Formica (plastic)

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Formica
Formica logo
TypeComposite material
Inventor
  • Daniel J. O'Conor
  • Herbert A. Faber
Inception1913; 106 years ago (1913)
ManufacturerFormica Group
Websitewww.formica.com

Formica laminate is a laminated composite material invented at the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in the United States in 1912. Originally used to replace mica in electrical applications, it has since been manufactured for a variety of applications. Today, the product is produced by New Zealand–based Formica Group, and has been since 2007. The word Formica refers to the company's classic product: a heat-resistant, wipe-clean laminate of paper or textile with melamine resin.

Formica Group, a division of the Dutch company Broadview Holdings, consists of Formica Canada, Inc., Formica Corporation, Formica de Mexico S.A. de C.V., Formica IKI Oy, Formica Limited, Formica S.A., Formica S.A.S., Formica Taiwan Corporation, Formica (Thailand) Co., Ltd., Formica (Asia) Ltd., and others.

Etymology of the name[edit]

The mineral mica was commonly used at that time for electrical insulation. Because the new product acted as a substitute "for mica", Faber used the name Formica[1] as a trademark (the word already existed as the scientific name for wood ants, from which formic acid and the derivative formaldehyde compound used in the resin were first isolated).

History[edit]

Assorted samples of Formica

Founding and initial product development[edit]

Formica laminate was invented in 1912 by Daniel J. O'Conor and Herbert A. Faber, while working at Westinghouse, resulting in a patent grant on 1 February 1913.[1][2] They originally conceived it as a substitute for mica used as electrical insulation, made of wrapped woven fabric coated with Bakelite thermosetting resin, then slit lengthwise, flattened, and cured in a press.

Immediately afterwards, O'Conor and Faber left Westinghouse to start a business based on the product, enlisting lawyer and banker John G. Tomlin as an investor. Tomlin provided $7,500 capital as a silent business partner. The company began operations on 2 May 1913, and was immediately successful: by September, Formica Products Company employed eighteen people trying to fill the demand for electrical parts for Bell Electric Motor, Ideal Electric, and Northwest Electric.

After the General Bakelite Company decided to sell resin for sheet insulation only to Westinghouse, allowing the Formica company other shapes with smaller markets, they switched to a similar competitive phenolic resin, Redmanol. After patent litigation favorable to Baekeland in 1922, the Redmanol Chemical Products Company, was merged with the General Bakelite Company (founded by Baekeland in 1910) and the Condensite Company (founded by J. W. Aylesworth) to form The Bakelite Corporation.[3]

An important application devised in the 1920s was the use of phenolic laminate fabric for gears; cut on conventional hobbing machines, the gears were tough and quiet, which was important for automotive timing gears. By 1932, Formica Insulation Company was producing 6,000 gear blanks per day for Chevrolet and other car makers.

In 1927, Formica Insulation Company obtained a patent on an opaque barrier sheet that allowed the use of rotogravure printing to make wood-grained or marble-surfaced laminate, the first of many innovations that were to associate the name "Formica" with decorative interior products.

In 1938 melamine thermosetting resin was developed by American Cyanamid Company. It resisted heat, abrasion and moisture better than phenolic or urea resins and could be used to make more colors; soon after, the Formica Corporation was buying the entire output of melamine from American Cyanamid.

During World War II it manufactured "Pregwood" plastic-impregnated wooden aeroplane propellers and bomb parts. Post-war, engineering uses declined, ceasing in 1970 in favor of decorative laminates.

The company was headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, for many years. After WWII, it entered the European market through a license agreement.

Acquisition by American Cyanamid[edit]

In 1956 American Cyanamid acquired Formica Corp.[4] The principal reason was to have a captive buyer for melamine, as Cyanamid was one of the largest producers. However, this was soon thwarted due to an anti-trust action by the US Department of Justice. Through a settlement agreement, Formica Corp. was required to buy a significant share of its melamine needs from competing producers.

