The county of Northumberland in northeast England has seen some tough economic times since it led the world in heavy industries, such as shipbuilding, in the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth centuries.

The recent tough economic times have removed some more employment from the region, but Austrian-headquartered international panel manufacturer Egger has continued, and increased, its commitment to its Hexham plant.

Hexham is 20 miles west of the east coast city of Newcastle upon Tyne, and Egger, its major industrial inhabitant, is now the largest manufacturing company in Northumberland, with a current total of 560 direct employees in the UK operations.

Eighty percent of the staff at the Hexham factory come from within a 10-mile radius of this modest-sized market town, which is surrounded by wild countryside. It also lies close to some remains of the famous Hadrians Wall, which was built by the Romans in AD 122 to keep the inhabitants of Scotland out of England.

More importantly for the purposes of this story, Hexham became home to the first Egger company outside Austria when, in 1984, it acquired an existing particleboard (chipboard) factory, first opened in the 1960s, from British firm Weyroc.

Today, Fritz Egger GmbH & Co OG has factories in Austria, Germany, France, Russia and Romania.

However, in spite of its international expansion, Egger GmbH has always supported, and invested in, its UK operations.

Apart from the factory in Hexham, Egger has another, raw particleboard, production line in Barony in Scotland. Combined capacity of Barony and Hexham is over one million m3 of particleboard per year.

Egger UK also has a subsidiary called Timberpak, which has three sites: in Leeds; Washington, Tyne & Wear; and Glasgow, that collect and process recycled wood for the particleboard lines.

"Hexham is a prime example of Egger’s commitment to modernising and futureproofing its western European facilities," said Bob Livesey, managing director, commercial, of Egger UK. "There has been a lot of investment here. This is a private group taking a long-term view [of its operations]."

April 2007 saw the start-up of a brand new Siempelkamp ContiRoll line at Hexham. That continuous press is 48.9m long and 2,650mm wide, with an annual capacity of 650,000m3 (WBPI Issue 2, 2008, p30).

It was housed in a brand new building of prefabricated concrete frames and glue-lam beams. Thirty acres of adjacent land was also purchased at the same time, while the company holds an option on a further 15 acres for future expansion, possibly into furniture component production (without competing with its existing customers, points out Mr Livesey).

The complete ContiRoll line represented a total investment of around £110m (US$177m).

It replaced two existing single-opening batch press lines with a combined capacity of around 450,000m3. They were closed down, dismantled and sold after the new continuous line went into full production, making space for a new warehouse with a storage capacity of 16,000m3.

A new £4m wood recycling plant was built at Hexham in 2008, replacing an older pre-existing system.

A new office building, maintenance stores, apprentice training centre and canteen were also added in 2007/8. Hexham has around 30 apprentices on site at any one time. More ‘future-proofing’, then.

The next phase of Egger’s ongoing investment at Hexham was to replace one of two side-by-side decor paper impregnation lines with a new one and at the same time to provide the infrastructure for another new line.

The new complete line, from Vits of Germany, started production in May 2012, while the second is expected in around 18 to 24 months’ time, replacing the older existing line – a Babcock BSH line dating from 1988.

Egger UK has also recently installed a new Wessel biological exhaust air scrubbing system to add around 16tph to the capacity of the existing one built in 2007. This cleans fumes from the impregnation lines.

The Egger group evidently takes its environmental responsibilities seriously and also has a reed settling/purification pond on the Hexham site to clean up to 2,100m3 of waste process water per day.

The energy plant at Hexham generates 50MW of heat, burning 100% wood waste, and all off-gases from the energy plant, driers and presses are passed through a wet electrostatic precipitator (WESP) before being discharged into the atmosphere.

"We are probably the first panel factory in Europe to be wholly compliant with the European Waste Incineration Directive," said Mr Livesey. "And we are always striving to reduce our energy consumption and to use it more efficiently."

Another part of the company that has received significant investment is Timberpak. Egger has spent around £5m on this division in the last couple of years to create a truly state-of-the-art recycling centre, according to Mr Livesey.

