The first article presented in WBPI about this Malaysian company appeared on page 12 of the October 1996 edition and bore the headline ‘Merbok: Making MDF in a hurry’.

It told how Robert Kokshoorn, Dutchborn managing director of Merbok MDF Sdn Bhd and his management team built two brand new continuous MDF lines in Merbok in the state of Kedah, in northern Peninsular Malaysia, within the space of two and a half years. The company went from nothing but a piece of land to a 250,000m3 a year capacity. It is still doing things quickly and
growing fast.
At the time of that first article, the company was part of the Merbok Hilir Group, a joint venture between a Japanese investor, Mr Hikozo Takeuchi, Robert Kokshoorn and a Malaysian entrepreneur.
Following a further management buy-in in 2000, the Merbok Hilir Group is currently a management-controlled company in which Mr Kokshoorn and Mr Richard Whitham, the Group’s operations director, are significant shareholders. Richard Whitham has been involved in the Merbok business almost since its inception.
The Merbok group now includes those two Siempelkamp continuous MDF lines at Merbok and one Mende and one Küsters continuous press at the Takeuchi MDF factory in the south of Peninsular Malaysia (acquired by Merbok Hilir in 1996 and the first MDF factory to use rubberwood as a raw material in the world). Those two Takeuchi lines have a combined capacity of 100,000m3 of MDF a year.
The company also has one MDF line in Sri Lanka, rated at 100,000m3 a year, and a second line was due to go into production there early this year to add a similar amount of capacity. That gives the Merbok group a total MDF capacity of around 540,000m3 and Mr Kokshoorn reckons that makes the group number two in capacity terms in the Asia-Pacific region.
However, raw MDF is not the whole story of Merbok by any means. It also has 18 million m2 of impregnation capacity on a Tocchio line at its Merbok factory, 160,000m3 (18mm basis) of laminating capacity and 15,000m3 a year (3mm basis) of paper overlaying. Also at the Merbok facility there is a polyurethane coated paper, tongued and grooved wall panelling production line with a capacity of 20,000m3 at full stretch.
Another home-built project was a resin production plant, capacity 50,000 tonnes per year, which came on stream at the end of 2001. This supplies all the Merbok factories in Malaysia and in Sri Lanka.
Until October 2002, the Merbok group was solely a producer of MDF panels, but that changed when it bought the assets of the Millplex particleboard mill, which had gone into receivership, and put it back into viable production, in a short space of time.
Millplex started up the line in April 1997 in Bukit Selambau, Malaysia. The Bison- Dieffenbacher line was purchased secondhand from war-torn Yugoslavia in 1995 by a joint venture Malaysian/Japanese company which refurbished it and added some new components. However, the line was never run successfully to its fullest capability and the then owning company went into a downward financial spiral and the mill was forced to close. By the time Merbok purchased the Millplex assets, the line had not run for at least eight months and its true state could only be guessed at.
Merbok was perhaps the ideal candidate to buy the company because it has built up a wealth of technical knowledge and in-house engineering capability during the development of its MDF business and has a team which you could say is ‘not easily deterred by a challenge’.
Refurbishment of the line started in November 2002. “The major job was the complete refurbishment of the Dieffenbacher single-daylight press,recalls Mr Whitham. “We refurbished all the cylinders and the hydraulic system. It was a water/oil emulsion system with all the associated pumps, etc and we put in a complete new hydraulic system, incorporating distance control to replace the original manual spacer system. We also added a complete new user interface to meet the most modern standards of press control.”
All the engineering work was carried out by Merbok personnel, with the exception of the machining of the press cylinders, done by a specialist company in Australia. Surprisingly, only one new hydraulic pump was required to get the press running.
A complete new chip handling system, as well as all the equipment from the outfeed of the press to the infeed of the sanding line, and the stacking system, were engineered by Merbok’s in-house technicians.
Raw material for particleboard is mainly the same as for Merbok’s MDF – rubberwood – but this time with a little mixed hardwoods thrown in.
Primary chipping employs the Ferrari L13 drum chipper from the original line and chips are then carried on a new conveyor to a screening system, originally from Louisiana- Pacific in the US. Merbok also added a hogger for down-sizing oversize material.
The two primary flakers are from Klöckner and were also part of the old Millplex line. “They were a bit rusty but otherwise OK,says Mr Whitham.
