Lights, camera, action!

A Norwegian company has something to offer the panel world. It could transform the way panel boards are made from now on. 

In an age where consumers place a premium on spotless surfaces, imagine technology that can identify the nature of each defect on every wood-based panel that glides out of the press. By inference, this data would then tell you how to reduce or eliminate imperfections.

Across the industry, plant managers want this data, which is why Argos Solutions is doing extremely well for itself in the panels and furniture manufacturing business. In the past 20 years, the technology company has been developing panel grading (or surface inspection) and repair systems for parquet, plywood, laminated paper, MDF and particleboard.

But just over seven years ago, surface inspection systems were of little interest, says Managing Director Tor Gustavsen at the company’s headquarters in Kongsberg, a small town of 25,000 and Norway’s research and engineering hub for aerospace, military and petroleum. In fact, they seemed like an excessive and unnecessary add-on until recently.

“It is not like you cannot make panels without scanning systems, you are just not assured if it is good enough,” Mr Gustavsen suggests. “Things are changing rapidly now however, the demands on quality have never been higher; board buyers are rejecting shoddy surfaces.”

Tor Gustavsen, Managing Director (left) and Torsten Kahl, Sales Director

With several new lines coming up in Southeast Asia, competition is rife. Particleboard and MDF producers must, and can only hope to, differentiate themselves on value-added products.

In the early days, buyers had lower expectations since multi-opening presses gave average boards; defects were normal, almost acceptable. The lines were also far slower. It didn’t matter that there were spots since the raw boards were eventually laminated with thick paper or lacquer. Now, gone are the days of settling for average.

Downstream, furniture manufacturers are applying high gloss and thin paper laminates to target the high-end market. In response, younger, modern plant managers are flogging the line to push out premium boards. As spots and surface defects are no longer tolerated, surface inspection has become an indispensable part of the production process.

Equipment providers like Argos Solutions are listening, and going beyond their calling by offering artificial intelligence—much to the delight of their tech-savvy clients who love real-time data on-the-go.

Driven by data

Argos Solutions fits perfectly—if not, leads—in this digital age.

To a certain extent, the demand for its systems has not only unveiled the appetite for quality, it has also fuelled the global race for raising the bar on standards.

Argos grading (or surface inspection) system on a panel line

As panel production goes the way of digitalisation, automation, high efficiency, high speed and low manpower, “manufacturers want to have ‘the latest and the greatest’,” says Torsten Kahl, sales director. “They want to know how information flows and what this means for their final product.”

With a talent for precision engineering, Argos has developed a machine that is capable of generating 17,000 images per second. It procures LED and laser lights and cameras from leading companies. (The lenses are from Carl Zeiss.) In the basement of the office building it shares with other tech companies, engineers assemble these components to build an algorithm that searches and analyses defects.

“Every raw board is different. The complexity lies in accurately identifying the black spots. What are they exactly and why are they there? Knowing what they are helps us to address their cause specifically,” Mr Gustavsen says.

He jokes that in the Nordic winter where daylight is short and the night stretches on, there is little to do except mull over ideas and improvements on technology.

The programme not only describes the inconsistency; it can also be extrapolated to identify problems in the upstream process, such as a potential leak somewhere in pressing or sanding. All the data on one single board is stored online. If there is a downtime incident, the Argos database also has a record of the parameters set for each board. Sometimes it is used to check the results of before-and-after maintenance.

“Ultimately, it is a tool for data collection, aggregation and process optimisation,” Mr Kahl adds.

The other obvious benefit is that it replaces workers, which are no longer easy to hire. Furthermore, if a line is running at 100m per second, it is impossible for the human eye to look for 0.5 – 1mm blemishes in two seconds.

Compared to grading by a human eye, the system also allows a board producer to expand his range of panel products by delivering different grades, vs a “keep or reject” model.

Down the path of success

To-date, there are 200 installations worldwide in 30 countries. Over half of Argos’ sales are return customers, which is “encouraging because it shows that it is reliable, and it works.”

Before a contract is sealed, a potential customer sends panel samples. Demonstrations are run and a report is generated which shows what the system can or cannot pick out. Discussions on sorting and what makes an A, B or C-grade panel take place.

Argos panel repair system

It takes about two weeks to assemble and install the system on-site. A few weeks later, an engineer returns to check on its performance. Mostly, there is no need for this as the new generation of surface inspection systems is stable and hardly ever requires maintenance, Mr Kahl says. Any other form of communication is done via VPN.

The 16-employee strong Norwegian company claims its surface inspection systems has a 99 per cent market share worldwide for particleboard and MDF.

One of its biggest challenges however, is convincing the Germans to buy an engineering solution made beyond its borders.

“If German companies put their trust in a Norwegian brand, it means our technology is something to speak for itself,” Mr Kahl explains. 

It has so far secured Egger and cabinet maker Burstadt Furniture as long-term customers.

Chasing Asia

The company is now looking to expand in Asia Pacific as the panel and furniture manufacturing industries continue on an upward trend. In fact sales from the region is looking good as many of them realise the value of independent grading systems—it delivers consistency.

In the past 24 months, Southeast Asia alone has been the second largest market for new orders. It is the most important market out of Europe. Well-known plants such as Vanachai, Panel Plus, Green River, Daiken, Evergreen and PT Sumatera have bought systems. Kim Tin, a Vietnamese green field investment which broke ground last year, has also placed an order.

China is also expected to register substantial growth in the next three years. “We are 100% sure that Asia will be very important for us. Apart from going into new particleboard and MDF factories, we also plan to penetrate the vast potential of the lamination market,” Mr Gustavsen says.

He adds that the furniture and flooring manufacturing industries have the biggest potential. Its inspection and repair systems are suitable for furniture panels, decorative boards and flooring as well; however it is also a challenging business as there are simpler, more affordable scanning solutions on the market.

The Argos Strategy now is to establish its leadership in the region as well as increase the gap between itself and competition. It is revamping its production and demonstration area by adding another 500m2 of space to prepare for a new era of growth. It is also considering developing thickness measurement, chatter marks and loose paper detection to complete its range of products and services.

For an economy founded on fishing and petroleum, Argos is putting Norway on the map, soon to be known for the way it has transformed the panel and furniture world. ­­