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New MDF plant in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario

Summary: GP Flakeboard launches a new MDF plant in Sault Ste. Marie, creating 87 jobs with a primary fibre diet of sawdust — not so long ago shipped to the landfill.

By Tony Kryzanowski
Copyright 1996. Contact publisher for permission to use.

The new GP Flakeboard Ltd. Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF) plant in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario has attracted plenty of attention from local residents. That’s because this Great Lake city has depended almost entirely on the steel industry for nearly a century.

Situated on 120 acres along the St. Mary’s River between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, the joint-venture plantis in startup mode. It is one of two competing MDF plants coming into production in Ontario . Both MDF plants have a noticeable Alberta flavour, with managers in both facilities previously employed in Alberta MDF facilities. That should come as no surprise, considering that the West Fraser Timber Co. MDF plant near Whitecourt, Alberta is considered among the best producers of MDF in North America.

“Sault Ste. Marie has been very much a steel town for the past 90 years ,” says GPF lake board spokesman Anthony Dicaspario. “We received a very warm reception. Not only are residents happy that we are another employer, they also appreciate what type of employer we are.”

Continuous At one time the city’s main employer, Algoma Steel, employed up to 15,000 workers. Now that number has dropped to about 7,000. Although GP Flakeboard employs only 87 people, 80 are local residents. The MDF manufacturing process uses wood fibre once considered 100 percent landfill waste. Sault Ste. Marie’s new MDF plant is just one more example of a larger multi-national recognizing the value of including engineered wood products with lumber and plywood in their marketing package.

The forest industry’s two main engineered wood products are MDF and Oriented Strandboard (OSB). Unlike OSB, which is a plywood replacement used in the construction industry, MDF finds uses in the furniture and cabinet-making industry. Sault Ste. Marie’s GP Flakeboard plantis two-thirds owned by Atlanta-based Georgia Pacific and one-third owned by St. Stephen, New Brunswick - based Flakeboard. It is the first of two new Ontario MDF plants; the other is located in Pembroke, Ontario. That plant is also a partnership between Macmillan Bloedel and a local investors’ group called FIDIV.

The raw material for the GPF lakeboard plant is wastewood in the form of sawdust, chips, or shavings from area sawmills. The best MDF material comes from softwood waste. Dicaspario says they will use about 20 per centchips and 80 per cent sawdust to manufacture MDF. Their estimated annual production is 120 million squarefeet, based on 3/4” thickness.

Their target customers are ready-to-assemble furniture manufacturers and distribution centres in Canada and the US, of which there are many in eastern Canada and the US. That is one reason why locating in Ontario made sense. Two separate marketing arms will sell the GPFlakeboard product: one office in Toronto for the Canadian market, and a separate entity called GP American for the US market. Their focus is on high-end users.

Kimwood Dicaspario says Georgia Pacific’s partnership with Flakeboard is a new experience for the company. They have traditionally managed projects on their own. Both companies “found each other” in 1992. Georgia Pacific wanted to enter the Canadian market, and Flakeboard wanted to build an MDF plant. The partnership made sense because Flakeboard understood Canadian markets and where to find raw materials.

“Its no different than if you or I wanted to start a business in Arkansas ,” says Dicaspario. Georgia Pacific owns one other MDF plant in Holly Hills, South Carolina. In 1992, Flakeboard ’s main product was particleboard. Today they also produce a thin MDF product at their St. Stephen plant. In addition to building the Sault Ste. Marie MDF facility, Georgia Pacific andFlakeboard partnered to purchase a particleboard plant out of receivership in Bancroft, Ontario, located about three hours north of Toronto . Since then, about a year and a half ago, they have invested heavily in new equipment at Bancroft. Dicaspario says both facilities work closely together, benefitting from their collective experience, since they are"rookies" in the business. Unlike MDF, which can be painted and routed, furniture manufacturers use particleboard primarilyas substrate material.

Free trade did not factor into Georgia Pacific's decision, says Dicaspario. Nor did the Ontario government offer any financial inducement to locate in Sault Ste. Marie or to purchase the Bancroft facility; however, Sault Ste. Marie's economic development authority lobbied hard to attract the MDF plant.

"There were four reasons why we located in Sault Ste. Marie," says Dicaspario. "The reasons were abundance of raw material, the skill level ofthe city's work force, proximity to markets and the infrastructure within the city itself."

MDF markets were strong when GP Flakeboard launched the project, and there was no indication of a second facility taking shape in Pembroke. The MDF market has since cooled off, but this product tends to be less susceptible to market fluctuations compared to other wood products. GP Flakeboard had a few minor delays prior to startup, but are now underway. They are also in the process of formalizing the verbal agreements they have in place for supply of raw material.

Trucks dump sawdust and chips into a large storage facility located next to the MDF plant. The chips and sawdust are pneumatically blown over by Megatechblowers, entering the plant's Hymac refining equipment. At this stage, the wood material is pre-steamed, ground into finer bundles, and mixed with dry resin and scavenger that will react later in the process as the bonding agent. After refining , the wood material blows over to an MEC flashtube dryer, and then through dryer cyclones into a lump separator.

Dicaspario Once through the lump separator, the material enters Thayer weigh conveyors that measure fibre density and volume. Density and volume havea major impact on MDF quality. After being weighed, the material enters the Bison forming box. Bison built the MDF proj ect as a turn key operation, assisted by Casey International. About 530,000 construction hours were logged building the facility, and the companyinjected a major boost into the local construction economy. About 500,000 of those hours were completed with localworkers .

The Bison forming box dumps fibre, shaped into massive, 2'-thick rectangles,onto a conveyor that leads to the world 's largest Deiffenbacher continuous press. At this point, the fibre is heated and pressed to create MDF, delivering a continuos ribbon from the output end. GP Flakeboard produces MDF in 8' or 10' widths, in lengths between 16' and 24'. They have the ability to produce MDF according to customer needs by custom utting. After the press, the board is trimmed using Globe flying cut off saws, and enters a series of board coolers. Either Globe or Burelbach provide equipment for the entire finishing area. Once finished, MDF boards encounter several Kimwood sanders, and then enter a grading station for sorting and strapping. Trucks will ship inventoried MDF to Canadian and US markets.

GP Flakeboard has put considerable effort into employee training. Only three of the plant's 87 employees have MDF manufacturing experience. Training began last summer, and became more intense this past December and January as startup approached. Each MDF technician will receive in excess of 200 hours training each year. Dicaspario says the management team has placed a high priority on the minimal environmental impact their MDF plant will ave, while promoting the benefits of usinga landfill product.

"We've been proactive even before we made a board," says Dicaspario. They are fully aware of how some branches of the forestry industry, such as the pulp and paper sector, have taken a bad rap because of their manufacturing processes. GP Flakeboard, on the other hand, isusing a high-efficiency bag house for particulate collection. Sander dust and board trim is recirculated in-house, and routed back to the furnace for use as fuel in the production process. The heat plant air-cleaning system uses a multiclone and electrostatic precipitator that electrically charges and captures minute particulate. They filter and route press exhaust to the heat plant for burning, and have provided facilities for retention of liquids on site, should an accidental spill occur. They have a retention pond for collecting storm water, and will maintain a natural wetland on the waterfront. They have also invited their industry neighbours to tour the facility. "People are surprised that we've been out in the community," says Dicaspario.

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