We are becoming regular visitors to the Metro-Ply group of companies as it continues to add new panel manufacturing capacity to its range. In 2005 we reported on the construction of the company’s first particleboard line, at Sai Noi, near Bangkok (WBPI issue 1 2005, p34). This line was equipped with a Siempelkamp ContiRoll continuous press which was 23.8m long – at the time. Metro had always intended to extend the length of that press and the foundations were laid with that in mind, while ancillary equipment was designed with the capacity to cater for that extension and its increased capacity.

In 2006 we reported that Metro had brought forward its plans to build the extension (WBPI issue 1, 2006, p30) and that the press was now 30.4m in length and the capacity of the line was targeting 1,100m3/day of particleboard. Here we are a year later and this time we can report on a new, green-field, site two kilometres from the company’s existing factory in Karnchanaburi. Only this time, the company has returned to MDF as the panel to be produced. I say “returned” because, as regular readers will know, Metro already has two MDF lines which have been operating successfully for some years at Karnchanaburi. The company began life as a teak sawmill, moving into panels with its first plywood line in 1973. It subsequently went into the production of decorative veneer, wet process hardboard, doors and finger-jointed hardwood. In 1995, Metro built its first MDF line, as Metro MDF Co Ltd. Supplied by Sunds, with a Küsters continuous press of 17m, it gave the company its entry into a new panel market. So successful was that entry that in 1997 the original press was extended to 23m, while in 2000 a second MDF line, Metro Fibre Co Ltd, was built at Karnchanaburi. This second line came from the same supplier (today known as Metso Panelboard of course) and has a 17m Küsters press, extendable to 30m (WBPI February/March 2001, p24). That extension has not yet been added. These two MDF lines have a combined capacity of around 230,000m3/year. Also on the Karnchanaburi site is a wet-process hardboard line dating from 1990 and again supplied by Sunds. This has a capacity of 80 tons/day. The new site for the third MDF line, Metro Advance Fibre Co Ltd, covers an area of 15ha and was formerly empty ‘waste’ land. Being close to the river, the land had to be piled and it turned out to be very variable in its nature, requiring anything from six metre- to 12 metre-deep piles. Ground work began in early 2006 and at the time of my visit in December, the 50,000m2 warehouse building was complete and receiving large crates of machinery for the new line. Notable among these at that time was the Anthon saw – the third purchased by the Metro group – thought to be one of the largest angular systems this German saw maker has produced. It was certainly contained in a lot of very large wooden crates. The production hall was also erected and roofed and the Metso Contipress was under installation by that time. In accordance with Metro’s customary practice, the press is initially 28m long but is designed to be extended to 40m eventually. Capacity initially is planned to be around 800m3/day depending on thickness of panel being produced. When extended, the press should produce around 1,000m3/day, according to Mr Piya Piyasombatkul – one of the two brothers who run the Metro-Ply business and who is responsible for the MDF and particleboard businesses – when interviewed in Bangkok. “We hope to produce the first board in the middle of 2007 – we will take our time to complete the installation of this big plant,” he said. “We have built on quite a small scale in the past but we wanted to be sure that this new factory will be big enough for our future needs.” Mr Piya said the company selected Metso Panelboard again as the supplier of this third line because it already had two lines from the same supplier (or its forbears) and is satisfied with the existing lines. “Line two was guaranteed to run at 60m/min and we are in fact achieving 84m/min. In fact the bottleneck at present is the dryer and I believe we could run even faster if that was resolved,” he said. “Cost [of the project] was not the most significant factor in our decision on line 3, it was more a consideration of the support we could expect from the supplier – a supplier that could help us achieve our goals. “We are in a very competitive environment and need to perform better than our competitors. We need strong support form all our machinery suppliers to accept the challenge we give them. We are targeting 120m/min on the new line and that is a big target. It is not just down to the press but everything else around it as well – controls, infeed, outfeed, belt tracking and so on. Also the refiner, dryer, forming.” Although the line has been designed to allow for extension of the press, apparently that may not happen. “If we achieve 100-plus metres a minute, we won’t need to extend it, but if the market changes, or we can’t achieve that speed/capacity, we will extend, and maybe look at a different product range,” said Mr Piya. “If you want a new line today, then three or four hundred cube a day is not economical any more – you need to be at 800m3-plus to be cost-effective.” The press is not currently equipped with a cooling zone and Mr Piya does not see the need for one at present. However, one could be fitted, especially when the press is extended, should Metro feel it would offer an advantage. Mr Piya admits that finding the wood raw material or the market will not happen overnight, “but we believe in the [positive] market trend and in the product and that MDF still has room for market growth.” The subject of wood supply is always a hot topic in Thailand and in recent times, supplies of rubberwood – Metro’s main source – have become a lot tighter, with competition from energy generation and an upturn in the market price of latex affecting wood supplies. “I believe there is enough wood in the south and east of the country and we are close to Myanmar at Karnchanaburi, where there is a lot of rubberwood, if Myanmar opens up as I think it will in the near future,” said Mr Piya. He also believes that the better price for latex and for rubberwood will stimulate more plantation activity. However, the trend in Thailand by most manufacturers of rubberwood-based panels is to build in the south, nearer the wood supply. Karnchanaburi is north of Bangkok. “I don’t see that much advantage in moving to the south,” said Mr Piya. “There are good port facilities at Bangkok. Should you build close to the ports and the market or the raw material? We prefer to be close to the market. Maybe in the future it will make sense to move to the south and we may consider relocating a plant that needs upgrading to the south.” Metro is planning value-adding facilities for its new factory and will add short-cycle pressing lines at some point. It is also considering paper impregnation; and laminate flooring, which it currently produces only on a small scale to test the market. Metro’s panel market is within Thailand but also to a large extent exports. “We plan to export [the new production] to China, the Middle East and east Asia,” said Mr Piya. “India and Pakistan are also strengthening markets. “We will also be capable of producing Super E0 grade for the Japanese market although they are currently not so keen on rubberwood-based board.” The MDF market in general is currently not easy according to Mr Piya. “We have seen increased prices for our production, but costs have risen very steeply. Wood has almost doubled in price, there has been a 12% increase in the value of the Thai Baht since December 2005 and transport and energy costs have also risen.” These are problems faced by the whole panel industry, and not just in Thailand. But Metro-Ply’s policy has always been to achieve economies of scale to remain competitive. They will be hoping this new mill will enable them to do just that.