Cyanamid operated Formica Corp. as a fully consolidated subsidiary, rather than as an operating division, allowing it to retain the term "Formica" as a corporate name. This gave added protection to the trademark, helping to protect the word from becoming generic—which had been tried by many competitors, against whom Cyanamid gained legal injunctions—to protect this valuable trademark name. (Historically, trademarks owned by other corporations which had become generic words, such as "shredded wheat", were no longer the exclusive property of their originators. Cyanamid resolutely defended the Formica brand name.)

Dan O'Conor, son of the inventor, continued as president of Formica Corp. after the acquisition, and was widely regarded as the next chairman of American Cyanamid. However, he was thrown from his horse during a steeplechase event, suffering a broken neck and becoming quadriplegic, ending his business career and, many executives felt, preventing Cyanamid from achieving the growth and profitability it might have.[original research?]

After a 1984 management buyout from American Cyanamid,[5] Formica diversified with products such as solid surfacing, metal laminates and flooring materials.

Recent history[edit]

Since 2007, Formica Corp. has been a subsidiary of the Fletcher Building group,[6] which purchased it from private equity investors Cerberus Capital Management, L.P. and Oaktree Capital Management, LLC.[7] In 2018, Fletcher Building announced plans to sell Formica to Broadview Holdings (parent of Trespa) for NZD $1.226 billion (US$840 m),[8] with the sale finalised the following year.[9]

Product evolution[edit]

Decorative laminates were made by impregnating large sheets of kraft paper with phenolic resin, which was then partially cured (B-staged by passing through a long drying oven) and cut to sheet lengths at the oven exit. The dry treated sheets were stiff and somewhat brittle. A decorative sheet (solid colored, or wood-grained, or patterned), impregnated with melamine resin and B-staged and cut to length in a similar manner to the phenolic core sheets, was laid on a polished stainless steel press plate. Several plies or layers of kraft paper were then impregnated with a phenolic resin were placed on top of the decorative layer. The number of plies of kraft used yielded products of varying thickness depending upon end-use requirements. Next, a sheet of release paper that would not bond to the phenolic resin was placed on top of the phenolic kraft and following this a mirror image build-up of the assembly already on the press plate. Finally, another polished stainless steel press plate was placed on top of the pack assembly. On the other side of this plate, another similar assembly was built until there were several laminates in one press pack to go into a single opening in the hydraulic press. The huge hydraulic presses, perhaps 5 feet by 12 feet, had many heated openings thus many laminates could be produced in a single press cycle of about one hour duration. Great pressure (in excess of 1000 psi and heat to 150 degrees Celsius) were applied to each press pack. The B-staged melamine and phenolic resins first flowed to bond the interlaminar plies together, then the plastic resins were thermoset to provide a very durable product that could tolerate much heat and abrasion.

A variant was to use a slightly roughened steel sheet atop the cover sheet, producing a laminate with a matte surface. A similar effect could be achieved using various types of release paper between the steel press plate and decorative melamine surface. Some users considered this more attractive than the smooth glossy surface created by the polished stainless steel separators. After being removed from the press, the individual laminates were sanded on the reverse (phenolic kraft) side to a uniform thickness. This sanding operation also increased the back surface area so that a more secure bonding to the substrate, such as a kitchen counter, could be achieved.

The lamination process was costly and labor-intensive, and required extensive handling of the individual sheets. These sheets were more brittle than potato chips, hence easily damaged; breaking off even a small corner rendered the sheet as unusable waste. Improved manufacturing processes had yet to be devised. After a meeting of the parent corporation's Research Coordinating Committee, Cyanamid's Director of Corporate Development and Planning, Mr. Kent L. Aldershof, suggested a new approach to Formica's Research Director, Dr. Arthur Giddings.

The proposal was to bypass the entire process of making paper and impregnating individual sheets to be subsequently laminated. Instead, Aldershof suggested making a thick paste of cellulose powder and phenolic resin to form the core in a single piece prior to curing. Melamine-impregnated cover sheets would then be laid atop said core in forming the press packs.

