By Lindsay Mohlere
Since its beginnings, Freres Lumber Company has thrived in spite of the wild rollercoaster ride of the lumber business. By investing in ingenuity and innovation, it has become one of the premier wood products manufacturing companies in the Pacific Northwest.
According to Rob Freres, the company’s executive vice president, Freres Lumber has embraced technology and “never quits upgrading,” in order to stay on the leading edge of efficiency and competition.
Founded by T.G. Freres in 1922, and currently managed by third-generation family members, the company has grown from a small, local sawmill to a diversified engineered wood products company producing green and dry veneer, high-quality sheathing, touch-sanded plywood panels, custom industrial and standard lumber products, chips, sawdust, and bark dust.
$100 Million in Upgrades
Over the past 12 years, Freres Lumber, located in Lyons, Oregon, has spent nearly $100 million in plant upgrades. In 2016 alone, the company invested over $10 million on upgrades, which included replacing an ADCO West stud mill with a HewSaw Series R200 setup, which helped increase output and chip production. West Coast Industrial Systems Inc. of Lebanon, Oregon, provided engineering, procurement, and construction services to facilitate the HewSaw installation.
“We operate the HewSaw to process core from our veneer manufacturing operations and small-diameter timber approximately six inches and smaller in 8-foot, 9-foot, and 10-foot lengths,” explains Rob. “We produce custom industrial and standard lumber products to customer specifications. Our primary lumber products are variations of 2 x 3 through 4 x 6 dimensions. Examples of the wide variety of products that we can produce are landscape timbers, standard and better lumber for truss manufacturing, and heat-treated products for export packaging.”
Noting that their plants are now up to date, Rob says they may coast for about a year before upgrading other facilities.
“It gives our maintenance personnel a chance to troubleshoot and get the bugs out and make the plant run better,” he says. “We saw similar production results in 2016, where we were producing the same as what we produced in the prior year—but we were able to achieve that production in only nine months versus a full year.
“We were running with far less overtime because our plants were running better. It’s all because the maintenance crews were able to concentrate on making our new installations perform at a higher level.”
Freres Lumber also replaced the crane rails under their Kone crane, built a new maintenance shop for the company’s rolling stock, installed a new AKI Grenzbach dryer, and purchased five new Kenworth tractors and trailers.
To help maintain top efficiency, the company operates over 30 highway trucks utilizing a combination of flatbed maxis, curtain vans, and chip trailers. Freres trucks deliver product throughout Oregon, Washington, and California and backhaul from various locations in the Northwest.
The company also fields 15 log haulers and an assortment of roadbuilding equipment used mainly for road reconstruction, landings, spur roads, and maintenance on timber sale roads.
Mass Plywood Panels
Taking a giant step forward, Freres Lumber is currently building a specialized manufacturing facility to produce the company’s newest innovation, Mass Plywood Panels (MPP).
MPP is a veneer-based engineered wood product that is a massive, large-scale plywood panel with maximum finished dimensions up to 12 feet wide by 48 feet long and up to 24 inches thick.
Designed for the tall building construction market, MPP was introduced at the North American Wholesale Lumber Association (NAWLA) Traders Market show in October 2016 and is the latest structural system in the mass timber movement. Mass timber and tall wood are terms used to describe technologies that include cross-laminated timber (CLT), nail-laminated timber, laminated strand lumber, laminated veneer lumber—and now, MPP.
The MPP plant will be housed in a new 168,000 square-foot building a short distance from Freres’ main manufacturing facility. Engineering and construction of the plant will be the second-largest expense in company history, Freres says. The estimate is in the $20 million range.
German companies HOMAG Group and Minda Group, along with U.S. company Stiles Machinery Inc., are providing a combination of respective expertise in engineering, automation technology, and machinery to deliver a turnkey solution in construction of the plant. A Minda press and a Weinmann CNC machine are specified to be the main pieces in the manufacturing process.
Oregon companies North Santiam Paving Company of Stayton, and CD Redding Construction of Salem, are the building contractors, with Stiles Machinery overseeing machinery installation. The plant should be up and running by late 2017.