Timberpak was first established in Leeds about 10 years ago to collect waste wood, mainly in the form of pallets, break it down and clean it. Now Egger has added the other two sites, in northeast England and Scotland, and the combined capacity of all three Timberpak sites is now around 200,000 tons of recycled, or ‘urban’, wood per annum.

The material has larger-sized contaminants, and any MDF, removed from it and is then crushed to a size that Hexham and Barony chipping lines can handle.

Around 70% of the trucks leaving Hexham bring return loads of wood from Timberpak, making best use of the road fuel consumed.

The Barony particleboard factory has also seen investment in its recycling facilities – amounting to around £8m – in the last 18 months. Additionally, a new boiler system, to utilise wood waste in place of the gas currently used for part of its energy generation, will be ready there in April 2013.

"Both factories utilise about 60% fresh wood and 40% recycled and we feel that this is the optimum mix for security of supply and quality of the panel," said Mr Livesey.

Fresh-wood supplies come from the nearby Kielder Forest – the largest manmade woodland in England, first established in the 1920s after the massive wood consumption of the First World War – and from others within a 100-mile radius of Barony and Hexham.

Another subsidiary, Egger Forestry, acquires standing timber and felling rights and sub-contracts to felling contractors to extract the logs. It also works with sawmilling partners to ensure the best use is made of the whole tree.

Egger purchases over 1.2 million tonnes of wood fibre per year in the form of roundwood, sawdust and hack chips from sawmills; and the recycled material.

At the ‘sharp end’ of particleboard manufacturing, Pallmann automatic knife sharpeners for the knife rings have been installed at both Hexham and Barony in the last two years and one million pounds went into sound deadening for Hexham’s Hombak flaker (which only operates during the day); keeping the neighbours happy is important to Egger as well. That is also why all sawdust is stored undercover.

The latest investment to get the green light from the local planning authorities is a new resin production facility at Hexham. This is scheduled to go into production in the next two years, when it will replace the existing plant.

Egger subsidiary Campact already produces resins on the site, but this plant is due to be replaced with a completely new production facility, meeting all current and anticipated legislation, and costing in the region of £25m.

However, investment at Egger’s factory hasn’t just been about producing raw board. The company already had extensive shortcycle lamination capacity before its latest addition in April 2012, in the form of a new €8.5m line from Wemhöner of Germany.

This line has multi-layer paper lay-up capability and double board feed is possible. It brings the total number of short-cycle lines at Hexham to five.

A major feature of this new line is that it can produce a synchronized pore texture so that the decor both looks and feels like the real thing. The line incorporates camera alignment to obtain this synchronicity.

However, it wasn’t just a new laminating line that was installed. A new automatic railbased handling system to bring raw board to the lines, and to take laminated boards to the warehouse, was also built, creating a complete state-of-the-art production system.

All five short-cycle presses are 5600 x 2700mm and the same applies to the whole Egger group; it gives complete interchangeability between lines and means that all decors can be bought centrally for the group.

Egger has plans to upgrade two of the other short-cycle lines at Hexham and to replace a third: Another example of ‘futureproofing’, according to Mr Livesey.

Although the Barony line, a 38m x 2.1m Siempelkamp ContiRoll continuous line installed in 1998, produces only raw particleboard, around 50% of its production goes to Hexham for value-adding, with the balance going straight to market as P2 furniture grade.

As well as melamine faced chipboard (MFC), value-adding at Hexham includes tongue-and-grooved (T&G) flooring panels – an important market in the UK.

Another new product, launched in late- 2012 for the building rather than decor market, was Decorative Protect particleboard flooring. This product is aimed at social housing projects to give a pre-finished floor for developers who want an empty property to have more than a raw particleboard floor – the surface is oak-effect.

This is distinct from Egger Protect Flooring, which is surfaced both sides with a permanent thermoplastic film to protect it against damage from the ‘wet’ building trades after laying, or even from weather for up to 42 days after laying.

