Traditionally, lightweight panels have been a wood component primarily found in Ikea plants. And rightfully so; the Swedish manufacturer of RTA furniture has, over the years, managed to run nearly all comers from their price point in the low-cost RTA furniture niche.

That is about to change, predicts Charlie and Eric Olswold, president and production manager, respectively, of OFC Panel Processing in Muscatine, Iowa. "In just the first few months of this year we've already had more inquiries about using lightweight panels than we've had in the previous year and a half," says Charlie Olswold. "There's no question the idea is picking up steam."

Early misunderstanding

OFC has been producing lightweight panels for several years. However, the Olswolds acknowledge that the idea hasn't been immediately understood or embraced by the woodworking industry. "Requests that have come in the past and even now are for lightweight products that cost the same or less than solid wood products," Charlie Olswold says. "This is not a product to look at for price. This is a product to view for its benefits."

And there are many different kinds of benefits. Lightweight panels can often run 50 percent of the weight of solid wood products without sacrificing structural stability or strength. The lighter weight makes the ergonomics of handling the parts much better. From a design point of view, the lighter weight offers expanded options. "You can have a final product that is thicker, even massive, without the associated weight," Charlie Olswold says. "Right now, the real value in a lightweight panel is a size between 1-1/8 inches up to about 2 inches."

The panels have an eco-friendly benefit as well. The honeycomb paper used inside the panels is a recycled product, which can add to LEED points.

Financial benefits

According to Eric Olswold, when OFC began producing lightweight panels the financial benefits of lightweight panels weren't very clear to manufacturers. Now the benefits are much more obvious. "Fuel charges, as they continue to escalate, really make lightweight panels look much more effective," Eric Olswold says. "A couple of years ago most of our customers didn't see any value in that. Gas was still inexpensive in their eyes. Fuel for trucking was $2.50 at best. When I walked in today it was $4.67."

As gas prices continue to escalate, the Olswolds realize weight will become a bigger and bigger issue for manufacturers. "On the trucking side, especially with an RTA product that can be flat packed and boxed, you can ship a whole lot more with the same dollars," Eric Olswold says. "A lighter truck uses less fuel."

Challenges

Despite the increased interest in lightweight panels, the Olswolds say they see a repeated problem with inquiries. "The lion's share of the inquiries that we get come from people who are trying to take an existing product and reverse engineer it to use lightweight panels. With that, they run into a lot of roadblocks, because they need stiffeners within the panel. When you're designing a product from scratch to use lightweight panels you have that in mind from the beginning," Charlie Olswold says.

Process

The process of making lightweight panels is fairly straightforward. OFC begins with a paper honeycomb material with a 5/8 inch cell. The material is outsourced and OFC buys it in 10,000 pound lots which comes packed solid. The honeycomb is then put through an expander, which heats the material to remove moisture, thus ensuring the material holds its shape.

The honeycomb is then placed within a frame which is backed with hardboard or thin plywood. It is then run through a Torwegge PWT 100 and PUR adhesive is applied to the edges of the honeycomb material. As the component exits, a top panel is then placed over the glue-covered honeycomb and the entire panel is run through the Torwegge again, securing all the pieces into one component.

Components are then set aside to cure for at least four hours. They then go to a Weeke machining center and then on to one of two Homag edgebanders.

Foresight

Eric Olswold says that while interest is picking up now, they realize they may have been a little ahead of the industry. "I think we may have been a little premature when we got into lightweight panels. We saw some of these dynamics and were maybe a little overzealous, thinking they were going to hit us right away," he says. "Then they never materialized, and all the companies were business as usual. However, now we've seen a dramatic uptick in the amount of inquiries and potential applications." Even though interest has been slow in building, the Olswold's foresight did have one immediate pay-off: in 2007 their work with lightweight panels played a large part in their being named Innovator of the Year by the Wood Machinery Industry Association.

Canada on the edge

The Olswolds note that there has been interest in lightweight panels from Canada, which they suspect may be in part due to a more European influence. "They've been more intuitive to these developments, and a little more progressive at trying new things. Instead of trying to make lightweight panels fit their current product line, they're designing a product line around utilization of lighter weight materials. So they've really stepped up to the plate," Eric Olswold says. "Particularly around the Vancouver area."

Preparing to launch

Although as yet no companies in the U.S. have stepped forward with a full-fledged plan for extensive use of lightweight panels, the Olswolds are certain it's only a matter of time before someone does. In the meantime, they will continue to field inquiries and requests and tell manufacturers about the benefits of lightweight panels. In August, Charlie Olswold will lead a presentation on lightweight panels at IWF.

"A lot of companies are talking about using this product, but no one wants to jump on board," Charlie Olswold says. "Sooner or later the right company with the right exposure is going to come out with it and everyone else is going to tag right along."

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