Oct 2004 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal
Making use of the wane
BC’s Synergy Pacific Wood Solutions is making use of waney lumber, taking this low value product and remanufacturing it into high value engineered building materials, such as structural posts.
By Paul MacDonald
Mark Pickering and Stephen Tolnai have a direct message for BC sawmillers: they want your waney lumber. “We like lumber with wane,” says Pickering. “Our production process is very tolerant of waney timber.” The two mill executives are with Synergy Pacific Wood Solutions, an innovative value-added company in British Columbia’s Southern Interior. This low profile company has been methodically working away the last few years at coming up with a production process that turns out new engineered wood products for homebuilders—and at the same time should help local sawmillers deal with their waney lumber. It’s a twist, if you will, on taking a low value product and using it to produce a high value-added product.
There is no shortage of good quality, straight and true lumber currently being produced at BC sawmills. But these mills are also left with a certain amount of low-value, waney wood. Synergy Pacific, of Armstrong, BC, has built a state-of-the-art 100,000 square foot facility that uses a patented engineering process to utilize this very waney lumber to make engineered building materials. At this point, the company is producing structural posts—under the Quattro brand name. But there are plans to expand production into headers and other products. The patented building-block profile used for the QuattroPosts and QuattroHeaders uses a finger-jointed perimeter construction, with a heart free centre. The production process itself is straightforward, but it also considerably re-works the wood they start with.
The waney lumber, which Synergy Pacific sources from local mills, is first kiln dried for moisture content to ensure that adhesive and stability standards are met. The operation has three Muhlbock kilns and two Brunner Hilderbrand kilns on site to handle the drying. The raw material is then merchandized and graded to eliminate defects and ensure product consistency. The finger-jointing process, using equipment from Quebec’s Conception RP Inc, combines structural adhesives with a 9/8-inch long structural finger. From there, the wood, most of it in 40-foot lengths, is processed through one of the operation’s four Weinig moulders, where the patented profile is applied within four-thousandth of an inch precision.
“Synergy Pacific’s building block approach requires incredibly accurate production,” says Tolnai. “The processes have to be significantly more accurate than anything that has typically been done in the wood industry.” The molded pieces of lumber are then assembled, with the profiled sides facing in, into the Quattro post configurations, 6x6 or 8x8 for example, using either a phenol-resorcinol adhesive or an ASTM 2559 tested clear polyurethane adhesive. “Once the glue has been applied, four 40-foot pieces are pressed together in one of the company’s two specially designed presses, depending on the product and size,” explains Pickering. “We have a cold press system that sets up in four minutes. No one else does something like this. It’s incredibly complicated and it’s incredibly proprietary. We assemble four pieces of 40-foot lumber into a post that has a hole in the middle. When we built the production line, we were under the impression that we could not use radio frequency technology for glue curing because it was not a solid block of wood. This forced us to push the boundaries of cold pressing. We are probably one of the leading glue experts in the industry because of what we have been able to accomplish here.”
The plant was set up to operate as a flexible prototype, with the plan to gear up into a production phase. That is a process that brings its own set of challenges, says Pickering. “When we first set up the equipment, there were some things that had to be corrected in order to produce a structurally certified product,” he explains. That included biting the bullet and bringing in a replacement finger-jointing line, the Conception equipment. “There are some issues when you are finger-jointing very waney lumber and our original line simply could not support certification,” says Pickering. “If we couldn’t certify our product, it would limit the market. Our products are innovative and cutting edge, and that makes it very difficult to sell in a building industry that is historically adverse to change. Having structural certification breaks down many of the initial marketing barriers. So the call had to be made for new finger-jointing equipment.”
The process, says Pickering, is very demanding of their equipment. “The end product may look simple but the process is incredibly complicated. The amount of work it takes to make our product is very complex. It has taken us three to four years to get through every detail and not only ensure that we have a highly efficient production process, but that it is being done in a way that maintains consistency and meets standards.” For the first several years, Synergy Pacific was a pilot plant, kind of a research and development wood manufacturing facility. And it is only this year moving into a focused production phase. “We’re ramping things up,” says Pickering. “We’ve transformed the business, we’ve spent the money, we’ve figured out what is wrong, learned from our mistakes and we’ve reconfigured the plant.”
