Founded as a blacksmith’s business in Eppingen, near Stuttgart in 1873, today’s Dieffenbacher GmbH + Co KG has come a long way.
The company’s first hydraulic presses, for fruit and edible oils, were produced before it entered the wood panel industry with particleboard and veneering presses.
Today, the wood panel industry accounts for the vast majority of Dieffenbacher’s turnover, although it also supplies forming and pressing lines for the metal and plastics industries.
The acquisition of Schenck Panel Production Systems from the Schenck group in 1998 brought another vital part of the production system fully in-house for Dieffenbacher and it has incorporated the considerable expertise of that company in forming technology into its product portfolio – and built on it over the years since.
Another more recent acquisition brought the expertise of Schenkmann & Piel into the fold as well. Thus the design, manufacture and installation of dryers, air graders and filters for particleboard, MDF and OSB lines became part of the Dieffenbacher inhouse product range.
However, in terms of primary composite panel production, Dieffenbacher’s own CPS continuous double-belt press, first launched in 1990, marked a major milestone in the company’s long history.
As one of only three manufacturers of such presses worldwide, it gave Dieffenbacher a vital foothold in a market which has changed beyond all recognition, largely due to the continuous press concept.
From the heady days of rapid expansion in the South East Asian panel industry during the 1990s to the expansion of the European particleboard and OSB industries and the North American engineered wood and OSB industries, to the more recent phenomenon of the mushrooming Chinese MDF industry, the continuous press has defined the development of the market.
China has been a particularly successful market for Dieffenbacher, as it has supplied 10 continuous press lines to that country in the last two years alone. Altogether, it has supplied over 20 panel lines, continuous and discontinuous, to China in the last 15 years.
Mr Wolf-Gerd Dieffenbacher, chief executive of the family-owned business, claims that this represents about two thirds of the ‘Chinese pie’ in terms of both number of imported lines and production capacities of those imported lines.
There are, inevitably, those who question whether such success can be achieved without sacrificing profitability, but Mr Dieffenbacher has the answer for those doubters.
“We have been successful in China partly because we have been there for a long time, firstly with Bison and then direct to the market for the last 12 or 13 years.We have an office in Beijing which offers a sales and service point and we plan to stock spare parts there. And there is an online service available,he said.
“China has been profitable for us, but only because of the way we have worked. We have supplied two basic types of MDF line to that market and the repetition factor has meant that we could make a profit, which we could never have done otherwise. We have also used some locally-made content in the line before and after the press line, just as we have done in some other countries.”
The Chinese market is not an easy one to get into or to stay in and has its own particular specialities.
“The Chinese market is governed by raw material, power supply and availability of finance,said Mr Dieffenbacher, “and the raw material and electricity supply issues have meant that some of the lines built have been on the small side by world standards.”
“I think China will continue to be a good market, probably not so much for MDF but I think particleboard will start to grow.”
Confirming his company’s commitment to that market, he said that the company plans to start manufacturing in China, under its own roof and name, making handling equipment for panels and chips, and dryer drums. In other words big, low-tech, high transport cost, labour-intensive work.
“It is not economical to make complex parts for presses etc and it is not significantly cheaper than making them in Germany as steel prices do not vary so much. I don’t think that making presses in China makes sense – and we have investigated it very thoroughly.”
The advent of serious business from China’s panel industry in recent years certainly helped a number of machinery makers in Europe as the economies of the west came under pressure and western Europe’s demand for continuous lines seemed to have been sated.
Although showing distinct signs of slowing down, China is still quite an active market for the company, with two orders currently on hand. One is an MDF line for Wei Hua, which already started up one Dieffenbacher line in early 2004 and will start up the second at the end of 2005, producing 450m3 per day.
Dieffenbacher also has a second order from Asia Dekor for a particleboard line to be installed close to its existing one on a site in the Shenzhen area. This will have a 9ft x 20m continuous CPS press with a daily capacity of 700m3.
But outside China there are also two large projects under way.
The first is a continuous OSB line for Kronospan in the Czech Republic at Jihlava. This is a complete line from flaker to finishing line. It will have a 38m press, extendable to 50mplus, and a capacity of 800m3 a day. Start-up is due in mid-2005.
“This will be our third reference on this site, having previously supplied a multiopening line and a continuous line for particleboard,said Mr Dieffenbacher.
The second major project is for Martco of the US. This again is an OSB line and is more or less a duplicate of that supplied to Tolko’s factory in Meadow Lake, Canada.
However, this is not a continuous press, but a 12ft x 26ft, 14-daylight monster. Unusually for this market, the press length is not a multiple of 8ft because the client believes the market in future will want 9ft and 10ft panels. The line will have a capacity of around 1,850m3 a day.
