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Zero edge technology is revolutionizing the industry

Stephan Kleiser
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Photo: IMA Canada

Z
ero edge or invisible glue lines are the buzzwords in edgebanding and manufacturers are betting that it is not a fad, but here to stay and that demand for the technology will continue to grow. Not only is zero edge aesthetically pleasing, but it also makes for stronger and longer-lasting edges and offers anti-bacterial benefits that make it a great solution for restaurants, health-care and similar public uses. And, of course, they are necessary when it comes to many contemporary, slab or high-gloss cabinetry, which continues to grow in popularity.

If what’s happening in Europe is any indication, and it usually is, then the demand for zero edge will increase dramatically in North America and Canada and most experts agree that in as little as two to five years invisible edges will make up a significant portion of our market as well. Until recently, expensive laser or plasma technology was the only way to go, but then at LIGNA, about a year ago, most of the big machine manufacturers introduced new technology, such as hot air edgebanding, as an affordable alternative to the significantly more expensive laser edgebanding systems. Since then the technology has also been shown at North American shows and is now widely available in Canada. Using a co-extruded, active layer that is colour matched - rather than applying hot-melt glue as is the norm in traditional edgebanders - the new system creates a zero edge or invisible glue line that is difficult to distinguish from one produced using a laser unit. In both instances the active layer is activated, in this case through forced hot air, and bonds the edge seamlessly to the panel.

Matt Fleming, product area manager with Biesse Canada says the new hot air technology is allowing more companies such as smaller kitchen cabinet and office furniture manufacturers to make parts with invisible joints, but added that the demand for these units is still fairly low.
Most industry experts agree that right now, in Canada, hot air technology still accounts for less than 10 per cent of the market and it will take a few years until those numbers change dramatically, but change they will. Fleming says Biesse offers two solutions, a third party offering as well as their own, Biesse- made Biesse AirForce hot air technology.

“There still isn’t a huge demand in the market, but the hot air technology has made it possible for companies to at least consider getting into that market,” he says and adds that some suppliers see growth in that market as well since both Doelken and Rehau are working hard at making the necessary supplies more readily available in the Canadian market.

“You used to have to order the edge material from Europe and in large quantities, now it will be available right here and in small quantities.” Fleming says with more contemporary styles and demand for slab kitchens on the rise, the need for manufacturing technology to build those styles will increase, “and it is certainly good news for the manufacturers that the new technology has reduced the upfront costs significantly.
“Everyone likes it in theory, but as I said it will take some time to spread in the market. At some point however, the consumer will say they no longer want to see a glue line.”

Felder Canada is also offering zero edge, hot air edgebanding technology, called Laser Edge. The name was chosen to indicate its ability to achieve a zero edge just like a laser. Andy Gombaez, branch manager of Felder Canada’s offices in Mississauga, says most of the company’s customers are small and medium-sized shops and there has not been a huge demand for the new hot air technology. “It’s the latest and the greatest, but I don’t see many shops getting into it just yet,” Gombaez says. In the meantime, “we have much more demand for pre-milling units to get better edges.”

In the quest for better edges, there are many issues manufacturers can address before they have to consider the latest technology. Imperfections on the cutting edge such as tear outs create a lot of problems in edgebanding and a pre-milling or jointing unit is the best way to deal with that. Gombaez says he regularly talks with customers about how they improve their edges with the equipment they have and it all starts with the simple things, from proper dust and material removal, proper machine maintenance (also important at the cutting stage be that via saw or CNC) and a perfectly set up edgebander.

“Pre-milling is a great feature and it is now available even on small machines and it will make a big difference in the quality you can achieve,” Gombaez says. Of course one can’t expect a $20,000 machine to perform like a $150,000 machine, so clearly the budget is a consideration, but Gombaez says regular maintenance, proper suction from your dust collector and sharp tools will transform your results even with a small machine. “If you are doing re-work and touch ups after your edgebanding, something is wrong, but by addressing and fixing the other issues you will see a dramatic improvement in quality.”

Zero edge getting more affordable
 
HOMAG Canada and IMA-Schelling Canada, the pioneers in laser edgebanding, also offer hot air technology because it enables more companies to offer parts with invisible joints, but they are also growing their laser program for manufacturers with large volume operations and faster production speeds.

“I really believe that invisible joints are the future,” says Murat Dugan, president of IMA Canada Corp.
“It started with high-gloss kitchens several years ago and it has now also made its way into the office furniture market where we see a lot of textured melamine materials to mimic lacquered panels as well as matt finishes with invisible edges.
It’s such a great look and as more people see it they will want it.”

In fact, Dogan says he is now seeing that zero or invisible edge is starting to be specified in some contracts and in Europe it is getting to the point that it is mandated for many medical offices because of the antibacterial qualities. IMA has also just shown their own hot air system, and while that will enable more manufacturers to get into making zero edge parts, Dogan is convinced lasers are the future. He added that the company is continually developing its systems and he expects another breakthrough at LIGNA next year.
“We’ve seen lasers go from carbon monoxide to diode, which roughly cut the price in half,” he says, “and we will continue to see big developments that will make it even more affordable in the future.”
He said the company is also offering contour laser edgebanding for the office furniture and store fixtures market and because it is such a leap to go from glue to no-glue, it will continue to grow.
“Like anything this dramatically new, I believe it will take time, probably another five years or so to fully penetrate the market, and while glue will never go away, I am convinced invisible edge panels will take a significant share of the market in the not too distant future.
 
