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Going Vertical 

Canada's largest furniture manufacturer, Palliser Furniture, has chosen to be vertically integrated big-time, with its own cutting rights, sawmill and particleboard plant.

By John Dietz

Canada's sawmill and particleboard operators could walk into the "back door" of Winnipeg's Palliser Furniture Ltd and feel right at home. While being Canada's largest furniture manufacturer, the company is also a vertically integrated operation with its own sawmill and particleboard plant. Although the particleboard plant is small, it's unique in several ways: it relies on urban wood waste for 75 per cent of its fibre; it uses bark in the mix of fibre; and it just may be the only particleboard plant in North America that is operated by a furniture manufacturer. 

Abram DeFehr's basement workshop operation, which began in 1944, has now grown into a furniture giant, but still remains family owned. It has annual revenues of $400 million, more than 4,200 employees and more than three million square feet of manufacturing and showroom facilities in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Germany and Indonesia. Palliser has developed a strong reputation for excellence in the areas of wood and laminated wood products, as well as leather upholstered couches, chairs and motion products. A little more than half of its annual business is in upholstered furniture. 

Arvid Loewen (above) with some of the 100 million pounds of scrap wood, sawdust, kerf and collector dust that is used by Palliser's particleboard division every year. At the Burkle veneer press (below) employees feed glued veneer on to particleboard components destined for the furniture plant.

Palliser's biggest supply requirements are in particleboard and hardwood lumber. Vertical integration guarantees a steady, cost-effective supply of each and provides a powerful value-added component. "If I pay $100 for a cord of wood, by the time that cord of wood leaves the province it is worth between $2,000 and $5,000 to the Manitoba economy," says Arvid Loewen, plant manager of the particleboard division. 

Initially, pulp logs were used for particleboard. "As we got into it, we said it was a shame to make shavings out of a solid log," he recalls. "That's when we set up this small sawmill, to separate some lumber from the pulpwood and to get the highest value possible out of each log. We value the waste from our sawing process." Palliser's sawmill processes 1,300 cords a month, or about five million board feet a year, 90 per cent poplar and 10 per cent jack pine. The poplar is graded and has several applications. The softer jack pine is used for inner components like slats in mates' beds. 

In addition to using its local production, Palliser imports about 10 million board feet of hardwood annually from Wisconsin and Minnesota. It is kiln dried, planed and surfaced at a Palliser mill in southern Wisconsin. The vertical integration of the company extends right into the bush, with Palliser having its own cutting rights. It hires local contractors for all the cutting, slashing and delivery. It also does some quota swapping and some logging on private land. Some highgrade aspen is trucked 700 kilometres south from the Thompson area to the Winnipeg mill. 

Leaves and branches stay in the forest, but not the bark. "Some bark always comes off while processing," Loewen says. "We grind it to a uniform size for mulch and deliver it to nurseries." The rest of the bark goes through the sawmill on the logs, drops off in the stream of wood waste after slabs are trimmed and emerges in the particleboard. "We don't debark," Loewen says. "We had a debarker but we found that it was adding to our overall cost. The little bit of bark you see in our particleboard is negligible, because the whole wood waste stream with any bark in it makes up only about 25 per cent of the total fibre required to run our particleboard plant." Logs are pushed through a gang saw and pieces are then sorted. 

The 18inch German MoringerSash gang saw holds 12 blades in a single frame. The frame travels as a single unit, ripping logs into 17/16thinch green slabs with bark on. The 40 per cent that isn't useable as lumber goes into an Italian Pesa flaker and made into shavings for particleboard. "Our approach, putting the whole log through a gang saw, is unique in North America although it is done in Europe," Loewen says. "We do it because it's very simple, very straightforward and because we want to be better stewards of our natural resources ." About 75 per cent of the unedged slabs are air-dried. It's slower than drying in a kiln, but there's less waste when slabs reenter the mill for the combination planer ripsaw. "If I buy frame lumber from outside, we lose 15 per cent for reripping into the final width. 

We save that by drying with the edges on and then just doing the onestep process ." Palliser uses a 30inch Italianmade Pinaro planerrip saw, with operators hand feeding each slab. Aset of red laser light lines on the table show the precise location for each saw in the machine. The best poplar-furniture grade-is utilized as visible, solid wood fronts and tops. Some palletgrade material is retailed locally. Any remaining fibre, sawdust and shavings are recycled into the particleboard plant. Twentyfive per cent of the particleboard wood fibre requirement is generated from other operations, like the sawmill and imported hardwood, but the majority comes from urban wood waste. Loewen says North America has other particleboard plants that use urban waste wood, but Palliser's plant may be the only one that is dependent on it. 

The particleboard division recycles approximately 100 million pounds of wood fibre a year, or 300,000 pounds a day. It arrives daily by truck, as scrap, sawdust, kerf and collector dust. "We take it all," Loewen says. "For us, this is very cost beneficial. We are, basically, receiving our particleboard supply without cost for the fibre. This plant enables some of our divisions and other wood processors in Winnipeg to avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in landfill disposal fees ." The material is a combination of all the species used in Winnipeg. A high percentage is oak, giving the final particleboard product a unique level of oak content. Other material in the mix includes ash, cedar and even particleboard. "We have adapted our particleboard system to this species mix," Loewen says. "We are so consistently inconsistent in the species that it doesn't matter, our recipe doesn't change much. That is very unique ." 

