In the construction market, the composites boom is here.
Nearly 10 years in the making, firms expect record levels of growth as the marriage of wood and plastic grows in market share against traditional wood, and as producers refine its use in structural applications.
At the International Builders' Show, held Feb. 8-11 in Atlanta, some longtime exhibitors introduced first-ever composite products, while new firms also emerged on the scene. Even some firms that were not at the show have aggressive growth plans in store.
The burgeoning market has come into its own, officials say. Composite material use in decking and fencing alone is expected to grow from $233 million in 2000 to more than $600 million by 2004, according to Wexford, Pa.-based Pure Strategy.
``We sold 60 percent of our entire year's forecast as of Jan. 31,'' said Eric Kent, executive director of sales for Louisiana Pacific Corp. based in Portland, Ore. ``It's unbelievable. We've never seen anything like it.'' The firm is adding extrusion lines and blending capacity at two locations in Selma, Ala., and Meridian, Idaho, for its WeatherBest brand of decking. Kent would not disclose details.
Many other firms are beefing up for sizeable returns as consumers gravitate toward maintenance-free products. Toss in the Environmental Protection Agency's decision to phase out the popular chromated copper arsenate (CCA) as a lumber preservative and you have some very happy firms, indeed.
``Composite decking hit a slump in mid-2001, as did many other building materials, but regained momentum at the year end and 2002 is off to a solid start,'' said Bud Bootier, with Pure Strategy. ``The recent CCA ban and the announced phase out [of CCA-treated wood] by Home Depot, soon to be followed by others, will all but guarantee a strong year for [composites manufacturers].''
Andrew Ferrari, Trex Co. Inc.'s executive vice president of sales and marketing, told Builders' Show attendees that the Winchester, Va.-based company has grown at an annual average rate of 50 percent a year. The company did more than $100 million in sales last year.
``Less than 10 percent of decking is wood-plastic composites, so the real growth is ahead of us,'' Ferrari said. ``Even in decking and railing, which is the most mature part of all these conversions to wood-plastic composites, it's really only just starting.''
The combination of wood flour and recycled or virgin resin had its birth in deck profiles in the early 1990s. Now the material is exploding in railing, porches, fencing and even siding. Officials compare the deck transition especially to the 1970s, when vinyl siding began ousting wood and aluminum.
Yes, they say, it is that cataclysmic.
Firms such as Troy, Ala.-based Tendura Inc. have created a niche by combining pine and high density polyethylene to make front porch profiles. They use some virgin and some recycled resin, officials said. The firm started business last year in a 100,000-square-foot extrusion facility in Selma, Ala., where they run six lines.
``There are a lot of competitors on the back deck,'' said Ned Lawrence, Tendura's national sales manager. ``We're filling an area that hasn't been addressed. The porch was forgotten about as a place to live.''
Lawrence would not disclose an estimate for the company's first-year sales.
Boise Cascade Corp., which is based in Boise, Idaho, will open its 194,000-square-foot composite siding plant later this year in Satsop, Wash., 20 miles west of Olympia.
``What interested us in moving toward this is an overall corporate strategy to move toward more value-added products,'' said spokesman Doug Bartels. ``We think markets are moving in that direction. People are becoming more interested in alternative products. The industry does not have access today to the timber supply of the past.''
The firm will use recycled film plastic - shrink wrap, bubble wrap and grocery bag plastic - combined with urban wood waste to make the siding product, Bartels said.
``All of the production initially will be siding, but with success in that, we see opportunity there to make other wood-plastic composite products for the residential market,'' he said in a Feb. 13 telephone interview.
Trex introduced new railing products at the show, including chamfered hand rails and post caps, which they would have preferred to introduce sooner, officials said.
``We actually waited until we were sure we had all the necessary [building] code listings,'' said John Burns, marketing director of residential decking. ``That's our policy. We won't take anything to market that's not code-listed, that's not ready for people to use comfortably throughout the industry. So, we've had the railing components for a couple years now. But we're trying to highlight them now and what we've done is we've come out with a couple new products that really fill out that profile selection for railings.''
