Irish Plant Stays Ahead
By Bill Tice
For many businesses, being flexible enough to quickly respond to changing market conditions can be a crucial component to success. That has been the case at the SmartPly Oriented Strand Board (OSB) mill near Waterford in the Republic of Ireland, where employees have become particularly adept at efficiently developing new ways to stay on top of changing customer requirements and needs.
By Bill Tice
Built in 1996 as a joint venture between American-based Louisiana Pacific (LP) and Coillte, which is an Irish state held company, the facility was one of the first OSB mills ever built in Europe — a plant in Inverness, Scotland that is now owned by Canada’s Norbord was the Continent’s first.
“Being one of the initial OSB mills in Europe, The Waterford plant was modelled on some of LP’s mills that were producing products for the North American market, so one of the first things we had to do was adapt the technology and equipment to meet the needs of our European customers,” explains Jim McCann, the mill’s operations director. “For starters, we needed to produce panels in metric rather than imperial sizes and we had to produce a panel that would satisfy the quality requirements of the European market.”
Once the mill was fine tuned to where they wanted it, McCann says it was time to start developing new resin and pressing programs that would keep the mill at the forefront of the OSB market in Europe. “There were 10 new OSB mills that came on stream in Europe between 1998 and 2005, so we needed to be innovative in order to keep our market share,” he explains. “Between 1998 and 2000 we pioneered a lot of work in the area of resin formulations, which resulted in us being the first OSB mill in Europe to introduce a 100% MDI (Methylene diphenyl diisocyanate) product.”
That type of ingenuity was needed to make up for the fact that the new mills coming on stream all featured newer continuous press technology, while the LP-Coillte mill is equipped with the older daylight press technology. “Producing MDI boards meant we could make a product that is extremely well suited to the timber frame housing market, and that is where a large proportion of our volume ends up,” McCann explains. “MDI resin forms a chemical bond with the wood and gives us very high strength and durability properties, along with great moisture resistance. We feel this provides us with a product that is superior to our competitors and is well suited to the home building sector.”
George Watson, who is SmartPly’s United Kingdom sales manager couldn’t agree more. “We make two grades of OSB for the U.K. and European markets,” he says. “Our customers find that our panels don’t delaminate even in extreme conditions, and unlike some other engineered wood products, they are free of knotholes, core voids or other structural defects. And, OSB is less expensive than plywood. The types of resins used also mean the product performs well in humid conditions, making it ideal for a number of general interior and exterior building uses, including flooring, roofing, wall sheathings and site hoardings.”
Building the Business
Watson came to the company in 1997 when Louisiana Pacific was still involved. In 2002, Coillte bought out LP and took full control of the mill, but kept the European sales office, which is now located in Dartford, Kent, just southeast of London. In 2006, Coillte further expanded into the panel business, acquiring the Medite medium density fibreboard (MDF) plant in Clonmel, Ireland from Weyerhaeuser for €66 million (about C$105 million at the current exchange rate).
In 2007, with two panel mills under its control, Coillte formed a new division called Coillte Panel Products. Between all of the divisions of Coillte, the company now employs 1,200 people and owns and manages almost 450,000 hectares of land in Ireland, which is 7% of the country’s total land base. Just over 400,000 hectares is managed forestland that can supply fibre on a sustainable basis to the two panel mills and other forest products producers in Ireland, while the balance is used for land-based businesses and renewable energy projects.
Established under the Forestry Act 1988, and since its inception in 1989, the company’s profits have increased from a loss of €438,000 to a profit of €9.8 million in 2008, while they report turnover (sales) has grown from €38 million in 1989 to €249 million in 2008. Initially, the company’s mandate was to commercially manage the forest assets that had previously been owned by the Irish state. Most of Coillte’s revenues had been from roundwood sales, however, acquiring the two panel mills has helped Coillte increase its percentage of revenue derived from products and services other than roundwood sales from 9% in 1989 to 64.8% today.
Back at the Coillte mill, McCann stresses that they are pleased to have owners that are committed to the business, and he says because of that commitment, they have been able to continue to invest in the mill.
“We’ve really been in what I call a constant state of research and development,” notes the chemical engineer, who is a native of Belfast in Northern Ireland and earned his stripes working for large manufacturing companies in South Africa and the United States before landing at the Waterford mill just over 11 years ago. “One of the biggest projects we have done recently was a major upgrade to our process control systems and that allowed us to automate a number of areas in the production process.”
The project, which was started in 2005 and finished in 2006, was managed in house by the mill’s electrical engineer, Seamus Ryan, but was a bit of a global affair. In addition to the mill’s own technicians being involved, specific programs for various areas of the process were developed by the Nova Scotia office of Edmonton, Alta-based Stantec, while IRL Industries of Germany developed the main PLC programming for the forming line and press integration. Visualization software from Wonderware in California was also a key component of the upgrade.
“The software package allows us to access data and mill trends from our desktops, or our PC at home,” explains McCann. “It means that even on weekends, I can log in at any time and see how the mill is running. I can view real-time data on temperature, pressure, flow, speed and production. It’s a useful way of problem solving if we have an issue, but it can also be used to improve quality control as it supplements the rigorous laboratory tests that are part of our certification program.”
The software, which is called ActiveFactory, is a trending, analysis and reporting software that performs various data analysis functions and comprehensive data reporting, and has the capability to publish real-time and historical plant information to the web or company intranet site using additional Wonderware Information Server software.
McCann says they actually installed the software prior to the process control upgrade and it was initially used more as a management tool. They didn’t really capitalize on its full potential until after the upgrade when it was integrated with the automation of the forming lines, the wet and dry bin feeding systems, and the blender operations. “Next, we are going to incorporate the post press part of the process, which currently stands alone,” notes McCann. “That will include measuring product thickness and density.”
