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Dec Jan 2004/2005  - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal


Tweaking the equipment

Ontario’s Panolam Industries has worked hard to tweak its panelboard and melamine equipment so it can turn up production, while at the same time reducing waste material—and has won environmental awards in the process.

By Ray Ford

A John Deere 644H loader loads wood residue to feed the Bison line at the Panolam plant. All of the company’s product is made from sawdust, shavings, wood residue from sawmilling and some recycled product from industrial or municipal wood waste.

Baskin-Robbins scoops 31 flavours. H J Heinz squeezes out 57 varieties. But Huntsville, Ontario-based Panolam Industries Ltd transforms sawmill residue into hundreds of different looks and textures—many of them destined to furnish offices and boardrooms throughout North America. “There’s between 400 to 500 colours we can access,” says plant manager Glenn West. “We produce the commodity colours: white, almond, grey and black, but we also target the more high-end market. We consider this a quality product, and we have a reputation for high quality.”

Variety may be the spice of life, but it’s also a marketing edge for Panolam, which produces particleboard and thermally fused melamine panels for office furniture, kitchen cabinets, and retail shop fixtures. Finishes run the gamut from textured cherry and mahogany to marble and a rainbow of colours. The wide range of finishes is both an effort to meet the final customer’s specifications and a plan to differentiate Panolam from its competitors. “We do some stock for big-volume products,” West says. But almost all their product is made to order for firms specializing in office furniture and cabinets. Built by Domtar in 1976, the plant originally housed a single production line for particleboard and another for melamine panels. In 1990, a second particleboard line was added, along with two laminate lines and two paper treaters to impregnate papers with resin for laminate production. A melamine plant was also installed, allowing the operation to mix its own melamine in-house.

Today, Panolam has grown and diversified to include operations in Oregon, Georgia, Tennessee, Indiana, California and Maine, producing particleboard and melamine panels, as well as high pressure laminate, treated papers, aircraft laminate, and specialty resins. A walk through the Huntsville plant, which sprawls over a 66-acre site in the heart of Ontario’s cottage country, is an eye-opening glimpse into the value and sheer usefulness of wood residue. Thirty-five to 40 transports a day roll onto the site, filling a massive green storage barn with millwork shavings, flooring scraps, sawmill waste, even the chewed-up remains of pallets and the scrap ends of construction lumber. The kind of wood waste that used to be burned or landfilled is Panolam’s lifeblood.

Some 200,000 oven-dried tonnes a year of wood material is required to produce the 150 million square feet of particleboard at the Panolam plant in Ontario. Panolam employee Julie Blandford  works on manual laminates on the laminator line.

The firm gathers 200,000 oven-dried tonnes a year to produce about 150 million square feet of particleboard. The residue’s common denominator is it’s either recycled or diverted from waste, earning the plant an environmentally preferred rating from the Composite Panel Association. “We don’t use any roundwood,” West says. “All our product is made from sawdust, shavings, wood residue from sawmilling and some recycled product from industrial or municipal waste.” The ratio between softwood and hardwood “is relatively flexible,” West says. “It can vary from 80:20 to 60:40, but it’s usually 60:40. The softwood is white pine, spruce, and the hardwood includes a lot of maple and birch.”

The material is screened to remove bark, large chips (and chunks of ice in the winter), processed to remove stones and any metal, and ground into particles by either a hammer hog or flaker knife. Drying is vastly different than the kiln drying SPF producers are familiar with. Wood chips are dried down to just two per cent moisture, tumbling through an MEC EcoDry unit or two 1970s-vintage Guaranteed Performance machines like laundry in an oversized clothes dryer. The constant flow of hot, dry wood dust makes fire safety a priority for Panolam and its 217 employees.

A saw cuts panels (above) on the ContiRoll line at the Panolam operation.

