The final numbers for this year’s IWF in Atlanta (Aug 20-23, 2014) are still being crunched at time of writing, but initial feedback suggests the event was a step in the right direction.

The owners and sponsors of IWF – the Woodworking Machinery Manufacturers of America and the Woodworking Machinery Industry Association – will have been pleased with visitor levels in the two exhibition halls of the city’s Georgia World Congress Centre.

The 13,002 visitors recorded two years ago seems certain to have been surpassed, with about half the attendees saying they expected to make significant purchases in the next six to 12 months.

Exhibitor numbers were up by more than 20% on the previous show, at 920, covering 448,000ft2 of space, and including over 100 new exhibitors. This is some way short of a return to the 700,000ft2 pre-recession event size which organisers are targeting, but represents growth nevertheless.

Some 212 exhibitors were international, representing 32 countries.

North American panel manufacturers, processors, and primary and secondary panel machinery suppliers, had a strong presence.

In-register-embossed panels were a main talking point, with several companies, including Stevens Industries and Uniboard, displaying or launching products.

The technology, pioneered in laminate flooring, is gaining ground in other ‘vertical’ applications in the US, including architectural panels and cabinet doors.

Illinois-based Stevens launched its Legno Collection – three ranges which it claims offer truly-realistic wood patterns.

Uniboard announced the expansion of its in-register-embossed range to five-piece polyester-wrapped MDF cabinet doors in a brushed elm finish, addressing the growing demand for high-end cabinet door components. It utilises Uniboard’s Woodprint Technology – a synchronised texture in thermally-fused laminate (TFL), which aligns the decor paper and surface texture to replicate real wood characteristics.

Uniboard also launched NU Green SOYA, a new particleboard using a naturally renewable resin system – soy-based adhesive technology – resulting in a product which the company claims exceeds CARB 2 standards.

Panel producers told WBPI they were more optimistic about business prospects with the upturn in the US housing industry.

Columbia Forest Products’ marketing director, Todd Vogelsinger, believed the industry was on "the eve of a really nice stretch", buoyed by lower interest rates.

However, he said the increasing tide of cheap imported Chinese hardwood plywood and assembled components was a worry and the company is helping its customers fight back with an emphasis on quality, green principles and service.

An example is Columbia’s MPX grade plywood, utilising Meinan peeled veneers, which Mr Vogelsinger said gave smoother faces and minimised telegraphing. PureBond soy-based formaldehyde-free adhesives are used.

Roseburg, one of the top three softwood plywood producers in the US, is expanding capacity at its particleboard and speciality panels plants in Simbsboro, Louisiana and Missoula, Montana. The Simsboro investment, taking place next year, will more than double TFL capacity. It will also install another melamine press at Missoula next year and is upgrading the Taylorsville plant.

"Last year was a dramatic improvement over the last seven years," it said. "We cannot keep up with demand." One of its many products displayed was the Combi Fibre Core product, featuring a lightweight core.

The Arauco and Flakeboard names appeared together at IWF, following the latter’s acquisition by Arauco, but a spokesperson confirmed that the Flakeboard brand would be phased out. Arauco is planning to give a name to its TFL range.

Some of the panel sector developments – such as TFL’s popularity – has influenced how technology suppliers exhibit at shows like IWF.

Press plate manufacturer Kings Mountain International admitted its stand looked more like that of a panel distributor, because of the displayed textured samples of what its plates could achieve. It is working much more closely with the design community, with its own design department playing an increasingly important role.

German panel saw manufacturer Putsch Group, which displayed a Vantage 95 horizontal beam saw, said its American division is looking to make inroads into the high-volume sector.

The company also told WBPI that it often experienced business hot spots among wood based panel processors in countries hosting major sporting competitions such as the Olympics and World Cup, due to a boost in wood based panel and furniture use in the host country in the years leading up to the event.

