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Martin Sinker, technical sales director of Emerson & Renwick, looks at the wallcovering industry

The manufacture of mass market wallcoverings is a fashion business and as such is subject to a whole range of social influences far beyond the control of the machine builder. However, fashion changes mean new or updated production processes which, even in a declining market, can give opportunities for exciting machinery innovation.

Continuous web wallpaper production started in Darwen, UK, on surface print machines – an early version of central impression flexo technology. This was in around 1839, as an offshoot of the textile industry. With increasing home ownership in and around industrial centres, the market grew rapidly and by the early 1900s most Edwardian homes included a good coverage of surface printed wallpaper.

Texture was important, partly to cover plastering defects, and various shallow and deep embossing techniques were developed. PVC coated (vinyl)wallcoverings arrived in the 1960s with ICI Hyde’s Vymura range; this was gravure printed and included hot embossing of the PVC surface to give texture and light reflective effects.

Blown vinyl reached the UK in the early 1980s, the expandable PVC being printed and heat treated to give an alternative effect to embossing.

Recent market trends in Europe and North America have been steadily downwards. The statistics show UK consumption declining steadily from around 100M rolls/year in 1985 to less than 50M today. Exports, also in decline, currently amount to 20M rolls, while imports are actually growing because of the strength of sterling.

The reasons for the decline, and strategies for reversing it, are the subject of much heart searching in the industry. Current lifestyle trends are towards minimalist d├ęcor, wall surfaces are flat and paint is perceived as being an easy option. TV decorating programmes rarely consider wallpaper; the paint industry is very strong and spends a lot on TV advertising. The DIY ‘sheds’, handling some 60 per cent of the UK market, do not appear to find wallcoverings a ‘sexy’ product and little attempt is made to promote new ranges.

Time factor

Above all the younger age groups have little spare time, being too busy with work, holidays, Sunday shopping, surfing the net and leisure activities. Wallcoverings have to be reinvented as a quick and attractive alternative to paint, to stand a chance of significant growth.

As a machine builder, our company has for many years explored and supplied to the world market; machinery needs in the UK and Europe alone are not enough to support technical development and innovation. On the Pacific Rim, both Japan and South Korea have considerable domestic markets and manufacturing capacity, each country having an internal market considerably greater than that of the UK.

Much of the production machinery is of local manufacture, but we have also had considerable success in particular with machines for hot embossing vinyl in register with the printed design.

From the 1980s China has been seen as a market with huge potential and there has been major investment there, with many new factory start-ups. E&R has provided full turnkey machinery and know-how deals, notably at the Dongguan Yulan wallpaper factory, which over the years since 1984 has installed some 15 of the company’s production machines and is currently a market leader in China.

Static market

However, the Chinese market overall has stalled at around 30M rolls with little sign of the long awaited rapid growth. Further south, climate comes into play; high ambient humidity and temperature are not kind to wallcoverings, so air conditioning becomes a ‘must’ in the equatorial regions of SE Asia.

Most recently, the Russian republics have become the focus for market growth, admittedly interrupted by the painful economic set-back of recent years. The old Soviet-style wallpaper factories have been installing new and second-hand machinery from the West, and there have also been new factory start-ups. We have been heavily involved in the Kof Palitra plant, in Moscow, also in installations in the Ukraine and Belarus.

Now the Russian authorities are increasing import duties on finished product, to the delight of domestic manufacturers and the chagrin of western European producers, some of whom have seen Russia as their life-line.

The wallcovering production process hovers on the fringe of true ‘converting’. It is a tiny niche market even on a world scale and has particular needs which do not necessarily apply in the vastly bigger coating and packaging industries. The three basic stages are coating, printing and finishing, the latter normally including embossing, winding and packaging.

For the last 35 years or so, E&R has chosen to specialize in the design, development and manufacture of virtually all the on-line machinery needed to make the considerable variety of wallcovering types, and also offer expertise in raw materials preparation, design and production.

Riding the tiger of a highly erratic market has developed E&R into a very responsive and innovative business with strong electronics skills as well as the more traditional mechanical engineering base. The acquisition of Dixons during 2002 has been an excellent marriage of two similar but differing product ranges and areas of expertise.

Width range

The machinery is manufactured for web widths typically of 56 or 112cm, occasionally 168cm. The wider webs (double and triple width) tend to have their origins in the leathercloth industry. With short production runs, single width is usually preferred to minimize engraving costs. The USA has a preference for 28in and Japan for 36in. Some European production is at 70cm and heavy ‘Contract’ vinyls for hotels may be up to 130cm wide. No two machines are the same.

Coating lines for PVC (vinyl) coating are usually double width and use rotary screen or reverse roll as application techniques. Gelling is in hot air ovens or occasionally in direct contact with a heated gelling drum.

Prepaste may be applied to the back of the web in line, usually by gravure or rotary screen. More traditional wallpapers (non PVC) are often colour coated as a first stage; this may be by airknife, gravure, screen or flexo. Callendering or fine texture embossing (for vinyls) may be a necessary in-line stage prior to printing.

Traditional

The traditional surface print machines produced an effect remarkably similar to wood-block or potato cut printing, with no possibility of shading and half tone effects. For this reason there were a great many print units on each machine, anything from eight to 24 being arranged around a large felt covered central impression drum. Colour mixing and machine operating skills were immense, and health and safety not a high priority when climbing monkey-like up the print sets.

The arrival of flexographic and gravure printing lines revolutionized the industry, with gravure gradually becoming the dominant process. Recognizing the industry needs, we developed highly specialized presses for short production runs, typically as low as 5,000m.

Quick or non stop washdown, print cylinder change and colour change are far higher priorities than raw machine speed; minimum in-press web length is also sought after.

The need to change colour several times with one set of print cylinders (for pattern colour-ways) is an unusual but essential requirement. Wallcovering production does not lend itself to four colour process production: how would you produce even two colour-ways from one set of cylinders?

Multi station rotary screen production reached the wallcoverings industry some 20 years ago and has developed as the essential tool for blown vinyl production. Relatively high weights of coloured plastisol can be pattern printed and gelled before the blowing oven. Dense water based colours can also be applied. These presses lend themselves to twin head configuration for on-the-run design change.

E&R has also pioneered the availability of screen or gravure on every station to give maximum flexibility to wallcovering designers. The company introduced electronic lineshafts for its presses in 1985.

Finally, the embossing process can be used to add texture to paper, flat and expanded vinyl substrates. We introduced the first mass production machines for embossing in register with off-line printed designs in 1980 and since then have cornered the world market with hot embossing lines for this process.

The majority of wallcovering factories produce off-line – coating, printing and finishing as separate operations. The reasons are usually given as incompatibility of speeds, downtimes for design change and the sheer difficulty of running a fully in-line process.

However, over the last 10 years, E&R has worked with its customer Ideco, in Belgium, to develop and install a large number of fully in-line machines working from base paper reels through coating, printing, expansion, embossing and finishing as one continuous process. Design ingenuity and electronics have been used to engineer out the perceived incompatibilities and the plant has beaten the trend of a declining market.

Non wovens

Another new development in the industry is the use of non woven substrates to give added strength for strippability, together with dimensional stability, allowing ‘paste the wall’ for easier hanging.

Will this be the salvation of the industry? One way to find out is to roll up your sleeves, get down to your local DIY superstore and try it!

More information from John Booth, Emerson & Renwick – TEL: +44 (0)1254 872727. WEBSITE: www.eandr.com