When the first panel rolled off Norbord’s new OSB line at Dalcross, Scotland, in September last year it marked the realisation of a £95m (US$135m) investment and what feels like the next phase for the company.

The new facility, which was 10 years in the planning and three years in construction, enables Norbord to make larger OSB panels and therefore it opens up new market opportunities for the company.

The project, which received a £12m development grant from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, has created many changes at the site on the outskirts of Inverness but at the heart of it is the 2.9×55.3m continuous press that gives Norbord a 290,000m3 increase in annual production capacity to 640,000m3.

The Dieffenbacher machinery was shipped from the former Ainsworth Grande Prairie mill in Alberta, Canada, where it had been installed but never used, and reconstructed in Scotland.

The new facility, including forming line, screening, blending and resin system, heat energy system, dryer and WESP stack, has been established on a greenfield site adjacent to the building housing the two eight-daylight Siempelkamp press lines it is replacing.

The first of these presses, installed in 1985, marked the start of OSB manufacturing in Europe. It was also the first OSB plant in Europe to receive FSC accreditation. It had a production capacity of 60,000m3 but the site’s output was boosted to a potential 240,000m3 just nine years later with construction of the second line. In subsequent years de-bottlenecking, advances in resins and manufacturing technology increased capacity further to 350,000m3.

The two original lines were turned off in early May and are now being dismantled to make way for the finishing line. This additional £10m investment, which will include a T&G line, is due to be completed by the end of the year.

The new line marks a new phase for Norbord on several fronts. As the continuous press enables the use of PMDI, rather than a formaldehyde resin, Norbord now produces formaldehyde-free OSB.

As a result, the Sterling OSB name, which the market has known for more than 30 years, is now SterlingOSB Zero. The new brand also has a new logo featuring the unmistakeable image of a star cooler.

The boards are also coming off the continuous press with a smoother finish, removing the need for any sanding.

“With the daylight presses we used to sand the boards three or four times,” said European sales, marketing and logistics director Simon Woods. “Now we don’t touch them; they come straight off the press and go straight out.”

The new heat energy system, which supplies the heat requirements for the new line, is fuelled entirely by biomass residues that cannot be used or recycled further, displacing gas and more than 70,000 tonnes of CO2.

Norbord also undertook work that, while not having a financial reward, was important to the environment and the Inverness community. This included building bunds, which are being planted, to contain noise.

“We've been in Inverness a long time and have a good relationship with the city,” said Mr Woods.

Also, having successfully delivered the line, and a new ERP system in April, Karl Morris has retired after 14 years as managing director of Norbord Europe. The mantle has been handed to Alan McMeekin who joined the company in 1999 and was most recently finance director. In addition, Simon Woods joined Norbord towards the end of last year. He has held senior posts with building products businesses, including Bostik, Twyford Bathrooms and roofing materials company Icopal.

In the UK Norbord produces MDF at its mill in Cowie, Scotland and particleboard and two million kitchen cabinets a year at its base in South Moulton, Devon but the new line at Dalcross means OSB will account for an increasing share of business. “Almost 50% of our business is OSB and that will increase once we start to ramp up production,” said Mr Woods.

Norbord, which is headquartered in Toronto, is the largest OSB producer in the world and the new line in Scotland is recognition of the booming demand for OSB.

Between 2000-2017 the European market grew by nearly 700% and that growth would have been even more dramatic if supply had been able to keep up with the hunger for the product, said Mr Woods.

Between 2016-2017 the market grew by 7% but, if it hadn’t been constrained by supply, that growth would probably have been 13-14%, he said.

And growth in UK demand was even stronger than Norbord anticipated in its project book when it was planning the new line – an 80% increase from 2007-2017, which included the difficult period of the global financial crisis and the subsequent slow economic recovery.

As in the rest of Europe, in 2017 market expansion was curtailed by production capacity and all three of Norbord’s wood based panels – OSB, MDF and particleboard – are being sold on allocation in the UK.

“When the investment was signed off Norbord thought it was a good thing to do and since then the argument has become even stronger,” said Mr Woods.

As the market grows, so too is OSB’s substitution for plywood. In 2015 it overtook plywood as the preferred structural panel in the UK, he said.

“In 2012 48% of the softwood structural panel market was OSB; in 2017 it was nearly 60% so substitution is growing faster than the market itself,” he said, adding that Norbord believes the trend will continue.

“In Germany OSB has 80% of the softwood structural panel market. The UK is at 60% so there is some way to go and substitution will continue in Germany too,” said Mr Woods. “We have a growing market, growing substitution and new areas where we can use OSB.”

Construction will remain a huge market for OSB, especially if there’s a concerted effort by housebuilders and the government to address the UK's housing shortage, but there is also growing demand in new sectors too, such as furniture manufacturing. For Norbord, the improved surface of the OSB panels coming off the continuous press has opened up new opportunities to apply finishes for products such as hoarding.

With the Brexit negotiations ongoing the future of trade agreements is unknown but Mr Woods believes that even if tariffs were introduced they would apply both in Europe and the UK – and the strength of the UK market would reduce their impact anyway.

“We see a significant amount of our 640,000m3 of OSB staying in the UK because the growth of the market can absorb it,” he said.

The new line is expected to produce at full capacity by 2020.