Lightweight Panels Lift Off
August 14, 2011 | 11:07 pm UTC

By Matt Warnock and Wade Vonasek

While still used sparingly, honeycomb core composite panels are growing in popularity in the United States.

Ready-to-assemble furniture, like IKEA’s Lack table, has helped expand the use of lightweight panels in the United States.

Photo courtesy of IKEA

Although they have widespread use in Europe, honeycomb core panels are only just beginning to gain popularity in the United States, particularly in the residential furniture market.

“I believe that IKEA plays a big role in this,” says Peter Tuenker, president of IMA America, a manufacturer of panel processing equipment. “Their promotion of lightweight products in their residential furniture offerings has put the product on the map here in North America. They have paved the way in Europe first where they have been selling these products for quite some time. Now it seems they have the effect on North America.”

Another reason for the growing popularity is the rising costs of resins, combined with increasing competition for raw materials, including softwood lumber, says Thomas Ponater, business team manager for REHAU, a supplier of edgebanding materials for lightweight and composite panels.

“There’s a demand for wood fiber as the European governments are constricting fossil fuels,” agrees Bob Brown, national sales manager, Panel Processing, a laminator of composite panels and a distributor of lightweight panel products.

“Materials are becoming scarcer and much more expensive,” adds Peter Cove, managing director of Titusonic, division of Titus Plus, which specializes in fastening technology.

David Hartwell, president of Bellcomb Technologies, which produces honeycomb core panels, cites three additional reasons for the lightweight panel’s increase in popularity.

“First, there have been advances in the areas of fasteners and edge closeouts that make the panels lighter and less expensive. Second, weight is becoming a larger issue for many products as the cost [associated with] weight is better understood. Third, they are by nature ‘green’ due to the resource efficiency in dealing with a structural member that is mostly air, but performs like a solid product, and this is becoming more interesting to people,” he says.

Honeycomb core panels require less raw material and can weigh significantly less than traditional composite panels.

“Many industries have potential applications for honeycomb panels, such as store fixtures, point of purchase displays, furniture and cabinetry,” explains Dave Winze, product manager for hardware manufacturer Häfele America. “With new developments in hardware technology, the limits are more driven by design than function.”

Where issues of weight might restrict a designer using traditional composite panels, that is not the case with honeycomb core panels. Designers can incorporate a much thicker panel into a project, making the final product look more substantial without the added weight. Also, lightweight panels create new possibilities in designing overhead displays and fixtures.

“A lightweight panel is truly a white paper for a designer,” remarks Brown. “The big difference there that we have seen is in the past people have tried to incorporate it into a fixture. Now, we’re starting to see where people are utilizing and designing the fixture around the panel.”

Despite the possibilities that lightweight panels offer, there are still some questions regarding their performance when compared to traditional composite panels.

Do They Deliver?

So just how do lightweight panels compare to traditional composites like MDF or particleboard? This depends on various factors, including whether the product is framed or frameless, the configuration of the components used, the product the panel is being used for and more.

“You have to look at the different aspects,” say Brown. “In almost all the cases, the studies that have come out of Europe show the tensile and deflection properties can be engineered to be better than MDF or particleboard panels.”

Composite Panel Industry Faces Tough Times
As with much of the woodworking industry, composite panels are facing trying economic times.

“Shipments of composite panels by North American producers are down 11% through the first four months of 2008,” says Tom Julia, president of the Composite Panel Assn. (CPA).

“Particleboard shipments, which account for 57% of the total surface area, are down 14% for the year-to-date. Shipments of MDF have shown greater resilience through the current downturn, but are still down 5% in 2008. Hardboard shipments are down 10% for the period,” Julia adds.

Factors contributing to the downturn in the composite panel industry include decreased demand due to the current state of the housing market, increased costs and competition for raw materials.

“Although some relief in housing construction may be evident by this time next year, no resulting upturn in panel demand is expected before late 2009 because that demand typically lags behind an upturn in home construction,” remarks Julia.

“Just as our member companies are examining every facet of their operations to ensure they are operating as efficiently as possible, so too is the CPA taking the actions necessary to upgrade and modernize our capabilities,” he adds.

The Silver Lining

Rest assured, the outlook for the composite panel industry looks to improve. While there are difficulties to be overcome, for companies keeping up on, and taking advantage of, the current trends, there are several factors that bring good news for the industry.

“The good news for the domestic industry during these difficult times is that imports are beginning to struggle under the weight of the same challenges,” Julia remarks. “In addition, the weak U.S. dollar and critical wood supply issues in some other nations are helping domestic producers.”

Domestic manufacturers can benefit from increased automation and a close proximity to customers, Julia adds. As the cost of fuel continues to rise, this also should drive up the cost of imported products, making domestic producers of composite panels more attractive to buyers.

“We’ve recently seen both IKEA and Kronospan, two large international manufacturers that have historically imported product into North America, choose to open production facilities in the United States,” says Julia.

“The CPA anticipates a recovery and return to growth markets for North America’s composite panel manufacturers beginning in 2010,” he adds.

CARB Concerns

In January 2009, Phase I of the California Air Resources Board will take effect. While Julia says he is confident that the composite panel industry will be ready, he has concerns about regulation’s impact on domestic versus offshore manufacturers.

“Our longstanding concern has been that the rules for offshore manufacturing be the same as for domestic companies, including the same rigorous product certification and enforcement,” he says.

“There is no doubt that the domestic composite panel industry will be supplying CARB-compliant composite panels well before Phase I of the CARB rule takes effect,” he says.

According to Julia, the CPA is the first Third Party Certifier (TPC) in the world approved by CARB. “We are working aggressively to certify interested manufacturers and expect to begin certifying manufacturers to the CARB rule before mid year – six months before the Phase I implementation date,” he says.