McCann says another important improvement the mill has made was on the sawline. “We used to have to manually position our saws, which wasn’t as accurate as we would have liked and it was time consuming,” he explains. “We have invested in what we call a ‘set works system’, which provides automatic PLC saw positioning.”
The sawline upgrade included a rack and pinion system that McCann says makes for a quick changeover when it comes to product size. “The crews can now change sizes in just three minutes. It used to take an hour and a half. And once again, by implementing this technology we are able to give European customers what they expect in terms of precise size measurements and squareness.”
Improvements have also been made in the area of finishing with the incorporation of a second sander on the mill’s tongue and groove line. “We added an Austrian-made Steinemann sander so now we do a calibration sand and then a finish sand, which gives us a very consistent colour and finish,” McCann notes. “Prior to adding the second sander the product was what I call a ‘rough and ready’ product that was more suited to sub floors, but in Europe OSB is often sold as an exposed flooring product that is just sealed and varnished. With improved sanding capability, we can meet that market demand.”
But it’s not just in the area of markets that the SmartPly mill has adapted. They have also made major improvements in the areas of environment, community involvement, certification and health and safety. The most visible aspect of the mill’s improved environmental performance is easily seen by looking up. Two wet electrostatic precipitators (WESP) that clean mill emissions prior to releasing them into the atmosphere were creating a plume that would sweep down through a valley to the northeast of the mill. And although the plume did not affect air quality, it was a nuisance to neighbours. McCann says it was important to the company to solve the problem so they basically doubled the height of the mill’s main stack at a cost of €€1.6 million. “We went from 44 metres to 90 metres in height,” he explains and that solved the problem.”
The mill invites participation from its neighbors on a regular basis and in addition to the stack project, they have been investigating ways to minimize low-frequency noise from the mill and have been trying to reduce the noise created when logs tumble into the mill’s infeed. They have also been looking at installing a continuous press at some time in the future, and once again, they have gone to the neighbours, listened to their concerns, and are looking at technical solutions that will minimize any concerns or issues.
In terms of certification, the mill has achieved Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Chain of Custody certification for its supply, manufacturing and distribution processes and its products have been approved by various third-party standards in the U.K., Ireland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and the U.S.
When it comes to health and safety, McCann says it’s first on the agenda, before anything else. “We have invested heavily in this area,” he explains. “We have improved employee safety and working conditions by minimizing dust, implementing programs to improve materials handling risks in the workplace, and we have upgraded our machine guarding and safety auditing programs. We also have a full-time safety officer and we have regular safety meetings where we solicit input from the employees on the mill floor.”
Today, mill flow at the Waterford plant, which has an annual production capacity of 325,000 cubic metres, starts in the 6.5-hectare log yard where Sitka spruce and Lodgepole pine logs, cut to 3-metres in length, are unloaded from incoming log trucks and rail cars with a pair of Volvo articulated wheel loaders. Once the logs are fed into the mill, they go through one of two drum debarkers from Kone (now Andritz). The debarked logs are then processed through one of two disc flakers (waferizers) from Vancouver B.C.-based, Carmanah Design and Manufacturing, with the resulting wafers being 100mm in length by 40mm in width and 0.65mm thick. Moist wafers, which account for more than half of the material at this point in the production process, are directed to one of four wet storage bins and then through one of four dryers — two of the dryers are triple pass from M-E-C and two are single-pass from TSI, but all are fueled with wood fines that are screened from the flake after drying. Dried wafers and fines pass with the dryer exhaust into cyclones on the mill’s roof.
From the cyclones, the dried wafers and fines are fed to four rotary screeners where the wafers suitable for OSB production are separated from fines that will be used for fuel. Wafers to be used in OSB production are sent via conveyors to three dry storage bins and then to one of three blenders from Coil Manufacturing in Surrey, B.C. Resin and wax is automatically added to the blenders based on the weight of the wafers being added.
Next in the production process is the forming line, which was manufactured by Schenck/Dieffenbacher. The coated wafers are deposited onto metallic screens on the forming line, which travels at 48 ft. per minute for the thickest products to as fast as 110 feet per minute for the thinnest products. Four layers of wafers are laid down — a top surface and a bottom surface that are oriented to the line’s major axis, along with two core layers that are oriented at 90 degrees, which yields a multiple layer ply construction. A pair of flying cutoff saws on the forming line cut the wafer mats to the 7.4-metre length needed for the 14-opening multi-daylight press from Washington Ironworks, which has since been bought by COE. The press features automatic loading and unloading and has an operating temperature of 218°C. It typically operates at 2,300 psi with cycle times averaging from 220 seconds to 330 seconds, depending on product thickness.
Once out of the press, the panels are 24 ft. x 8 ft. and ready for the Globe sawline, which typically further processes the master panels into six metric sized panels that are manufactured to exact measurements that vary by end use. From the sawline, some product is prepared for shipment, while depending on the order file, some is directed to the sanding and profiling line where the panels are further processed.
The mill has its own 10,000-square-metre warehouse where finished product is stored prior to shipping, which is mainly from the Port of Waterford to strategically located distribution warehouses and markets throughout Europe.
Down the Road
Despite all of the changes that have been made at the mill, McCann says they are not done yet. They are looking at the continuous press at some point down the road with the timing dependent on market conditions, but on a shorter time frame he says they have been working with customers on product and process development. One example of this is a coated board. “Our latest foray is to develop a board that has a polymer coating and an edge seal,” he explains. “We see it as having initial applications for high end exteriors and interior decorative and structural applications.”
With the coated panel, the mill is once again looking at ways to stay ahead in the market and is making the necessary adjustments to its production process and product line to meet the ever-changing needs of its customers. With the mill’s past track record in this department, it’s a product that McCann has confidence in for the future.