Freres Engineered Wood Blazes Trail for Wood Products

by | Apr 11, 2024 | 2024, March/April 2024, New Technology, Sawmill, TimberWest Magazine, Value Added

LYONS, OREGON – Freres Lumber successfully adapted over the years to changing market conditions, reinventing itself to move forward instead of succumbing to market shifts that might have left it withering on the vine.

Its latest adaptation was the result of developing an entirely new wood product for the building industry – mass ply panels (MPP). It manufactures mass ply building components with the aid of equipment developed and supplied by some of the leading machinery suppliers to the wood products industry.

Plywood ‘blanks’ are scarfed together initially to make laminated veneer lumber (LVL). They are assembled in lengths of 32 to 48 feet, either 2 or 4 feet wide and later used for laying up larger panels.

“We’ve always been about reinventing our business and innovating when adversity hits,” said Kylel Freres, vice president of operations. “That’s what we did back in the 40s and 50s, when we switched from lumber production to veneer.” The veneer was supplied to plywood makers. The company made another transition when the industry developed laminated veneer lumber (LVL), supplying veneer production to manufacturers of LVL. To make better use of downfall material that didn’t make stress grades for LVL, Freres Lumber purchased a plywood plant and began operating it.

“There’s risk involved with a new product,” added Freres. “We look at it as: How can we stay relevant for the next 100 years?”

The company was started by his grandfather, who cleared land for farmers and had a small portable sawmill that he moved with a steam donkey. It marked its 100th year in 2022. With its focus now on mass ply, the company rebranded that year, changing its name from Freres Lumber to Freres Engineered Wood.

Freres Engineered Wood is family-owned. Kyle’s cousin, Rob Freres, heads the company as president. Kyle and his brother, Tyler, manage the day-to-day operations.

The company uses 100 percent of the wood processed throughout its three entities: Freres Engineered Wood Products, Freres Timber, and Evergreen BioPower. Its operations employ nearly 500 people. Freres Timber owns more than 17,000 acres of timberland and harvests that timber on a sustained yield basis. Evergreen BioPower is a biomass cogeneration plant; it uses residual wood products for fuel to produce steam-generated electricity for more than 5,000 households and heat for plant production processes.

The company is headquartered in Lyons, Oregon. It has six plants at three locations within less than 10 miles of each other. The oldest and primary mills produce veneer, and the company also has veneer drying operations. It operates a small stud mill, a plywood mill where about half the company’s employees work, and the mass ply mill, which employs about 20 workers.

In 2015 market challenges were impacting the company’s operations for both plywood and stress graded veneer. At the same time, the Freres team knew their supply of Douglas Fir exhibited superior strength properties for a softwood.

Plywood and commodity sheathing products have come under a lot of pressure from substitute products like oriented strand board (OSB), noted Freres. OSB mills in the South have captured a share of the plywood market, and imports from Brazil now make up about 15 percent of the U.S. plywood market, according to Freres.

“We weren’t getting the value in the market…If we can explore markets that can truly use a strong wood fiber from the Northwest Douglas fir…that’s what we really wanted to focus on as opposed to bottom feeding Brazil and other producers.”

The brothers began researching cross laminated timber (CLT) that year. In Europe, CLT and mass timber was designed to replace steel and concrete in high-rise building construction. They traveled to Germany with others in the management team and a group from Oregon State University and toured some CLT plants. “We couldn’t justify using that much wood,” said Freres.

“We looked at everything through a veneer lens,” explained Freres. In other words, “How can we potentially use our existing operations to develop a veneer-based product.”

Their research included meeting Gerhard Schickhofer in Austria, who’s PhD research on CLT in 1994 laid the groundwork for its development in Europe. They discussed their idea for developing mass ply panels from veneer. “He thought there was an opportunity there,” said Freres.

The company was no stranger to the engineered wood industry. It has been supplying veneer to companies that use it to manufacture LVL (Laminated Veneer Lumber) since the 1980s.

Manufacturing mass ply panels (MPP) begins with veneer. Veneer is still the primary product by volume for Freres Engineered Wood. About 30-50 percent is used to make plywood ‘blanks’ for MPP production.

The Freres team did some aggressive research and development and made some mass ply panels, partnering with OSU faculty on initial design and testing. They quickly decided to move forward, breaking ground on a new plant in 2017 and manufacturing the first mass ply panels the following year.

The Freres did nothing short of develop a completely new type of engineered wood product: mass ply panels (MPP). They have patented MPP in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The company has continued to work with a number of universities for other types of testing. For example, Clemson University conducted tests to determine if MPP could withstand hurricane force winds.

Freres Engineered Wood launched into mass ply panel production with a capital investment of $30-35 million that has since grown to $45 million.

Although its name may suggest otherwise, mass ply is not composed of sheets of plywood. Rather, it is composed of 1-inch layers of structural composite lumber (SCL), a veneer-based engineered wood product, certified under ASTM D5456. Unique SCL layups allow the mass timber panel to be constructed with stability across both axes of the panel.

Freres Engineered Wood has engineered MPP to enhance the natural strength of the wood while adding dimensional stability. Panels can be constructed with a combination of cross-grain and long-grain components. It can be processed to required specifications; floor, roof and wall panels can be manufactured as large as nearly 12 feet wide, 48 feet long, and 12 inches thick.

