Volume 6 | Issue 4 | Year 2003

Chances are, without even noticing, you’ve seen a product made by Panel Processing within the past few days. The company, based in Alpena, Mich., is the largest panel fabricator in North America, processing more than 125 million square feet of raw panels each year, each order custom made. The company fabricates and finishes engineered wood products such as hardboard, particleboard, pegboard and medium density fiberboard (MDF).
The company keeps large inventories of all its engineered wood products so these can be quickly fabricated, coated and customized to customer specifications. The unfinished wood products, in a variety of thicknesses, are purchased directly from board manufacturers.

In fact, Panel Processing makes 40 percent of finished pegboard used in North American store fixtures, said John Empfield, director of marketing. If you’ve perused the store shelves of any supermarket, big box or even mom-and-pop store lately, there’s a good chance the pegboard that serves as the back of the shelf is from Panel Processing. Company products are also used in retail point-of-purchase displays, end panels and back panels as well as in the perimeter paneling that runs along store walls. Panel Processing doesn’t design the fixtures; it supplies its finished engineered wood products to the customers who sell fixtures to the retail market.

“The store-fixture companies who design, produce and sell displays come to us and have us quote on the wood panel parts of the display,” Empfield said. “There might be metal parts too and graphics and plastic components in the display. We’re just one part of the supply chain.

“You might go into a clothing store and see a rack on the selling floor that’s either a solid color or wood grain with slat-wall or solid side panels and back panels. Those are our components,” Empfield said.

Rainbow of Hardboard
Furniture makers use Panel Processing-finished MDF. The company’s wood-grain-printed panels are ideal for bookcase backs, insert panels for wire or steel-tube point-of-purchase displays, retail spinners, office-furniture and juvenile furniture. Wood grains can be printed on one or two sides. Painted MDF with a UV topcoat is an alternative to thermalfused melamine, allowing a greater choice of colors.

For painting and finishing, Panel Processing employees coat boards on high-speed curtain coating lines that can coat one or both sides of the product. The boards travel on conveyors along the lines, passing underneath what Empfield describes as a waterfall of paint.

“As it passes under the curtain, paint flows across the board,” he said.
The company’s baked-on, water-based acrylic-enamel coatings are available in nearly any color a customer could want. Customers can purchase stock colors or match colors specifically to their needs. The paints are specially formulated for store fixtures, retail displays and furniture. Chalkboard and markerboard coatings are also applied. Other fabricating processes offered by Panel Processing include perforating pegboard for end use, cutting panels to size and applying a foil, paper or vinyl laminate. A hardboard or pegboard panel might be finished with a metallized polyester laminate to produce a shiny silver coating of the style used for cosmetic-counter displays and shelving, Empfield said.

Panel Processing has the capacity to produce more pegboard than any other fabricating company. It uses proprietary perforating methods to produce clean and sharp pegboard holes.

The company uses a late-model Harlan laminator to apply the vinyl, Mylar, or melamine-coated papers directly to one or both sides of hardboard, particleboard and MDF. The melamine foils laminated on one side give customers a significant cost savings over typical thermofused melamine, Empfield said. The company also fabricates large qualities of two-sided thermofused melamine. It purchases thermofused melamine products in special colors and wood grains directly from manufacturers. Fabricated thermalfused particleboard and MDF panels are edgebanded on straight-line and CNC contour edgebanders.

A Finish for Everyone
Like so many other manufacturers, the company has faced a tough growth market the past few years, though in the past decade Panel Processing has been able to greatly expand its product lines and Empfield forecasts continued growth in that direction.

“Ten years ago, the company’s primary products were painted hardboard and pegboard panels that we sold to the store-fixture market and, to a lesser extent, to the point-of-purchase display market,” he said, “but we’ve expanded our capabilities and expanded our plants, adding new plants and equipment. We’ve become a larger producer of particle board and the MDF components that go into store fixtures.” Markets have expanded to include juvenile furniture, toy and game components, contract furniture and sample boards for the flooring industry.

Employee owned Panel Processing, was founded in 1971 in Alpena, Mich., where the company is headquartered. It now employs 215 and the Alpena plant has grown from 15,000 square feet to its present-day 135,000 square feet. In addition to its main plant, the company operates two manufacturing facilities in Coldwater, Mich., one plant in Jacksonville, Texas, and a plant in Merrillville, Ind. In total, Panel Processing plants encompass 500,000 square feet.

The company now offers a wider range of finishing and fabricating services than in the past, including computer-numerically controlled cut-to-size and machining capabilities. Panel Processing operates 16 CNC routers and point-to-point machining centers at which employees produce custom-shaped and bullnosed components. They can randomly locate holes of different sizes vertically and horizontally.

In1997, Panel Processing opened its paint-manufacturing division, PPI Coatings, as an in-house supplier of water-based paints. The operation has allowed the company greater control over color matches and product cycle lead-times. In this era of just-in-time delivery, Panel Processing can match a color within a few days and make and ship paint in short order. This keeps lead times for jobs shorter than when the company sourced all its paints from large paint manufacturers. The division now offers toll manufacturing of water borne coatings.

Account managers work closely with customers to determine their needs and to come up with the best approach to get the job done. Each job is customized and carried out according to exact specifications.

For instance, Panel Processing has a reputation in its field for expertise in the art of edge-painting hardboard and MDF panels. Most applications that include a bullnosed edge on a hardboard display side panel need a full finish, which is where the company’s edge painting art is on display.

The company also offers a range of screen-printing services, from single-color lettering to plan-o-gram numbering or multi-colored logos and signage. The company is also mounting printed lithographs to hardboard flooring sample boards.

With its ever-expanding range of services and capabilities, Panel Processing can indeed meet the needs any customer has for finished and customized engineered wood products. Next time you’re shopping, have a closer look at the in-store displays. You’ll be surprised by the expertise they evidence.