German wood based panel manufacturer Pfleiderer has invested €8.5m to launch the KT11, a new MFC lamination press at its plant in Grajewo, in Poland’s north-eastern region of Podlasie.

The technology was supplied by German equipment maker Wemhöner, the familyowned company from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and a world leader in short-cycle press lines for melamine direct lamination

Launched last July, the expansion project will allow the manufacturer to achieve a number of objectives. Among others, Pfleiderer will be able to significantly increase the plant’s output capacity, and decrease the delivery time to customers in north-eastern Poland and neighbouring countries, including Lithuania and Russia’s nearby exclave Kaliningrad, according to the information released by senior company representatives.

Investment to expand product portfolio

“Owing to the investment in the new KT11 press line, we increased our production capacities to 28 million m2 per year, which allowed us to significantly reduce the delivery time to our customers,” said Marcin Bak, plant director and a member of the management board of local subsidiaries Pfleiderer Grajewo Ltd and Pfleiderer MDF Ltd.

“The new format of the KT11 press expanded our capacities regarding the range of products we can offer to our industrial clients. These are tangible benefits which allow us to become more competitive.”

Mr Bak said the new press line for laminating chipboards and MDF panels will be used to produce two basic models: 5600mm x 2100mm panels and 2800mm x 2100mm panels, basically two product types most demanded in the market.

“In addition to this, owing to the fact that we are introducing a capacity to make asymmetric cuts, we will be able to provide our customers with other types of MFC panels, for instance the 4200mm x 2100mm size or the 3600mm x 2100mm panel.”

In addition to the domestic market, the plant in Grajewo exports its output to a number of European markets.

Wemhöner has maintained a longstanding relationship with Pfleiderer’s Polish subsidiaries, providing machinery to the company’s various plants in Poland. In June 2013, Pfleiderer launched the KT10, a press line for laminating panels, at its plant in Wieruszów, in the country’s region of Lódzkie. The line, with a capacity of 240 cycles per hour, was the third press line Wemhöner supplied to the group’s Wieruszów factory at that time.

In a statement released in relation to the investment from 2013, Pfleiderer said the project was necessitated “above all by the shifting expectations of customers from the furniture industry regarding the panel models [they buy from wood based panel producers]”. Customers were increasingly shifting their needs from the 2500mm x 1830mm size which, until recently, was considered an industry standard, towards a significantly larger 5600mm x 2070mm size.

The press line allows production of panels with a maximum size of 5630mm x 2200mm, with thicknesses ranging between 6mm and 40mm.

In addition to modernising the factory’s product portfolio, the press line allowed the Wieruszów facility to decrease its energy use and increase the plant’s laminating capacity by about 20%, according to figures from Pfleiderer.

Similar to the investment in Wieruszów in 2013, the laminating press Pfleiderer launched at Grajewo last year was fitted with a capacity of 240 cycles per hour. It has also enabled Pfleiderer to further expand its capabilities at the Grajewo factory by launching synchronised laminating in the future.

The German group’s two local subsidiaries, Pfleiderer Grajewo Ltd and Pfleiderer MDF Ltd, are the largest manufacturing employers in the Podlasie region, providing a total of over 600 jobs, according to data from the business. Over the past years, the northeastern region has attracted a number of investments from the wood based panel industry by both foreign and domestic players, such as Sweden’s IKEA Industry which operates an HDF plant in Orla, about 133km north of Grajewo.

Furniture industry powers Wood Based Panel investments

Pfleiderer’s decision to further raise the Grajewo plant’s output capacity comes in response to the improving performance of the Polish furniture industry.

Over the past years, the sector, which is predominantly export-oriented, has become one of the powerhouses of Poland’s economy. Figures from the state-run Polish Investment and Trade Agency (PAIH) show that the country’s furniture sector is responsible for more than 2% of Poland’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Between 2013 and 2017, Polish furniture manufacturers significantly expanded their export sales, which went up from €7.9bn to €11.4bn, a robust increase of 43.5%, according to data from the country’s PKO BP bank. This allowed Poland’s furniture sector to become the world’s fourth largest furniture exporter, with a share of 5.4%.

Within the European Union, the country was the bloc’s third largest furniture producer in 2017, with a 9.5% stake in total sales value, the bank says.

In total, furniture producers provided more than 189,000 jobs across the country that year. The sector’s employment is rising at a rapid pace, as, between 2013 and 2017, Poland-based furniture makers expanded their work forces by more than 25%, according to figures from PKO BP.

Industry players face rising pressure on wages

However, it is noteworthy that, in common with many other industries in Poland, local wood based panel manufacturers such as Pfleiderer face increased pressure to increase wages, fuelled by the country's record-low unemployment, according to local observers.

Last December, Poland’s unemployment level fell to some 5.2%, a level unseen since September 1990 when the country was in the midst of a transformation from a centrally planned economy into a free market state.

The current unemployment rate is merely a quarter of Poland’s record unemployment level of 20.7% in February 2003.

The massive drop in unemployment is making it increasingly difficult for local manufacturers to recruit skilled employees while maintaining their expenditure on salaries at a stable level. At the same time, the country’s low unemployment level is encouraging the Polish government to raise the minimum salary above the inflation rate. In 2020, Poland’s minimum salary is set at the level of PLN2,450 (€575) per month, up 8.9% compared with PLN2,250 (€528) a year earlier.

Despite these developments, Pfleiderer’s Polish management hopes that the company’s organic relations with the Grajewo municipality will secure the plant’s human resources needs in the coming years.

“It is very often that entire families work for us here,” added Mr Bak, “Besides that, the majority of the residents of [Grajewo] are, to a large extent, involved with our companies.”

Asked about Pfleiderer’s plans for Grajewo this year, Mr Bak said while no further current investments in expanding the plant’s production capacity were planned, given the “dynamics of macro market changes we cannot exclude that such investments will take place in the near future. We are, however, currently investing in the field related to environmental protection, which is in line with Pfleiderer Group’s sustainable development strategic concept.”