A new Malaysian MDF producer hit the market on April 2, 2003 when Segamat Panel Boards produced its first panel within eight months of breaking ground.
Neither the people nor the machinery were new to the game, which helped to ensure a rapid start-up of the mill on a greenfield site in Segamat, Johor. The mill is owned by the Takeuchi family of Japan.
Mr Hikozo Takeuchi built his first MDF mill in Malaysia, not far away from Segamat, in Masai in Johor, in 1989. It was a Mende line, which he moved from Japan where he had used it to make thin particleboard.
He is said to have pioneered the use of rubberwood for MDF production in Malaysia with this line and, in 1993, he teamed up with two men – a Malaysian entrepreneur and Dutchman Robert Kokshoorn – to form Merbok Hilir.
That company went on to build two continuous MDF lines in Merbok in the north, among other projects in Malaysia and Sri Lanka.
The Takeuchi family later divested its interests In Merbok Hilir and for a time was out of the panel business in Malaysia; an absence partly necessitated by the unfortunate serious illness of Hikozo Takeuchi.
But that was not the end of the story for them. Prior to Mr Takeuchi’s illness, he had bought another secondhand Mende line in Siberia and had it dismantled and put in storage.
In 2002, Mr Takeuchi’s son, Shigetoyo, who took control of the company following his father’s illness, decided to do something with that dormant line and a site was found in Segamat, an area rich in rubber wood.
The first of hundreds of piles in this soft-ground area was driven on the Greenfield site in August 2002.
The Takeuchi family are not the only highly experienced people involved in this project. They needed to find a man who understood Mende lines thoroughly and could put one together in such record time.
The choice was probably not that difficult – there are not too many people around who fit that kind of profile. Enter Peter Fitch.
Mr Fitch, an Englishman, returned from running a project in China in May 2002 just in time to start work on the preparations for Segamat.
He had been putting together another Mende MDF line, this time for Plantation Timber Products (PTP) at its factory in Hubei.
Prior to going to China, Mr Fitch ran the Takeuchi Mende MDF line in Johor for Merbok, so he knows a bit about this kind of line, and about Takeuchi.
He had an experienced team, including Koichi Saito and Peter David, both of whom had also once worked at Takeuchi. Mr Sakakibara, who was also involved in the Takeuchi startup in Johor, offered an experienced guiding hand. The line was originally supplied new to Russia by Bison as a turnkey installation in 1988/9, but only ran for about four months before being shut down, apparently due to a lack of raw material. In 2000, Kazo Trading, a company owned by Takeuchi, bought the line from refiner onwards.
Mr Sakakibara and Mr Saito went to Russia to supervise dismantling with a Russian contractor.
Originally, the line was to be rebuilt in China, together with a sawmill to provide the raw materials, but Mr Takeuchi senior’s illness unfortunately intervened.
Once his son had decided to build in Segamat, Peter Fitch took charge as project manager for both civil works and machinery installation on the 18-acre site on a former oil palm plantation.
“Not only was this factory built in record time, but it was also built on a very small budget,says Mr Fitch. “We spent less than RM50m [US$13.2m] and there was no bank loan involved as it was all internally financed by the Takeuchi Group, which has sawmilling interests in Japan and the US and knock-down furniture manufacturing in Johor, Thailand and Japan, as well as joint venture interests in Taiwan and China.”
The equipment that came from Russia included a Pallmann 42/44in refiner, a flashtube dryer, Bison vacuum former, deMets pre-press and of course the Mende press.
The press has a three metre-diameter drum that is eight feet wide and has a nominal production capacity of 4,000m3 a month.
However, Mr Fitch is already advanced with plans to increase this to 5- 6,000m3 a month (60-70,000m3 a year) in a couple of years, by incremental changes to the production process.
A Segamat Panel Board-made debarker, and a secondhand Klöckner chipper purchased through Italian company Imal, are additions to the purchased line, and the moving floors in the chip silos came new from another Italian company, Trasmec.
There is a Schwabedissen swing saw, which cuts in both directions, to cross-cut the board as it exits the press, while cutting the panel to size is carried out by a system designed and manufactured in-house by SPB. Before the swing saw are hogging saws for edge trim and up to three longitudinal cuts can also be made in the width of the board.
A steam heat exchanger for the tube drier was fabricated locally in Malaysia as the factory has quite a high steam capacity, explains Mr Fitch.
An Imal glue kitchen was added and Imal also upgraded the electronics from their 1988 vintage to current standards, with PLC and SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition).
The resin used is urea formaldehyde, producing approximately equal quantities of E2 and E1 grade board. The company can also produce E0 board for the Japanese market, employing formaldehyde catchers.
Imal also supplied thickness gauges after the press and a density analyser on the forming line.
A Weko system is used to spray the mat surface before pressing.
The original Kikukawa sanders have only three heads for top sanding. An additional two sander units were purchased from the same supplier to sand the back of the panel and were delivered at the end of 2003.
The control room for the whole factory is equipped with the latest production monitoring equipment, with the supervisory control for forming and pressing at one end, with RTG; and the green end, refiner, dryer and glue kitchen controls at the other.
Thicknesses produced on the Segamat line range from 2.2mm to 6mm maximum, but the company specialises in the 2.2mm to 3mm range. Density is 750-780kg/m3.
For value-adding, the factory has a paper overlay laminating line from Taiwan using UF or PVA resin lamination to apply printed paper supplied by Takeuchi sister company UC Gravure Sdn Bhd in Johor.
“We aim to put around 25% of our production through the laminating line for the local and export market,explains Mr Fitch.
The company is well-placed for export, being equidistant between the three ports of Tanjung Pelapas, Pasir Gudang and Klang.
The whole company is run by a total of 120 staff – small numbers by South East Asian standards.
Production is housed in a light and airy building which makes maximum use of available daylight.
It also allows room for a second line and extra value-adding equipment when the time is right – as does the whole site, with spare land at the back of the factory available for development.
“The advantages which we have at SPB are the fast start-up and the very low capital cost internally financed by Takeuchi, as well as keeping our manufacturing costs low – and the fact that we make an added value, niche product,says Mr Fitch.
“We believe in total service satisfaction and, as a small company with a very small capacity compared to most, we need to compete on quality and service as we do not have the economies of scale to compete on price alone.”