New Zoom collection
The Egger Group offers close to 250 different decors, with all the papers being bought centrally and delivered to the individual factories. All factories also operate to the same parameters for textured decors.

It is not just decor papers that are offered, but edging and CPL laminate is also held in stock to match each decor design.

In June 2010, Egger acquired 71.5% of the shares in Roma Plastik of Turkey. With a turnover of approximately €50m, Roma is the largest manufacturer of PVC, melamine and ABS edgebanding in southern and eastern Europe and the partial acquisition made the Egger group a supplier of the full range of decorative products.

The new Zoom® collection was launched in March 2012. "This range features the company’s classic woodgrains such as oak, beech and maple with newer, modern, more realistic interpretations of these classics that can be more easily combined with our unicolours," said Mr Livesey.

The UK range features 108 decors, available in: Eurodekor melamine faced boards; Egger laminates and Egger ABS edging. This range is enhanced with additional decor ranges in Egger door-sized laminates and Eurolight lightweight boards.

The Design Forum
Brochures, however well printed, can only do so much in conveying the subtleties of those 200 decors in gloss, mat and/or synchronized-pore finishes.

That is why a large part of the ground floor of the office block at Hexham is dedicated to the ‘Egger Design Forum’, which takes things a giant leap forward from simple racks of MFC samples, into the digital age and the Virtual Design Studio (VDS).

The racks of particleboard samples faced with all the different decor papers are still there, but on one wall there is also a 40in touch screen on which runs the VDS program that enables customers to try different decors in different room settings.

In VDS HD Standard, there is a grayscale picture of furniture cabinets on the screen and the customer can call up any of the Egger decors from an onscreen library, touch it on screen and, again by touch, apply it to the virtual furniture.

They can then orient a woodgrain, for example, vertically or horizontally to see how it looks.

There are 80 room designs from around the world stored on the VDS system so that customers have a wide choice, not only of decors, but of virtual settings as well.

Any chosen design can be printed off as a pdf file.

For added realism, there is VDS HD (with MRI technology) in which the traditional solid particleboard samples with their various Zoom decors have a form of ‘bar code’ on the back. By holding this ‘bar code’ against a ‘reader’, that decor is automatically imported into the virtual scene. So you are looking at and feeling the real thing in your hand while seeing a virtual result on the screen.

Standing beside the touch screen in the Design Forum is a set of cabinets like the ones you can see on the touch screen, painted in a neutral colour.

If you have VDS HD Live, once you have chosen your decors onscreen, they can be projected from a ceiling-mounted projector onto those solid cabinets. You are, effectively, then looking at the real thing. Well, almost.

This saves the time and cost of making prototype cabinets out of real panels.

These Virtual Design Systems are not confined to the Design Forum at Hexham but Egger can supply all or part of the chosen system to its customers, at cost, to be set up in their own showrooms.

One can also download a free app to an iPad to see all the Egger decors on the handheld device.

Global investment
We have seen that Egger UK has been the recipient of a considerable amount of investment over the years, as have other western European divisions of Egger.

However, eastern Europe has also been a major focus for the company in recent times.

Russia had been a very strong sales market for Egger for some time so the company acquired its second factory in that country in 2011, in Gagarin, west of Moscow. It was an existing particleboard line with a capacity of 550,000m3/year, employing a Dieffenbacher CPS continuous press that was only two years old.

This added to Egger’s Russian capacity as it had already commissioned a particleboard line in Shuya in 2005, relocating two continuous Dieffenbacher lines from the former Vertex factory in northeast England, which went into administration in 2003, and one calender line from the closed Mende factory in Germany.

Most of the Russian particleboard production is melamine faced.

Meanwhile, in Romania, Egger built a new OSB line in Radauti, which started production in November 2011, together with a resin factory.

Since it was founded by Fritz Egger in St Johann, Austria, in 1961 with a single particleboard line, the Egger company has grown to have 17 panel manufacturing plants in seven European countries, employing around 7,000 people.

This privately-owned company is characterised by continual investment in ‘future-proofing’ its business and the UK company is a good example of that policy.