At HOMAG Canada, national sales manager Andreas Grabe says zero edge has been on the minds of all their customers. “It’s no exaggeration to say that everyone we have talked to in the past few months has asked us about zero edge,” he says. “Even if they are not buying it right now, people are certainly talking about it and they are planning ahead because they know it’s coming.” Grabe believes that zero edge will make up as much as 80 per cent of the market in two to three years. “When I talk to a customer about edgebanding, I also talk about our airTec (the name of HOMAG’s hot air system) and to at least consider it in their future plans.”
The good news for HOMAG customers, according to Grabe, is that they can retrofit some of their existing edgebanders with airTec, provided they are no more than a couple years old. Also, prices for the technology continue to come down and HOMAG Canada offers its BRANDT HighFlex 1440 with airTec.

Grabe says in Europe, even the smaller HighFlex 1220 is available with airTec and the trend to equip ever smaller and more affordable machines with the technology will continue as all manufacturers race to be able to equip even the smaller shops. Grabe says he generally recommends any established manufacturer on their second or third edgebander to go for a zero edge machine the next time around. Startups and new companies should wait.

Of course zero edge will not be used on hidden panels – the actual boxes – which means shops can always choose to buy the face panels from a another supplier and delay investing in zero edge technology themselves. And some manufacturers offer their zero edge units as a retrofit on newer machines, so check with your supplier to see if that is an option.
 
Mike Schwartz, director of business development with CNC Automation agrees that a lot of people are talking about the “latest and greatest,” but even more than that people tell us they want less expensive equipment.
“Consumers demand better prices and they also want more flexibility and choices in designs and colours,” says Schwartz, “so our customers are telling us they have to meet these increased demands for materials and finishes in addition to offering more competitive pricing so the pressure is on to get more versatile machines.” He adds that it may not make sense for everyone to get into the really expensive machines right away.

The other challenge, one that is closely related to machine versatility, is a skilled labour shortage, which poses a real challenge for many shops, says Schwartz and adds that some of those issues can be addressed by having more automated equipment. “In many small and mid-sized shops I see that it’s the owner who has to set up the edgebander because for many shops, that is the most difficult thing to get right.
“If you don’t set it up right you spend time and money re-working pieces and you really don’t want to do that because that costs money,” Schwartz says. “It can be a fiddly process that requires a lot of skill, and some of that shortage can be addressed by having more automated equipment. “If you have the right machine all you have to do is insert a piece of the tape you want to use and the machine takes its own measurements and sets everything up for you. Combine that with a return conveyor, which pays for itself in a few months, and suddenly your edgebander is twice as efficient. You save time and money and it also addresses the problems with getting skilled workers.” And Schwartz says that kind of technology is no longer reserved for expensive machines. “We are now seeing a level of automation that wasn’t available a few years ago and you can get it even on machines costing in the $20,000 range.”

As to the trend of zero edge edgebanding, Schwartz says it’s a small market, less than 10 per cent and he doubts it will be something everyone has to get into anytime soon. “Laser is too much and too expensive for most shops and even hot air, while it is a growing market is still costly, and by no means do I think it will take over anytime soon.” Manufacturers can produce excellent work with regular edgebanders, but the quality they produce really depends on proper setup and maintenance.
 
HOLZ-HER, a division of Weinig, has its new LUMINA series of edgebanders, which offers two different systems for perfectly invisible joints. The Glu Jet system, which uses PUR glue rather than the usual EVA glue to get better edges and LTronic, their response to the hot air technology used by other companies. LTronic uses NIR (Near Infra Red) technology to activate the glue on coated laser edges.

Claude Arsenault, vice president sales & operations of HOLZ-HER Canada says it’s an on demand system, doesn’t need high-pressure air and is quieter than forced hot air units. LTronic will be available in Canada starting this September. Glu Jet is HOLZ-HER’s regular glue station, it’s standard on every edgebander they sell, and it uses translucent PUC glue and an on demand system to create an invisible edge Arsenault says. There are no glue pots and no wait times. “We are seeing more and more demand for invisible edges and many of the high-quality manufacturers are requesting it and we have the technology in place right now to achieve that.”
 
Richard Bluteau, president of SCM Group Canada, says they offer the exclusive Slim Line edgebanding technique, which is available on all STEFANI modular edgebanders and squaring edgebanding machines.
In traditional edgebanding, glue is applied to the panel. With Slim Line glue is distributed on the edge through a slot device. According to Bluteau, Slim Line edgebanding allows manufacturers to produce panels with a considerably higher quality than the traditional glue roller technique and with lower costs. Bluteau says he agrees with his colleagues that it is only a matter of time until more consumers will start asking for zero edge. “There is no doubt in my mind,” he says. “When you go to a kitchen place and you see it, you will want it because it looks so dramatically different. “Our solution is using PUR glue which gives you a very thin, nearly invisible glue line and that’s what people want, especially on the higher end kitchens.”

However, Bluteau also says that although the market talks about zero edge quite a bit, it’s still new technology and may not be quite at the right price point yet, but that is sure to change in time.
A panel processed with SLIM LINE and polyurethane glue has the same cost as a panel processed with traditional edgebanding using hot melt glue.

And since the system uses the slot distribution system, it eliminates the need for a glue pot and the various mechanical components of traditional gluing units, thus reducing maintenance costs and eliminating downtime, which have considerable influence on production costs

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