With the right tools in place, they are now operating a full day shift and partial evening shift. But moving their crew of 50 employees from prototype work to production work brings another set of challenges. “It’s quite a shift. It’s moving from maybe running something for three or four hours a day on a prototype basis to doing the same thing every day, every week, and delivering to the market on time. “It’s kind of like taking that nice car that you used to drive only on Sundays and driving it every day—and driving it a lot every day.” They successfully worked at achieving appearance standards, and the most recent goal achieved at the plant—a significant one—is structural certification, opening up new markets. The plant received certification for its product in March. “Getting and maintaining that certification for us is much more complicated than a sawmill or standard value-added facility. For starters, there was no existing standard to certify against for this new innovative product.
Traditional glulam certification does not apply. The other variable is that there are numerous manufacturing steps that must be done perfectly in order to earn the right to put that structural stamp on our posts,” says Tolnai. Developing new markets for their products in the residential home building industry is one of the current challenges. “We’re going to builders and suggesting that rather than using a solid 6x6 piece of wood for a post, they use a 6x6 QuattroPost. The value proposition is simple: QuattroPost is kiln dried, and made of wood that has been chopped and glued. That way the builders don’t have to build a post up—they can just install it. It will not check, twist or split, like solid lumber does… and by the way, it is beautiful.” The post costs more money, but the argument is that in the overall picture, it actually saves them money versus the cost of materials and time in building a post.
Builders have a hard time finding the skilled carpenters to make these posts on site, and when they realize the actual installed cost of a made-up post versus installing a finished QuattroPost, it becomes an easy decision. The key, Pickering says, is working with major US homebuilders like Centex. From there, the wholesalers will get interested, as well as the second tier of homebuilders. But it takes time and effort. “It’s different,” says Pickering. “We’re not selling 2x4s here.” Once they develop these markets for posts and headers, they want to leverage the technology into producing other structural products. One of the biggest benefits to Synergy Pacific’s product could be for sawmillers.
The Synergy Pacific process allows the company to take advantage of the outside of the log where some of the best wood is, but which is downgraded by the mills because it is so waney. “It works for us because we get the wood we want and the mills benefit by increasing their overall recovery,” says Tolnai. “There’s a big synergy there between us and the sawmillers, and that’s why we use the term Synergy for the company name. “There are a lot of sawmills in this region of Canada with a lot of waney lumber that can be difficult to market, and that’s one of the reasons why we put the plant here. We can draw on a lot of relationships.”
While Synergy Pacific has been buying #3 wood, and chopping it, they recently set up a deal with a supplier who is pulling a custom Synergy grade for them. It’s on length, on-grade, and is run straight into the mill. “In a perfect world,” says Pickering,“we would not be a chopper of lumber. I would just feed all the lumber outside companies grade for us into the finger- joint line. But today—because we don’t have all those relationships—we have to chop lumber and get that side of it all together.” But now that they are in a production mode, they can make commitments to purchase set amounts of waney lumber. They are certainly looking to set up other relationships with area mills. Tolnai notes that these relationships might require the mills themselves to do some rethinking. “For big companies, they are used to focusing their production on producing high volumes of a small amount of sizes and grades. We are asking them to add one more sort, but the benefit to their bottom line through increased recovery could be significant.”
Both Pickering and Tolnai admit that developing the overall process at Synergy Pacific has been new to them at times. “We’re building from scratch and there is no template to follow,” says Tolnai. “We draw from our own experience and can apply our own inventiveness and creativity. That’s pretty exciting—and that’s why both Mark and I are working here rather than in a mature business.” From here, the company hopes to build another engineered wood facility, bigger, faster and more focused. But where would it be? “Certainly BC or Western Canada is an optimal location,” says Pickering. “Or we could look at Eastern Canada. There’s all that black spruce that goes into 2x3s, but that also makes very waney 2x4s that we could use. It’s a matter of lining up what makes the most sense because the next plant will be even higher production, so we will need a fair amount of wood.”
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