If the name Robina sounds familiar to readers, it is probably because we reported on the Robin Resources MDF and laminate flooring operations in Mentakab, Malaysia.
Founder Robin Loh is a dynamic entrepreneur with interests in shipbuilding, hotels, the construction of a city in Australia, and the electricity supply industry, as well as the panel business. He also studied for and gained a Phd in political science at the age of 66.
Dr Loh entered the panel business in 1995, when the Mentakab factory produced its first board; that factory has gone on to produce its own-brand Robina Flooring, together with other value-added products.
The joint venture company in China, Robina Ltd, was set up in mid-July 2001 between Robin Loh and Yichun Forestry Management Co Ltd, in which Robina holds 70% and Yichun Forestry 30%.
The factory, at Yichun in Jiangxi province, was in fact originally constructed by Yichun Forestry Management Co Ltd, a corporation of the People’s Republic of China and therefore state-owned. Construction began in 1998, with production of MDF commencing in 2000.
That first line was supplied by Siempelkamp and employed a 12-daylight 4ft x 16ft multi-opening press. It had a design capacity of 54,000m3 a year, based on 8mm HDF board for sale to the laminate flooring market.
These days, the line is producing thicker panels for the furniture market and thus the capacity is greater, with 94,000m3 being produced in 2004, of which 18,000m3 was in the form of HDF for flooring and the balance MDF for furniture.
Since the beginning, the factory has been under the management of Mr Xia Jing Di, who is today the director general manager of the Robina Yichun operation.
“The purpose of the joint venture was to build a second line and utilise line one and local resources to the full,said Ms Doris Chou, foreign representative and financial controller of Robina.
Yichun Forestry originally entered into a joint venture with panel producer Homanit of Germany and Mr Xia and Homanit managers visited a number of panel making factories worldwide to look at various continuous press lines. That joint venture ended after about a year and Robina ‘took over’ as the new partner.
The availability of wood supply was the prime reason for the original factory being built in Yichun, with pine plantations planted by farmers in a 200km radius supplying a good quality raw material for fibreboard production. In fact, explained Ms Chou, Jiangxi is the number two province for forestry in China, behind Fujian.
“We started our own plantation in 2000 and have doubled the area every year,said Ms Chou. “We have planted 120,000mu [8,000ha] so far and we hope that in five to eight years, we will be selfsufficient in wood raw material.”
The company is planting pine and poplar and testing other fast-growing species which will grow at its plantations, 300m above sea level where snow is common.
The supplier chosen for the second line at Yichun was Metso Panelboard and the contract was signed in August 2003, with the down-payment being made that October. Construction work began in April 2004.
“I felt that Metso was the only potential supplier able to offer the complete line from log to packing, including the refiner, energy plant and panel handling as one company – I saw that as the strength of the company,said Mr Xia, speaking through Ms Chou as interpreter. “We were also looking for a line with the highest performance, and the most cost-effective solution.
“At first, I had my doubts about the [former] Küsters press’s reputation but I changed my opinion after visiting a lot of Küsters lines overseas which were producing well. The press has also had a lot of modification under Metso and I felt the most important of these was the cooling zone. I think it is very important to the quality of the final boards.”
Robina’s is in fact the first of the Metso re-designed Contipresses in China, said Mr Xia. The second one will be for Fujian Furen for particleboard. He added that that company was one of the earliest entrants to MDF in China, with a Washington Iron Works multi-daylight press, followed by a Küsters press, also for MDF and now the order for the particleboard line.
Start-up of the line was originally planned for April this year, but abnormally bad weather conditions, with torrential rain and snow since December 2004, delayed progress. At the time of WBPI’s visit in April, the site was still suffering from a thick layer of sticky mud making outdoor construction work more difficult, and it was hoped that the first board would be produced the following month, but it was more likely to be in June.
The new line has a designed capacity of 200,000m3 a year from its 33.8m x 8ft 6in Contipress. The width is in fact adjustable from 6ft 6in to 8ft 6in.
Production is intended to be mainly thin board from 2mm upwards, although the line is designed for thicknesses up to 40mm. Line one will then be reserved for 12mm and thicker.
The Yichun factory has had its own resin plant on site since the first line was built and it has now built a brand new formaldehyde plant to serve both lines one and two. The plant supplier is a Chinese company based in Wuxi, near Shanghai, which also supplied the Kronosinhua Beijing factory and Kronoshuangfeng in Danyang in Jiangsu province.
