Along with Beaulieu of America, IVC US represents another significant investment by Belgian flooring firms in the Dalton area, he said.

"Belgium and Georgia went through similar stages with textiles, carpet and chemistry," he said. "I think it makes sense for the two to come together."

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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