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Flexible Producer

Norbord's OSB operation in La Sarre, Quebec, has tremendous flexibility-it is capable of 150 different size and thickness combinations. 

By Ted Blackman

Lessons learned at Norbord Industries' two small panel plants in La Sarre, Quebec, still serve the company well at its newer, far larger oriented strand board plant there. The $73-million OSB mill, which replaced the small hardwood plywood and waferboard operations, started up in November 1995. "The old plants were small, so our crews were used to niche markets and making panels on order," explains Gino Trudel, general manager at La Sarre. 

"We can be very competitive in commodity markets, but we also have the flexibility for tailor-made products. For example, we now make four types of web stock panels and are working on a fifth to meet one customer's needs." Only five to six per cent of the OSB made at La Sarre is commodity grade. Everything else is manufactured to order. Changing production parameters takes only two to three minutes, Trudel says, adding, "we can make 150 different combinations of sizes and thicknesses." 

The new plant was designed to supply both North American and Japanese markets. It is one of only three in North America designed to manufacture either eight- or nine-foot panels. "At first, we sold a lot of 3x6 and 3x8 panels to Japan," Trudel says. "But the market is not good now because of the yen's weakness and economic problems in Japan. Now we sell all our production in Canada and the United States. 

Web stock of high-density OSB accounts for 25 to 30 per cent of our production." Web stock is used to make wood I-beams. The market for this structural component is growing rapidly as builders seek engineered substitutes for solid wood beams that are increasingly harder to find. Another of the mill's strong points, he says, is its use of six-inch strands instead of the more-common strands three to four inches long. Longer strands add more rigidity to the panel. 

When formed, the two surface layers of strands are laid parallel to the mat's length, while the two core layers are both perpendicular. This ensures maximum panel strength. In addition to wood I-joists, Norbord OSB is used for wall and roof sheathing for homes, furniture frames, packing crates and luggage. Annual output averages 310,000 cubic metres, or 2 billion square feet, 1/16-inch basis. 

The mill consumes about 480,000 cubic metres of logs a year, 90 per cent poplar (aspen) and 10 per cent white birch. Industrial products coordinator Marc Ladouceur says wood is hauled as far as 300 kilometres to the mill, though most is sourced within 150 kilometres. About 70 per cent comes from licences on Crown land; the rest is from a mix of private and municipal forests. 

With timber harvesting becoming more controversial in recent years, Ladouceur says they face the challenge of finding ways to make operations acceptable to the public. "We are making smaller clearcuts and designing harvest blocks in checkerboards. We use machines that have lighter impact on the forest, that cut lower stumps and leave less slash behind. We try to eliminate skid trails and take out as much wood as possible. We want the public to continue to let us operate."

It's not only the public that timber companies have to please. Customers are also getting more choosy about which wood they will buy. Norbord's woodlands operations in Canada and the United States already have ISO 14001 certification. 

This label attests to sustainable forest management practices. Because Home Depot is a major Norbord customer, Norbord is also seeking certification from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). SFI is a program created by the American Forest and Paper Association to assure consumers that labelled wood products are made from sustainably managed forests. "Certification is important for our clients and for the regions where we operate," Ladouceur says. "Many people believe that forestry devastates the land. Our environmental management program includes reducing the visual impact of our operations." 

In addition to La Sarre, Norbord makes OSB in Val d'Or, Quebec, and at three American mills. Knowing that raw materials are sustainable reassures Norbord's clients. As for the panels, their manufacture is also certified. The company gained ISO 9002 certification for its manufacturing process in 1999. This process begins with the arrival of logs, which are delivered in eight-foot bolts. From storage, logs are dumped in conditioning ponds of water heated to around 60 degrees Celsius in winter. Two hours in the hot water thaws all but the centres of logs in winter; in summer, the water is not heated.

The soaking also serves to wash off dirt. The mill consumes around 1,500 cubic metres of logs a day, running a 24/7 operation with four shifts. Conditioned logs move up a jackladder/unscrambler from the ponds to two debarkers, a Nicholson A5A and a Forano. Bark is conveyed to two Wellons burners (furnished by Salton, the firm's Canadian representative), which heat thermal oil for the dryers and press and provide other heat needed in the process. 

Norbord has to buy additional bark, as the mill does not generate enough to fuel the burners. Next are two CAE stranders, which reduce logs to six-inch flakes and feed them to a pair of Koch conveyor dryers. The dryers operate at 160 degrees C, a low-temperature solution that greatly reduces emissions to the air. Trudel notes that the dryers emit less than two per cent of the amount allowed by the plant's environmental permits. 

It takes about six minutes for strands to traverse the 200-foot-long dryer tubes. The operator controls the dryer-conveyor speed to assure proper moisture content as the strands exit the dryer and move to a Coil blender. With wax and powdered phenolformaldehyde resin applied, strands are conveyed to a four-stage Schenck forming line. It lays down the four-layer cross-oriented mat described earlier. 

A Walker metal detector looks for tramp metal. A Dieffenbacher saw cuts the continuous mat to the proper length; Schwabediessen supplied the mat edge trimmer. The mat is weighed to ensure it meets production parameters, then is conveyed onto a screen. This assembly moves into the Schenck press loader, which feeds the 10-opening, 9x24-foot Siempelkamp press. The press operates at 200 degrees C. Its shortest cycle for thin OSB is about 105 seconds; pressing a 7/16-inch panel takes three minutes. Trienco supplied the blow detector. 

"This was the first Schenck-Siempelkamp cooperative project in North America," Trudel says. "The two companies had worked together before in Europe." The two companies chose Allen- Bradley controls for the press line. Schelling supplied Pilz controls for its panel saw line. "Marrying" the various sets of computer controls was a challenging process, he says, conceding that the plant's 18-month startup was "extremely difficult." Now that the plant is running smoothly, changing among the 150 different types of OSB it can make is a simple process. 

As master panels exit the press unloader, Globe panel saws square up the 9x24-foot master. Final sizing is on the Schelling line, which saws "books" of 10 to 12 panels. Trim and rejected panels are hogged and returned to the process for reuse. Each panel is inspected and stamped; edges are coated if customers wish. An Acme strapper prepares bundles for shipping. About 55 per cent of product is shipped by train via a rail siding inside the warehouse. Trucks haul away the remaining 45 per cent.

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