It is a welcome fact in the global panel industry that when one region is suffering difficult economic times, another usually seems to rise up to ‘take its place’. Of course that benefits truly international players in the panel making machinery market, such as Dieffenbacher. However, it makes sales predictions particularly difficult.

This year (2015) was a case in point: at the end of 2014/beginning of 2015, most machinery makers were viewing the coming year with some trepidation.

However, when I visited Dieffenbacher at its global headquarters in Eppingen, southern Germany in October 2015, the family-owned business, which was founded in 1873, was able to report good sales of its comprehensive range of machinery and systems for the panel industry so far for the year.

The company has four manufacturing sites, the two principle being its Eppingen headquarters and its Chinese subsidiary, Shanghai Wood Based Panel Machinery Co Ltd, or SWPM, in Shanghai.

As is well-known, the Chinese market has ‘gone off the boil’ since the national economy began to slide, but under Dieffenbacher’s ownership and guidance, the Shanghai factory has improved its quality of manufacture a lot since Dieffenbacher purchased SWPM.

In fact, its quality now equals the Eppingen works, said Bernd Bielfeldt, who heads up Dieffenbacher’s management team for Business Unit Wood in North America and Europe.

This means that components for panel lines, particularly in markets close to China, such as South East Asia – but also further afield – are increasingly entrusted to the Shanghai factory.

With 36 units sold in the last six years, the Chinese company has also had success with its four-feet-wide continuous press, made entirely in the Shanghai operation.

Some core Dieffenbacher components for the parent company’s signature continuous press, the CPS (now known in its latest incarnation as the CPS+) are reserved to Eppingen. However, some other CPS components are produced in the Shanghai factory to the same quality as those from Eppingen; and with the same warranties and guarantees.

"The SWPM factory has made a very positive contribution to the group and we have a clear strategy as to what we can produce there," said Mr Bielfeldt.

Although the Chinese market is much quieter than in recent years, panel maker Ganzhou Aigesen is to replace a small, multi-opening, particleboard plant in Ganzhou City, Jiangxi Province, southeast China, with a modern particleboard plant equipped with a CPS+. In terms of raw material, the furniture manufacturer predominantly uses wood waste from its own facilities for producing boards, as well as bought-in recycled wood.

Two Windformer SL units for the surface layer and a core layer forming head will be supplied within the forming station. The CPS 265-24 press produces boards with a width of up to 2,480mm and a thickness of 6 to 40mm.

The Dieffenbacher components supplied in the finishing area at Aigesen include a diagonal saw and a trimming and splitting saw.

The plant is designed to deliver an annual output of 270,000m³ and start-up is planned for the end of 2016, or early 2017. Ganzhou Aigesen is one of the larger furniture and panel manufacturers in China.

At Ligna 2015, Dieffenbacher shared part of its stand with the Wanhua Company, a specialist manufacturer of pMDI resins which is looking for new markets.

Wanhua is considering rice straw as a raw material for panels and has ordered a Dieffenbacher CPS press line to manufacture such boards on a relatively small scale initially; a further roll-out of larger-capacity lines is intended by Wanhua.

Turning to South East Asia, this has been another active region for Dieffenbacher. The Metro Group of Thailand has ordered two lines from the company for its Metroply subsidiary: one for particleboard, ordered in May 2015 with a 40m CPS+ press, and one for thin HDF (THDF) for Metro subsidiary company Advance Co of Kanchanaburi, ordered in June of the same year with a 28.5m CPS+ press.

At Allgreen Particleboard a new Dieffenbacher line, with a CPS 265-26.5m press, is designed for a daily output of 800m³. The forming station is equipped with three forming heads. The Dieffenbacher windformer with roller deck is claimed to ensure minimum forming tolerance in the surface layer.

The company will also supply a drum dryer; the raw board handling with diagonal saw; edge trim and split saw; a large stack formation system; and raw board storage system. Start-up is planned for spring 2017.

Allgreen is part of the Evergreen Group, one of the world’s leading producers of MDF and particleboard, whose chief executive, JC Kuo, is a very well-known name in the Asian industry.

After a long period of relative inactivity in western Europe, in August 2015, Fantoni of Osoppo in eastern Italy, a long-standing player in the MDF market particularly, has ordered a new CPS press line from Dieffenbacher.

Fantoni will use its new MDF plant to replace two multi-opening lines at its main site in Osoppo. As part of the scope of supply for this new plant, Dieffenbacher will also provide modifications to the existing fibre driers and two new fibre sifters.

The core package includes a forming station equipped with the latest generation of mechanical forming equipment, the forming line and a CPS 240-65.5 CPS continuous MDF press. That 65.5m-long CPS produces boards with a width of 1830 to 2200mm and a thickness of 6 to 60mm.

