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Major MDF investment 

Flakeboard is investing $16.5 million in projects  that will reduce the cost of raw materials,  conserve energy and expand product diversity  at its Sault Ste Marie, Ontario MDF operation. 

By Marek Krasuski

“A major challenge for any facility is  input costs,” explains plant manager  Michael Rosso (below) of Flakeboard’s  Sault Ste Marie operation. “With our  ongoing improvement plans, we believe  we have a bright future here.”

In the face of increasing competition,  tightening markets and escalating  operational costs, innovation and  integration are keys to survival in the  forest industry. It’s a prevailing ethic that  Flakeboard Company of Sault Ste Marie,  Ontario, has embraced and applied to all  dimensions of its operations from human  resources to the multi-level stages of its  manufacturing process.

The company’s plant in Sault Ste  Marie manufactures medium density  fibreboard (MDF), a refined, high quality  consistent substrate panel used in the  manufacture of raised panel doors typically  found in kitchen cabinets, mouldings,  ready-to-assemble furniture, and other  products with profiling properties.

Market volatility heavily impacts the  forest industry and Flakeboard is equally  vulnerable to slowdowns. US cabinet  sales have decreased by 30 per cent and  housing starts declined approximately  50 per cent in the last fiscal year. Since  Flakeboard ships the majority of its product  to the American Midwest, it needs  to employ innovation and integration to  survive these challenges. It has responded  by injecting significant capital into its  manufacturing operations.

“In order to be successful, it’s crucial  to be a better producer from a cost and  efficiency point of view,” explains plant  manager Michael Rosso, who oversees the  manufacturing process. “So changes are  necessary to realize gains.”

Flakeboard has earmarked $16.5 million  for three projects that will expand  product diversity, reduce the cost of raw materials and conserve energy.  Upgrades were made to the manufacturing  process to produce thinner  panels. The Dieffenbacher 38-metre-long  continuous MDF press, which at one time  was the largest 10-foot MDF press in the  world, is the backbone of the production  facility. Thanks to the revisions, it now  produces thinner boards.

“Prior to this investment, the thinnest  board we could make was nine millimetres,  and we were running at press  speeds too slow compared with industry  standards. Now we can make boards with  a 4.8-millimetre thickness,” adds Rosso.

Thin board upgrades not only expanded  the product offering, but also  improved the efficiency of the manufacturing  process. With the ability to accelerate  the speed of the production line,  the pressing time for all products one  half-inch and thinner was decreased to  improve productivity. Numerous upgrades  were required to the forming, press, panel  handling and finishing line. Changes to  gear box ratios and speed drives, as well  as the addition of pinch rolls, pressure  plates, drag chains, and positioning controls  were needed to produce a thinner  board.

  The press is equipped with 28 adjustable  frames to control pressure and  thickness during the pressing process, and  eight different heating zones that saturate  the wood with heat. The exhaust system  located at the outfeed zones captures  the de-gassing fumes from the pressing  process. These fumes are subsequently  transferred to the furnace and converted  into primary air.

Flakeboard enjoys a reputation of  producing a high quality homogeneous  product, the function of two 64-inch  Hymac refiners connected in a series to  ensure a consistent and highly refined  fibre quality. The majority of MDF manufacturing  plants in North America only  refine the fibre once, says Rosso.

“Manufacturers of raised panel doors  can’t afford to have inconsistencies when they are routing the MDF sheets.  So there is a degree of comfort knowing  they will get a consistent product free of  anomalies.”

Among the upgrades the Flakeboard  plant made to the manufacturing  process were changes that now  allow it to produce thinner panels.  The thinnest board the plant could  previously make was nine millimetres  and it can now make boards with a  4.8-millimetre thickness.

Raw materials—sawdust, woodchips  and shavings—are first introduced from  the MEC reclaim hoppers into a presteaming  atmospheric retention bin where steam is injected to condition the  wood, softening the material and breaking  down the natural lignins. The material is  fed through a plug screw that provides  de-watering through compression and  screens, after which the wood is fed into  a pressurized digester. The pressurized  steam injected into the digester further  conditions the wood fibre for a short twominute  retention period.
The wood is then fed under pressure  through stationary and rotating disks in  each of the two refiners to produce a  fine fibre as the wood fibres are sheared  apart. The machines turn at 1,800 rpm to  produce the soft, unbroken, cotton-candy  like fibre material.
The 64-inch Hymac refiners, powered  by a Toshiba 6800 and GE 8000 synchronous  motors, are equipped with 67-inch  refiner plates to maximize the surface  area and provide sufficient energy to  guarantee a product with consistent fibre  quality. The refiners are designed to allow  a three-inch overhang.
After refining, resin is injected in the  refiner discharge pipe, as the refined fibre  and steam are blown to the dryer. As the  resinated fibre passes through a dryer, the  overall moisture content is reduced from  50 per cent to 12 per cent in preparation  for pressing. It is this material, known as  the mat, which arrives at the press in mattress-  like thickness where it is compressed  into medium density fibreboard.
The press, equipped with stainless  steel belts on top and bottom, provides  the heat transfer from the platens to the  material. The resinated mat entering  the press is subjected to heat and pressure  which cures the board to its final  thickness. 