Mass ply can be used for any mass timber application, including floor, roof and wall panels. Mass ply is strong and fire-resistant, making it an acceptable building material up to 18 stories. It is also lighter, more economical, and more environmentally sustainable than traditional building materials such as concrete and steel. Mass ply uses about 20 percent less wood than CLT and is as strong as other SCL products.

One of the benefits of veneer manufacturing is that it recovers more wood fiber than traditional lumber manufacturing and the process of breaking down a log. In addition, veneer manufacturing is ideally suited for taking advantage of small logs that are being harvested to restore forest health and mitigate wildfires. The small logs have little defects, small knots, and tight grain. Veneer also is easier to dry than lumber, noted Freres. A sheet of veneer can be dried to target moisture levels in as little as six to 12 minutes.

The Freres launched into mass ply panel production with a capital investment of $30-35 million that has since grown to $45 million. The 175,000-square-foot mass ply plant is “already too small,” said Freres.

He compared the process of making MPP to finger jointing. “It’s similar. We lay out blanks at the plywood mill and scarf them together to make an LVL product.” They are assembled in lengths of 32 to 48 feet, either 4 feet wide or using 2-foot wide material. The material is run through a sander and stacked in preparation for laying up larger panels.

For the scarf line the company turned to local manufacturers for the design and equipment. The scarf line benefitted from working mainly with two Oregon companies, Corvallis Tool and PRE-TEC. Corvallis Tool, which develops machinery for wood products manufacturers, supplied the scarf cutting head, conveyors, and a lamella traveling cut-off saw. PRE-TEC, which specializes in automation solutions, supplied scarf cutting robots and a robotic panel feeder. Washington-based USNR, a leading machinery supplier to the forest products industry, developed a new press for curing the scarf joints and also supplied an edger. Other suppliers that provided machine centers or material handling equipment included ApQuip, West Coast Industrial, and Costa Sanders.

The finished panels are assembled much like lamellas – think engineered flooring. The materials are glued and pressed together, assembled like bricks, spanning the edge joints, in thicknesses ranging from 2 inches to 12 inches. The MPP layup operations were designed and equipped by Stiles Machinery, a Michigan-based company that had relationships with European machinery manufacturers whose equipment could be modified. One of the key machines in the manufacturing process is the press. It was supplied by Minda, a specialty equipment manufacturer. Stiles and Minda supplied other equipment for the press line, and the glue system was provided by Oest.

After the panels are bonded they go to a special CNC machine that uses both saws and router bits to cut openings for doors, windows, plumbing and electrical service, and for connections to other panels. “The CNCs are incredibly accurate,” noted Freres, within 1/16-inch. (The company was expected to install a new SCM Group CNC machine in February.)

Massive mass ply panels require industrial hoists for lifting and moving. The panels can be used for any mass timber application, including floor, roof and wall panels. It is an acceptable building material for up to 18 stories.

Finished panels are essentially a custom product. “Nothing goes through the plant unless we have orders,” said Freres. Panels may vary by length as well as cut-outs for doors and windows and other modifications. “We never know until a project design.”

Freres Engineered Wood has added the capability to manufacture beams and columns up to 24 inches thick, known as mass ply lams, allowing it to supply more components for a building project. For beams and columns, the material is processed by a system designed by Corvalis Tool and utilizing a specialty USNR carriage and bandmill. Corvallis Tool supplied a beam ‘flipper’ and material handling equipment, and Wellsaw provided a precision end trim saw.

The specialty carriage was an interesting challenge, noted Freres: how to break down a piece of engineered wood as large as old growth timber. “We’re talking about taking technology that’s been around for 100 years and repurposing it for advanced engineered wood products.” The carriage had to be redesigned to handle a rectangular piece of wood instead of a round log. The project also necessitated the redesign of various handling equipment. “USNR was a great partner,” said Freres.

“The carriage and bandmill have really expanded the range of products we can produce. Now we can process material that is 24 inches thick. We can produce columns that are 24 inches thick and almost 48 inches wide. That is a substantial piece of wood that we would never have been able to process without the new equipment.”

The lion’s share of the company’s revenues come from sales of veneer and plywood, followed by MPP and lumber. Veneer is still the company’s primary product by volume. About 30-50 percent is supplied to the company’s own plywood mill, mainly to make ‘blanks’ for MPP production. The remainder is sold to various markets.

The company is still in the lumber business to a small degree. The process of peeling logs for veneer leaves a core about 3 inches in diameter or a little larger. The cores are processed in batches by a Hewsaw to 2×3, 2×4, and other dimension lumber. The Hewsaw also is used to process scragg logs under 6 inches in diameter. The 2x material is sold green.

A large majority of MPP sales are along the West Coast. However, the company also has shipped panels to Texas, Florida, the Northeast, and Canada. Freres supplied 10-inch by 14-inch MPP columns that were used to construct a 19-story building in Oakland, California – the tallest wood building to date. Some have even been shipped to Saudi Arabia for construction of blast-proof structures.

“MPP is growing in market share,” said Freres. “It’s a growing market for us. We look at it as a growth opportunity.”

Tim Cox

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