The many benefits of MMP
The advancing technology can be used as an alternative to steel, concrete, and masonry in a variety of mid-rise and high-rise building types. Mass timber buildings are structurally sound and less expensive to construct. Developers and governments have also noted that mass timber construction has significant environmental benefits, is fully renewable, and prevents pollution associated with the manufacturing of concrete and steel.
CLT is a wood panel consisting of three, five, or seven layers of dimension lumber oriented at right angles to one another. It is then glued together to form structural panels and is noted for its strength, dimensional stability, and rigidity. CLT has been used in Europe since the 1990s and is now gaining traction in North America.
Developed as an alternative to CLT, the idea of a mass plywood panel was first hatched in 2015.
Interest in the new mass timber technologies led brothers Kyle Freres (vice president of operations) and Tyler Freres (vice president of sales) to travel with professors and the forestry dean at Oregon State University to Hanover, Germany, to tour CLT plants and attend LIGNA, the largest wood products show in the world.
Prompted by what he learned during the trade show and subsequent tours of the CLT plants, Tyler led the charge to develop an alternative product.
“We have to give a lot of credit to Tyler,” Rob says. “Tyler hand made some of the material to be tested, researched it, and ultimately convinced us to move forward with the product.”
True to the company’s commitment to innovation, Freres Lumber began the process to develop the product.
The fact that MPP was a natural evolution of the company’s present manufacturing process and products was a major influence on the decision to create the product.
“Plywood is already cross-laminated—it’s how we make it,” says Rob. “We thought we could produce a superior product to CLT because it’s similar to how Trus Joist I-beams have replaced solid sawn 2 x 10s and 2 x 12s. They can perform better with a fraction of the wood fiber without the squeaks and defects.
“CLT is low-production and deals with lots of pieces—2 x 6s and 2 x 8s— whereas we deal with large pieces of 4’ x 8’ panels that we scarf together,” he adds. “There’s also an issue of drying. CLT lumber needs to dry to lower moisture content than normal. Plywood does not have that problem. There’s less waste in using plywood rather than lumber.”
Rob explains that using the specialty veneers they make now to produce a new product that others can’t make is a step in diversifying the company’s product mix. “We’re in the Douglas fir region. I don’t think other mills can manufacture what we’re going to make. It won’t have the same characteristics. Southern pine may not have the strength properties of Doug fir. We’re playing to our strength and what we know best.”
The Freres’ veneer plants can efficiently and responsibly use second and third growth timber with a minimum 5-inch block diameter to produce engineered panels. Using the traditional plywood laminating process, natural defects within the log are engineered out of the raw material prior to constructing the mass panel. The compounded veneer layers, and the ability to engineer each individual layer, allow Freres to customize the panels to specific engineering needs.
Rob believes market conditions will also push the product forward. “We feel we are a low-cost producer of the sheathing products we make, and MPP will diversify our product mix away from commodity pricing.”
“We will make a wide variety of products like columns, beams, rim-boards, and long-length plywood in addition to floors and walls for tall buildings. We hope to make complete building packages. Our goal is to have greater pricing power, better margins, and greater stability in sales.”
The “upgrade” philosophy at Freres Lumber has also created other opportunities to diversify the product mix.
In 2007, Freres launched its Evergreen BioPower LLC subsidiary, which produces electricity as a byproduct of heat generated for the plant processing operations.
“It’s sort of like back to the future,” Rob Freres said. “We had a cogeneration plant back in the 1950’s when they were building the Detroit Dam to the east of us. When electricity was cheap and plentiful and reliable from the dam, we took out the co-gen plant.
“In 2005-06, natural gas went to $140 per megawatt. When it hit that price we had the residuals—bark, planer shavings and fines—so we had an internal supply of biomass,” he said. He added that they also had chip vans coming back empty from five different paper mills located in Eugene, Oregon and Longview and Camas Washington, which gave them the opportunity to pick up urban wood at a backhaul price to enhance the raw material they already had.
Because the new bio-power plant could be incentivized by energy tax credits from the State of Oregon and production tax credits for a about a penny a kilowatt from the federal government, the company decided to go ahead with biomass and build a new cogeneration plant.
Soon after the new co-gen plant went on line, the company started selling power to the local public utility.
On the Cover
Rob Keefe attaching a GNSS locator on a carriage with David Henderson Logging at a cedar pole sale near Headquarters, Idaho. Photo courtesy of Ann Wempe.
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