The Bison direct heat drum dryer had also survived in good condition and was fitted with new controls with real time graphics (RTG). After the dryer come two oscillating Texpan screens and two Pallmann PSKM refiners for surface layer material. A completely new cyclone and bag filter system was added to the line by Merbok’s engineers.
The original Imal glue system was retained, with UF and MUF blenders, but the glue kitchen area was upgraded with tiling and proper drainage.
The original forming was supplied by Bison and employs a three-head former with wind for the surface layers and mechanical forming for the core.
Merbok added a GreCon weight-perunit-area gauge at the former. The former is unusual, as it is a travelling unit which moves up and down the forming line on rails instead of a belt moving under the former. It seems a back-to-front way of doing things but it works, although Merbok’s engineers have put a lot of work into modifying it and getting it to run satisfactorily.
The line has a platen pre-press but it is not used because the new press controls enable the press to be closed gently enough to avoid the necessity, says Mr Whitham. It also avoids the problems of the mat sticking to the pre-press platens.
The Dieffenbacher single-opening press is 68ft long and 6ft wide and presented another problem when it was discovered the original foundations had subsided and the press had to be jacked up and additional reinforcement and concrete injected to underpin it.
The control room is also new, having been moved from a location beside the press to a more conventional elevated position at the side of the production hall. All the controls have been upgraded to the latest standards, with RTG displays.
“We split the press into four different zones to control the thickness more accurately with the hydraulic cylinders,explains Mr Whitham. “The operator can vary the pressure and the distance control (panel thickness) along the length of the press to obtain a good surface and the required density profile; we have adapted the principle of a continuous press in a ‘homegrown’ system.”
The cut-to-size plant that came with the line was made in Japan many years ago and didn’t do the job any more. It was re-engineered and fitted with a PLC system.
There is a Steinemann six-head sander for finishing the panels and an automated, railed transfer truck stocking system. This stacking/storage system was another area where Merbok had to make some major changes to the original equipment.
“Originally the line used one metre high stacks of panels ex-press and this was a very inefficient use of storage space and led to poor stacking with bearers out of line,says Mr Whitham. “We have modified it to build four-metre high stacks 6ft x 16ft with automated carriage to storage and to the sander. Building this put the full start-up back by two months because we had to dig 6.5m pits to accommodate four metre stacks in the floor, but it is essential for the efficiency of the whole factory.”
For value-adding, the factory has a Wemhöner short-cycle press, a single-daylight 6ft x 16ft unit. The company is aiming to surface 60% of its output, ultimately.
Panels are standard UF-bonded particleboard at present, but flooring grade, high density, high moisture resistant and edge-grooved panels (for loose tongues) are planned. The company bought a secondhand machine from the failed Masistar (formerly Vertex, formerly George Reynolds) plant in the UK to do the grooving.
Considering that the whole refurbishment and start-up of this particleboard line was carried out in five months from start to finish, it would seem that Merbok is still making panels ‘in a hurry’. Of course there are sound financial reasons for getting a new factory up and running as soon as possible and starting to get a return on the investment.
Mr Kokshoorn is aware that it would not be possible to build his factories at all, let alone quickly, if it were not for the expertise, skill, experience and dedication of his team. Most have been with the company since that first MDF line started up in Merbok in 1994.
Richard Whitham came from a practical background in the industry in Australia and has been responsible for the implementation of all Merbok’s plants, and its downstream and upstream projects, since 1995.
Merbok Particleboard was a new challenge for the company. Nobody had any previous experience of the product, admits Mr Kokshoorn. However, the basic competence was there among Merbok’s other managers and much of it is ‘transferable’ from MDF in terms of composite panel production.
Mr Geam Yong Kia is the plant’s operations manager. Lim Song Yoong is responsible for engineering, handling and mobile chipping technology, in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, as well as for equipment manufacturing for the group; he is based in Malaysia.
Some of the Millplex staff now work for Merbok and were able to share their past experiences of the line, which was of assistance in re-starting it.
The switch to particleboard seems to have been accomplished successfully, overcoming far more difficulties than the team expected in a used plant which they were not able to test-run before committing to it.
Mr Kokshoorn freely admits that, had the Millplex company not been located so close to Merbok, but instead was on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, for example, he would not have taken the project on. The logistics of controlling a completely new product line using old and ill-used machinery at that distance would not have made sense.
However, thanks to the skill of its engineering staff, Merbok now has a line that is refurbished to the company’s very high standards, and it is determined to make a success of the particleboard business, as it has of MDF.