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Simply more flexible

Part of UPM, a forest products company with annual net sales of €8.9 billion (2010), UPM Plywood is Europe’s largest plywood manufacturer and the creator of formable plywood. Based on new composite technology, formable plywood promises to offer major benefits for furniture manufacturers and other industries.

The core of UPM’s new technology is a special adhesive film that allows plywood to be formed after manufacturing. The chemically activated thermoplastic acts in two ways –  bonding the veneers together when it is initially heated and softening and melting when it is reheated to enable the plywood to be formed into a very wide range of shapes.

This is in complete contrast to traditional bonding, which is a one-time operation in which bond lines remain intact and cannot be altered after the adhesive has set.

By creating a unique chemical bond that can be altered later by heating, UPM’s new adhesive overcomes this limitation. This characteristic enables plywood to be formed into the desired shape in a simple three-step process of heating, forming, and cooling.

Multitalented bonding

UPM Plywood’s new formable plywood offers furniture designers an exciting range of new opportunities.
The ease and efficiency with which formable plywood can be used to make bentwood structures makes it ideal for furniture, for example. Thanks to the new adhesive technology, products based on it will also be stronger and more stable than those made using conventional methods.

The Finnish furniture manufacturer, Isku, worked closely with UPM in developing the new technology and will be the first company to make use of it in mass production. By using formable plywood, isku expects to be able to simplify and enhance its production process and reduce product wastage as a result of the stability and accuracy of the process. The new technology is also expected to open up exciting new opportunities for the company’s designers.

The new adhesive also not only bonds wood, but numerous minerals, glass, metal, textiles, paper, and board as well –  enabling them to be combined into novel multi-material composites. The unique nature of the technology is best seen, however, when bonding together flexible materials, such as wood veneers.

Improving on a good thing

Formability has the potential to open up numerous new end-use areas for plywood, where superior strength-to-weight ratio is a priority, and diversify the existing use of plywood.

Bentwood furniture and other products have been manufactured for decades by gluing and pressing layers of veneer into the desired shape in a process commonly referred to as form pressing. UPM’s new technology allows the process to be significantly simplified, as veneer handling and gluing can be eliminated from the workflow.

Using formable plywood is also safer, as no hazardous chemicals are needed and the end-product can be safely recycled at the end of its life to produce raw material for other composites.

In addition to furniture, formable plywood is ideal for numerous other uses; and applying the technology to other materials will broaden the range of possible end-uses even further.

The Biofore Company

UPM Plywood’s new composite technology is the outcome of years of dedicated R&D work aimed at bringing advanced new properties and features to plywood and making it a leading composite material for applications where superior strength-to-weight performance is a priority.

Around half of UPM’s overall R&D goes on developing new technologies and businesses, and during recent years, the emphasis has been on new value-added uses for forest biomass, such as biofuels, biochemicals, biocomposites, and nanocellulose.

In the biofuels area, for example, UPM and Andritz/Carbona recently completed the initial testing programme on Carbona’s gasification technology in the US for second-generation biomass-to-liquid (BTL) biodiesel; while in biochemicals, the focus has been on research into replacing oil-based chemicals with biochemicals in various UPM products.

Work is continuing on nanocellulose research at the Finnish Centre for Nanocellulosic Technologies established by UPM, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, and Aalto University in 2008. Nanocellulose offers a range of possibilities for shaping materials made of wood fibre into stronger, lighter, and thinner products. To date, work has concentrated on speciality paper and paper coating, but in the future the emphasis is expected to shift to applications for other industries, such as construction, packaging, food, and cosmetics.

In Finland, the UPM Research Centre in Lappeenranta focuses on fibres and fibre raw materials, paper, coating and printing, biofuels, and biochemicals; the UPM Biorefinery Development Centre on biofuels and biochemicals; the WISA R&D Centre on plywood and composites; while labelstock R&D takes place in Tampere.

Outside Finland, UPM’s recycled fibre research is based in Augsburg in Germany, while the UPM Asia R&D Centre in China is responsible for researching raw materials based on local fibre, as well as providing manufacturing and technical customer service support for UPM’s production units in China and the Asia-Pacific region.

In addition, UPM is a partner in Forestcluster Ltd., established to network top-level research and innovation in the Finnish forest cluster; and collaborates with a number of research institutions and universities worldwide.

> Kaido Kukk
(Published in HighTech Finland 2011)