Innovation drives industry

1 March 2018

In wood we have a material that lends itself to innovation.

Plywood, we are told, had its origins in ancient Egypt but took off with the arrival of veneering lathes in the late 19th century. Hardboard was an early 20th century development; MDF and OSB came a few decades later. Each one changed the capabilities of wood and wood based panels.

Given the pace of change of the modern world we ought not to expect innovation to end with those products. Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) is changing the possibilities of what can be built with wood. Multi-storey buildings based on wood rather than concrete are becoming a reality. CLT may be more lumber than panel but the resin and pressing technologies are clearly related.

And in this issue we can announce two more radically new wood-based materials.

The public may first notice wood foam as a replacement for polystyrenes in packaging, but acoustic and thermal insulation tiles are other promising uses and doubtless many others will emerge. Add that its source can be almost any waste agro-fibre and than it can be made with the addition of no other chemicals at all, and it would seem that the Fraunhofer Institute for Wood Research has come up with a product of huge potential.

Our second new product, the Mass Plywood Panel has been developed not by a research institution but by a private company, Freres Lumber of Oregon. A primary envisaged use is in modular off-site construction – pre-fabrication in everyday language. As wall and ceiling panels, custom-cut to shape in the factory and delivered to the building site on the back of lorries such panels would save huge amounts of time and of skilled labour and could transform the economics of house- and office building.

Modular construction is already being promoted, with good reason, as a solution to the high cost and short supply of housing. This, too, would seem the right product at the right time.

Wood foam and the Mass Plywood Panel have very different properties; yet both have great potential for easing the sustainability crises that are facing the world. Both are sourced from wood, and both demonstrate the extraordinary nature of this most natural and versatile of materials.

These will doubtless not be the last developments in the ways that humans can find to use wood. We look forward with interest to the next innovation in wood based panels.