The log yard and chip yard are both fully concreted and a new debarking and chipping line will serve both lines one and two, with a Pallmann drum chipper.
The refiner for line one was supplied by Andritz Sprout Bauer and is a 44in unit.
CMC Texpan forming is followed by an Elmed metal detector, and a mat damping unit after the pre-press. A travelling crosscut saw cuts the mat to length for the multi-opening press.
The control room has windows to the front for the production line and windows to the rear looking onto the refiner room.
After the star cooler, board edges are trimmed by a hogger, with the trimmings going for fuel. Stacks of boards are then transported by forklift to the warehouse.
After conditioning, sanding is carried out using an Imeas six-head sander.
Line two is in a new building across the road from line one on land purchased specifically for this purpose – and the construction of a new doorskin line in due course. The total area of the Yichun site is 600mu (40ha).
For line two, all major equipment was supplied by Metso Panelboard, including the drum debarker, supplied in six rings which were then welded together on site, with ultrasonic testing of the welds. The debarker unusually incorporates a bark shredder to prepare the waste bark for use as fuel.
The energy plant will be used to burn bark, dust and light oil as well as disposing of some of the waste water from the production line.
There are then two 140m conveyors, one for bark and a covered one for chips, to take the latter to two chip silos. One silo is for hardwood chips and one for softwood. Chips are then conveyed to the chip screen, washer and digester/refiner. That Metso (formerly Sunds) refiner is 60in in diameter.
The Metso dryer is a two-stage system and is followed by a buffer fibre storage bin and then a Metso Z-sifter. Fibre then passes to the cyclone above the former and on to a dosing bin designed to ensure an even flow of fibre to the former.
The former incorporates a weigh-scale and there is a weight-per-unit-area gauge after the pre-press, as well as two matspraying units.
After the continuous press there is a GreCon thickness and blister detection system. The factory also boasts 15 GreCon fire detection systems, plus a separate system for the press.
After the continuous press and the two cooling stars (with space for a third, if required, to meet future capacity demands), the Lukki storage system takes over. This fully computerised, robot-based system moves panels to the storage area and takes them to be cut to size on the Metso line, with a small packing line also available, and to the Steinemann Satos eight-head sanding line.
Although Robina has sizeable offices at the first line, a new purpose-built office block is to be erected on the new site.
Also planned for the Yichun complex is a door factory to make interior doors using flat (rather than moulded) MDF doorskins. Space for this project was allowed for when the extension to the site for MDF line two was purchased. The timing for this project will be set once the new MDF line is up and running satisfactorily.
There is a railway line adjacent to the factory site and this was used to bring some of the heavy equipment into the site during construction. This is a new facility and it is intended to make use of it for general transport of raw material and finished goods in the near future.
The new factory also has an undercover loading bay for road trucks.
The market for Robina’s fibreboard production, which will total at least 300,000m3 at Yichun, is mainly furniture factories in Guangdong, Shanghai, Beijing and Dalian, which mostly export a large percentage of their production and thus require a high-quality board.
“We don’t anticipate exporting outside China – there is no need to,said Ms Chou. “Right now, we can’t supply enough board – hence the new line.We are supplying on a cash-only basis too and we are famous in China for this,she said proudly. “We haven’t needed a sales office up to now, although we did open our first office in Guangzhou in 2003 and offices in Beijing and Shanghai in 2004 to increase our sales effort in preparation for the new MDF line.
“Good quality board is still rare in China so we don’t see the demand slowing down. There have been many new lines in the last two years and they have all been large capacity but China is still not producing good quality in sufficient quantity and many of those mills are still on a learning curve.
“The big difference in price in the China market is between good quality and the other boards. There are also more regulations, and they are better enforced with more inspection on the market, concerning formaldehyde release, so quality products are in increasing demand.”
Robina is making E1 and E2 grade and is working with officials on an E0 standard for the country. All the urea formaldehyde glue made at Yichun incorporates formaldehyde catchers.
“We are making moisture resistant [MR] board to Japanese standard but we are not in the market with it yet. China has no requirement for MR flooring but our base board for laminate flooring is more moisture resistant than any other producer in China,said Ms Chou.
“We do supply all the laminate flooring manufacturers but the profit is low on flooring – it is better on furniture panels in recent years.We maintain our price for flooring panels but laminate flooring producers are down to around US$4 per m2 for export,she said in April. “There is too much competition in the market.”
As for the future, Ms Chou and Mr Xia believe that the lack of a wood resource, and of skilled personnel, will ultimately squeeze the poorer-quality producers out of the market.