Worldwide in 2006, the 20 member companies of the Association of European Producers of Laminate Flooring (EPLF), which is based in Bielefeld, Germany, achieved sales of 468 million m2 of flooring manufactured within Europe.

The market share held by EPLF member companies in the world market is estimated at around 60%.

This vast output of laminate flooring is quite extraordinary when you consider that this industry is still in its infancy and that in this short time the associated manufacturing technologies have taken great strides forward in decor development.

“The laminate flooring sector has seen an extremely positive development in recent years. I am referring here to both the technical development of the product and its sales statistics,” explained Ludger Schindler, EPLF president.

At the end of the 1980s, the first laminate flooring arrived on the European market, from Sweden. Reproductions of light wood were the talk of the town, in either beech or maple in a ship’s deck pattern. These first-generation laminate flooring were still comparatively simple in terms of decor patterns.

Only a few years later they were replaced by more sophisticated decors and other formats.

Farmhouse floorboards and the two-strip design are characteristic of this second phase in decor development and were turned out in considerably darker and redder woods.

Oak, cherry and walnut set the trends in the first half of the 1990s, when even exotic woods such as teak and palisander were already available. The trend led to the development of decor surfaces for laminate flooring which were the most authentic reproductions possible.

Parquet became very much the archetypal look of its time. The industry attempted to achieve a close approximation to the product, not just in terms of the look but also in the pattern. Parallel to this, the ’tile’ idea came to the fore among decor designers, who experimented with tile formats in slate, marble and granite effect.

Decor development took a quantum leap with the development of synchronised grain and pore printing at the end of the 90s, with authenticity in laminate flooring surfaces achieving a degree of perfection which had never been seen before.

Tactile wood structures, realistic V-joints, the hand-scraped look and ’embossed-in-register’, all of them by-words for third generation laminate flooring, came into being.

Cherry and wenge are the main woods. As well as light oak, alongside maple and beech. Colour depictions for maple became more homogenous while beech took on a more diversified look.

Increasingly, unusual exotic woods such as hickory, zebrano and bamboo came to the fore as did distinctive fruit woods such as apple and pear.

Stone decors also gained from the new synchronised grain and pore printing technology.

Surface decor patterns now barely differ from the natural material and bring stone decor into luxury interiors. The Italian terracotta tile became a fashion icon par excellence.

What came next broke the mould of what was originally envisaged. The 3-D look created depth with dramatic impact – whether in wood, stone or a creative decor – and came to dominate the product range.

New printing techniques, such as laser printing and indirect gravure printing, complemented the familiar processes.

Retro-decors in dazzling greens and oranges with geometric patterns and floral motifs captivated with their optical depth. And equally innovative are the latest industry-theme decors in grey, beige and black, which are especially sought-after in the property sector.

“Laminate flooring produced in Europe are high-tech products which not only impress through their diversity in design, quality and environmental friendliness but are also commanding a greater share of the market year on year,” said Mr Schindler.

Not only western European markets but also those in eastern Europe recorded continued growth in 2006. In western Europe, sales reached some 285 million m2 of laminate flooring (previous year, 274 million m2), while in Eastern Europe the figure was 88 million m2 (previous year, 82 million m2). This represents growth of 4% in western Europe and 7% in eastern Europe.

Ahead of the field in western Europe are Germany, Great Britain, France and the Netherlands, while their counterparts in eastern Europe – Poland, Romania and Russia – each recorded sales of over 10 million m2 of laminate flooring.

The figures show that the markets of western Europe remain the most important sales areas for EPLF member companies. With 98 million m2 (previous year, 88 million m2) Germany again showed strong growth and remains by far the largest single European market.

The market is seen to be shifting in North America. A year-on-year comparison reveals a fall in total sales of laminate flooring manufactured in Europe from 85 million m2 in 2005 to 68 million m2 in 2006. This corresponds to a drop of 20%. This is due on the one hand to individual EPLF member companies setting up their own production facilities in the US and on the other to the increase in Chinese exports to the US.

The Asia/Pacific region continued to post increases in growth in 2006. Sales by EPLF member companies to Asian markets amounted to 11 million m2 in 2006 (previous year, eight million m2). This represents an increase of 37% which was due primarily to intensive market coverage on the part of individual manufacturers.

Each year in May, laminate flooring manufacturers affiliated to the EPLF and their suppliers assemble for the association’s Ordinary Members’ Conference. This time the event took place in the Bavarian town of Thansau at the invitation of Schattdecor AG. Owner Walter Schatt didn’t pass up the opportunity to show EPLF members around the company’s new administration building and logistics centre, both of which had only recently been commissioned.

Top of the agenda currently is the association’s communication with end-users and the trade public, alongside the standard of laminate flooring and the continuous monitoring of markets.

To date EPLF’s member companies account for approximately 70% of the global market and approximately 85% of the European market. At present a total of 22 laminate producers from 11 European countries, 31 suppliers to the laminate flooring industry, and four renowned testing institutes, are members of the EPLF.

The EPLF’s internal sales figures across the association for the first two quarters of 2007 provide a positive indicator for results over the whole of the current fiscal year.

Particularly pleasing is the ongoing development of western European key markets and eastern European growth markets. Growth trends have also been identified in South America.

The next members’ conference in May 2008 takes place in the Austrian town of Kitzbühl at the invitation of Egger.

Clearly then, the creativity of designers in the development department of laminate flooring manufacturers and decor printers knows no bounds. They are working on new decor ideas, which are then realised alongside impregnators, whose knowledge of the technical behaviour of decor paper during the laminating process is crucial to achieving a precise decor image. Hence manufacturers, decor printers and impregnators are already collaborating intensively at a very early phase of decor development.

“Quality and innovation may have their price, but they usually win out in the end,” concluded Mr Schindler.