What challenges are associated with composite panel manufacturing?

There are a variety of markets that we sell our products to, including medical, transportation, education, shelters, office furniture, etc., and within these markets we must determine the applications of the panel to fit the needs of the customer. We have to use different manufacturing techniques for each industry and application. Our investment in manufacturing equipment is virtually all custom equipment, which allows us to do fairly quick turnovers. We have four different adhesive strategies for combinations that require heat, cold and pressure. We have some standard panels but frankly nobody buys them. Everything is custom designed for specific applications.

Are there newer applications for composite panels?

We recently opened a state-of-the-art factory for a new product using veneer stone on honeycomb. The new veneer panels are a product line that no other company has researched in terms of volume or tolerances.

Is the general composite industry environmentally friendly?

We’ve started to think about it in terms of life cycle discussions. I’m not a chemist and we don’t play a part in the world of traditional composites but I think there is a fundamental disconnect. For example, just because you can’t manufacture with styrene doesn’t mean you can’t do other great things. For me, the question would be: Is it better to get out of the way we’re manufacturing instead of fighting regulation? Again, this is not the world I live in. As an outsider looking in, it’s tough to talk about the environmentally friendliness of a product when they let out VOCs in the manufacturing process. I know this is a highly contested issue. The issue for me regarding being environmentally friendly is, what is the life cycle compared to standard products and do we have a story to tell?

What has Bellcomb done to keep its environmental commitment?

Our environmental commitment is a decision we made to go carbon neutral. I bought into composite panel technology in 1989 because it was an environmentally friendly product and I’m still interested in doing and being environmentally friendly. One of the advantages to working with honeycomb is that it’s incredibly efficient. You use less material and achieve the same structural value. But in all honesty, nobody cared. They said, “How nice. How low is your price?”

There has been some change within architecture toward becoming environmentally friendly, but for the most part environmental commitment doesn’t mean sales. However, it is fundamentally part of my belief system and I made a decision to go carbon neutral to buy our way out of having a carbon footprint. My belief is you have to look internally and externally. Last year we made decision to add 80 kilowatts of solar power to the roof of our building. I was convinced that I was better off subsidizing a long-term demand for my carbon footprint than to plant trees in Ecuador. I recognize that the payback on solar doesn’t justify the monetary investment but I made the decision that we would invest in energy efficiency to be more environmentally conscious.