In recent years the need for value-added production and integrated processing has prompted panel manufacturers to invest fortunes in their mills. And with the construction market stalled and slow improvement in the general economy, the industry has been using that investment to hone added-value products.

DIY, shopfitting, kitchens, repair, maintenance and improvement (RMI), as well as floor products and furniture applications have been good areas for business. "Panels are an absolute mainstay in most homes," said Egger marketing manager Nick McClughin. "They are highly engineered and versatile, and from a visual point of view have improved significantly over time through advancements in printing technology and texture developments,"

In the past three years Egger has invested £42m following the £120m new plant development at Hexham in 2007. This has been followed with a raft of new products, among the best sellers of which have been added-value tongue and groove products, Egger Protect and Egger Peel Clean Xtra, formed from the moisture resistant P5 board.

"Builders want more than simply a raw product," said Mr McClughin. "Egger Protect and Peel Clean Xtra both have additional finishes on them that help speed up the build process by enabling builders to build a working deck at first floor level, rather than having to have the roof on before installing the floor."

Advanced adhesive
Soon to be launched is an advanced adhesive for T&G joints and to bond the board to the joist, rather than with traditional nails. The adhesive saves time and reduce squeaks. "Another new product is Egger Decorative Protect, a T&G panel with an oak design for lofts. These 2400x600mm panels are being used by builders to provide a floor in the loft ready for the homeowner to use as a play area, study or extra bedroom," said Mr McClughin.

Despite the recession, family-owned International Plywood has had its best year, exceeding £100m turnover for the first time. The company holds stocks at its Gloucester warehouse, together with quayside storage facilities at Portbury, Tilbury and Blyth and employs 75 people handling 350,000m3 of product per year.

"It has been hard work but we’ve maintained what we have done in the past and have some new accounts, so we have grown market share," said managing director Ian Attwood. "The main growth has been from London and the south-east with our panel supplies business in Basildon, and also growing that business in Europe."

He added that the economic climate has also created greater focus on customer service. "Generally it has not been a good year for our customers. Just the 8×4 product has not been enough, there has been more opportunity providing it cut to size and drilled or painted. But also just being 5-10% cheaper than anyone else does not necessarily get the business – you have to provide the delivery and the service."

Karl Morris, senior vice-president of European operations for Norbord, agrees with those principles: "Whilst we are not oblivious to negative press about the economy or the fact that housebuilding and construction is not what anyone hoped for, our priorities are making sure that we provide great products, delivered when our customers want them, and at competitive prices. The key is to make sure our customers have our products and can sell them easily."

Finsa UK managing director Rafael Willisch recognises that with weak demand across construction and housing it is important to have specialist products for niche sectors that are performing. For Finsa, melamine-faced boards are selling well in the kitchen and cabinet door manufacturing sector, some of which is exported, and there is also steady demand for laminated floor products from the DIY sector.

For Coillte, new products have included Medite Tricoya, the weatherproof modified wood board, and Medite Ultralite, the lightweight board for construction and joinery. "MDF Medite Tricoya was developed because we perceived a potential demand for a totally durable, dimensionally stable wood-fibre panel product, which would be used in fully exterior applications without the need for total protection of the core material," said Peter Clifton, product manager for Medite Tricoya, "Medite Tricoya has gone very well. There is genuine widespread interest."

Added value
Neat Concepts, the north London manufacturer of added-value panel products and an exclusive user of Medite, said it had tested Tricoya and found it appropriate for all its processes. The company machines and decorates raw MDF boards at an 18,000ft2 factory in Edmonton for home, office and public space interiors. Its best seller in the UK is NeatMatch, a T&G-effect board, but it also produces flexible, perforated and painted panels. Managing director Clive O’Brien said the trend was toward ready-primed and the company had installed its own spray facilities rather than outsource. In the summer it will be launching a powder-coated finish. "It is both for decoration and protection, it is harder, more durable and there are no VOCs," he said.

Norbord said its business focus was the construction sector, especially particleboard flooring systems, with a full range of boards, adhesives and tapes. "We have created a new flooring product with a permanent waterproof surface, Cabershield, and we have two new additions to our accessories range with Caberfix D4 adhesive and Caberfix Xtreme Tape," said Mr Morris.

"All three of our raw panel product ranges -particleboard, MDF and OSB – are selling well at present in our core markets, and to our main partner customers," he added.

For Finsa, new products include Superpan TECH P6 for mezzanine and access flooring to compete against standard chipboard, also Iberpan 400 Natur very lightweight thick MDF for certain furniture applications.

"In the summer we will launch our patented Superpan STAR extra lightweight board that is a hi-tech substitute for P2 chipboard," said Mr Willisch. "Superpan STAR is a composite board formed in a continuous process from a chipboard core with MDF-like fibre surfaces where the core has been augmented with the patented BASF Kaurit Light polymer to produce weight savings of 30%."

There is also greater demand for better and more sophisticated decoration, although Coillte said the raw face of its SmartPly OSB has been left exposed as an interior surface in several recent architectural projects. "The architects have cited its appeal as being rugged, rustic and warm and a clean-looking alternative for interiors," said Coillte Panel Products marketing manager Joanna Smith.

Kronospan has launched a new collection of melamine-faced panels – Fresh – which uses trends of Bohemian Kitsch, Industrialism, Visionnaire and Sentiment. "There are boundless opportunities for introducing a modern twist on our current craving for good time nostalgia," said product development and marketing manager Paul Duddle.

Egger, which has launched several new decors and textures, believes ease of choice is paramount as the new ZOOM collection has all 108 decors in stock in MFC, laminate and ABS edging. In addition to new room visualisation software, the 32 new decors have been made available in single sheet quantities in MFC to allow customers to try new things.

"Designers are increasingly looking for a particular look or mood, rather than a particular species or colour. Therefore we have organized the decors in our new ZOOM collection into what we call Colour Worlds," said Mr McClughin.

Discovering colour
Sonae said it had invested heavily in its Innovus website to showcase its range of more than 150 decors, with Woodgrains, Unicolours and Fantasy. It said the design and drag and drop technology was a first for the industry and allows customers to explore the full range of products and match the right decor. "Its function allows users to discover complementary colours while constantly adding decors and images," said a spokesperson.

While added value is here to stay, there is no clear sign of when general construction will emerge from the doldrums. However, there is optimism.

"It’s not great out there, but there are opportunities, especially if you are looking after your customers," said Ian Attwood. "In general there isn’t going to be a sudden spurt in demand, but I think we will see some improvement next year."

"Looking ahead, the principal factor which favours timber products is the increasing demand for products and building systems which meet the government’s carbon agenda," added Karl Morris.

"Timber products represent the best solution in this regard and this will impact positively across all three product areas."