Trim saws are used just before the press to cut the mat into  eight- or ten-foot widths depending on whether a four- or fivefoot  wide end product is required.  Flakeboard manufactures 180 million board feet of MDF  panels annually. Decades ago, this operation would have been  unthinkable when woodchips and sawdust were deemed to  have no additional value. Today this multi-million dollar plant,  ranked as one of the region’s top ten employers, exemplifies the  sea change in attitudes. Mill technology has transformed “value  added” from a remote idea into a fact of business life that has  extended the use of material from trees.  Flakeboard pulls wood raw material from 35 mills in a 500-  mile radius. Every week, 210 trucks rumble onto the site, each  loaded with 80,000 pounds of material which is sorted and  loaded into reclaim hoppers and mixed into recipes of sawdust,  shavings, chips, and segregated by wood species that ensure  consistency.

Additional investments at the operation are targeted to  reduce operational costs, crucial to maintaining a competitive  advantage, says Rosso. “A major challenge for any facility is with  input costs. With our ongoing improvement plans we believe we  have a bright future here,” he predicts.

Optimism about the company’s future stems in part from  the future investment in a dry resin system. Refined fibre, wax  and resin are the three principal ingredients in medium density  fibreboard. Resin is expensive, accounting for 25 per cent of  total production cost. The standard process currently used injects resin onto the fibre as it travels out of the refiners through the  blow line on its way to the dryer. Much of the resin is weakened  and becomes less efficient when exposed to high heat during the  drying process. Flakeboard has patented a new technology to  reduce resin costs.

 “We created technology that allows us to effectively inject  resin into the wood after the drying process. This reduces the  amount of resin required as it will no longer be exposed to high  heat during the fibre drying process.” Rosso says.  The anticipated $10 million capital investment will lower the  company’s overall cost platform—which is essential, Rosso suggests,  to offset other input costs that are less controllable.  Flakeboard currently fuels its dryer with natural gas and  thermal oil. But this too will change in the future. The natural gas  heating system will eventually be converted to a biofuel system  that more effectively uses their on-site wood waste to generate  heat for the flash tube dryer. Existing capital spending requirements  within the company and the current economic slowdown  within the industry will delay this $5 million dollar project until  2010.

Understanding the importance of integration to improve operating  efficiencies, Flakeboard has built a $12 million lamination  plant adjacent to the MDF facility to reinforce its value-added  operations. Thirty per cent of MDF fibreboard produced is dedicated  to lamination, a process that results in the application of  melamine to the MDF panel. The majority of material destined  for lamination is of the highest quality substrate. Their Superior  Plus grade offers the best routing characteristics for the raisedpanel  door industry, its main market.

The lamination plant is equipped with a new, state-of theart  Dieffenbacher 20-foot, single opening, fast cycle press that  laminates either one or both sides, depending on specifications.  Sheets of melamine paper are delivered from the suppliers with  the resin already impregnated on the sheets.  Prior to pressing, the melamine sheets are layered on the MDF panels. During the pressing process,  heat and pressure cause the impregnated  resin to flow and creates the bond to  adhere the melamine paper to the surface  of the panel. The pressing time takes 12  seconds to complete.

The texture and smoothness of the  melamine surface is controlled through  the use of different pressing plates. The  required warp of the finished laminated  panel is controlled by the pressing process  and variation of temperature between the  top and bottom heating platens.

In keeping with a philosophy of conservation,  the company repatriated another  older laminating press from its former  plant in Mississauga that was closed after  Flakeboard decided efficiency would  increase by centralizing operations at the  location in Sault Ste Marie. The 18-foot  Dieffenbacher was being refurbished by  company employees and will soon function  as a back-up during peak production  periods.

To ensure quality and consistency,  Flakeboard incorporated a multi-level  system of quality control. The mill is  equipped with the latest technology,  including GreCon’s BW4, BWQ, and  Stenograph on-line density profile analyzer.  An Argos vision-grading system,  IMAL thickness gauges, and an additional  GreCon blow detector are located on the  finishing line to ensure product quality.  The production process is fully automated  with Allen-Bradley PLC 5s, and  Wonderware HMIs, and all process data is  captured in their SQL servers for historical  referencing. Product recipes are adjusted  seasonally and derived from querying the  process data and product properties.

The production lab is responsible for  monitoring formaldehyde emissions, fibre  quality, moisture control, and ensuring  boards are manufactured to the appropriate  physical properties. Use of a Fiberscan  fibre measurement device, router tests,  and multiple sign-offs from lab personnel  prior to releasing product for shipment all  help to ensure the mill maintains consistency  with fibre quality.

With an anticipated $16.5 million  being invested in all upgrades, the Sault  Ste Marie Flakeboard plant is poised to  continue as a leading manufacturer and  laminator of medium density fibreboard.