Technology Report: Board breaks out of the box
By Helen Morris Friday, 14 January 2011
With enviable green credentials and competitive prices, the rigid board sector is providing traditional materials with some stiff competition, writes Helen Morris
For those of a particularly pessimistic persuasion, an attribute sometimes levelled at printers – here is something to cheer your cold, printer’s heart. While much of the print industry is suffering with a drop in demand as rival media and tighter budgets work to reduce volumes, one sector is providing a glimmer of hope by not just maintaining an even keel but growing as demand for its products increases. That sector is rigid board.
Unlike elsewhere in the print market, which has largely seen a drop in demand coupled with overcapacity, the rigid board sector has seen an increase in demand and during 2011 it is set to continue to grow even further. The secret to this bucking of the trend is a mixture of product diversification and environmental kudos. However, the sector is under the same energy and raw material pressures as the rest of the print industry, opening up the possibility that this success story may have an unhappy ending in demand-curtailing price rises.
The latter would be a disappointing outcome for a sector that has managed to shuffle into the consciousness of a number of markets. Companies under price pressure looking for cheaper products or alternatively products that can offer longer-term solutions through better sustainability have been turning to rigid board in droves. Anything from exhibition stands to temporary furniture is now well within the capabilities of the material.
Jerry Gabrio, national sales manager at PlyVeneer Products, says the recent growth comes as no surprise. "The product is competitively priced," he explains. "It also prints well and cutting equipment has been developed to convert it effectively. Consumers do like it."
A prime example of this new, rigid board-made world is the enviable rise of Stora Enso offshoot board manufacturer Design Force’s Re-board. This paper-based material has the lofty aim of replacing metal, wood, plastic and MDF and has been developed for the graphics, point-of-purchase and shop-fitting industries. It was launched into the UK by distributor Oriam Green at Ipex last year, with Design Force showcasing a set of chairs made from the material.
Kieron Loy, Design Force marketing and sales director, explains that the demand for rigid board has risen significantly and that the company has enjoyed the benefits of that. Market demand, he says, has outstripped capacity for some time and, as a result of this, the business is planning to open new plants in Asia, America and central Europe next year to push the product further.
"Design Force has had 100% growth year-on-year," he explains. "One of the main reasons for the increase in demand is that companies are looking for alternative materials and are moving away from traditional ones. The demand for this product is certainly there. For example, we are working closely with Walmart and we are now part of its ‘Supplier Hub’ database as a ‘Best in Class’ for this type of material."
However, the company’s success wasn’t all plain sailing. Craig MacWilliam, managing director of Re-board distributor Oriam Green, says that when he and John O’Reilly initially formed Oriam Green UK with the sole intent to promote and distribute Re-board, most potential customers "initially misunderstood" the product and compared it to honeycomb boards, overlooking important aspects of the material that the company feels gives it the edge over rivals.
"Many customers overlooked the structural and green elements of this material initially but we’re delighted with how Re-board has been received in the UK market," he adds. "It has caused quite a stir. Esko, Agfa, Canon and HP used Re-board to both display print quality and manufacture structural items at Ipex. Brands such as Philips are also coming on board, fully understanding the benefit from using Re-board as a sustainable, light and highly branded material for point of sale and in-store display."
It’s not just Re-board taking rigid board into new markets, however, as Revive’s Honeycomb Board is also making some headway. A printable display board that is 100% recyclable after use, the board has a white, clay-coated printable surface and is produced using virgin and recycled fibre. Steve Lister, business development director of paper merchant Robert Horne, which supplies Revive Honeycomb, says it provides an alternative to traditional foam boards like polyethylene, polystyrene or polyvinylchloride. He reveals that it is also encroaching on the exhibition stand construction market and that the fact it is extremely lightweight means it can be printed on directly by flatbed digital machines. This decreases the manufacturing processes. As an added bonus, it can be easily cut and finished.
Lister adds, though, that it is not just diversification that has helped the take-up of rigid board – the environmental credentials of the material is also a major boost for buyers.
"There are many reasons to change to these fibre-based boards," he reveals, "but the first obvious one is that they are made from fibre which is 100% recyclable and are therefore easy to dispose of at the end of life."
Design Forces’ Loy agrees the environment is a key sales tool for such products. Re-board is 100% recyclable and working with companies such as Walmart, which is at the forefront of driving waste and carbon management initiatives, affirms the product’s eco-credentials.
Rigid boards do indeed have efficient waste and carbon management capabilities and this has been a key reason for customers including retail giants and restaurant owners to use the product. Take London Fancy Box (LFB) – it recently claimed to be the first rigid packaging producer to become FSC and PEFC certified. The company says the move was customer driven, and the business now works in close contact with its customers to offer sustainable options, which include rigid boards that are made of recycled paper.
Lister says that, considering the emphasis companies now place on environmental practice, the replacement to rigid foam plastic was not a surprise. Demand from retailers and small brands for a product that could boost green credentials was the main reason for Robert Horne launching the Honeycomb board. He adds that such credentials are easier to track in the paper and wood business than with plactics.
"These markets have been tracking data for years and it is readily available," he explains. "Much of our product is corrugated and it has high post-consumer waste content that can be tracked."
Design Force’s Loy agrees that environmental considerations are a major factor in the growth of rigid board use. The company has been independently measured using CEPI and ISO 14040 guidelines, and it found that cradle to gate, the carbon footprint for every square metre of 16mm Re-board releases 2kg of carbon. Loy says that this is compared with 16mm MDF boards that release 20kg of carbon for every square metre. The figure also compares to chipboard, which releases 6kg of carbon for every square metre.
"What Design Force has done in terms of Re-board that others haven’t is independently assess its environmental credentials," says Loy.
As a result, he adds that many companies are now measuring their carbon footprints, or the carbon footprints of their offering or products, such as cans of food.
So on the face of things, it all looks very rosy for the rigid board sector, with a flexible, competitively priced and environmentally impressive product that is in demand across the world for an ever-increasing range of applications. The question, however, is how long that competitive pricing can remain. Raw materials prices are rising seemingly continually and the rest of the print market is suffering, so there is no real reason why rigid board should not suffer too. Price rises in 2011 would therefore seem likely.
Robert Horne’s Lister agrees that raw materials prices have had an effect, revealing that the company has seen some price rises over the last year due to the global price increases. He argues, though, that the products still offer good value if you take into account the savings made by reducing the manufacturing processes. Continued sustainability pressures within the retail sector also work in favour of rigid board, adds Lister.
Design Force is similarly upbeat, with Loy explaining that the aim would be that rather than prices rising, the increased demand would mean they could go in the opposite direction.
"We hope to force prices down in 2011," he explains. "In 2010, we saw increases in raw material prices for paper and adhesives but it’s all about economies of scale, and if everything goes well in terms of process efficiencies and advancements, we can improve our performance again next year."
This year looks set to be an interesting one for the sector. As companies learn more about the capabilities of rigid board it is likely that the demand will only increase further as its flexibility of application and sustainability is seized upon. The added bonus of a strong environmental performance and competitive pricing means that for many it represents the perfect product in the current market. If price rises can be staved off for at least 2011, it is likely it will remain the perfect product for some time to come.
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