Confidence grows in stronger future

8 December 2016

The European Panel Federation held its 10th biennial Symposium from October 5-7. Julian Champkin was there.

The symposium of the European Panel Federation takes place every two years, normally in Hanover. This year the venue changed, to Hamburg, some 150km away.

The change of venue was agreed to be a successful one; some 300 attendees filled the symposium hall, which was a large one, at the Grand Elysée hotel.

The presentations were interesting and well-attended; and the Wednesday evening meal and entertainment, sponsored by Sasol Performance Chemicals, was on board the 10,000 tonne MS Cap San Diego, a former cargo ship moored at Hamburg docks – a not inappropriate venue given Hamburg’s long history as a Hanseatic port trading timber from the Baltic.

A new feature of this year’s symposium was that proposals for presentations were examined by a committee of academic experts who selected the best to go forward to the conference. The presentations were divided into categories: Construction and Living; Properties and Applications; Manufacturing and Finishing; Raw Materials and Additives; and Marketing.

Introduced by Clive Pinnington, managing director of the EPF, the symposium was opened by Michael Pollmann, State Secretary of Hamburg’s Ministry for the Environment and Energy.

He stressed the increasing recognition of the need for a true circular economy – one in which external raw materials are replaced by recycled ones. Wood based products are of course central to this endeavour.

Michael Wolff, of Pfleiderer, in the opening presentation gave an economicsbased overview of the industry’s prospects. Improved confidence in construction, in both eastern and western Europe, is the driver for growth in demand for panels, he said and, in the longer term, interest in sustainable and green building solutions can be expected to add to this.

Brexit, the political topic of the moment, was expected to lead to slightly decreasing demand for furniture due to uncertainty, but in the medium term some positives could be expected – such as increased furniture exports from the UK due to sterling weakening against the euro.

In his presentation, Fred Kurpiel of the Georgia Research Institute pointed out that since the 2008 crisis, with low housing starts, and a strong US dollar stimulating imports, the North American panel industry had shrunk by about 25%.

The American forest industry produces roughly 6% of the US GDP, putting it on a par with the American auto industry, said Mr Kurpiel. In 2012 it employed 880,000 people and generated US$238.8bn. Wood panel usage is tied to housing starts, he said, and to revert to the longterm mean of 1.5+ million units per year, the economy and employment must truly grow.

The dollar is expected to remain strong – more, Mr Kurpiel said, from the tepidity of other economies than from the strength of the US one. Economic recovery has been anything but robust. But the good news is that housing starts are now on the up and that volumes are growing again, if only modestly. Hence North America is once again building panel plants.

Mr Kurpiel listed no fewer than 12, including what is projected to be one of the largest OSB plants in the world, to be built in Louisiana, and a US$200m MDF mill, based on rice straw, for California.

Richard Baldwin, of Oak Creek Investments, produced a more concrete answer to the same question of survival: at the green end of the production line make sure that you keep technologically up to date by installing advanced electronic innovations.

Re-engineer equipment and production processes, he said, for greater systems functionality and, as importantly, redesign the ‘people processes’ to emphasise involvement and engagement of the men and women whose work you rely on. Getting the 'just right' combination of these is the key to success.

Further presentations focussed on binders and resins. Ali Shalbafan, of Taibat Modares University, Iran, with Johannes Welling of Thunen and Joachim Hasch of Swiss Krono, spoke on geopolymers as formaldehyde-free binders. Based on different types of aluminosilicates, these show good potential to be used for wood based panel manufacturing.

Christian Hubsch of UPM and Charles Markessini of Chimar Hellas spoke on progress in lignin-based resins – of huge interest as an industrial reality because, among other reasons, of the strong pull from both industry and consumers to improve the renewable content of the product as well as the need to all-but eliminate formaldehyde. The bottom line, they said, is that ligninbased phenolic resins are now fully proven on a broad variety of industrial lines and veneer types as high-performance formaldehyde-free resins. We hope to carry more of this in our ‘Focus on Resins’ in our next issue.

There were presentations on using data streams in quality control, on the circular economy (including one on an innovative method from PAL for removal of plastic pollutants from recycled wood) and on 3D-mouldable MDF, which again we hope to cover in depth in our next issue.

Later in the afternoon Alexy Beschastnov, of Poyry Management Consulting, based in Finland, gave answers to the ‘survivor of survivors’ question posed earlier.

For old and small-capacity mills, their agenda might be simply survival, said Mr Beschastnov, and for mid-range mills it changes to sustainability. They need to be able to put survival off the table regardless of market conditions.

The question for the best mills is whether they are the absolute leaders or "always behind the leaders". In all cases, operational efficiency at the mill can help, he said.

Successive operational efficiency philosophies, such as Lean manufacturing and Value Engineering (1940s), Six Sigma (1970s) and Just-in-time delivery and Theory of Constraints (1980s) have come to the fore in recent decades.

Pöyry’s ExGap methodology builds on these philosophies, but is more geared to the wood based industry and is combined with deep, industry-specific, technical expertise.