The plant has its own industrial fire-fighting and first-aid team on site to douse blazes or look after injuries until city-based fire and ambulance crews come from Huntsville. Two particleboard lines transform the residue into panels. The oldest line features the single-opening 5x56-foot Bison press, a fixture at the plant since 1971. The newer line—installed almost 15 years ago—is a Siempelkamp ContiRoll continuous press. Forming particleboard is like making a layer cake, with the wood particles playing the role of the flour and the resin acting like eggs and shortening. Each production line adds the right ingredients in the right order, using air pressure to separate particles so the largest pieces are sandwiched between layers of medium and fine particles.

The resin sticks the concoction together, and the wood-fibre “cake” is pressed and heated to produce particleboard. While the Bison churns out its cakes in batches, typically producing panels that are cut into 5x8s, 5x10s, or 5x12s, the Siempelkamp cranks out a constant flow of particleboard pastry, sawing across the width of the moving panel to produce sheets as large as 4x12. After cooling, the boards are sanded to ensure the faces are perfectly flat and the edges meet the nominal size. A Coe sander finishes panels on the Bison line, while a Steineman unit looks after boards from the Siempelkamp. Lamination puts the icing on the cake.

The plant has two Siempelkamp laminate presses, a pair of Dieffenbacher units, and one WemHoner press to thermally fuse melamine-treated paper to the outside of particleboard panels for a tough, durable finish. Panolam brings in paper from outside suppliers, but the Huntsville operation melamine-treats much of the paper it uses, importing additional papers from Panolam’s operation in Maine. The result is a complex logistical operation to ensure papers are available to meet current contracts. “When you consider the hundreds of papers we have available to us, with all the different sizes and patterns, it keeps us hopping,” West says.

Virtually everything in the operation—ranging from raw residues to particleboard, melamine panels, and papers—is stored under cover. Treated papers are kept supple in a controlled-environment room where the temperature averages about 65 degrees F and the relative humidity is a steady 30 per cent. Up to four million square feet of particleboard and five million square feet of finished, melamine-sided panels shelter in warehouse space alongside the production lines.

Even the sawdust has to be kept dry, to reduce drying costs and speed production. Cost control is a focus with any company, but exporters like Panolam are paying particular attention to the bottom line these days. “About 50 per cent of our product is sold in Canada, and the other 50 per cent goes to the US. That demand has been relatively consistent, but things like the rise of the Canadian dollar haven’t helped,” says West, who has worked at the plant since 1991. “We look at every opportunity to reduce waste and improve our efficiencies,” he adds. “Take the oversized matter that comes off our scalping screen: we used to send that to landfill. Now that’s screened and sold for mulch. That’s been one way of cutting down on landfill costs.”

Other efforts to reduce waste include salvaging rejected particleboard for use as packaging material, or grinding it for reprocessing. Sander waste is burned to fuel the dryers, eliminating waste and cutting down on the natural gas bill. “Eighty to 90 per cent of the energy used for drying comes from burning wood. It’s rare that we burn straight gas. Usually we’re using gas to maintain the pilot flame.” Waste reduction not only helps the bottom line, it supports the company’s environmental commitment. During the past decade the Huntsville plant has slashed waste by more than 80 per cent, diverting about 38,000 tonnes per year. The effort has helped the plant become a three-time recipient of the Recycling Council of Ontario Award of Excellence.

Equally important is the productivity gains Panolam staff have achieved thanks to more efficient resin formulation, more effective drying of the raw material, and upgrades to the particleboard presses. “The push is to improve our capacity on the particleboard end so we don’t have to buy any,” West says. “Both lines have been modernized since their inception, and both run at almost double their original capacity, thanks to improvements in hardware and software. “The ContiRoll was originally designed for 8,000 square feet per hour, but we can currently run up to 16,000 square feet per hour when the conditions are right. In the summertime, when the wood is drier and the chip temperature is higher, we can really rock and roll.” Similar gains have been made with the Bison, boosting its production from the 5,000 square-feet per hour it was originally designed for up to the 10,000 range.

Adding value, trimming waste, improving efficiency and offering customers hundreds of choices are all part of Panolam’s effort to be an industry leader in composite wood products. In the highly competitive business of turning wood residue into panels, you can’t merely be content to let the chips fall where they may.

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