Popularity of Panel Processing Is Picking Up

Panel processing, with its focus on composite materials and decorative surface materials, may represent the future of woodworking, and John Aufderhaar saw it coming. As founder and president at Bedford Falls Communications, home to several periodicals serving the industry, he's had his eye on the trend for decades. With extensive and diverse exposure to different sectors of the woodworking field—he cut his teeth in the furniture industry, worked in the store fixture segment and even owned a storm door manufacturing business before starting his publishing career in the mid-1980s—Aufderhaar became convinced early on of panel processing’s potential. So much so, in fact, that the publisher added a related title to his roster in 2003: Surface & Panel. The magazine may have been ahead of its time, he concedes, but the niche now is hitting its stride, and distributors should be prepared for the changes to come.

A confluence of events helped get the panel processing side of the business to where it now is, and these developments are neatly expressed in Surface & Panel’s tagline: “Uniting materials, technology and design.” Processing technology has been finetuned to an amazing level of accuracy, says Aufderhaar, who notes that the machinery can generate products to within tolerances of a thousandth of an inch. He assigns much of the credit for the growing momentum behind panel processing to the handful of little-known companies responsible for making the plates that the presses use to impart texture and finish onto laminates. Plate designers have perfected their craft, he says, to lend remarkable fidelity to the final product. At the same time, decor printers are producing ever more impressive decors. Designers are then empowered to create amazing and inspired products so beautifully replicated that it is impossible to tell laminate from the real thing. "When surface materials advance to the point where the consumer can no longer distinguish between a beautiful piece of walnut and a decorative foil that's been textured and finished," Aufderhaar muses, "that’s when you know this industry has arrived."

If you need more than his word, Aufderhaar points to 2017 statistics from the National Kitchen and Bath Association indicating that traditional style—identifiable by traits such as solid wood doors, raised panel products and country design—is loosening its grip on popular design. A longtime favorite in the United States, traditional styling has been knocked down to No. 3 in the rankings by the transitional and contemporary styles that have already taken over in Europe, Asia and the rest of the globe. "What that means is that panel processing is taking a bigger hold in the woodworking industry in America," Aufderhaar explains. "You'll see more synthetic materials on the faces of cabinets as well as furniture and store fixtures than there have been in the past." Kitchens, for example, will assume a clean, contemporary look that includes incredibly functional hardware and systems built in. And distributors will see a change in what kind of products their customers want.

Companies that embrace technology for processing understand the direction in which woodworking is moving, Aufderhaar says, and distribution firms subsequently are selling more high pressure laminate, thermally infused laminate, decorative foils and 3DL. Along with that trend, he adds, the distribution community can expect to sell a lot more hardware. Distributors should also be on the lookout, he hints, for what he to likes to call the "IKEA effect." Aufderhaar explains that a customer shopping at a store in Schaumburg, Ill., for example, would find nearly identical product offerings to those found in an IKEA on the other side of the world. “This tells you that IKEA, an international company, understands that tastes are not necessarily geographic,” he continues. “If it’s good design, looks great and is properly priced, it doesn’t matter if you’re in Frankfurt, Shanghai, or Chicago—you still respond positively to products like that and will buy them.” Additionally, Aufderhaar sees the rebuild/remodel segment bringing big business to panel processing companies and their distribution partners. The niche is much bigger than most people realize—twice the size of the home building market—and now that the ’08-’09 recession is in the rearview, he sees transitional and contemporary products increasingly carving out a stronghold in these areas, as well.

As the woodworking industry continues to move forward and panel processing gains more ground, Aufderhaar stresses that distributors are optimally poised to be informed about the next wave of movement. Large suppliers, which are not in a position to sell small lots to small companies, are always on top of the latest trends, but distributors are directly in touch with purchasers and are at the point of transaction between them and sellers. After gathering intelligence on emerging trends, Aufderhaar says, distribution companies can tweak and improve training, financing and delivery based on what they know.

The role of distribution is so critical, in fact, that Bedford Falls every year publishes a special insert dedicated to the channel. The 2017 edition of Distribution Matters, part of the Surface & Panel Master—the magazine's annual directory—is due out this summer. Among other topics of interest, readers can look forward to case studies, insight from NBMDA leaders and interviews with members about keys to success for distributors. Distributor roundtable interviews, for example, will focus on how NBMDA members bring value to the distribution channel; while supplier roundtable interviews will discuss what supplier members expect from distributors and what can be done to strengthen the relationship for the benefit of the ultimate customer. Distribution Matters also features a complete directory of NBMDA members that will serve as a valuable source for furniture, fixture and cabinet companies seeking distributor partners.

Surface & Panel will continue to track the rise of panel processing, but, Aufderhaar assures, real wood isn’t going anywhere. There will always be lumber sold and demand for solid wood products. Places such as the U.S. Midwest—Bedford Falls is based in Watertown, Wis.—remain highly attached to wood, for example. “But you’re beginning to find that, even here, kitchen showrooms that showcase some of these beautiful new kitchens made with TFL, HPL and these other beautiful finishes are beginning to be surprised that the customer really likes what they see. And it really comes down to actually showing it.”

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