This year is a landmark for global wood based panels manufacturer Norbord in the UK, as it celebrates the 30th anniversary of its Sterling OSB plant at Inverness.

When the first panels rolled off the press in 1985, the plant became the first OSB manufacturer in Europe.

The rest, as they say, is history, as OSB began to forge a market for itself in the UK, steadily taking more of imported plywood’s market share.

Norbord is boosting its worldwide OSB profile by its merger with Ainsworth in Canada in a move which cements its position as the world’s largest OSB producer. The company is also the UK’s largest wood based panels manufacturer, when factoring in its other plants at Cowie (particleboard and MDF) and South Molton (particleboard).

My visit to Inverness this year came at a time when a final decision on the company’s OSB expansion plans in Europe was still pending. It has targeted an increase in capacity at its European OSB operations (Norbord also has an OSB plant in Genk, Belgium) in the context of an anticipated 50% increase in European OSB consumption in the next decade.

The official word is the Norbord board has yet to make a final decision on the further expansion plans.

It has been involved in planning discussions with local authorities in Inverness and obtaining consents, as well as talking to prospective machinery and equipment manufacturers.

Meanwhile, production is hitting record levels at Inverness.

"Last year we grew production by 3% through process improvements," said Steve McTaggart, Norbord UK technical manager.

"We also had the least complaints ever last year and broke 14 production records; there were five best-ever gross weeks and nine best-ever gross days."

Production is being achieved on two Siempelkamp eight-daylight presses – the original was installed at the factory’s inception, when it was Highland Forest Products, three years before Norbord bought it.

When the first workers entered the Morayhill plant in 1985, many of them had been aluminium smelters. Mr McTaggart remembers being driven past the factory by his parents and their pointing out the construction work. Little did he realise that some years later he would get a job there.

A second press line, added in 1994, boosted output and further advancements and refinements have been made regularly since, including a new dryer and gluing technology.

An important moment came in 2004 when the factory moved to 12-hour shifts, resulting in daily production capacity growing substantially.

"There has been a good increase in demand in the last few years," said David Connacher, Norbord Europe’s brand and communications manager.

Today about 140 people work at the mill, with some 500-600 jobs indirectly dependent on it.

UK OSB market
The UK and Ireland OSB manufacturing industry has been a successful story. Mr Connacher said OSB had succeeded in achieving product substitution with plywood in the UK market, but he said there was ultimately room for both products.

"We feel we are in a good place to meet that demand for substitution," said Mr Connacher.

Norbord estimates that it has a UK OSB market share of around 50%. About half of the UK OSB market is in general construction and RMI.

More OSB was sold into the construction market in 2014 than in the boom year of 2007, indicating, Norbord says, that the product has taken further market share from plywood.

A recent factor has been the weakness of the euro versus sterling, leading to more OSB from European competitors, such as the Krono Group and Egger, being exported to the UK.

The resultant pressure on price from the increased imports has seen, in some cases, the price of particleboard and OSB reach some sort of parity.

Norbord also sees potential in growing its wider European OSB business.

"If you look at the western European markets, the use of OSB in construction has increased over the last few years," said Mr Connacher.

"We feel we are best placed to capture that market for OSB.

We are perfectly located with our mills and have local wood resources."

Karl Morris, managing director of Norbord Europe, said OSB awareness activities such as the UK’s JOSB Done campaign – which recently came to an end after almost 10 successful years promoting the product in the UK – had helped to communicate the benefits of OSB compared to plywood.

Central to these activities have been product performance, cost (Norbord estimates that 11mm Sterling OSB averages about 45% cheaper than equivalent imported softwood plywood) and sustainability.

These messages, Mr Morris said, had ultimately helped to change buyer behaviour.

Education of customers has been a strong focus for Norbord in the UK, both in the timber frame sector, where OSB3 is used for wall sheathing, floor decking and roofing, and builders merchants.

"There has been a lot of education and training taken place in the prefabricated timber frame sector to get them to leave gaps between the OSB sheathing panels," said Mr Connacher.

"Of course, if there is a problem on site they think it must be the board but often the nailing of the sheathing to the frame is not consistently done.

"Education is the biggest stumbling block," added the brand and communications manager.

Norbord has made several site visits to check that users and retailers of Sterling OSB are using the material properly. And the company conducts product training for staff of major UK builders merchant groups Jewson and Travis Perkins.

"The difficulty with builders merchants is the high turnover of staff," said Mr Connacher.

To celebrate the 30-year anniversary, Norbord is supporting its UK merchant customers with a nationwide product marketing campaign.

The campaign features a year-long calendar of nationwide advertising, PR activities and customer prizes worth up to £70,000.

Product development
On the product side, Norbord has been busy over recent years looking to add value to its Sterling OSB, including the development of OSB products specifically designed to mitigate fire risk to timber frame systems during the construction phase.

The Sterling OSB FS-300 has an intumescent coating on both sides; Sterling OSB FS-MgO features a 3mm fire-resistant Magnesium Oxide (MgO) board bonded to a Sterling OSB3 9mm panel, while the highest specification Sterling OSB FS-MgO 150 has 3mm MgO bonded to one side of the OSB and an intumescent coating on the other.

"They are one solution to help timber frame construction and we need to wait and see how that market develops," said Mr Connacher.

Norbord has also developed factoryprimed and filled construction site hoarding product Sitecoat to make it easy for building contractors to apply their logos and other market information.

Sterling OSB Buildboard is finished with a smooth coating ready for painting and is aimed at applications such as boxing-in, built-in furniture, internal hoarding and partitioning. "We are always looking to do something that adds value to Norbord’s core range of products," said Mr Connacher.