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OSB Payoff

Panneaux Malette's investment of $26.5 million in upgraded facilities has paid off with increased OSB production.

By Tony Kryzanowski

In 1980, the Panneaux Malette waferboard mill in St. Georges de Champlain, Quebec, was a technological wonder, manufacturing a commercial product from poplar, which was considered a garbage wood at the time. But by 1995, even though the mill had since converted to oriented strand board (OSB) production, it was on the verge of extinction because of the greater efficiencies of competing OSB mills.

However, a $26.5 million modernization program put in place since 1995 has resurrected this pioneer from the ashes, saving 120 jobs in this community 20 kilometres north of Shawinigan. The mill has recently changed hands, having been bought out by forestry giant Tembec.

"The first modernization took us from the stone age to the modern age," says engineering and environmental director Doug Buchanan. "In 1995, we invested $12 million to redo all the forming line. If we hadn't done that modernization, the mill would probably not be operating today.

We were at the point of being noncompetitive ." A$14.5 million modernization in 1998 increased flaking and drying capacity to match additional capacity achieved on the forming line in 1995.

The mill has now increased its overall annual capacity by 35 per cent, from 1.2 billion square feet based on one-sixteenth of an inch to 1.6 billion square feet.

About 90 per cent of its production in this robust market is what the company calls a "sausage run" of 7/16ths and 15/32nds OSB. It is cut into four-foot by eight-foot panels, with about 80 per cent of production shipped to the nearby New England states for use in building construction. The rest finds markets in Eastern Canada.

At present, the mill is focussed on producing the most popular building construction sizes. However, Buchanan says since Panneaux Malette is not a large OSB mill, they are able to react to a variety of customer demands when the market is soft.

The mill is presently focussed on producing the most popular building construction sizes in OSB. But because they are not a large mill, Panneaux Malette can also react to a variety of customer demands, turning out tongue and groove product and custom thicknesses.

"We will make thicker and thinner panels and we will do tongue and grooving," says Buchanan. "We can make as thin as one quarter of an inch and we have on a couple of occasions made as thick as one and one eighth. We like to think that we can turn around and say, yes, we can make that ."

The mill consumes about 400,000 cubic metres of poplar and birch annually. It is harvested from within a 170 kilometre radius of St. Georges de Champlain. Given that the area has a large forestry presence, the OSB mill has wood exchange agreements with softwood consumers in the area. The recipe for their OSB is 90 per cent poplar and 10 per cent birch.

Panneaux Malette has plans to spend an additional $8 million to increase capacity on its Siempelkamp press from 12 to 14 openings. However, this will probably result in the need to consume more birch, something that they do not favor because birch and poplar react differently to the OSB manufacturing process. The company is evaluating this investment carefully before coming to a final decision.

"We like poplar-it's a nice wood to work with," says Buchanan. "Birch is smaller on average in diameter, so you have more pieces to put through debarking and flaking. Debarking birch is more difficult than poplar, and flaking is more difficult because it is a harder wood. In drying, it doesn't react quite the same way, and it makes a higher density panel. Resin distribution on it is different. So increasing the quantity of birch to us is the downside, but that may be the only way we can do it ." To delay having to change the wood recipe, the OSB mill has launched an aggressive campaign to recover as much poplar from the manufacturing process as possible.

Even though Panneaux Malette began a significant modernization program of the OSB mill in 1995, it did not experience a financial turnaround until the 1998 OSB "gold rush". Because of the investment that had been made previously, Panneaux Malette OSB was prepared to participate in the hot markets, and it paid off handsomely.

"It certainly brought our figures into the black," says Buchanan, speaking of the mill's participation in the booming 1998 and 1999 market. "Prior to 1998, we had had quite a period when our financial picture was less than desirable. Because the market was so dry, we were really happy to be able to turn that around and see brighter days. It's been good since then, not quite as good as the peak of 1999, but still very encouraging ."

A new Buttner single pass dryer (above) was installed during the last modernization. "It allows us to dry at a lower temperature," says Doug Buchanan, engineering and environmental director at the mill. "The flakes have a longer time in the dryer drum and we believe that gives us a better stability and humidity output".

As the poplar and birch enters the mill, it is slashed to length with equipment provided by Quebec Citybased S. Huot. Then the logs are placed into thawing ponds. Initially, the logs were thawed by floating them in the ponds, but with the help of Vancouver's PS and E Engineering, the mill has designed a system where the logs actually sink in the ponds to a depth of five feet.

They have also added a third pond. Once thawed, 90 per cent of the logs are debarked using a newer, 27 inch Nicholson debarker. Panneaux Malette has retained an older 25inch Forano debarker as a back up. Then it is on to flaking. In 1986, the company installed the world's first Pallman ring flaker. As part of their objective to increase capacity at the front end of the mill, they installed a second Pallman flaker in 1998.

"We chose to stay with Pallman because we knew them and some of the parts between the 1986 and 1998 units are similar," says Buchanan. "The same knives fit on both machines and we have confidence that they make a very good machine ."

Drying is managed by two older, triple pass dryers - similar to MEC dryers - from the now defunct Guaranty Performance Company. As part of the mill's modernization, a third dryer was installed. This time, however, Panneaux Malette opted for a Buttner single pass dryer.

"It allows us to dry at a lower temperature. The flakes have a longer retention time in the dryer drum and we believe that gives us a better stability and humidity output," says Buchanan. "The fact that we are going at a lower temperature also helps with emission control as far as particulate emissions ."

Retention time is about 17 minutes on the Buttner dryer versus two and a half to three minutes with the triple pass dryers. The Buttner dryer has a gentler approach to handling the flakes.

Over the years, the company has made a number of emission control improvements. When they decided to change their dryer supplier, Buchanan says a major requirement was that Buttner could guarantee emission rates within acceptable government limits, a condition that's been met.

At the same time as the Buttner dryer was installed, Panneaux Malette purchased a new GTS energy system furnace that supplies heat to the Buttner dryer and to the thermal oil system that feeds the heat requirements of the press.

The dried flakes proceed through primary and secondary cyclones to clean up fine particulate and are mixed with resin in two, retrofitted CAE blenders. The two original blenders were replaced in 1995 so that the blending process could keep pace with the forming line and the press.

After blending, the flakes are oriented on the Schenk forming line, leading to a 12opening Siempelkamp press. This is one area where the mill made significant modifications so that they could operate more efficiently.

"I think this was probably the last plant that was built using caul plates," says Buchanan. As the caul plates proceeded through the press, the mill needed to head them. The OSB panel was cooked on one side by the caul plate and on the other side by the platen.

"Once we went to a caul screen line, we got rid of the caul plates," says Buchanan. "So there were now many hundreds of pounds of steel in every press load that didn't need to be heated. That allowed us to reduce our cycle time. We went from five minutes to three minutes, so we got a 40 per cent improvement ."

The mill has also realized better uptime with the caul screen system, and is producing a higher volume of top grade OSB, which is a very significant factor in profitability. After leaving the press, the OSB is sawn to size, stacked and strapped. Shipping is split between truck and rail transport. Panneaux Malette has travelled a great distance in just five years, having modernized and increased production by 35 per cent, with only a small staff increase. Now under Tembec's wing, they do not anticipate a significant change in how their OSB is marketed, but they do expect more technical support and the advantages that can come from a larger corporate structure.

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