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With a $20-million investment, a mothballed Alberta strawboard plant has been resurrected as a wood-based particleboard plant.

By Tony Kryzanowski

After operating for only three months as a straw-based particleboard plant and then closing its doors, an Alberta facility has been resurrected as a wood-based particleboard plant thanks to a $20-million investment by a Smithers, BC company. Northern Engineered Wood Products (NEWPRO) has now operated the facility for a little more than a year.

The Daproma Systems forming line places three layers of wood fibre on a caul plate at NEWPRO’s particleboard plant in Alberta. NEWPRO supervisor Ted Friesen (right) inspects dryer performance in the plant.

It brought experience in manufacturing wood-based particleboard to the deal, having purchased a smaller plant in Smithers in 1995. However, that facility is limited to manufacturing particleboard up to four feet wide. The Wanham, Alberta plant has the ability to produce five-foot wide particleboard. Since that represents 50 per cent of the market, NEWPRO recognized the purchase of the mothballed Wanham plant was an opportunity for expansion.

The company was also able to salvage and modify most of the strawboard plant’s major components, such as the press, pre-press, forming line, heating system and sander, not to mention a practically new building that housed the components. Despite a 30 per cent drop in world particleboard prices since company owner Dean Shaw purchased the plant—as well as the uncertainty of power prices resulting from Alberta’s decision to deregulate power transmission and distribution in the province in 2000—the company is managing to move its product and has earned a reputation for high quality.

“While we haven’t yet achieved everything we want to do with this plant, we have met our quality standard,” said general manager Richard Norton earlier this year. “Between 95 and 98 per cent of our production is on grade.” Today’s tight market has put even more pressure on the plant to consistently produce a high level of quality particleboard.

NEWPRO purchased the plant just as particleboard prices began tumbling due to new production from competitors coming on stream and the American economy falling into recession. Right now, customers can go out and buy really good board at—from the company’s standpoint—bargain board prices, says Norton. “You have to make a good product if you want to move it.” He says one advantage the company has is its high quality and clean sawdust and shavings supply, allowing it to produce “blonde board”. Because of the board’s lighter color, NEWPRO’s clients are able to use lower-cost, thinner overlays.

A darker board would show through the overlay. Norton adds that because the company has an established client list due to its history in four-foot wide particleboard production, entering the five-foot market and moving production has been easier. worked out in the end. Initially, as power deregulation took effect, a number of brokers attempted to sign the company to long-term contracts at 15 cents per kW/hr.

The company decided to stick with the provincial grid price instead and, although there was an initial spike in power rates, they have now fallen to about two cents per kW/hr. Eventually, the company will be required to sign up with a power reseller. Power deregulation is also impacting the company’s ability to secure sawdust and shavings as area forestry companies attempt to lower their power costs by building their own power generation or co-generation facilities using wood waste as a feedstock.

Consequently, NEWPRO has had to search further afield for the raw material it needs to manufacture its projected 85 million square feet of particleboard annually, based on 5/8th inch thickness. While dealing with the uncertainty of power deregulation in Alberta has been challenging, the company was eager to enter the Alberta market because of the reasonable cost of doing business in the province and because Western Canada’s major particleboard purchasers are in Calgary. “There are some very large customers there that we would be very interested in serving,” says Norton. “We’re just starting now to get in the doors.”

The residual wood energy projects aside, particleboard plants are usually a welcome addition to any forestry environment because they use wood residuals in their manufacturing process. NEWPRO’s arrival in Wanham was no exception. Shipping its sawdust and shavings to the particleboard plant has allowed the Boucher Bros sawmill near Peace River to shut down its burner. As part of its agreement with wood residual suppliers, NEWPRO has installed bins and access systems at each location to pick up the raw material. Trucking company Lomak, based in Prince George, has the contract to transport wood residuals to Wanham.

