A Revolution in RV Interiors
Anyone who says there’s nothing new in RV appliances and interior products has clearly been asleep for the past several years.
Suppliers interviewed for this article tell RV PRO they are constantly coming out with new products and components for the RV market. In many cases, those product launches were done to meet manufacturers’ specific requests, but in several cases suppliers sought on their own to innovate and push the boundaries of what’s possible in terms of products and components inside a coach.
Here are the stories of three companies that are changing the look and function of RV interiors with their many products.
Mike Santillo summarizes Flexsteel Industries’ substantial offerings in the RV market with the quip: “Anywhere you can sit down, we’re probably involved in it.”“Essentially, we’re seating specialists,” adds Santillo, Flexsteel’s vice president of vehicle seating. His company is perhaps best known in the RV market for its motorhome driver and passenger seating, with the Flexsteel logo prominently branded on the armrests of those bucket seats. But the company’s range of offerings also includes other chairs and recliners, dinette seating, sofa sleepers, and bedding systems.
Casual observers might be tempted to think the opportunities for innovation in vehicle seating are pretty limited. According to Santillo, they’d be wrong.
In fact, there have been some fairly significant developments in recent years, Santillo says, and he’s quick to add that Flexsteel has been leading the charge. One of Flexsteel’s most significant breakthroughs, he says, is the Extenda Flex Lounge, a sofa specifically designed to cure “space monotony,” a term Flexsteel uses to describe the use of similarly scaled products in the usual lateral space provided.
Extenda Flex is different than other sofas because it is designed with a residential feel and features a hidden, L-shaped glide-out seat section intended for an additional TV or lounge position. Other applications for the Extenda Flex include creating U-shape conversation rooms and large, face-to-face dining areas that can accommodate up to six adults.
“These new seating arrangements give the area more space for a variety of uses,” Santillo explains. “It becomes a multipurpose living quarters … for lounging, dining and sleeping.”
Flexsteel also has innovated in terms of vehicle seating: The company is using the National RV Trade Show to introduce Ford E-Series swivel pedestals for front seats in the Class C motorhome market, allowing users to turn their chairs around for dining or entertaining like RVers can do with driver and passenger seats in Class A motorhomes.
“It’s going to revolutionize the market,” Santillo predicts. Flexsteel is offering the pedestals in three varieties: a passenger seat manual slide, a driver’s seat manual slide, and a driver’s seat power slide.
Yet another area where Flexsteel has shown innovation is in bedding. Santillo says that in recent years the company has improved upon traditional foam and spring-model beds by introducing a hybrid bed that combines a 4-inch coil spring unit base with an air mattress top in one product.
“It’s almost identical in comfort to a residential setting,” according to Santillo. Flexsteel, which first popularized the technology with its Flexobed, recently introduced the Fold & Tumble Flexobed, the second-generation model.
Meanwhile, Flexsteel also is changing how it manufactures its products in order to meet OEMs requests that vehicle seating be both lighter and more comfortable. To achieve weight savings, Santillo says the company has modified its seat frames from heavier tube to lighter-weight metal flange while also making use of lighter foams, polyurethane and woven materials.
|Flexsteel uses a state-of-the-art CNC Gerber cutting operation (top right photo) where fabric is computer cut, bundled and readied forsewing. The company also rigorously tests its seating products (top left photo), which has resulted in a failure rate of less than 0.5 percent.|
To engineer more comfort into its vehicle seating, Santillo says Flexsteel worked with its foam suppliers to develop “HR” – a high-resiliency foam that’s both much more comfortable and also longer-lasting. While it costs a bit more than the old product, he says it’s worth it given the extent to which RVers use their vehicle seating in comparison to certain rooms in their home, which might just be used on limited occasions.
In addition to vehicle seating, Flexsteel also makes products for the residential, commercial and hospitality markets (i.e., hotels and motels) at its 1-million-square-foot manufacturing facility in Dubuque, Iowa, and a second manufacturing facility in California. Santillo says the 119-year-old company is the eighth largest furniture manufacturer in the world and the largest player in the RV vehicle seating market.
According to Santillo, the company’s success in the market can be attributed to its state-of-the-art research and development facilities; its top-notch product engineering; its long history in fashion and design; and that the company’s rate of quality defects is less than 0.5 percent. He attributes the low defect rate to the fact that Flexsteel manufactures its own frames and other key components, rather than buying those items from suppliers as some other manufacturers do.
Santillo says Flexsteel’s lengthy history of producing furniture for several different markets benefits the RV industry thanks to its ability to take cutting-edge furniture technologies and apply them to vehicle seating applications.
“Our secret to success in the RV market,” he says, “is translating residential design into products that go down the road.”
How much thought goes into a product that’s basically a big box where food is stored to keep it cold? Actually, quite a lot when that product is designed and made for the RV market, according to Kevin Stover, product manager for Norcold Inc. in Sidney, Ohio.
The simple fact is that a refrigerator built for the road has to contend with a multitude of issues that aren’t typically a factor in residential models. Two significant and interrelated ones are weight and space.
|(left) Norcold touts its eye-level thermostat control on its refrigerators as just one of many customer friendly features. (right) Norcold refrigerator door handles don’t stick out like competing models do, which is a space-saving feature. The company’s doors also feature positive look handles that prevent doors from swinging open in transit.|
“Customers want smaller and lighter trailers; that puts a premium on all of the components in the RV, including the refrigerator,” Stover notes. “We’ve had (manufacturers) tell us they weigh every unit that comes down the line because they are trying to hit a certain target so they can advertise their units at a certain weight class, so every little pound helps.”
