It is an industrially-focused event, designed to update the skills and knowledge of supervisors, line managers, technologists and researchers in the wood based panels sector.

To maintain a workshop approach, numbers were limited, with about 40 people attending the 2012 event, and the programme consisted of a series of seminars covering key topics for the industry.

Introducing the Master Class, Dr Rob Elias, director of organisers the BioComposites Centre, UK, said the objective was to discover the priorities of the delegates. "It’s about dialogue from you guys," he said.

Mr Elias set the scene by listing the main problems facing the industry as: Cost price rises; the fact that China had doubled production capacity in the last four years and started a forest certification programme for better forest management, making it a stronger competitor than hitherto; and the ever-present issue of biomass energy.

Dr Mark Irle of the Ecole Supérieure du Bois, Nantes, France, gave the first presentation entitled Heads up for the future.

Dr Irle reported on the first Wood Based Panels (WBP) Think-Tank held in Brussels in December 2011. The aim was to brain-storm ideas which could become nuclei for projects that will support the sector’s future development. Delegates to the Think-Tank came from the panel industry, research bodies and trade associations such as the European Panel Federation (EPF).

"We are looking at longer-term projects for the future, not just for a few months," said Dr Irle. "Funding bodies, both European and national, need proof as to why they should put money into this, and not other, areas."

Around 50 different projects were suggested by the Think-Tank and Dr Irle selected 10 main themes on which delegates at the Master Class voted instantly by means of hand-held wireless electronic key pads, ranking them A to E, where E was a project considered to have a high impact on the industry and A one with no impact in the opinion of the delegate. Results appeared instantly on the presentation screen.

"This is your opportunity to prioritise the project list," said Dr Irle. Obviously this was only part of a wider consultation scheme, with the ultimate aims of encouraging researchers to work on the favoured topics; and lobbying funding bodies to allocate money to them.

The most popular research topic areas voted on in order of votes for ‘D and E’ combined were: New/improved products (24); research on raw materials (23); process development (20); regulation anticipation (17); Building systems incorporating WBPs (16); sustainable industry (cascade of products, life-cycle analysis), (15); and retrofitting of buildings (14).

The next Think-Tank meeting will be held to coincide with the EPF exhibition at the European Parliament in Brussels on December 6 & 7, 2012.

Rob Elias told the delegates: "We are under-performing as an industry in getting funding from the EU".

Following this presentation, all the delegates moved to a computer room where several computers were set up with hot pressing simulation software provided by Heiko Thömen of the Bern University of Applied Sciences, Switzerland.

"The fundamental mechanisms in hot pressing are heat and pressure, but it is much more complex than that. Heat and moisture transfer, localised vapour pressure, localised temperature, localised bond strength, rheology and many other factors all interact," said Dr Thömen.

He then covered the topics of heat transfer mechanisms, gas pressure development and rheology (the flow and change of shape of matter) and its effects on the all-important density profile of a panel.

Dr Thömen then described the development of his ‘Virtual hot press’ computer simulation program and demonstrated to delegates how, using the program, the effects of changing various parameters during hot pressing can be predicted.

Delegates in teams of two or three were then set the competitive task of producing the best density profile in the shortest press time.

Wolfgang Kantner of Dynea Austria began his presentation on Resin developments with a look at resin chemistry.

The requirements for resins, he said, are: stability under various temperature and pH; long enough pot life; curing speed and the danger of pre-cure; good enough mechanical properties at the lowest possible resin loading; control of cold tack (cohesive tack within the mat) and minimisation of unwanted sticking (adhesive tack to belts etc); and, finally, costs (mainly raw material driven).

Wolfgang Kantner’s talk covered storage effects; resin distribution on wood surface and into pores; tack effects; curing behaviour; and glue line formation (elasticity/rigidity of glue lines).

David Harmon of Momentive Specialty Chemicals Inc, US, spoke about CARB and its impact in the EU.

For those who still don’t know, CARB is the acronym for California Air Resources Board, which is concerned about emissions from wood based panels and has produced an Airborne Toxic Control Measure (ATCM).

"This is a global issue affecting panel manufacturers and downstream users," said Mr Harmon.

The ATCM established formaldehyde emission limits for particleboard, MDF and hardwood plywood (HWPW) raw panels.

It applies to products sold, supplied, used or manufactured for sale in California and requires finished goods to be made from compliant panels.

It also requires panel manufacturers to be third-party certified.

"The US EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] is considering CARB’s proposed amendments, as well as others, for potential inclusion in the US national regulation, likely to be issued in early 2013," said Mr Harmon.

In conclusion, he outlined the global challenges of these regulations as: Harmonising testing/verification technologies; recognition that further reductions [in permissible formaldehyde levels] will have no additional/practical health benefit; potential expansion of requirements to finished products; potential addition of limitations on other chemical constituents such as VOCs, heavy metals (even at trace levels) and pesticides/other preservatives.

"CARB maximum limits are nonnegotiable and the CARB lab results will be the ultimate standard against which all results will be measured," said Mr Harmon.

The CARB requirements may have started out in California, but the US and, eventually, the rest of the world are likely to adopt something at least very similar, sooner rather than later.

Dr Richard Murphy, distinguished research fellow at Imperial College London, spoke on Life Cycle Assessments.

"Life Cycle Analysis is a systems analysis methodology to make cradle-to-grave assessments and give an environmental footprint," said Dr Murphy, who runs his own certification partnership, LCAworks Ltd, in London. "But you can also have cradle to factory gate LCAs, for instance."

The first ISOstandard was published in 1997 and updated in 2006 and is in the ISO14000 series as ISO14040 and 14044. There are other best practice systems available too, said the speaker.

A key aspect of carrying out an LCA is to define the system boundary so that you do not set yourself too much to do, while the key objectives are completeness (an holistic view) and transparency for reviewers/practitioners and decision makers, said Dr Murphy.

The data collected has to be converted to a global warming figure so the LCA of a fence post, for example, would have to take into account uranium production for the generation of electricity used in the processing; and the origins of the preservatives used.

"You must set a goal and scope first," said Dr Murphy. "Exactly what are you trying to achieve?"

Turning his attention to forests and wood based products, the speaker said: "There is an accumulating benefit from managing forests for the production of wood products – ‘credit’ for the avoided fossil fuel consumption can be substantial and cumulative".

Dr Murphy concluded with some good news for the wood products industry, saying; "There is a clear case for wood as a positive environmental material in green building and manufacturing to help mitigate climate change".

This was a short, intensive, Master Class that covered a lot of ground in important areas and the delegates seemed pleased with the learning and networking opportunities they had experienced.