Artistic Differences

30 March 2018

Panel processors are coming up with ever more innovative ideas to enhance the structural and decorative properties of wood based boards. Added value is the key, reports Robin Meade

As global demand for wood based panels grows, so too does demand for more sophisticated/decorative surfacing materials.

The decoration of wood based panels with a variety of surfacing materials is a key value-adding step, while enhancing functional aspects of panels is also seeing growth – for panels with fire, moisture and bacterial resistance, as well as surface protection or noise suppression.

According to Pöyry Management Consulting, across the world more than 70% of surfaced wood based panels are used for furniture, while the remaining 30% are construction-related products, including flooring and doors. In its report “Panel Surfacing up to 2020”, it says it is not just paper and non-paper-based products such as liquid and foils and veneers that are important, but also others such as direct printing and powder coating. Veneers, foils and paper are expected to decline while liquid coatings, laminates and both direct pressure and thermo-fused melamine will become more prevalent.

The only material with negative future growth projections is expected to be veneer as its performance, cost and sourcing issues are constantly challenged by low pressure melamine. Veneer is predicted to fall in popularity from the second most-used material to fifth place by 2020.

“In recent years the level of innovation and new product development has been remarkably high,” the report said. “While cost reduction is a constant, innovation is mainly driven by the need for improved performance – functionality and/ or design – or, to a much lesser extent, by sustainability.”

A study by IBISWorld identifies the production of premium goods and services and the ability to accommodate environmental requirements as among key success factors for a business in wood based panels.

Although Norbord has recently seen its Sterling OSB used in trendy office furniture projects and a TV makeover programme in the UK. It has also launched a new OSB product – SterlingOSB StrongFix – for both domestic and commercial markets.

And its CaberAcoustic is literally hot off the press – a sound-reducing product designed for both domestic and non domestic applications. CaberAcoustic comprises 28 and 32mm tongue-and-grooved particleboard panels with a 10mm sound reducing layer bonded to the underside.

This layer, made in the UK from recycled felt, is designed to reduce impact noise transmission by up to 19dB, while Norbord said it also helps reduce airborne noise as part of an appropriate flooring system.

Sonae, which manufactures particleboard, MDF and OSB, said more than 50% of sales have featured higher value-added products such as melamine, veneer faced, laminates and flooring for decorative solutions.

Egger and Kronospan have introduced new ranges. Kronospan has its Trend 16/17 collection which features 27 new decorative surfaces and is available in MFC 2620x2070x18mm for wood designs, laminated MDF 2800x1300x18.7mm for metal designs and laminate worktops 3050x600x38mm. Egger has unveiled its biggest-ever portfolio of décors for the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom sector, which features 170 predominantly MFC décors.

On the structural side Egger has increased the time its Protect board can remain exposed to the elements from 42 to 60 days, giving extra protection to housebuilders dealing with unforeseen delays. Egger Protect is manufactured from the company’s P5 flooring grade chipboard with a weather-resistant surface applied to both sides. As well as the 60-day protection, anti-slip surface and use with underfloor heating systems, it includes a concrete-effect finish, requiring no post installation painting.

Panel Processors

The trend toward improved and more sophisticated wood based panels has not been lost on panel processors. Trade Fabrication Services (TFS) has expanded in the almost 20 years since it began on Merseyside in north-west England, providing panels for the construction industry. It is now an added-value processor, prompted by the 2008 financial crisis to concentrate on finding markets beyond housing.

“We are not a lick-and-stick operation,” said commercial director Howard Morris. “We don’t just cut boards and add veneer, we provide coatings and laminates at the high end on a business-to-business basis.

“We are processing on behalf of customers so we have to work closely with them. Because we are an added-value processor we also work on research and development. Before, processors relied on the major panel producers but they have reduced their headcounts and reduced their R&D. We started with Peel Clean films and in the last 10 years coatings have become the biggest part of business. We cannot survive just doing lick and stick.”

This year the company received two commendations: the Wood Protection Association Quality Excellence Award for outstanding attention to detail for factory-applied surface treatments, in which TFS beat many of the UK’s leading timber companies; and a finalist nomination in the Treated Wood Trader of the Year category. The latter was for the partnership with PFS Coatings and Meyer Timber for factory-applied fire retardant coating ProStructFR.

“The fire treatment coating was something we continued after the research that followed the timber frame fires a few years back,” said Mr Morris. “Our work was to develop a system and process that would work with the product.”

Meyer Timber now holds stock across its UK depots of FireSure Premium range 2400x1200x18mm PEFC Meyer Firesure ProStruct FR Spruce Plywood, E1 EN13501- 1 Euroclass B Type HR CE2+.