Palliser had to devise a two stage method to automate the grinding of solid wood waste that varies in size and shape. A loader shuttles day and night between the stockpiled scrap wood and a conveyor belt that feeds scrap into a 150HP American Pulverizer hammer hog. The broken down hog material goes on to a PZ 14ring flaker and emerges at a uniform size, between shavings and sawdust, that is ready for feeding into the particleboard system. Four Leidig silos store the final mix of all the species. "By metering out all four silos at the same time, we ensure a well mixed and consistent recipe," Loewen says. The resin and heat recipe never changes. Finer material from two silos is metered for surface material in the final particleboard; coarser material is metered into the centre of the particleboard. 

Palliser does have the option of using virgin wood for particleboard, if the waste wood supply should ever run short. However, Loewen says, the supplydemand balance has been close to perfect for the past five years. "We have not bought any particleboard from the outside for five years, and we haven't sold any outside, either. Our demand varies somewhat seasonally, but we accommodate it by carrying some inventory ." Winnipeg's supply of waste wood has been adequate but not overwhelming. 

Total production has been increasing at a rate that keeps up with total supply. In November 2000, for the first time in a decade, Loewen says, the flourishing local economy was producing more wood waste than Palliser could accept. It wasn't a problem for the furniture manufacturer, but it could present an opportunity. "It's because the economy is pretty strong and there's a lot of activity," Loewen says.

Right Equipment Key to Energy Cost Reductions

Dried and unedged slabs of lumber are sent into the Pinaro planer rip saw. A set of laser lights on the table helps the operator to optimize the cutting procedure.

Palliser Furniture was heavily dependent on other particleboard suppliers until the late 1980s. To reduce risk, the DeFehr family purchased a small, older particleboard plant that was for sale in West Germany in 1988. Two years later, it was reassembled and operating in Winnipeg. The Dieffenbacher press, after 32 years, is still strong and dependable. Operating 24/7 for 360 days a year, it produces 36 million square feet on a 3/4 inch basis. The 36foot press bed cycles every two minutes. Resin technology is state-of-the-art, says Arvid Loewen, plant manager of the particleboard division. It utilizes the latest advances in urea formaldehyde resin developments. 

Scavengers are added, too, to absorb nearly all the free formaldehyde left in the board during the pressing process. "Our emission levels are very, very low." At first the particleboard plant was set up to its original configuration, but the emissions became a problem. "It was determined that emissions from the drying process were a nuisance to our community," Loewen recalls. Palliser replaced the original cyclone with custom-made equipment-a scrubber to take fines out of the air stream, a heat exchanger and a biofiltration system. That $1million investment restored good community relations. 

As well, the heat exchanger became one of several cost reducing measures. "We wanted to recover some of the investment in the scrubber that was necessary to meet environmental regulations, so we invested a little more for a plate heat exchanger," Loewen says. The stream of air leaving the particleboard dryer at 30,000 cfm is about 105degrees Celsius. It passes over thin aluminum plates in the heat exchanger, warming the cold outside air being drawn into the system to 20 degrees Celsius. Over the winter, Loewen estimates, the heat exchanger is shaving more than $20,000 a month from the natural gas cost of heating buildings. 

After the scrubber and heat exchanger, dryer air still has volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that create an offensive odour. Heating wood fibre quickly to remove moisture generates the VOCs. These are reduced in the biofiltration system. The biofilter is a 5,000square foot bed of pine chips, about three to four feet thick and resting on a perforated floor. Contaminated air, introduced in a crawlspace below the bed of pine chips at 30,000 cfm, filters upward through the chips. The roofedin biofilter operates at close to 30 degrees Celsius and almost 100 per cent humidity, a climate ideal for bacterial growth. 

A fog hangs over the chips in winter, and water drips from the fabric ceiling. "The chips are seeded with bacteria that feed on VOCs. The bacteria degrade nearly all the VOCs into carbon dioxide, and change the whole odour. It's changed to a mild, minty smell like a pine forest, and it disperses a lot faster," Loewen says. Enclosing the biofilter prevents it from drying during very hot days in midsummer. It also reduces the hazard in winter for equipment operators near the biofilter. In the past few years, Palliser has gone on to introduce other measures that recycle energy and reduce costs. 

"We try to get the maximum out of any energy required to run the plant," Loewen says. For example, the dust collector required for sanding operates at 60,000 cfm in an adjoining area where particleboard is covered with veneer. It's using heated air and generating exhaust noise that could be a nuisance. "We direct the exhaust into a simple metal shed that holds 72 lifts of 4x8 stacked and stickered lumber. We fill the shed with green lumber, put the air in at one end and let it move slowly through the whole load. It's just about as effective as a kiln, gives us completely free airdrying and filters the noise completely." Moisture is reduced to below 12 per cent in about 10 days in summer and in 14 to 18 days in winter, with this method.


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