Panels to the moon

30 March 2018

Dr Mark Irle marvels at the vast quantities of wood based panels that are produced each year but sees room for growth

Huge quantities of wood based panels (WBP) are manufactured around the world every year. The world production of the four main panel types, that is plywood, particleboard, OSB and MDF, was 381,315,157m3 in 2016 according to the staistics published by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; figure 1 gives the breakdown. If the 11 million m3 of hardboard production are added to this total then there is enough to build a stack of panels one metre by one meter all the way to the moon every year. That is a lot of panel. If it takes you five minutes to read this article, then the world’s factories will have manufactured over 3,500m3 by the time you get to the end. It is hard to imagine such quantities.

Clearly there is a market for these panels. Of course there is some competition between panel types, but, in many situations the technical performance of a particular panel type reduces the competition from other types. For example, plywood tends to be light in weight for a given strength property relative to the other panel types, whereas MDF has excellent machining properties compared to the others. OSB has a good bending stiffness to price ratio, and particleboard offers an excellent surface for lamination at a low price.

Table 1 gives you an insight into the relative performance of different panel types. This is a little like comparing apples to pears, but the idea is to give a feeling of their relative performances. The performance data given for particleboard, OSB and MDF represent the limits; actual measured values should be better than these limits. The inevitable dispersion of properties caused by the natural variation of wood and deviations in the manufacturing process obliges manufacturers to have targets that are better than the limits. A manufacturer possessing close control over its process can make products that have properties close to the limits given in the standards.

Clients too want consistent products, and the range of relevant properties goes way beyond those given in the table. Physical properties like straightness, flatness and colour uniformity are also important as are the chemical properties like formaldehyde emission.

Even though world production volumes are large, there is still room for growth. The annual per capita consumption of WBP in North America and the European Union is about 0.116 m3. The world-wide use of WBP per person is only 0.05m3, so there is potential to triple the production if economies around the world can be improved to reach those found in Europe and America. Let us hope we see significant improvement in 2018.

Figure 1. Total production volume of the main WBP types
Table 1. A comparison of relative performance of 18 mm thick WBP designed for use in load bearing humid situations. Typical data for plywood and the minimum performance data according to European regulation EN 13986 for the other panel types.