When the Tirolean farming family Egger decided to go into sawmilling, it started on a journey which has taken it into the top echelons of panel makers today.

The construction of the company’s first particleboard mill at St Johann, one hour’s drive from Salzburg amid the breathtaking mountain scenery of the Austrian Tirol region, began in 1960, producing commercial panels the following year. One truck-load per day left the factory in those days.

Today Egger has 15 (almost 16) production plants all over Europe and claims a sales presence in all global markets; and now 700 truck-loads of panels leave Egger’s European factories factory every day.

The company has four plants in Austria (St Johann, Wörgl, Leoben and Unterradlberg); six in Germany (Wismar, Gifhorn, Bünde, Marienmünster, Bevern and Brilon), two in France (Ramberviller and Rion Des Landes), two in the UK (Barony in Scotland and Hexham in England), one in Russia (Shuya) and the 16th under construction in Romania, due to start production at the end of of this year.

Panel products manufactured include particleboard, MDF and OSB and Egger has extensive value-adding facilities too, from continuous laminate (CPL) to melamine faced panels, to laminate flooring, to finished furniture components.

The group employs 5,100 people in total and in 2005/6, its unconsolidated turnover was e1.85bn (e1.29bn consolidated).

Total panel production for all the Egger factories is 5.2 million m3/year.

While we are talking figures, Egger has seen an 89% increase employment in the 10 years 1995-2005, coupled with a 157% increase in turnover and 126% increase in production capacity during the same period.

The three principle product areas for the company are Decorative, Construction and Flooring/Retail, forming what the company calls its “Brand House”.

“All our products are based on a natural, sustainable raw material – wood – and our business philosophy is based on the four ‘I’s, said Huber Höglauer, head of marketing for the Egger group. “These are International presence, Innovation, Integration and Identification.

“Under ‘International’, we manufacture in all the major economic regions of Europe. We concentrate on Europe but with a sales presence globally. Our investment in Russia and in Romania is part of this concentration on a wider Europe.

“The second ‘I’, Innovation, is the key to our sustained success. For instance, we are the first to invest in mass production of a lightweight board with a paper honeycomb core called Eurolight. It is an ‘old’ product basically but our approach is new, in production technology, processing and working with others in a network,” said Mr Höglauer.

But we will come back to Eurolight later.

“The third ‘I’, integration, means that we have forwards-integration, producing furniture components for example, and backwards integration, having our own power plants, at Wismar and Unterradlberg. These use production waste for energy generation.

“Identification, the fourth ‘I’, means we want ‘Egger’ to be the company and name of choice in our industry.”

The location of the company’s plants reflects the markets which each is designed to serve. For instance, the latest Romanian plant is close to Ukraine, southeast Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria and Turkey, while the Unterradlberg unit is in the heart of Europe and close to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Austria and Italy.

“This all reduces the logistics costs,” said Mr Höglauer. “Also a lot of European furniture producers [Egger’s customers] are moving production to the east of Europe.”

Investments by the group in the past two years alone are impressive.

In Summer 2005, Egger started building the Shuya facility in Russia, 300km northeast of Moscow, as its 15th panel production plant, to make 250,000m3/year of particleboard. The official opening came in May 2006.

Also in 2006, a new, high-performance prefabricated elements line was opened at the Bünde plant, capable of producing, in combination with the lines at St Johann, up to 600,000 furniture components per week. These can be drilled, edged or grooved to customer order and some are even supplied to customers in Asia, when quality is more important than mere quantity.

Mat heating was added to the Brilon MDF continuous press line last year, leading to a 30% increase in capacity; a new direct printing line and laminate flooring plant were also added to that site.

Another major project begun in 2006, and due to begin trial production as you read this, was the brand new continuous particleboard production line at Hexham in the northeast of England. This existing Egger subsidiary company was the subject of a £100m (e150m) investment, comprising a brand new area of land adjacent to the existing site and a 48×2.6m Siempelkamp ContiRoll press line with a production capacity of 2,000m3/day. The project began in April 2006 on an empty site and was due to start up in April 2007.

Again started in 2006 was that Romanian particleboard plant on an 80ha site at Radauti in the Suceava region, close to the Ukraine border.

“Currently we are seeing the results of an ongoing e500m-plus investment strategy in the Egger group as a whole,” said Mr Höglauer.

In terms of the company’s approach to the market, he is clear about where Egger wants to be: “We are not the cheapest and we don’t want to be. We offer quality and service. For instance we can supply special orders within a few days from our component plant in St Johann, even to the UK”.

The Eurolight innovation

Egger began the development of a completely new product line about three years ago and this resulted in the start-up of trial production on its Eurolight line at the end of August last year. Panels were being delivered to customers in September.

Eurolight is a frameless sandwich-construction panel made up of two thin particleboard (or possibly MDF) faces, with a 15mm cell-size paper honeycomb core, in a range of thicknesses from 15 to 100mm.

‘That is nothing new’ I hear you say, and that is true – the panel concept is probably 50 years old.

What makes Eurolight unique is the fact that it is made on a specially-designed continuous press line with a possible daily output capacity in excess of 1,000m3 and in master panels of 5610x2070mm, rather than an essentially hand-made product.

But the question is why did Egger want to develop such a product. Eurolight product manager Manfred Riepertinger explained:

“We have seen a lot of increases in wood raw material and energy costs and they are continuing to rise,” he pointed out. “The only way out is to reduce the weight of the board and thus the content of these expensive commodities.

