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|Inventors||Daniel J. O'Conor, Herbert A. Faber|
|Inventors||Daniel J. O'Conor, Herbert A. Faber|
Formica laminate is a brand of composite materials manufactured by New Zealand-based Formica Group. The material was discovered in 1912, and is manufactured for a variety of applications today. In common use, the term Formica refers to the company's classic product, a heat-resistant, wipe-clean, plastic laminate of paper or fabric with melamine resin.
Formica Group, a division of the New Zealand company Fletcher Building, 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., and Formica (Asia) Ltd., among others.
Formica laminate was invented in 1912 by Daniel J. O'Conor and Herbert A. Faber, while working at Westinghouse. They filed for a patent on it on 1 February 1913. 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. They left Westinghouse immediately afterwards.
Formica laminate now refers primarily to the decorative product composed of several layers of kraft paper impregnated with melamine thermosetting resin (or, later, a unified core as described below) and topped with a decorative layer protected by melamine, then compressed and cured with heat to make a hard, durable surface.
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” as a trademark. (The word already existed, the Latin name for wood ants, from which formic acid and the derivative formaldehyde compound used in the resin were first isolated.)
O’Conor and Faber quit Westinghouse to start their own business, enlisting lawyer and banker John G. Tomlin as an investor. Tomlin put up $7,500 and became a silent partner in the fledgling business. The company began operations on 2 May 1913, and was immediately successful: by September, Formica Products Company had eighteen employees trying to keep up with the demand for electrical parts for Bell Electric Motor, Ideal Electric and Northwest Electric.
After the General Bakelite Company chose 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 (founded by L.V. Redman) 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.
An important application devised in the 1920s was the use of phenolic-laminated 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 a 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.
The company was headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, for many years. After WWII, it entered the European market through a license agreement.
In 1956 American Cyanamid acquired Formica Corp. 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 had become generic words, such as "shredded wheat" and "thermos", lost as 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.
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Decorative laminates were made by impregnating large sheets of Kraft paper with phenolic resin, which was then partially cured, forming a stiff and very brittle sheet. Seven such sheets were laid together, atop a much thicker sheet of highly polished stainless steel. A decorative cover sheet (colored, or wood-grained, or patterned), impregnated with melamine resin, was laid atop that. Further, a protective top sheet of nearly transparent material, also melamine impregnated, was laid atop the cover sheet. Another sheet of polished stainless steel was laid over this entire package.
The process was repeated, until 20 such layers of impregnated paper between stainless steel sheets was assembled. This was known as a "press pack". A considerable number of press packs, with separators between them, would be piled up, making a combined stack several feet high. This was then placed in a large hydraulic press. Very great pressure and heat were applied, tightly compressing the paper sheets and fully curing the resins, to produce finished laminate sheets. During the cure, the protective top sheets became transparent, so that the wood grain or other surface decoration was entirely visible.
A variant was to use a slightly roughened steel sheet atop the cover sheet, producing a laminate with a matte surface. Some users considered this more attractive than the gleaming, absolutely flat surface created by the highly polished stainless steel separators. To make the surface uniform on the matte sheets, they were subjected to a final step of sanding them to a uniform thickness. This had the unfortunate side effect of grinding away (or making very thin) the top melamine coating, at the highest points on the roughened surface. In subsequent use, those thin or sanded-away points could allow oils or juices to soak into the laminate, possibly discoloring it.
This lamination process was extremely costly. It required extensive handling of the individual sheets. Those sheets were more brittle than potato chips, hence easily damaged. Breaking off even a small corner rendered the sheet unusable (and not repairable or recyclable). Yet no better process had been devised, since the inception of the product. 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 proposed making a thick paste of cellulose powder and phenolic resin, to form the core in a single piece prior to curing. The melamine-impregnated cover sheets would be laid atop that, in forming the press packs.
This approach was pursued in the Formica research laboratory, with great success. Thereafter, Formica decorative surfacing was produced with what was termed Unified Core.
A further advantage, beyond the cost savings and reduction of scrap, was that the core material could be impregnated with a pigment, approximately matching the color of the top sheet that would later be applied. Under the earlier process, 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.
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 a dragon or a spiral seashell, 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. While some impressive samples emerged from the research lab, the product was never commercialized due to the apparent high costs (of sculpturing the cover sheets), the short lifetime of the sculptured cover sheets, and the apparently small market for such products. The latest product is the evolution of the decorative edges known as "Ideal Edge" which 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.