They dump their loads in designated areas at a 250 foot by 300 foot storage area, depending whether they are delivering green sawdust, dry sawdust or shavings. The storage area consists of four metering bins. One of the bins stores green sawdust. Before the raw material can enter one of the three bins supplying the plant, it is sent through a Ponndorf hot oil dryer to dry it down to the same percentage as planer shavings.

NEWPRO invested heavily in automation wherever possible when it converted the plant. “The metering bins that supply the plant all have variable speed drive conveyors,” says Norton, “so that we can set our percentages out of those bins to feed the plant with a PLC.”

Once inside, the wood residuals pass through an air density separator, which allows any heavy material to drop out. NEWPRO has found anything from hard hats to measuring tapes buried in the material. Once through the air density separator, the cleaned material encounters an Acrowood diamond roll screen. It separates the finer face material from the coarser core material. Any oversized wood material passes through a hammermill and is re-circulated through the diamond roll screen.

The separated fine and coarse material then proceeds down two separate conveyors for storage in two Raute Wood wet bins. NEWPRO took advantage of the management experience it had developed in Smithers by initially moving that plant’s maintenance manager to oversee the Wanham plant’s conversion and commissioning, then transferring the BC plant’s production manager to Wanham to direct start-up and actual particleboard manufacture. Dealing with power deregulation has been quite a learning experience for NEWPRO management. It was a major concern because of the plant’s high power consumption and something Norton admits they weren’t particularly well prepared for.

However, it has all In order to ensure moisture content consistency, two conveyors transport the fine and coarse material through a double-bundle Ponndorf dryer. The fine material is dried to between seven and eight per cent moisture content and the core material down to between two and three per cent. Once dried, the material is stored separately in two Raute Wood, 3,000 cubic metre dry bins. The raw material is summoned into the manufacturing process as needed and proceeds along a weigh scale and metering belts to Littleford blenders.

As the material rolls through the weigh scales, the glue kitchen receives a signal indicating how much glue and resin needs to be sprayed into the blender to match the weight of the material. Once properly mixed, the fine and coarse material is conveyed to the forming line. The caul plates that carry the raw material throughout the most important part of the manufacturing process are the backbone of the Swedish-made Daproma Systems forming line.

First a layer of fine material is spread on a caul plate, then a layer of coarse core material, then finally a second layer of fine material on top. Once the caul plate clears the third former, it hits a hurry-up belt to pull it away from caul plates behind it and speeds toward the Norwegian-made Fjellman pre-press. It is a non-heated press that is used primarily on NEWPRO’s thicker boards to consolidate the mat. Prior to entering the press, the caul plates experience a final inspection at a weigh station.

At this point, if there is any problem with the consistency or content of the board material, it can be dumped into a recycling bin and re-injected into the system. A caul plate from a rejected load returns to the back of the line. If everything checks out, the plate is loaded into a loading cage. Once its seven positions are filled, the caul plates are pushed into the Fjellman-press.

After the prescribed cooking cycle, the caul plates exit the press. The particleboard encounters a caul separator, flipping the board off the caul plate. The particleboard proceeds onward through an Ultrasonic Arrays blow detector and thickness gauge, while the empty caul plates are cooled and cleaned before re-joining the production line. Once certified as properly manufactured, the board is sawn to exactly 61 inches wide by a Globe saw and placed in wicket coolers for an hour for proper setting up of the resins.

After cooling, a second Globe saw system cuts the 18-foot master panel into either two, nine-foot panels or an eight- and 10-foot panel. The panels are stacked according to size, then transported by forklift to warehouse storage or directly to the sander. The particleboard plant is equipped with a Steinneman, six-head sander. Once sanded, the board receives a final inspection and is graded before strapping and shipping by rail.

A rail spur and building expansion for indoor loading was a major part of NEWPRO’s $20-million investment. A number of NEWPRO’s customers have asked for a laminated product, so the company has definite plans to incorporate a laminating process at both its Smithers and Wanham facilities.

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