I have good reason to remember my first visit to Robin Resources’ factory in Mentakab in Peninsula Malaysia, because it was my first visit to any mill in South East Asia.
That was back in September 1995 and the mill was as yet unfinished.
It was one of those projects funded by a complete newcomer to the panel industry, Dr Robin Loh, who was, and is, an entrepreneur with a wide range of investments in many industries.
He purchased the 57-acre greenfield site in Mentakab – nowadays about two hours’ drive north of Kuala Lumpur (about four hours in 1995 before the motorway was built!) – in 1994, and founded Robin Resources (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd.
The production line was a joint turnkey project for Bison and Dieffenbacher, both of Germany, and incorporated a Dieffenbacher CPS continuous press with a 27.8m x 8ft pressing zone.

It seems remarkable now but, at the time, this was the longest continuous press, fed by the largest refiner (a Pallmann 54in unit), in all of Asia.
Unfortunately, Bison went into bankruptcy shortly before the project was completed, but the work was finished with help from Dieffenbacher in the form of consultancy and the first board was produced in December 1995. However, it was June 1996 before the line was properly commissioned due to delays caused by the demise of Bison.
The line was built in an area of rubberwood plantations and was designed to use 100% rubberwood as the raw material, although today, with the shortage of rubberwood in Malaysia generally, the mill utilises partially tropical hardwood, and acacia.
There is a nearby plantation of 20,000ha of acacia, which is government owned, and Robin has so far been allocated 4,000ha of this resource and is hoping for more.
The one problem with that raw material, though, is that the logs have a very stringy bark which tends to jam in conventional debarkers, so hand debarking is mainly used at present, which is obviously not a long-term proposition.
The tropical hardwood comes in the form of slabs from sawmills within a 100km radius.
The management of Robin Resources was quick to realise that raw board was not enough to build the business and started to look for ways to add value to its MDF production.
In 2000, the company formed a joint venture with German company Witex in which Robin just produced the raw board and Witex used it to produce laminate flooring – its area of expertise.
“The idea was to sell laminate flooring under the brand name of Witex Robin Flooring on the Asia market and initially we did well,explained Mr Chin Sing, general manager of operations. “But in May 2003 Witex went into receivership so we bought 50% of the plant from the trustees in November 2003 and renamed it Robina Flooring Sdn Bhd with effect from January 2004.”
Robin also took over the assets of Classen USA Inc, Kennesaw, Georgia in the US and created Robina Inc in late 2004. That company is still marketing Robina Flooring and Classen brands.
At Mentakab there is a Dieffenbacher short-cycle press for laminating the panels for flooring.
“Our current production is three million m2 a year although the press has the capacity to go to five million, but we are limited by only having one profiling line, so we have ordered a second one from Homag,said Mr Chin.
The HDF produced for the flooring line is E1 grade emission level for high moisture resistance.
The Mentakab factory can produce F**** grade MDF or HDF and uses urea formaldehyde (UF) glue for its standard grade boards.
The flooring production is housed in a separate building, close to the original MDF line building, which bears the Robina Flooring name and logo.
It has an impressive air-conditioned impregnated decor paper store, giving the stock of over 50 printed decor papers a good shelf life.
Apart from that Dieffenbacher press, other equipment includes a Paul multi-rip saw, Torwegge profiling line,Wandres panel brushing machines and a Kallfass packaging line.
The factory produces flooring for other customers as well as under its own brand name, all packed and shrink-wrapped ready for transport by containers which load at the purpose-built loading bay.
The other main form of value-adding carried out at the Mentakab site is directprinted MDF panels.
This Bürkle line was installed 18 months ago and is still building markets against strong competition from low-basis-weight paper (LBWP)-faced panels. The whole line is 150m long and has three printing heads available. These can be moved in and out of the line as required.
The third value-adding process here is a line producing moulded solid doors for interior use. These are made from 35mm MDF and they are then routered using a CNC-controlled machine from Heian of Japan. The doors are first direct printed and then routered, with the grooves being hand painted or sprayed.
There is space in the factory to build a second MDF line and that was the original intention, but the lack of suitable wood raw material has put a stop to that, at least for now.
However, the group is building a new MDF line at its existing MDF/HDF factory in Yichun, Jiangxi Province, China.
“This was originally a joint venture between Homanit and Robin to create Homanit China which held 70% and the local government which held 30% of the equity,explained Robin’s vice chairman, Mr P T Chua. “But Homanit pulled out and it is now 70% Robin, 30% local government-owned and called Robina.”
The original line has a Siempelkamp multi-opening press and an annual capacity of 70,000m3, but the new one is a Metso line with a Metso Contipress continuous press and it is due on-stream in April this year. Nominal capacity of the line is 200,000m3 a year and Metso is supplying the complete line from woodyard to finished product, including the energy plant. The new line represents an investment of  US$92m for Robin.
Things have changed at Mentakab since WBPI’s first visit nearly 10 years ago. For a start, the factory no longer stands alone but is part of an industrial estate. And of course the office staff no longer work out of a portable building but have a splendid office block.
There have also been alterations to the line itself, but the strongest impression is that the factory does not look anything like 10 years old, having been very well-maintained.
The refiner and press are of course original, but the press speed has been increased to 800mm per second. In fact, Mr Chin claims to be producing a total of 175,000m3 per annum of boards in thicknesses ranging from 3mm to 35mm.
Stainless steel belts of 2.7mm thickness from Sandvik were to replace the 2.3mm ones in January 2005.
The original chipping supplied by Sunds has been replaced with a precision Husky chipper for rubberwood. A Klöckner drum chipper is used for the tropical hardwood slabs.
The energy plant is by Vyncke.
Controls for the press are all real time graphics and this was one of the first mills to move on from the old synoptic system when it was built in 1994. Keeping up with the times, the control room is equipped with Dieffenbacher’s recent Teleonline service with video conferencing and 24-hour service.
“We can now solve 80% of our problems online,said Mr Chin.
Some of the entrepreneurs who entered the MDF business in the 90s, seeing it as a means of obtaining a very good return on investment, left when things got tough.
Not so Dr Robin Loh, who has built a city in Australia and been involved in shipbuilding, electricity supply and hotel construction around the world. He obtained a doctorate degree in the US at the age of 69.