Meanwhile in Europe, Interbon in Spain is starting assembly now of a continuous particleboard line with a capacity of 1,000m3 a day for which Dieffenbacher supplied the forming, pre-press and press.
Also in Europe, this time for Pfleiderer in Grajevo, Poland, Dieffenbacher extended a continuous press of 30m to 46.5m and this started panel production back in August.
Kronospan in Heiligengrabbe, Germany, also had a press extension, this time for MDF. The press grew from 28m to 39m and started up again in late September.
The former Frati of Italy mill in Sebes, Romania, was bought by Peter Kaindl of Kronospan and contains one MDF and one particleboard line. The first is the subject of an upgrade by Dieffenbacher, while the latter is to have a press extension and a new mat former by the second quarter of 2005.
Russia is an area of increasing activity for the panel making business and Dieffenbacher is carrying out a lot of retrofit contracts there and is expecting some new plant orders as well. “The Russians have the raw material for OSB and a strong plywood market, so I believe there should be a good future there,said Mr Dieffenbacher.
South East Asia continues to be a strong market for Dieffenbacher, even if it has been quieter since the economic crisis of 1998.
In fact, the company opened a new office in Kuala Lumpur in April 2004 for sales, service and spare parts – and an online service is coming soon. It is an independent company, Dieffenbacher Asia-Pacific, and moved its regional office from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur to be closer to its markets in Malaysia and Thailand.
The company is run by Andy Heng, an Indonesian by birth, with considerable hands-on experience of panel making with the Bumi Raya Group of Indonesia.
When it comes to manufacturing Dieffenbacher’s panel production lines, the major components are made in Eppingen, but the company does have a manufacturing facility in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, which it opened 20 years ago.
“We have the capacity to build complete multi-opening presses there as well as a large part of the CPS press,said technical director Günter Natus.
There is also a sales office based in Atlanta, Georgia.
In Bruno in the Czech Republic, there is also a manufacturing facility where the company makes press parts for the metal and plastic forming industry, as well as forming stations and lines for the panel industry.
Russia is the market which is exciting the industry in Europe, with considerable inward investment by large panel manufacturing companies, as well as some growth by indigenous companies.
“We have had a sales office in Moscow for four or five years but this has now been formalized as a legal entity, which enables us to sign major contracts in the country,explained Mr Dieffenbacher.
Another traditional area of operation for the company is in short-cycle presses and Wolf- Gerd Dieffenbacher’s brother, Günter, who runs sister company Dieffenbacher  Zaisenhausen, has taken over the production and marketing of short-cycle presses from Dieffenbacher GmbH + Co KG.
“This is a separate company which supplies sophisticated handling equipment and it was a logical move for it to take on the short-cycle press business with what it is already doing,said Mr Dieffenbacher.
Meanwhile, back in the research and development department at Eppingen, things have not been standing still either.
In the OSB area, the company has developed a new strand forming system. This employs a longer forming bin which Mr Natus explained gives less variation at the outfeed, while an integrated scale in the bin allows the correction of deviations in density before forming actually occurs.
“Controlled air flow in the former also improves forming accuracy, just as it does for MDF, and we now have a suction system that calms the air flow in the bin and forming heads,said Mr Natus.
“Strand orientation can be quickly adapted to strand dimensions by longitudinal adjustment of the former and the bin walls are movable by 50mm each side to give adjustable width and ensure good edges to the mat, which can be a problem in traditional formers.”
Longitudinal strand lumber, or LSL, is a speciality of Dieffenbacher and can be produced on its CPS press up to 75mm thickness (three inch), with the use of a strand mat steam pre-heater. There is considerable technology cross-over between LSL and OSB in Dieffenbacher’s R&D projects.
The steam mat pre-heater has also been used in particleboard and MDF lines to shorten pressing time. Other recent developments for the OSB market also include the mat pre-heater.
“We are actively developing new products for MDF as well,said Mr Natus. “For example our inline fibre blending system after the dryer. Here, we spray resin into a duct where fibres are conveyed by air in a much longer and larger diameter tube than a blowline. The application, and the mixing, of the resin and fibre is the key point in this system.”
Also for MDF, Dieffenbacher has just sold the first closed-loop steam dryer, developed by Schenkmann & Piel, and expects to start up the plant before Ligna in early May 2005. This dryer will mean the end of the panel mill steam plume, said Mr Natus.
For the future, Chinese growth looks as if it is going to slow down in the near term but Mr Dieffenbacher is not at all concerned about his company’s current position.
“We are in a good situation, with production booked out to mid-2005 and we are happy with the state of our balance sheet this year, next year and into 2006.We already have 40% of our turnover for 2006 booked.
“We are looking to employ skilled staff rather than to cut our workforce as we had to not so long ago and we are very happy.We are back to the same level of turnover we had in 2001.”