“At first we looked at reducing the density of normal boards, thinking that would offer the best solution, but reducing the density of fibreboard or particleboard just reduces the physical characteristics of the boards and you end up with something like insulation board, which does not have the required physical characteristics for a furniture board. We realised the only way to produce a lightweight board with the required characteristics was a honeycomb construction with thin particleboard or MDF faces.”

Egger went for the paper honeycomb because: “It is light, strong – especially in bending strength – cheap and it is a natural product,” said Mr Riepertinger.

Six main factors were considered:

* low weight meaning reduced energy and raw material consumption in both manufacturing and logistics and simpler handling during installation/assembly

* optimum stability with optimum bending strength through the sandwich construction with high density faces and a shear resistant hexagonal core structure

* maximum design flexibility with a coordinated range of Egger decors for surfaces and edgings and the creation of free-form designs

* a versatile application spectrum in partitions and exhibition fittings, kitchens, living areas, bedrooms, offices, shelving and tables

* ergonomic factors – with a European flat-pack weight limit of 25kg per package and with 40-50% of the furniture market being flat-pack. This is a lightweight panel.

* Finally, there is the factor of increased mobility. The furniture becomes easy to install and dismantle, convenient to transport and thus offers no problem when moving house.

“But the main driver originally was raw material costs,” said Mr Riepertinger.

Egger first presented Eurolight at the ZOW exhibition in Bad Salzuflen, Germany, in 2006 and it generated a lot of interest, which only increased when production started six months later.

“We had approximately 600 customer contacts six months before we even had a panel to offer,” said Mr Riepertinger.

The first step in developing Eurolight production was to make the frame-less board itself.

Space was created in one of the factory buildings at St Johann by closing down two laminate flooring lines which were no longer required following investments in new lines at Brilon and Wismar.

The 100m-long production line has three infeed lines, rather like a short-cycle press line.

The honeycomb core, following stretching open and heat treating in a hot air oven to stabilise it and prevent spring-back, is laid out on the centre line, then one surface panel, of 3, 4 or 8mm thickness, moves through a glue coater which applies a two-part cold-setting PUR glue to the top surface.

The panel then passes to a turner which turns it over on top of the honeycomb core.

This one-sided honeycomb panel is then turned over and the second surface panel is glued and turned over onto the honeycomb from the other side of the line in the same way as the first surface panel.

The honeycomb is wider and longer than the facing panels to allow for movement and subsequent trimming.

The sandwich then passes through the 34m-long continuous press developed over three years and built by Siempelkamp subsidiary Siempelkamp Handling Systems (SHS).

The upper and lower endless press ‘platens’ are made up of a number of sanded aluminium elements which travel around rollers at either end of the press just like the more familiar steel belt of a continuous press. They are not, however, heated since the process uses a cold-set glue.

The panel is then trimmed to remove the excess honeycomb.

That is phase one; the continuous production of a frame-less honeycomb panel, which can then be cut to the required sizes on the large new Schelling angular saw.

Cooperation with German machinery maker Homag produced the second production line for Eurolight, alongside the press line.

This cuts to size, and then inserts, particleboard framing into the edges of the panels, if required by the customer.

“We could see that we would not be able only to supply frameless panels, especially with thin surface layers,” said Mr Riepertinger.

The underside of the panel face edges are rebated and the framing is glued and pressed into the edge of the panel, all in a continuous process.

Framing is either 10mm, 38mm or 65mm wide, depending on the fixings required during furniture production.

However, some customers require finished furniture solutions and this is where Egger cooperated with two other companies to form the ‘Lightweight Network’. This is an information and development platform to offer the furniture maker a service to develop and inform them about new lightweight construction applications. This cooperation has its own lightweight.network logo, but the three companies each act separately.

This was initially formed by the alliance of Egger, Hettich – the well-known supplier of furniture fixings – and Rehau which specialises in edgings and these three companies worked together to create solutions for lightweight furniture components, complete with fixings and edgings.

A major Hettich contribution to the new technology was the development of a plastic dowel insert. This two-part hollow dowel is inserted into the panel from either face and glue is injected into it. The glue spreads onto the top and bottom layers’ inside surfaces thus fixing the dowel into place. Fixings can then be screwed into the dowel.

Meanwhile the Innofix plastic profile has been developed to seal the cut cross-section of a Eurolight panel when a sink aperture or cooker hob aperture is cut.

The lightweight.network is not a ‘closed’ organisation but will welcome other companies which have a contribution to make in the future and is currently in discussions with several potential partners. It exhibited independently at this year’s ZOW in February for the first time, where it showed a variety of solutions for fixings, fittings and edgings. It will also exhibit at the Ligna exhibition.

The St Johann factory has two Homag lines for postforming and a Hymmen continuous press for applying CPL faces.

“Anything you can do to a normal particleboard or MDF panel, you can do to Eurolight,” said Mr Riepertinger. This opens it up to the full range of hundreds of decor options in the Egger range.

Eurolight offers a lightweight furniture component in any thickness from 15mm to 100mm and it is perhaps in the thicker end of that range that the real significance of the product can be seen. Now furniture designers can make ‘chunky’ designs of furniture and kitchen worktops – fashionable concepts at the moment – without having to worry about the weight.

This is very much a new twist on an old idea. A much more practical twist, too, with continuous industrial production opening up new possibilities for Eurolight.

Farmers to innovative panel pioneers for furniture makers in 46 years. That’s not bad progress.