“In some cases, it is far superior and in others it does not perform well,” says Hartwell. “The performance depends completely on the configuration of the components, like skin material, core and adhesive, that go into the panel, and it is critical to understand the customers’ requirement and design the panel with components that will meet those specifications.”

“There are many different types of honeycomb materials with different characteristics and features,” adds Tuenker. “On frameless products, it all depends on what kind of core material, such as density of the honeycomb and glue type, or surface material, like HDF, particleboard or paper, in which thickness is being used.”

The same factors, such as design and composition of the board, are important as to how well the lightweight panels machine.

“It’s important to distinguish between processing of honeycomb panels with and without rails,” says Rolf Busch, director of operations and technical specialist for lightweight panels for Stiles Machinery Inc., which offers machinery for panel processing, as well as solid wood. “Generally, honeycomb panels constructed with rails on all sides made of MDF, chipboard or solid wood can be processed on the machine in the same way as chipboard panels. Sawing, routing and sizing of a panel with rails utilizes the same process as traditional boards. On the other hand, core and edge processing on frameless lightweight panels requires special machines.”

“A traditional frame design behaves very similar in edgebanding applications to particleboard or MDF product,” adds Tuenker. “A frameless product has to be treated differently.”

According to Brown, based on studies in Europe, as well as his company’s experience, “depending on the thickness of the panel — if you have adequate face material as far as 4.8 or 6mm — and the thickness of the edgeband, sometimes you do not have to have a substrate beneath it. It’ll bond and give you plenty of rigidity, so it isn’t spongy to the touch. It will work well that way.”

There are also special considerations to take into account when fastening lightweight panels. Cove says one problem is the thickness of the surface boards.

“Most manufacturers will try to fasten in the frame,” says Cove. “If there is no frame, then they will try to use 5mm surface particleboard, which is adequate to retain most fittings with a special screw. The big developments are in fastening into 3mm and 4mm surfaces in which screws or conventional inserts do not have enough holding power. The battle is on to develop inserts which can be used in these thin surface boards. They can be placed in random position and then conventional fittings, such as assembly fittings and hinge mounting plates, can be fastened to them with a conventional screw.”

Benefits & Limitations

Lightweight panels still have their limitations. In the case of frameless boards particularly, there is still work to be done and processes to be developed.

“Restrictions are known regarding frameless lightweight panels, since they require special fitting technologies such as mechanical, liquid or ultrasonic bonding methods,” says Busch.

“It depends completely on the design of the panel,” says Hartwell. “There really are not any limitations, but there can be design requirements that make a honeycomb panel uncompetitive.”

“In the last six to nine months or better, people have developed fixtures that can be used with honeycomb panels where the screw and the thread design is such that they will adhere,” Brown says. “They will give you the strength in applying a fixture to an edge. You may not be able to use certain inserted applications that you were used to using in MDF and particleboard without putting a framing member in there to machine into.”

Others point to financial considerations. “The limitations are the cost and planning involved to manufacture various sized panels with a solid frame and blocking, allowing for traditional hardware and fastening methods to be used,” says Winze. “This presents a barrier for those who can justify using these materials. Ideally, having honeycomb panels that are frameless, that can be machined, edgebanded and assembled by the product manufacturer, should result in a more cost effective material, thus removing this cost barrier.”

“The question is how do these technical solutions compare from an application- or cost-effectiveness standpoint,” says Tuenker. “There is still work to be done, but in my opinion, the increasing demand for this type of product will trigger innovation and ultimately take care of these remaining limitations.”

One of the biggest advantages of lightweight panels is all in the name — they are lightweight. This in turn affects cost, as the boards are lighter to ship. Lightweight panels also are said to be more environmentally friendly, using less material for the same effect.

“One of the most obvious advantages of honeycomb panels is their lighter weight,” says Tuenker. “With this feature, designers are able to change the look of furniture, especially ready-to-assemble furniture, and give the products a more solid and contemporary look.”

“The material limitation of the honeycomb is only restricted to the availability of the face materials and/or décor,” Brown says, “where with the particleboard and MDF you’re really limited by the ability to move the panel because of its weight. The biggest benefit for designers is you can incorporate this panel into designs where you’d be limited with particleboard and MDF.”

“Another big advantage of honeycomb material is cost,” says Tuenker. “Over the past couple of years cost calculations always put a break even point of traditional particleboard versus honeycomb panels at approximately 25mm, or 1-inch, panel thickness. These numbers are changing [in favor of] more cost-effective, thinner honeycomb boards.”

“Lightweight means easy handling in the factory, on delivery and in the store,” says Cove. “Lightweight lowers transport costs. Most furniture vans are weighted out, so therefore with honeycomb boards they can take more furniture. And lightweight panels are becoming cheaper than conventional panels because they use fewer raw materials.”

“The main benefits include protection of natural resources, since fewer raw materials are used, and the panels are lighter and easier to transport — therefore, cheaper transportation cost,” adds Busch. “In addition, there is a high strength-to-weight ratio, as well as lower overall cost at certain thicknesses.”

Hartwell says he has high expectations for the use of lightweight panels, and takes his cues from other industries in the pursuit of achieving those expectations.

“Our goal is to take the advantages that make composites beneficial to the aerospace industry — primarily lightness, structural integrity and dimensional stability — and design products that can be produced using our unique honeycomb manufacturing systems, combined with a focus on driving down raw material costs into commercial markets that have not been able to afford composite technology in the past,” Hartwell says. “We have found that as we drive prices down using this strategy, there are new markets that are looking for solutions, that can justify using honeycomb panels that could not do so in the past.”

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