The components to be supplied for the finishing line area include a raw board handling system with triple diagonal saw and a board cooling and stacking system, as well as a modification to an existing raw board storage system. The plant is designed for an annual output of some 460,000m³ and start-up is scheduled for the end of 2016. This new line will replace Fantoni’s PLX4 and PLX5 multi-opening Pagnoni lines and will be designated PLX8.

"This is a typical example of a [west] European project in which a new continuous line replaces old [multi-opening] capacity, plus some new capacity," said Mr Bielfeldt.

In eastern Europe, where the market for new production lines has been very active in recent years, Dieffenbacher currently has an order for Kronospan’s new particleboard mill in Croatia.

Only ordered in September, all Dieffenbacher could say at the time of our meeting was that this line would be of a small-to-medium capacity in order to develop the Croatian market.

Of course, the Russian market has been slow of late, due to the problems with the ruble’s value; and sanctions against the country.

However, Turkish companies are investing in Russia. "These investments are mostly in the southern region and the Turkish companies are thinking big," said Mr Bielfeldt. "There have been 10 confirmed orders for new lines during 2015 and we expect maybe two or three more this year."

Meanwhile, the US is another market where new production line projects have been few and far between in recent years. Mr Bielfeldt sees that this is about to change.

"North America is repatriating a lot of furniture production [from the Far East] and we hear that Homag/Stiles Machinery in the US is doing very well out of that," said the business unit manager. "We think that this growth in the market will filter through to new panel capacity as well."

In April, Dieffenbacher announced that Martco, a major producer of OSB in the US, is to build its first new plant for eight years, in Corrigan, Texas. Perhaps surprisingly, this one won’t have a CPS press, but a 12x26ft 14-daylight multi-opening one from Dieffenbacher.

Start-up is scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2016 and the total investment in the greenfield mill is expected to amount to a substantial US$280m.

Meanwhile, still in the US, Arauco has announced that it is to build a new particleboard factory in Grayling, Michigan.

As announced in our particleboard survey part 1 (WBPI October/November 2015), investment will total US$325m and Arauco says this will then be the largest continuous particleboard press in North America – and one of the highest-capacity presses in the world, with a designed output of 750,000m3/year.

The company estimates that groundbreaking will commence in late 2016 and that the first panel should leave the press in late 2018.

"The location of this plant will also complement the supply of MDF from our neighbouring site in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario [Canada]," said a company press release in mid-September.

"There are at least two other projects in MDF and particleboard [in North America] currently under serious discussion," said Mr Bielfeldt. "Contracts are expected to be signed in the next 12 to 18 months and, if so, this will give a major push to the North American particleboard and MDF industries.

"Currently there are a lot of old multiopening press lines and many lines that are four to five feet wide and, once continuous lines come into production in the US, those multi-opening lines will have to improve, or die."

The North American market has historically demanded heavier boards but Mr Bielfeldt thinks this will also soon change: "IKEA, for example, will want to increase its retail market position in North America and will look to its supply chain. I think it will either find a furniture manufacturing partner with appropriate lightweight raw board, or it may move into manufacturing [that board] itself."

Dieffenbacher has always maintained a sales and customer support operation in the Atlanta, Georgia, area in the US and is supporting its staff there: Rick Burns, Cole Martin, Pekka Kaikkonen and Colin Folco on new and modernisation projects; and Frank Ford, Doug Schroeder and Harold Ham on spare parts and service.

"One clear indication that North America is coming back has been the increase in demand for spares and service in the last two to three years," said Mr Bielfeldt.

"In general, this year has been better than we expected and the order intake has been really good."

New products
Dieffenbacher has put a lot of development effort into forming and says it has developed an improved wind forming system with an incorporated roller deck for particleboard production.

"This has improved forming accuracy a lot and produced an enormous improvement in surface quality, with far less defects such as resin spots, bark fragments, melamine paper fragments in recycled wood and so on," said Mr Bielfeldt. "As a result, the reject rate at short-cycle pressing lines has been reduced by two thirds or even more, according to our customers, and defects at that stage are very expensive for them."

This is just one of the products featured in the new Dieffenbacher catalogue, produced for the Ligna 2015 exhibition in May 2015.

There are two forming products: that wind forming with a roller deck for particleboard; and The Formator M for MDF, which is claimed to greatly improve crosswise forming accuracy. This segmented scalper operates in a closed-loop system with the well-known Dieffensor offering immediate changes on the production line during forming.

The Microwave Pre-heater, positioned before the CPS or CPS+, changes only the temperature in the mat, while the moisture content remains unchanged. It is currently intended for use in MDF lines. "I’m convinced this system will also be used in the production of particleboard before long," said Mr Bielfeldt.

The EVOjet M, for dry blending in MDF production, has been another success story for the company, with several units sold to new plants; and for retro-fits.

This time last year, Dieffenbacher (like most other major machinery makers in the industry) was not optimistic about the prospects for 2015, but orders have continued to flow in, beyond earlier expectations, and the company has continued to research and to innovate, which must be a major part of its success.