Opening the door to specialty products
Particleboard plant Canpar has found the formula for success lies in making specialty door-related product, rather than playing in the commodity game.
By Paul MacDonald
While British Columbia is home to many high volume production lumber mills, it also has a good number of wood production facilities that steer away from turning out only dimensional lumber, making a conscious decision to produce specialty wood products. These companies are not interested in playing the dimensional lumber commodity game, with its focus on high production and sometimes razor-thin margins. Canpar Industries, one of only two producers of particleboard in the province, has made the same decision in its sector and now finds itself as the major player in a niche market: it is the largest manufacturer of door core in North America. “If you are playing in the commodity market in particleboard, you really have to be big volume to go against the bigger guys down south,” says Randy Johnson, general manager of Canpar.
The name of the game in that particular market is being the lowest cost producer—period. “We decided that since we are a not a huge volume operation, we were going to have to move in the specialty direction to succeed.” Canpar may not be high volume relative to other big board mills, but their numbers are still impressive—each week the Grand Forks, BC-based plant will turn out upwards of 60,000 particleboard door cores.
It has further developed that door-related niche by taking a strong position in the lock block market, as well, turning out up to 700,000 lock blocks a week. Lock blocks are the concealed blocks of particleboard glued to the inside of a hollow-core door. They provide support for the installation of a lockset. A production challenge is presented in that the different door manufacturers all want different sized door cores and lock blocks. Canpar tried to convince the industry to standardize sizes a few years back, but with no success. “The good news out of that, though, is it means business for us producing all kinds of different sizes, and we’ve built the business around that.”
Johnson notes that they do produce industrial board, but only small amounts. Even the limited amount of industrial board they make is for the countertop market, which again is a special market with special sizes. “This plant is very focused on specialty products.” Getting to this point of being a leader in the door core markets has not been easy, Johnson explains. Conventional, high production particleboard plants will turn out product in four by eight feet or five by eight feet sheets. Canpar customers are producing doors in a variety of sizes, so the door cores might need to be 29 7/8 inches wide—exactly. “It’s a tough market to be in, the sizes are very specialized.
But the plant is configured to meet those needs,” says Johnson. “Most particleboard plants are not set up to meet the needs of this market because of the wide variety of sizes you have to produce. The recovery can be very poor if you don’t have the right system. But this plant is set up to do this kind of work and achieve recovery.” With door manufacturers, such as industry giant Masonite, not using standard size particleboard for cores, Canpar has to have a very service-oriented approach to meet the hundreds of different specs. “In order to succeed in the door core market, you have to have the ‘we’ll make it work for you’ mentality,” says production manager Joe Koftinow. “We have to be very customer driven.” An added value that Canpar delivers to customers that they can make fire-rated door core—in fact, they developed and own a number of specs for fireproof doors.
Customers are then able to follow these specs in making their doors. “We’ve developed the specs over the years, and there are a number of different doors so we have to carry a number of specs,” says Koftinow. “But it’s not cheap. The testing and certification procedure for one design will run to $10,000 and up.” The specific demands of their customers give Canpar an edge over even the most modern competition.
A customer might be looking for their door core or lock block in thick particleboard, say 2 3/16ths inches to be precise. While turning out something like this is second nature to Canpar, the newer particleboard plants with continuous presses can’t produce such an item, at least not economically. These “added-value” services give Canpar a step up in a very competitive industry. Particleboard mills are hungry for business: the North American particleboard industry is currently running at only 69 per cent of capacity. The fibre to feed Canpar comes from about 10 different sawmills in the Southern Interior, including the Pope & Talbot dimensional mill just down the street in Grande Forks.
Material is primarily spruce and fir, with some hemlock and pine, and comes in the form of sawdust and planer shavings. As a residual wood user, they are pretty much at the tail end of the whip in that they have to work with what they get. “We always know what kind of material is coming, but we don’t have any control over what the material is,” says Koftinow. If a mill is cutting one by four, for example, they will get a lot of low-bulk, curly shavings that come from planing one by four. “But whatever they have left over, we’ll take it,” he adds. They usually carry about two weeks of inventory, or about 4,800 tons. This summer was an exception, with the terrible forest fires in BC’s Southern Interior. Due to the logging shutdowns, and uncertainties with sawmills, inventory levels were higher than usual, at 5500 tons.
Fibre from the yard goes through a pre-dryer and a dryer to take fibre moisture down to four or five per cent, from 30 per cent. Canpar has four separate Hallco walking floors in its reclaimer room, which were installed in the last several years, each holding a different type of material. They all feed onto a common belt. “It’s kind of like blending coffee,” says Koftinow. “You can have different kinds of beans or fibre, but it has to fall within a certain range. If there is too much bulk material, for example, it can plug up the system. What we are trying to do is maintain a certain range in the bulk density.”
The operation is two-line: One is a single opening press, a Becker Van Hulen machine, eight by 45 feet long; the other line has an eight opening Diffenbacher press that is original to the plant. After 30 years in the business, Canpar is a veteran company in the particleboard business. But they are by no means complacent, says Koftinow. “On the solid wood side, a two by four today is not any different from a two by four five or ten years ago,” he says. “But with engineered wood products, it’s always changing. The products we produce now are a lot different from what we produced five years ago.”
They have recently taken the initiative to emphasize that particleboard is a “green” product, in that it is produced from residuals, rather than solid wood. It has received the Scientific Certification System’s seal of approval. This type of accreditation does not hurt, the company feels, even though its product is not sold directly to the public. Some retailers are interested in the source of the wood components for finished product, such as doors. “That could be helpful for us, in that it might carry a lot of weight with some stores, such as Home Depot.”
While Canpar has a leading piece of the door core market, they are working to continue developing the business. One would assume that the company would have seen the benefit of a very healthy housing market in the United States, and the resulting good demand for doorstock. “That has happened, but the truth of the matter is that residential housing is a small part of the door market,” explains Randy Johnson. The larger part of the door market for Canpar and its customers includes doors for industrial and institutional buildings. And construction in this sector has only been bumping along.
To get a bigger hold in that broader market, they introduced a new product this year, Architectural Door Core, for architecturally designed doors, such as in large office complexes and schools. Johnson says that they have to continue to be innovative. He cautions that just as lumber producers have to be on guard against competitive products, such as steel studs, the particleboard industry has to watch out for competing products. “We can’t stand still.”
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Tuesday, September 28, 2004