At the same time, RVers want storage space in their refrigerators that’s similar to those in their homes. Stover says Norcold has effectively balanced those competing demands by effective use of lightweight materials, while still giving RVers the functionality and look they desire, which the company proudly touts as “The Norcold Advantage.”
|Norcold can manufacture its refrigerators in a variety of colors, including stainless and glossy black.|
For example, Norcold notes that its various refrigerator models have an extra 0.2 to 0.3 cubic feet of storage space over its leading competitor while at the same time Norcold’s units weigh between 4 and 7 pounds less than the competition. That may not sound like much to the casual observer, but Stover insists “in the RV market, it’s huge.”
Norcold takes into account a host of additional considerations when building refrigerators for the RV market.
“We look at what makes a refrigerator customer-friendly, like an adjustable thermostat, because these are in coaches that move, so you have changing temperature conditions,” Stover explains. “We also look at things like, is the control location situated correctly when the refrigerator is mounted in the unit? And, because you’ve got narrow aisleways, particularly in the smaller units, are the (door) handles flush? In our models they are, because we’ve thought about those things.”
Other features that Norcold touts as being exclusive to its products include an easy-to-see and operate LED control panel with built-in diagnostics, a thermostat backup system that allows operation until the unit is repaired, an automatic changeover between gas and electric, white powder-coated shelves that clean easy and won’t tarnish, and positive lock handles that prevent doors from swinging open in transit. And perhaps most importantly, given the product’s purpose: Superior cooling ability.
“We do testing of our refrigerators as well as benchmarking against our competitors – and we have superior cooling performance with our units,” Stover says.
And for those aftermarket customers who want still more refrigerator space, Norcold has them covered. It’s become a trend in recent years for customers to replace their standard 6- and 8-cubic-foot refrigerators with 10-cubic foot models, as only minor modifications are required, according to Stover.Also on the aftermarket side of the business, Norcold has found robust demand for its top open portable refrigerator/freezer, which Stover says many RVers keep stored in their RV basements as a freezer, while some still use it as an outdoor refrigerator at campsites to keep their beverages cold.
RV manufacturers remain a key market for Norcold, and Stover says the company is constantly looking at ways to meet OEMs’ needs – both as it relates to function and style.
“For example, a few years back we came out with stainless doors, following a trend that was popular in the residential market,” Stover says. “Since then, we’ve added doors in a black color. In the residential market, a lot of refrigerators have what’s called a ‘black matte finish,’ but for the RV market what’s been requested of us is a glossy black finish to better match some of the components of the coach.
“And sometimes manufacturers have a configuration where they’ve got stainless or black appliances and ask us to trim the refrigerator out to make it match their interiors,” he adds. “We’ve gone so far as to come up with special materials to match a particular décor for the OEMs.”
Jeff Rodino, vice president of sales for the Midwest at Patrick Industries, won’t hold it against you if you can’t identify all of the parts and components made or distributed by Elkhart, Ind.-based Patrick Industries that can be found in one of today’s modern RVs. After all, between the company’s many new product launches and strategic acquisitions, it’s an ever-growing list.
Acquisitions have included the Praxis Group, which distributes shower doors, furniture products and countertop; AIA Countertops LLC, which makes DuPont Corian and LG solid surface countertops; assets of the Blazon Group, which distributes wiring, electrical, lighting, plumbing and other building products for the RV industry; and assets of Quality Hardwoods Sales, a maker of cabinet doors.
|A worker gathers laminated panels at the end of a spray line. Patrick Industries manufactures panels and slide-out trims in a variety of shapes and colors.|
Additionally, when it comes to prominent brands like Lane Furniture and Toshiba, the casual observer may not recognize Patrick Industries as the exclusive distributor of those products in the RV channel. What’s more, many of the most prevalent components the company makes – such as cabinets, laminated panels, slide-out trims – don’t feature any type of faceplates specifically identifying them as being manufactured by Patrick Industries.
“In terms of RV manufacturers, I’d be hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t know we sell cabinet doors or that we laminate panels or that we do trim or moldings,” Rodino says. “But I would think the average consumer might have a hard time knowing what is in their coach is from Patrick Industries. The outside world doesn’t know how many products Patrick Industries makes.”
Given that Patrick Industries makes and distributes so many different products, one might reasonably wonder whether there is any unifying theme behind those various offerings. Rodino doesn’t hesitate to offer an answer: “Really it’s a cross-section of trying to be the low-cost provider as well as having the ability to provide value-added products with name brands,” he says.
Patrick Industries introduced a number of new products in 2011, including several new cabinet door styles and upgraded cabinetry, new slide-out trim, new faucets modeled after the residential market, and a line of wall-mounted Bluetooth radios that have been well-received by the market, according to Rodino.
“We have a team that works solely on new products and new developments for existing products,” he notes. “We (take into) consideration what the customers are looking for throughout our entire development process while using our own creativity to drive products which are unique for our customers.”
Rodino also notes that the company has a design team that works exclusively with RV manufacturers to meet their needs, which can include creating new styles and utilizing new colors and wood types for cabinet doors and other products.
Patrick Industries is focused almost exclusively on the OEM side of the market, and Rodino says the company doesn’t take its relationship with RV manufacturers for granted, but instead continually seeks to improve. Patrick Industries proudly promotes itself as offering a “customer first” culture, and while that may sound like a cliché term, Rodino says that in this case the company can back up the claim with metrics showing improved quality, on-time delivery, customer relationship building – even greater innovation.
“It’s part of everyone’s objective at the company,” he says, “to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to help our customers.”