Costa, Weber and Timesavers were among the wide-belt sander manufacturers exhibiting and all three expressed interest in developing more business in primary sanding operations at panel mills in North America.

Costa’s heavy-duty KK ranges are aimed at the MDF, OSB, plywood and cross-laminated timber sectors, with working widths of 1350-3200mm. "We see there is a big push for panel manufacturers to supply a product which has a higher level of finish," said director Stefano Costa. Columbia Forest Products is one of its customers.

Timesavers, winner of an IWF Challenger Award for product innovation, counts Georgia Pacific, Louisiana-Pacific and Columbia among its panel mill customers.

Homag Group’s recent acquisition of Stiles, the largest woodworking machinery distributor in the US, is a big development in the market and the German company used an IWF press conference to outline its intentions for Stiles.

New Stiles president Christian Vollmers said it was "business as usual", with the Stiles name remaining and that non-Homag solutions would continue to be offered alongside Homag technology. "We want to continue to supply as a one-stop-shop," he said.

However, Homag will seek to improve service levels.

"We have a strong interest in the US market," added Dr Markus Flik, Homag ceo.

"We have had three years of discussion [with Stiles], starting at Ligna in 2011. The first six months [since becoming the 100% owner of Stiles] are ‘so far so good’. We are now strengthening the partnership."

Three years ago, Homag had a 3% market share in North America. Last year it grew to 8% and for 2014 the prediction is 12%.

Jürgen Köppel, Homag’s head of sales, service and marketing, said the improvement in the North American economy would continue.

Taking pride of place on the Stiles stand was a Homag flexible work cell, with demonstrations run several times daily, comprising a Weeke 200 CNC machining centre, an HPP300 Holzma beam saw and an automated handling/stacking system.

Advantages include a known inventory and less product damage. The automated handling/lifting includes weighing of panels to make sure it is the correct product.

Automation and press specialist Biele had a large presence and recently opened a sales and service operation in North America.

"Over the last two years, we have seen that the North American market is good and the trend is positive," said Jésus Telleria, Biele commercial director.

German and Italian press line manufacturers were also in attendance. For Siempelkamp, Dieffenbacher and Imal-Pal, it was an opportunity to reinforce their brands alongside the large North American panel producers. The mainstay of their business in the region currently is mill upgrades, small investments, spare parts and press relocations, rather than large new mill projects.

US saw and panel machinery producer USNR had several stands at IWF to reflect its product diversity – drying kilns, sawmilling machinery and veneer lathes/presses/dryers – the latter through its Coe brand. USNR sales engineer Peter Volk said enquiry levels were increasing and he expected mills to make new upgrading investments.

"Some of the presses that are working on 16 hour-a-day shifts will move to 24 hour production," he said.

On the product side, new Coe press hydraulics are helping to reduce energy use by 15-20%.

Adhesive and resin producers were strongly represented at the show. UK hot-melt adhesives manufacturer Beardow Adams was a first time IWF exhibitor and only established a US operation at Charlotte, North Carolina, two years ago, where it has a production facility and laboratory. The company is seeking to take a piece of the market for adhesives for laminating, pre-coating papers and edge-banding from more established North American players.

Resin and decorative surface overlay producer Arclin said the environment, and the need to maintain the performance of systems, were foremost issues. Two years ago it acquired Coveright Surfaces, giving it production facilities in Ontario and South Carolina. This has more than doubled its decorative overlay capacity and boosted its capability to supply decorative surface overlays, including TFL, laminate flooring films and phenolic films. "We are doing some development work [with TFL] on the German market which is looking very good," said Brad Bolduc, senior director of performance products at Arclin. "There are some changes we are very excited about."

Meanwhile, Henkel Corporation was communicating about its non-MDI reactive PU-based hot melt, which is used in the woodworking industry, while soya-based adhesives manufacturer Ashland Technologies was showing off its new name – Solenis – following its recent takeover by investment firm Clayton, Dubilier and Rice.