Burns said Trex has the ability to grow as demand requires at either of its two manufacturing facilities, which are located in Winchester, Va., and Fernley, Nev.
Silver Line Vinyl Extrusion and Kroy Building Products Inc. introduced their first composite decking products during the show.
Manufacturers use a variety of recipes.
Bootier said early applications used recycled plastics, almost exclusively high and low density PE, plus scrap wood fibers in solid profile, mono-extruded applications.
Newer applications use PVC, polypropylene, polystyrene, HDPE, LDPE, acrylic styrene acrylonitrile or polymer alloys in combination with fillers of wood fiber, glass fiber, flax, peanut shells and even air as cellular composites take shape.
``Reclaimed materials still play a role but virgin resins are increasingly important as applications and performance criteria evolve,'' he said. ``Monoextruded, solid lineals are being joined by innovative tri-extrusions and closed-profile, close-tolerance, engineered shapes. Building products are developing a new arsenal of material attributes and economics with which to work.''
Not all composites require high wood fill levels, cautions Chuck Cannon, director of business development and technology with Kent, Wash.-based Mikron Industries Inc.
``What we find is that many applications, a wood-polymer composite as it is typically viewed, are not acceptable for a lot of products,'' Cannon said. ``When you start taking high wood fill levels in some of the polymer matrixes, you do not get very good physical properties for some applications.''
The window extruder now has two facilities dedicated to composite production, Cannon said by telephone Feb. 13.
``For us, it's a great growth time,'' he said. ``I think the whole topic of composites, it's like any other thing that's new. Sometimes, it gets a little overrated in terms of what the true opportunity is and the best ways to make success. It is definitely a strong growth area at this point.''
Mikron has been working with its MikronWood brand, made from a thermoplastic resin alloy. The company will not disclose the material mix. Cannon only said that the firm uses some straight polymer combinations and polymer alloys where it combines more than one polymer in the wood composite material.
``Depending on the application, we'll determine what polymer or polymer alloy we'll use,'' he said.
The firm expects sales this year to at least double in the wood composite category, if not grow by 150 percent, he said.
``We did have an expansion in 2001 and we have another expansion planned for 2002,'' he said, although he would not disclose details. ``The expansion in 2001 included a new plant; the expansion in 2002 will include adding to both of the plants.''
Mikron plants in Renton and Kent, Wash., make composite windows. Since introducing the MikronWood brand nearly four years ago, the firm has moved into decking and railing.
Composite Building Products International Inc. depends on rice hulls and flax blended with HDPE to make its Xtendex system. In eight weeks, the firm will release its line of ``practical structural members,'' said George Morandin, executive vice president of sales and marketing with the Barrie, Ontario, firm.
In the first quarter of its 2002 fiscal year, the firm has reached 80 percent of its entire 2001 sales.
``The boom has just been incredible,'' Morandin said. ``That was even before the banning of CCA.''
Morandin forecasts the market will maintain double-digit growth consecutively over the next five years.
``There's a tremendous opportunity to replace wood,'' he said in a Feb. 9 interview at the show. ``Right now, we'll call it an alternative, and shortly, we'll call it a replacement.''
CBP is especially working to alter the high-end image of composites, he said. The firm fitted its system on a Habitat for Humanity House during the show, creating a wheelchair-accessible ramp for the future owner.
``They are expensive to buy, but in the end, they cost less,'' Morandin said. CBP also works closely with the University of Toronto for composite recipes. The material mix changed slightly for the structural components for strength integrity, but the firm could not disclose details. The components will have to meet U.S. and Canadian code requirements.
Paper firm Kadant Inc. introduced a composite shingle product made from a mix of minerals and HDPE. The Acton, Mass.-based company stepped into the composites business last year.