Flexible working29 June 2018
APA – the Engineered Wood Association has adapted to changes in the wood based panels industry while remaining true to its core principles. President Ed Elias talks to Keren Fallwell
When APA – the Engineered Wood Association was founded 85 years ago the North American plywood sector was a fledgling compared with today’s industry. In 1933 annual plywood production capacity was 350,000m3; last year plywood and OSB’s combined capacity was 30 million m3.
As the industry has evolved, so too has APA, yet its fundamental core has remained constant. “What we look like today is far from what we looked like even 15 years or 30 years ago but we’re committed to our three core functions of product quality, technical research and testing, and marketing,” said president Edward Elias.
The APA was founded in 1933 as the Douglas Fir Plywood Association to represent the interests of the Pacific north-west’s plywood industry. Eventually technology enabled structural plywood to be made from other species, such as southern yellow pine, and in 1964 the name was changed to American Plywood Association to reflect the organisation’s growing national scope.
Twenty years later it expanded again with the introduction of OSB, and again in the 1990s when its membership broadened to include non-panel engineered wood products such as glulam, I-joists and structural composite lumber (SCL). In 1994 the name was changed to APA – The Engineered Wood Association.
“APA started out as standard Douglas fir plywood for doorskins and running boards in automobiles, as five small companies got together and recognised they could market themselves better as a group than as individual companies. That’s grown to 172 member mills today,” said Mr Elias.
Even during the global financial crisis in 2008, while other industry organisations contracted or folded, APA’s membership grew. Mr Elias attributes the association’s success to its proactive, rather than reactive, approach which is led by its members.
APA is a non-profit organisation, fully funded by its members in the US and Canada and guided by a board of trustees and advisory committees made up from members.
“They have ownership and they fit this in the context of our strategic plan. It’s a proactive plan which we review annually and consider against metrics we’ve set,” said Mr Elias.
And this proactive approach is applied to all three of APA’s core services – quality, technical and marketing.
Through its quality function, APA provides certification and auditing to standards and building codes. It is accredited by the Standards Council of Canada as a certification body and through the International Accreditation Service as an inspection body.
In this area it has applied the same agility that has helped it adapt over the past 85 years.
“This industry and the Board of Trustees have ignored product specificity and chosen to harmonise, where they can, across boundaries, whether that’s across the US and Canada, ISO standards, CE marking to European standards or the Japanese Agricultural Standard. We take the attitude that we’re part of a global market,” said Mr Elias.
APA also adopts the spirit of collaboration, rather than competition, and works with other timber industry sectors to develop codes and standards.
APA’s quality function is supported by its technical work. In its 45,000ft2 research centre at the organisation’s headquarters in Tacoma, Washington, APA conducts research for standards development, regulatory activities, product evaluation and projects linked to market needs and opportunities.
Identifying multi-storey construction as the next growth area for wood panels, the board recently approved an expansion of the lab to enable testing of three-storey constructions. In the past year Canada has approved timber construction up to six storeys and, while in the US it is four storeys, the industry is putting forward initiatives to go higher and larger. Another anticipated development is hybrid construction, particularly in commercial construction and here APA will again take a collaborative stance.
“Our members’ products will be used in wood frame construction with a mix of lumber and other wood materials, and in buildings that blend concrete and steel with wood structural panel sheathing. These approaches have been used effectively in commercial buildings with increased heights and areas, and we’re looking at other ways to marry these products effectively,” said Mr Elias.
APA’s research and testing feeds into its third function – marketing. There are over 600 publications on the association’s website, nearly all of them free. In addition there are videos, “how to” guides, webinars, and short, accessible content which provides a taster and encouragement for people to find out more. APA’s embrace of digital technology has made its information more readily accessible and expanded its reach.
“A huge component of APA’s success over the past decade is the ability to present extremely technical data in soundbytes or ‘snackable’ content which draws people into the bigger picture,” said Mr Elias.
Webinars are another way that APA attracts the attention of construction professionals. “Recently we put out an information bulletin to 80,000 people on our contact list for a webinar. Within two hours we had more than 700 responses from the engineering community interested in an hour’s long technical presentation. That’s fabulous,” said Mr Elias.
No other organisation provides the same level of information, he said, and none has the scale of manufacturing base in Canada and the US. While the lumber industry has a multitude of organisations that provide quality assurance, APA represents about 85-90% of engineered wood products in North America under one trade mark. It also works closely with other industry organisations, such as the American Wood Council, which works on codes in the US, and the Canadian Wood Council, which provides similar services in Canada. APA has members in 28 US states and seven Canadian provinces.
“Because they’re part of the united industry under the banner of the APA we have been spared the border conflicts that have been seen in the lumber sector. It’s because the principals have said ‘no, we’re better representing ourselves collectively’,” said Mr Elias.
This is where fair trade policies come into play and where the association has strived to ensure they underlie APA’s actions.
“We have provided advice to negotiating teams around the world and always emphasised that we’re interested in fair trade and making sure the products are treated uniformly in the market,” said Mr Elias.
APA also has an international reach. It has offices in Taiwan, Mexico City, Shanghai and Tokyo which provide export promotion and market access programmes.
While many opportunities lie ahead for APA and its members, there are challenges too.
One is the ageing workforce and the need to attract younger people into the industry.
“The younger generation often thinks of manufacturing mills as dirty and unsafe but the contrary is true. We have a hi-tech industry with a tremendous safety record,” he said.
Manufacturers’ predominantly rural locations can be another drawback for young jobseekers.
To address this, APA partnered with the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) Manufacturing Institute and others to develop training materials to help its member mills plan and promote Manufacturing Day events in their communities. Manufacturing Day is an annual, nationwide event to raise people’s perception of manufacturing and millworking jobs.
The changing workforce is reflected in APA’s own staff. Whereas in the past it would have hired people from within the timber industry, today it draws staff from different industries and with different skills.
Another challenge for APA and its members is ensuring there is sufficient raw material supply to meet the growing demand for wood products. “At the moment we have fibre availability in North America but there are a lot of global pressures on that fibre, such as for construction in China and wood pellets in Europe,” said Mr Elias.
These may be different times, even exciting times, and just as APA has demonstrated over its 85-year history, new challenges may require new approaches. The association’s fundamentals, however, are unlikely to change.
“The industry has seen the benefits of those three core functions of quality, technical and marketing and I don’t see that changing,” said Mr Elias. “Our delivery and the type of information we need will be very different but we’re still committed to those fundamental tenets.”