Twenty years ago, it would have taken about 15 years for a new building product to emerge and hit profit pay dirt. That time frame applied to successful products that made it into the supply chain over the long run. Now, as a result of builder consolidation, better communications via the Internet, and better building science, we've entered an era in which products succeed—or fail—at a much faster pace. For example, products made from plastic and wood-plastic composites (WPC) have moved into the supply chain almost overnight.
Fueled by demand for lower-maintenance products, plastic trim and WPC rank as the fastest-growing segments of the building products marketplace. What's more, analysts predict these products will continue to grow at a robust clip for years to come. Up to now, the products have been used as alternatives to existing products. Trim and deck products have been designed to look, function, and feel as much like wood as possible, in order to gain adoption and market share. Other new products developed out of these materials are also designed to act as item-for-item replacements for existing materials. In the future, however, most experts believe that these products will be developed to be stronger, lighter, and more cost effective. How will the supply chain react when that happens?
Advanced technologies in foaming, new plastic compounds, stronger filler materials, and other innovative technologies will combine to make plastic and WPC products stronger, lighter, and more adaptable to novel uses. The real excitement in applications, though, happens as products from these composites begin to compete with structural wood products. Imagine developing a structural framing product in any shape, size, and weight-bearing capacity you desire. Imagine the designs and supply chain possibilities that would emerge if structural lumber came from a manufacturing facility rather than a forest. Homes would be designed with complete systems of structural members that could be curved or straight and be consistent in quality and strength.
In this scenario, radical change would impact the supply chain. Logging, trading, and middlemen would be gone. Sophisticated ordering processes would link to the CAM/CAD operations in a manufacturing plant. Every piece would be produced in the exact dimensions and strength that the architect specified. The supply chain would shorten considerably and design options would rise. The world of mass customization would be possible.
How long will it take? While structural WPC products are available, they are not yet cost-competitive enough compared with wood to attract wide use. Currently, they are used in areas around docks and other water-contact areas. Manufacturing costs need to moderate, but since WPC and plastic products offer greater flexibility, mold, and moisture resistance, they don't have to match wood prices dollar for dollar to compete. As sophisticated enterprises like Dow Chemical and entrepreneurial companies enter the field, change will accelerate. Before long, viable alternatives to most wood components in residential housing will emerge. Supply chain participants in the building products industry may undergo a big change ahead. Be ready.