TFS offers Peel Off and Permanent bond films applied to a range of substrates for a broad spectrum of markets for surface protection and other uses such as antibacterial in agriculture, packaging and construction. The coatings are used to provide durability, slip, fire and antibacterial resistance and preservative. The laminated operation includes pre-bonded breather membrane, thermal insulation and acoustic panels. Pre-decorated hoardings introduced a few years ago continue to do well.

“Generally the housing market has been fairly flat, but more convincing in the second half and fairly steady,” said Mr Morris. “Margins are tight, but we have invested in more bonding and processing equipment, and we are involved in projects for insulation and external cladding.”

Raw material supplies are generally steady, but prices have risen. “The big panel suppliers had their problems in 2017, fires and so on, but basically we have soldiered on; there have not been any problems with supply.”

However, another processor said price continues to be an issue.

“Price increases used to be every year, but now sometimes its every six or three months,” he said. “We have learned to second guess when they are coming and prepare for them, but we are like any other in business: our customers want it tomorrow and they want it a bit cheaper than last time.”

While some panel processors remain specialists in premium products and others in cutting to size, machining, CNC drilling and edgebanding, others have targeted the decoration market.

Décor-Lam in Wrexham, Wales, is a leading supplier of decorative board lamination to shopfitters, the audio sector for speaker cabinets, caravan, motorhome, retail, funeral furnishings and furniture industries. It concentrates on paper and PVC.

A key business is high quality, veneer-effect, foiled coffin sets to the funeral furnishings industry, laminated, lightweight ilomba-faced plywood to the motorhome trade and laminated panels for shop and office fitting and furniture.

More recently it has moved into digitally printed papers for coffins and for furniture panels. The papers are printed on a wide-format inkjet printer, usually used for point-of-sale retail displays, posters, hoardings and outdoor advertising. They are heat pressed onto the board, which has been pre-laminated with another paper. It is a small but growing part of the business.

The biggest demand has been in the funeral sector. As well as wood grain, the market is seeing a take-up in coffins decorated with numbered football shirts, team colours, regimental colours and badges. Hobbies also attract interest. There are golf themes, favourite landscapes and fishing themes. Once the artwork has been chosen, the sizing, shaping and colours in the image are handled by a computer and linked to the printer, allowing for a bespoke coffin. In the decorative panel and furniture sector, the printed board has been used to create educational spaces. One was supplied with woodland scenes to create quiet surroundings in which children could read, for example. There has also been interest from the business world.

“Our core business is woodgrain. The themed projects are a growing market. It is growing slowly and it will take time, but it is an interesting business,” said Décor-Lam spokesperson Steve Armstrong.

The worldwide market for printed décor papers in 2015 was 800,000 tonnes of an average of 70gsm and of that inkjet was in very small volumes. The printing of papers and other substrates is mostly achieved by the gravure, in which a cylinder engraved with a honeycomb of cells rotates onto the substrate. The process has been used for printing direct to wood, both as laminates or wood grain effect furniture. The cost of the cylinders and the wastage in achieving the correct colour and fit on the wood, meant there was little variety of pattern and huge stockholdings from a long run.

Digital Revolution

Digital changes all that. Digital print in this sphere is mostly inkjet, although toner can be used in spite of the heat it produces. Inkjet printing of papers for décors can be problematic as a large amount of very expensive ink is absorbed to create vibrant colours, which can then bleed. The papers have to be specialised and pre-treated.

Printing direct to board is vital for a one process system of production. Although the numbers would be large, designs in small or large batches could be produced in long runs.

The use of digital print is fuelled further by the current buzzword among print machinery suppliers of “industrial” print, where a printing unit is combined into any industrial machine to provide the print at the point of manufacture, rather than as a secondary process to be outsourced. Wallpaper, fabrics and ceramic tiles have led the way, but the suppliers of digital printing equipment are looking for new applications to spread the process – and timber is in their sights.

A major supplier has developed a printhead for this work and made 19 OEM (original equipment manufacturer) agreements with several companies in the wood sector. In particular, some laminate flooring manufacturers are looking to install their own digital printing.

Proponents of industrial printing believe making big inroads with wood converters could be two or three years away and will likely be driven by them making relationships with designers.

Pre-painted hoardings at Alder Hey Hospital, Liverpool. PHOTO: TFS
Furniture is a major market for decorative panels
The line for the factory-applied fire retardant coating ProStructFR
Egger has extended the time guarantee on-site for its Protect board
A large format inkjet printer can produce decors for panels. PHOTO: Epsom
Norbord’s CaberAcoustic panel
TFS applies peel-off and permanent bond films to a range of substrates
Despite the trend for greater decoration, Norbord has seen its bare Sterling OSB used in office and retail projects