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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 materialssawdust, woodchips and shavingsare 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 platformwhich 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.