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Revolutionising panel production


Following on from the success of EUREKA project E! 2534 THERMOPOLE, which developed thermoplastic lampposts that save lives by bending on impact, EUREKA project E! 2535 FACTORY PANELFORM has adapted the thermoplastic technology to produce sandwich section panels for a market worth over €20 million a year.

The recyclable panels can be produced in three-metre wide sections at a rate of four metres per minute, in a variety of colours and finishes. The new material is stronger and more durable than wood, which currently dominates the target markets. Another advantage is that the panels can be fused together forming strong edges that do not come apart even in damp conditions, thus solving a structural problem that has plagued plywood panels.

“Our German partners have created a new material that is a quarter of the weight of wood at the price of marine plywood,” says Gerard Boyce, director of the UK lead partner, Euro-Projects (LTTC) Ltd (EPL). “It is lighter to handle and because it’s thermoplastic, we have been able to successfully form the panel into a wide range of applications.”

The new technology will have a dramatic impact on current production methods. For example, it can be used to build a new thermoplastic caravan in four panels (a structural floor, two side panels and the top, front and back in a single panel). The four panels can be welded together and the whole caravan constructed in minutes, thereby significantly increasing the production capacity for UK project partner Avondale. The panels can be treated with a new fire-resistant polymer, and can also be fully recycled. Other potential applications include modular flooring for marquees, truck bodies, water barrier systems and scaffolding.

Using thermoplastic panels also has environmental benefits. “The project enables companies to use solvent-free environmentally friendly materials and the light weight of the structures means transport companies save on fuel. The number of back injuries previously sustained during handling will also be reduced,” explains Boyce.

The project partners describe the potential market as colossal, but with challenges ahead. “With THERMOPOLE we had to drive the market to accept plastic instead of metal; the same is true with PANELFORM where we have to prove the value of composites over wood and plywood,” says Boyce.

EPL estimated that within 5 years over 500,000m2 of thermoplastic composite panels per year will be being produced annually.

“Although we are at the forefront of materials ideas, it is EUREKA that allows the ideas to become reality through co operation. EUREKA partnerships provide the skills we lack and speed up the development process,” says Boyce.

Julie Sors | alfa
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