• Light board uses include furniture, shopfitting and architectural interiors.
• It is seen as a sales opportunity for the wider merchant market.
• Prospects for structural variants are seen.
• Rigid woodfibre boards is gaining share in sheathing, sarking and underlay.
• They offer acoustic as well as thermal insulation.
• They market well alongside CLS, I-joists and OSB.

Wood-based panel products have always had a lot going for them. From the outset they’ve been practical and versatile, suited, in their various forms, to a huge range of applications; from furniture to flooring, shopfitting to sheathing, doors to decking and decorative products.

What most panel products haven’t been until recently, however, is especially lightweight. In fact some have been quite the opposite, demanding Popeye-like physique in anyone handling them manually. But that’s changing. Most of the big-brand panel players have focused on developing a new breed of lighter products. These offer many of the performance benefits and practicality of existing sheet materials, but at two-thirds, half or less the weight. No-one is claiming they’re taking the market by storm yet. But as they gain exposure and find their way into a growing variety of applications, they are building momentum, and finding an increasing following among end users and specifiers.

“Lightweight products have tangible benefits to end users,” said Norbord general sales manager Andrew Francis. “They’re easier to handle manually and the end product is lighter and easier to manoeuvre. They also let customers transport more volume per vehicle, reducing transport costs and increasing efficiency. And more boards per pack also help increase sales value.”

Norbord’s lightweight MDF, he added, is now finding its way into shopfitting, exhibition stands, theatre scenery and caravan production.

Geoff Rhodes, independent consultant and former marketing and business development director at Coillte Panel Products, said that the weight issue was also a useful logistical plus for manufacturers – and that lightweight boards had attractions for the ultimate consumer too.

“At IKEA, people can just pick up a wardrobe and carry it out, they don’t need half a dozen helpers and a van to get it home,” he said.

Egger’s product marketing manager Andrew Sanderson said that lightweight board-based products also appealed to manufacturers and consumers as they could be used thick, conveying a quality product.

“Thicker panels appear solid and premium to the end consumer,” he said, adding that the same seems to go for architects designing shop and commercial fit-outs. They often specify panels thicker than the usual 18mm and 25mm, creating problems for shopfitters in terms of installation and health and safety. Lightweight boards are the obvious solution.

“As a result, Egger’s Eurolight is frequently specified in hotels, restaurants and retail environments,” said Mr Sanderson.

Environmental appeal

There are also eco arguments for lightweights.

“They’re more efficient to transport and involve more efficient utilisation of scarce raw material,” said Sonae Industria’s communications manager Luz Dias Ferreira.

“This mix of meeting customer needs and using less wood makes it a win win,” agreed Mr Rhodes.

Another reason why more lightweight boards are hitting the market now is because improved manufacturing systems enable them to be made well more easily.

“The more sophisticated production technology is here and also the resins are better,” said Mr Rhodes.

The technical advances do not mean that lighter weight panels are necessarily much cheaper – in fact some are considerably more expensive, with Finsa’s Green Panel, for instance, 80% more than conventional board equivalents, its Finlight priced 50-60% and Iberpan 20% higher.

“Some see light panels as products using less raw material and therefore theoretically cheaper,” said Finsa UK managing director Rafael Willisch. “However, they are engineered products, developed to perform in applications where standard panels couldn’t [and so] are more expensive to produce.”

“The difficulty is in product development,” agreed Mr Francis. “End users require substantial weight savings, but with the same performance characteristics.”

The increasing number of producers coming into the market and specifier and manufacturer interest in using lighter weight boards in different applications are resulting in a growing variety of product.

Moisture resistant

Norbord’s latest is a moisture resistant lightweight MDF variant which exceeds dry process boards standard EN622 part 5.

“We’ve been successfully selling lightweight MDF [Caberwood Light] for several years, but never a lightweight MR,” said Mr Francis, adding that Norbord was seeing increasing lightweight interest among its Scandinavian, Belgian and Dutch customers as well as UK ones.

Coillte Panel Products’ new development, unveiled last December, is its FSC-certified, CARB 2-compliant Medite Ultralite, which has a density of 500kg/m³, compared to standard MDF’s 750 or 760kg/m³.

It was made possible, said Mr Rhodes, by a €15m investment at Coillte’s Clonmel plant, which enabled it to produce the “exceptional fibre quality” needed for a lighter board.

“It has the surface smoothness and stability of normal MDF, so can be painted to a high quality finish, and gives a uniform substrate for overlaying,” he said. “And besides easier handling, a major benefit is less tool wear.”

As well as furniture and shopfittings, markets for the new product include wrapped mouldings, picture frames, the aircraft and shipbuilding sector, and ceiling and wall coverings.

Egger’s lightweight brand is Eurolight. This is a composite board comprising two 8mm chipboard surface layers sandwiching a recycled cardboard core. It comes in 38mm and 50mm and as a melamine-faced board, with a choice of 20 decors, a raw version for bonding on laminates or veneers, and a painting grade.

The construction of the boards, said Mr Sanderson, appeals to both furniture and shopfitting sectors.

“Using 8mm chipboard, standard fixings can be used and 2mm edging applied directly without the use of support edging, or frames.“

Latest lightweight additions from Sonae are light particleboard, which uses “conventional and lightweight wood species” to achieve a density of 540kg/m³ and Tafipan UL and Tafipan LD, 550-490kg/m³ boards targeted at door core and other ‘specialist’ markets.

“Our target market is the ready-to-assemble furniture producer and the key market driver is the big furniture retailers,” said Mr Ferreira.

Finsa’s core lightweight family is now four strong. The first on the market a decade ago was Fibrapan Ultralight, which is 30% lighter than standard MDF and targeted at shopfitters and picture frame producers.

An offspring from this range is Iberpan 400, billed as “very low density” at 400kg/m³. This, said Mr Willisch, appeals to end users who want a light board, but not a composite. “Being a single density [board] avoids any tooling complications of machining multiple material composites,” he said.

Composite strength

But, he stressed, Finsa also makes lightweight composites. Finlight comprises two layers of thin Fibranor MDF and a core of Iberpan 300, a 300kg/m³ MDF. This was one of five products listed by the Construction Products Association in its 2010 Construction Products Innovation and Achievement publication in the “resource efficiency” category. It accepts laminated surfaces “like conventional board” and can be cut, edged, postformed and shaped on standard machinery and accept standard fittings.

Taking a different composition approach is Finsa’s Greenpanel. It features two layers of Fibranor MDF either side of an interlocking lattice of a 3mm variant of the same material. The range comes in thicknesses up to 250mm and weights from 74-250kg/m³.

“This is a very stable board and proves that engineered lightweight boards can do very demanding structural jobs,” said Mr Willisch.

Manufacturers have varying views on lightweight boards’ routes to market. Some prefer to go direct to end users, others through

a very defined distribution network. Finsa, for instance, sells via James Latham, Arnold Laver and International Decorative Surfaces because their target audience, in shopfitting, furniture and the architectural sector, fits its lightweight board customer profile. Others, though, say that the wider merchant community will also increasingly take on lightweight panels.

The other prediction is that these products will continue to diversify. Some producers see them staying principally in the less arduous applications due to their relative density, screw and other fixture retention capabilities. Others believe they can encroach on more demanding areas.

Finsa highlights that, in its Green Panel, it already has a lightweight board that has structural uses and Mr Ferreira said that at Sonae the scope of planned lightweight launches included “more demanding structural applications”.