Members of the UK Timber Trade Federation (TTF) and Plywood Club of London gathered for a unique ‘double-header’ to hear US plywood manufacturing expert Dick Baldwin.

Mr Baldwin has recently published the revised fourth edition of his book Plywood and veneer-based products manufacturing practices. Other books include Maximising forest product resources for the 21st century – new processes, products and strategies for a changing world.

Mr Baldwin, who followed his father into the plywood trade (Cascade Plywood) in the 1950s in Oregon, US, has presided over many plywood mills during his career.

His roles have included being an executive officer of Champion International and The Springfield Group and a member of the board of managers of Wood Resources LLC until its sale to Boise Cascade in September 2013.

He is an operating partner in Atlas Holdings’ building materials division, which owns the plywood mills Olympic Panel Products (Shelton, Washington), Omak Wood Products (Omak, Washington), and Winston Plywood & Veneer in Louisville, as well as being managing partner of Oak Creek Investments.

"The plywood industry over the last 20 years has been through a once in a lifetime climactic change in which it has had to change from what it was to something different," said Mr Baldwin. "Plywood is dead, some people say. I say no!"

US plywood production was about 26 billion feet in the mid-1990s, falling to around 10 billion feet in the mid 2000s. "A lot of folk gave it up for dead because of OSB and other forest products," said Mr Baldwin.

Up until about 2003, North America was the largest plywood-producing region in the world.

Now China is easily the largest, with a 68% share of global production, against the US with 7.2%. The next largest regions are Indonesia on 3.9%; Malaysia (3%) Russia (2.5%), Brazil (1.9%), Canada (1.3%) and Finland (0.8%) – figures by the FAO of the UN.

In 2013, about 134 million m3 of plywood were produced globally, with at least 100 countries reporting some form of plywood production, though eight countries accounted for 90% of global production.

Cheap Chinese hardwood plywood imports into the US have been a bone of contention for the US plywood industry. The Coalition for Fair Trade of Hardwood Plywood filed an anti-dumping petition in 2012 against Chinese hardwood plywood. The International Trade Commission (ITC) subsequently ruled that the US hardwood plywood industry had not been harmed by imports of subsidised Chinese plywood.

But the coalition has appealed the decision, claiming the ITC disregarded key evidence.

Meanwhile, Mr Baldwin said despite the onset of OSB, the financial crisis and other competitive pressures, the international plywood trade doubled to US$14.9bn in 2013, from US$7.4bn in 2003, putting paid to fears that plywood was on a perpetual downward path.

"Plywood is far from going the way of the buggy whips – it has a continuing process of renewal and growth," he said. In US plywood end-use markets, construction use of plywood is sharply down compared to 2000. Only about 13% of North American plywood now goes into residential housing.

The dip has been less pronounced in the refurbishment sector, with industrial demand being stable.

Mr Baldwin explained that while OSB substitution of plywood has taken place in US construction, the drop-off for both products after the financial crash was less pronounced for plywood.

He said a major 15-year phase of plywood sector "turbulence and reinvention"from 1999 to 2014 had been characterised by globalisation, tree and process improvement, technology flexibility, new players and new producers and consumption patterns.

Mr Baldwin cited Hank Ricklefs, former general manager of Plum Creek’s Columbia Falls mill in Montana and a committee chairman at the APA-The Engineered Wood Association.

Mr Ricklefs observed in 2000 the barriers to survival for US plywood producers: cost disadvantages compared to major competitors; and rapidly changing timber resources.

He also identified keys to survival. This includes plywood producers having had to adapt to competitive realities, focusing on the unique characteristics of a veneerbased panel, solidifying around core strengths and automating at a faster pace. On the raw material front, Mr Baldwin said US government environmental laws had put a lot of old wood fibre in forests off-limits.

"Either you are getting out of the old growth industry or doing it in very limited quantities."

An increasingly large array of tree species and timber types were being used, with plywood now being manufactured from a renewable resource.

"I can get a better veneer out of a 10in diameter log than a big old growth log, as long as the tree is grown properly.

But, he said, the "re-invention of plywood" phase is coming to an end. Mr Baldwin said key for producers is to turn problems into opportunities and use new raw materials.

He disputes the argument that plywood can be produced more cheaply offshore. "I believe plywood will recover from the onslaught of OSB," said Mr Baldwin. "A modern plywood mill can use the same material as an OSB mill.

"But if you do not think you can compete, you probably won’t compete." So what will be the major barriers for plywood in the coming years?

Failing to be innovative enough to service customer needs and costeffectively manufacturing plywood to agreed specifications, he said.

In the years ahead, he sees continuing and growing challenges, including achieving housing goals and coping with government regulations on raw material and the conversion process.

"The future ‘survivors of the survivors’ will emerge from this process," predicted Mr Baldwin.

One of the plywood mills owned by Atlas Holdings – where Mr Baldwin is an operating partner – is currently being rebuilt. Winston Plywood & Veneer in Louisville, Mississippi was destroyed by an F4 tornado on April 28, 2014, only about a month after Atlas had bought it.

It is scheduled to re-open by early 2016 and it will be one of the most modern and efficient mills in North America. It is expected to be producing 400 million ft2 of speciality and commodity plywood products annually – 175 million more than the previous facility