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Top of the pack in plywood
The Columbia Forest Products plywood plant in St. Casimir, Quebec, may be the company’s smallest, but it certainly is near the top of the pack when it comes to being resourceful and productive, with a number of changes and upgrades in recent years.
By Martine Frigon
Columbia Forest Products (CFP) is a well known name in the North American forest industry. CFP is, in fact, North America’s largest manufacturer of hardwood plywood and hardwood veneer. Columbia’s decorative veneers and plywood panels are used to build cabinets, furniture, fixtures and millwork in homes and commercial settings around the globe.
Established in 1957, CFP has locations throughout North America. Amongst these plants, one is located in Quebec—the only one in fact in the province—which is also the smallest one within the company. Located 80 kilometres west of Quebec City in the village of St. Casimir, the plant provides jobs to 50 people, and is a significant economic engine in the economy of this small community of 1500 inhabitants.
Running since 1940 under the name of Contre-plaqué St. Casimir, it was sold to Levesque Plywood in 1989, and was then purchased by Columbia Forest Products in 1996, along with a plant in Hearst, Ontario. Specializing in the fabrication of hardwood plywood panels, the plant sells its products to kitchen cabinet makers, furniture manufacturers, and also renovation superstores. Each year, the plant fabricates around an average of 700,000 hardwood plywood panels.
Since the competition has become stronger from emerging overseas markets, and most recently due to the parity with the U.S. dollar, the management team, like other mill managers in Canada, had to find innovative ways to remain competitive.
Pascal Hébert, who emigrated from France to live in Québec about 10 years ago, has worked in the St. Casimir plant since 2002. At the beginning, he was in charge of quality control, and was promoted to plant manager in 2008. Since he runs the smallest plant in the company, he also has to manage small production runs. “We are producing various products, but in small quantities,” he says.
As with other similar forest products businesses, lean manufacturing, quality control processes, and new equipment have been implemented over the years. The latest improvement: a new press, made and imported from Italpresse in Italy, an investment of $500,000, plus another press made by Globe, to feed a new production line that processes oversize hardwood plywood panels up to 4’ x 10’. These oversized panels are perfect for ceilings, kitchen cabinets, and especially for installation around a refrigerator.
All of this meant a total investment of $2.5 million, of which CFP received a grant of $250,000 from the government of Quebec within the Programme de soutien aux projets économiques.
“We wanted to make a new product for one of our existing clients, and especially make shelves and risers,” explained Hébert. “With these new installations, we will increase our production 25 percent, and it will create 30 additional jobs within three years.”
Most of the veneers used at St. Casimir come from Uniboard located in Val d’Or and Abitibi, and Flakeboard in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. Uniboard Abitibi receives fibres and chips from sawmills in the surrounding area, in a radius of more than 300 kilometres from Ferme Neuve in the Laurentians to Matagami, on the doorstep of James Bay.
The 100,000 square feet St. Casimir plant runs five days a week, on 1.25 shifts, with around 50 unionized employees. According to Hébert, labour relations are good between union and management. “We were told that satisfaction rate amongst the employees is high, and our plant is one of the most efficient,” he added.
Many of the employees were invited to participate in the upgrading of the plant. In the past seven years, many enhancements have been made in order to improve production.
“We have installed a pipe system along the ceiling that releases an intermittent mist. This system maintains the proper moisture content—the humidity level must be at a constant 45 per cent.” The custom system was entirely designed and installed by the maintenance team. The piping has been replaced with plastic pipe, and the metal nozzles by paint sprayer-type nozzles to prevent rusting and clogging.
Two years later, the plant purchased an automated panel surface grading system from the Norwegian supplier, Argos Control. “Panel thickness is measured in real time via a Limab laser sensor system,” says Hébert. “This captures an image of the panel surface with cameras, and grades it according to criteria for each product. Sensors check for warp, while a hold-down system flattens the panel during scanning. If the warp exceeds the limit of the hold-down system, then the line will be stopped and the panel must be removed.” The system has a speed of approximately 120 fpm, and can check panels up to 4 feet wide.
At the same time, the new “PureBond” assembly technology was introduced. Using no added urea formaldehyde, this technology allows the hardwood plywood panels to qualify for LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) on any construction project, with credits given for the PureBond system.
In terms of energy consumption, Columbia St. Casimir has been recognized by the Canadian Industry Program for Energy Conservation (CIPEC) of the Office of Energy Efficiency.
Last year, the plant started to fabricate a multiplex panel in beech and linden, and a waterproof laminated panel especially made for shelves with strips. “It gives a value-add to our offers and our products”, says Hébert. “We also bought a 4 feet used gluer, a cold pre-press. The equipment can process 3,000 drawers per shift.”
In order to achieve high efficiency on the production lines, Hébert’s team have relocated some equipment in the plant. “We have changed the gluer, and the workers have less distance to walk in the production process. Our new layout allows us to save time in the production.”
But the most important equipment in term of investment is the press made by Italpresse. “We had two old presses that ran for almost 40 years,” says Hébert. “In 2007, we decided to replace one press with something new, and keep the other press. But this has been a long process, and we’ve had negotiations with various manufacturers. In 2011, we finally made our choice on the equipment proposed by Italpresse. The quality/price ratio is excellent.”
This new press has 18 plates, which combined with the seven plates of the old press, means they have 25 plates available to produce panels at the same time.
The latest investment also includes a brand new saw made by Schelling. This is a FH6 cut-to size model, with 27kW of power. Cutting up to 120 mm, it comes with a 22" display. A brand new IMA edge bander completes the latest investments. “With this equipment, a strip can be glued on the edges of the shelves, which is a product that can easily compete with shelves in melamine,” says Hébert.
With his background in quality control, Hébert is a strong believer in improved work practices. “I have learned that we can make better products with our work force, it’s a matter of organizing our labour. I am quite lucky here—I can count on dedicated and motivated workers,” he concludes.
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