Opportunities exist for the adoption of lightweight panels by the secondary wood industry in the U.S., as 54 percent of respondents to recent survey indicated they would seriously consider using such panels in their products. In particular, office/hospitality furniture and store/architectural fixtures seem to hold the most promise for lightweight panels, according to respondents in this study.

Overall, respondents remain somewhat neutral in their perceptions of lightweight panels, perhaps due to a lack of information about performance. The biggest challenges to greater adoption appear to be the negative perceptions related to connecting lightweight panels to hardware and other components, issues that are being resolved by panel manufacturers.

About the study  

The internet-based survey was conducted by Virginia Tech and FDM magazine in the summer of 2008, with 141 responses from FDM subscribers. Most respondents were company owners (36 percent) or involved in corporate/operating management (32 percent) and came primarily from the kitchen/bath cabinets industry (35 percent), the furniture industry, including household, office, hospitality, and contract (25 percent) and the architectural fixtures industry (14 percent).

More than 60 percent produced products at a medium-high to high price point, while another 27 percent produced at a medium price point. Most (58 percent) used a combination of solid wood and composite products while 25 percent used mostly wood composite or engineered products in their manufacturing processes. More than 57 percent of the sample had 1 to 19 employees and another 15 percent had 20 to 49 employees. Similarly, 44 percent had sales under $1 million and another 34 percent had sales of $1 to $10 million. Almost 22 percent of the respondents reported using lightweight panels in some of their products.

Perceptions of lightweight panels  

Respondents were asked to indicate their level of agreement with several statements assessing their perceptions of lightweight panels. With respect to lightweight panels, most were neutral. Most scale averages hovered around the mid-point of 3.0, suggesting neither strong agreement nor disagreement with the statements.

The strongest agreement came with the statement that external information sources (such as suppliers, other firms, universities, consultants, etc.) would be important to better understanding use of lightweight panels. Respondents also agreed with the statement that it was possible to experiment with lightweight panels with existing personnel and machinery. There was relatively strong disagreement with the statement that it would be difficult to understand the technical aspects of lightweight panels.

Results of an attribute analysis for lightweight panels revealed several perceived strengths and weaknesses associated with the product. Respondents were asked to rate the importance of several attributes to their purchasing decisions for composite panel products such as particleboard and MDF, and then to rate the extent to which they perceived lightweight panels to possess these same attributes.

Importance of attributes to purchasing decisions for composite panel products (particleboard, MDF, etc.), and extent to which lightweight panels are perceived to possess the same attributes.  

Respondents rated the attributes light in weight - easier handling for production workers, light in weight - lighter finished product for consumers/installers, and consistent dimensions as the three attributes most associated with lightweight panels.

When ranked, these results show how lightweight panels are perceived to perform on the most important attributes. Lightweight panels were perceived to perform well on the important attributes of panel strength, consistency of quality and dimensions, and ability to take veneer. The attribute of consistent dimensions seems to be an especially favorable area for lightweight panels.

Perceived performance of lightweight panels on attributes important to purchasing decisions for composite panels.  

However, lightweight panels face less favorable perceptions in terms of the important attributes of connection strength for hardware and other components as well as ease of connecting components. Thus, suppliers need to improve their efforts to educate industry practitioners about lightweight panel connection products, as manufacturers have made improvements in solving connection problems.

Interestingly, although perceived to be light in weight for production workers and consumers/installers (as expected), these attributes were perceived to be relatively unimportant to purchasing decisions for composite panel products generally.

In another set of questions, respondents were asked to indicate the industry sectors with the greatest potential for application of lightweight panels. Three sectors, office/contract/hospitality furniture, store fixtures, and architectural fixtures, seem to hold the best potential. Household furniture and cabinets scored near the scale mid-point, while millwork seems to hold less potential for use of lightweight panels. Figure 3 shows an example of a bathroom vanity made from lightweight panels.

Figure 3.   Bathroom vanity using lightweight panel material made by Egger Holzwerkstoffe, Austria.  

 

Lastly, respondents were asked to indicate their level of agreement with the following question: "Overall, our company would seriously consider using lightweight panels in our manufacturing process." A majority was in agreement, although nearly a third of respondents were neutral in their assessment of this statement.

Summary  

Lightweight panels offer several potential market and production opportunities for many secondary woodworking companies. Survey results suggested that suppliers need to undertake larger efforts to educate industry practitioners about solutions in the connector and hardware area. Educational efforts, such as the first Think Light Symposium can offer helpful information to educate industry of the potential benefits from using lightweight panels in their shops.

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