This approach was pursued in the Formica research laboratory with some success. Thereafter, Formica decorative surfacing was produced with what was termed a Corex Core. The product was never commercialized for two reasons. First, the expected economics were absent. It was found that the only suitable source of cellulose fiber came from sheets of kraft paper that had already been made and were then ground up, and the resulting laminate had different physical properties. Second, laminates traditionally made from plies of paper have different length and cross physical properties and the industry grew and developed based on rectangular laminates so cross-plying was not possible. The Corex core provided uniform cross and length properties which while seeming to be an advantage was not because of the way the entire industry of laminate application had developed to account for the non-symmetrical property.

A further advantage may have been that the core material could be impregnated with a pigment, approximately matching the color of the top sheet that would later be applied. The phenolic resin turned very dark brown during curing, so that a narrow brown line would show when the material was later used in a countertop. Pigmented Unified Core provided an edge largely indistinguishable from the surface color, giving a more pleasing overall appearance to the product.

Since the Corex product could not be commercialized for the reasons described above, a more conventional method was developed to make the product called Colorcore that provided uniform color throughout the laminate and eliminated the brown line.

An interesting variant of the product was also developed, known as Deep-Textured Formica Surfacing. Use of the cellulosic paste allowed using a deeply textured, or even sculptured, metal press sheet atop the decorative sheet, producing a formed surface. The researchers overlaid the stainless steel sheets with furnace cement, a material easily sculptured or textured, and able to withstand the high heat during curing. They would carve into this cement an illustration, such as natural slate in negative form. When the furnace cement hardened, and the sheet was used in a press pack, the final Unified Core product would have a raised or three-dimensional image.

It was thought that such an approach would lead to producing large panels, usable for example as wall decor in a hotel lobby or corporate office. In a further development, the researchers used very thin copper sheets in place of the decorative sheet (still overlaying that with the melamine-impregnated top sheet). The overall effect was like a large metal medallion, or a copper sculpture. Many impressive samples emerged from the research lab. The product simulating natural slate proved to be a very popular product and was a leading seller for many years.

A decorative edge known as "Ideal Edge" was originally invented by John W. Pehr and then bought by Formica Corp. All rights to the product now belong to the "Diller Corporation", or Formica.

Related materials[edit]

  • Arborite, a similar and also popular paper-melamine composite, was developed in Canada in the 1940s.
  • Micarta, trade name for Westinghouse decorative laminates, now produced by Norplex-Micarta.
  • Wilsonart plastic laminate is a line of laminates similar to Formica.
  • Laminates similar to Formica, but with top surface made of multilaminar veneer and sprayed with resin are called Alpikord,[10] is made by Alpi SpA.[11]
  • Consoweld, a similar twentieth century product manufactured by Consolidated Paper of Wisconsin.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "The History of Formica Corporation". Formica.com. Archived from the original on 24 March 2011. Retrieved 29 August 2013.
  2. ^ Northeast finds Formica in top condition at 100, Financial Times, Chris Tighe, 31 January 2013
  3. ^ American Institute of Chemical Engineers Staff (1977). Twenty-Five Years of Chemical Engineering Progress. Ayer Publishing. p. 216. ISBN 0-8369-0149-5.
  4. ^ "Cyanamid Concern Formally Acquires Formica Company". New York Times. 17 April 1956. p. 41.
  5. ^ ROBERT J. COLE (12 October 1984). "Cyanamid Will Sell Formica; Deal Valued At $200 Million". New York Times. p. D3.
  6. ^ History of the Fletcher Building group Archived 14 October 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ "Formica Corporation Announces Purchase by Fletcher Building Limited" (Press release). Cincinnati, OH: Formica Corporationn. 22 May 2007. Archived from the original on 27 June 2008. Retrieved 29 August 2013.
  8. ^ "Fletcher Building announces sale of Formica; dividend reinstated". Fletcher Building. 18 December 2018.
  9. ^ John Anthony (4 June 2019). "Fletcher Building downgrades profit after selling Formica". Stuff.co.nz.
  10. ^ Alpi, "AlpiKord"
  11. ^ "The Alpi Website". Alpi.it. Retrieved 29 August 2013.