Reports and short-term forecasts presented during the three day late-March sessions at Seattle’s downtown Red Lion Hotel were not as rosy as in the recent past, but at least attendees saw better times ahead.

Co-chairs Vikram Yadama and Robert Tichy of Washington State University’s (WSU) Wood Materials Engineering Laboratory presided, with an even 200 attendees coming from North and South America, Europe, Scandinavia, New Zealand and Australia.

Of these, about half were industry suppliers, a third were producers and just under one fifth were academics. Gathered together, they produced valuable discussions.

Keynoter Murray Sturgeon, managing director of Nelson Pine Industries, Nelson, New Zealand, opened on a sober note, “I am not sure the title ‘Creating Value from Our Forest Resource’ is appropriate these days. While there are still opportunities, I believe the best days for creating real value were in the 1980s and ’90s.”

He continued, “Up until the ‘Spotted Owl’ phenomenon in North America in the early 1990s, the value of the forest resource was on a steadily increasing path. This increase was perceived in part to be the long-term nature of the investment in forestry – a tree growing to maturity in 25 years – and the concept that demand for forest products would continue to increase over time at a rate at least as fast as the forest was growing”.

Mr Sturgeon sees composite wood panel production as important in creating value from harvest residues and traced the industry’s history. He sees continuous pressing as an important factor, saying his own mill made the first continuous installation in 1986.

Another improvement was adding resin ahead of the dryer, rather than after. This resulted in decreased drying costs and a cleaner surface, he said.

Moving on to other markets, he traced China’s capital growth of 9% per year for 25 years, making it the world’s second largest economy. “China has a unique social model which works better than that of any other developing country of scale and is far more productive than most developed nations,” he declared.

Contrary to some “seers”, he said India is not the ‘next China’; India is more domestically focused. The economy is driven by the services sector, rather than manufacturing-based growth.

Mr Sturgeon concluded by describing two transformations affecting the industry: The first is the evolution of engineered wood products, segregating logs at harvest and tree stocking to meet growing demands as solid hardwood options diminish; the second is the change from vertically integrated companies, focused on their respective fields of forest ownership, and resource processing.

In his own presentation, Distinguished Award winner Eddie Price said that, historically, a composite wood product has been commercialised about every 15 to 20 years. He said the next generation of wood composite products is due, based on that cycle.

But the future seems to be oriented towards line extension of the current products and the development of wood/non-wood composites. Many such composites have undergone several iterations of changes because of market demands or technical advances. Mr Price said 60% of plywood cost is the wood.

Gregory Lewis, senior economist, Resource Information Systems, Bedford, Massachusetts, was the bearer of sobering tidings, saying, “In 2007, producers will face high resin costs. Decreased lumber production will limit wood fibre availability. Poor market conditions will increase pressure on higher-cost mills to close.” RISI expects capacity attrition in 2007 and 2008 and, at the same time, producers face decisions relating to MACT (Maximum Achievable Control Technology) compliance.

Even as construction markets rebound, domestic furniture production will still be well off its late 1990s peaks, slowing the turnaround in particleboard and MDF demand, Mr Lewis predicted.

In contrast, he said: “Nevertheless, we expect strength in wood panel markets for most of the 2009-2011 period, as construction markets rebound and after less competitive panel capacity has closed”.

He had some particular points:

* Construction market downturn will cause consumption to decline

* Weak domestic furniture production will compound the drop

* Structural panel markets will remain weak, particularly OSB

* Non-structural markets will trend lower

* Industry will have to deal with MACT and CARB (California Air Resources Board) environmental restrictions

* North American particleboard and MDF demand will trend lower. Thick MDF demand will see most of the decline as thin MDF/HDF continues to grow

* Capacity loss boosted North American particleboard markets in 2006

* Growing OSB capacity will induce further substitution for plywood

* Offshore imports will continue to pressure North American markets

* Plywood capacity will drop 30-35% from 2006 to 2011

James Wilson, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon and vice president of The Consortium for Research on Renewable Industrial Materials (CORRIM), reminded attendees that wood is sustainable and renewable, whether for forests, products, or fuel. He said wood is shown by science-based analyses to be a green building material and environmentally friendly.

Biorefineries produce myriad products

Bryce J Stokes, US Forest Service, Arlington, Virginia, said: “The forest biorefinery concept provides for recovering energy, chemicals, pulp, and other bioproducts in an integrated manufacturing process. It derives value-added products from wood by first separating the feedstocks into fundamental chemical components and using different processes for recovery. This could be hemicelluloses for ethanol and chemicals, cellulose for pulp and residues for syngas for energy, when part of an integrated pulp facility. A stand-alone biorefinery can also produce multiple products, but usually not as fully integrated”.

He added: “Conventional feedstocks to pulp mills usually have diameter limits, whereas the biorefinery can allow small-diameter roundwood and chips on the lower-quality end. On the high-quality end, softwood and hardwood feedstocks can be cultivated and specifically engineered in fast-growing plantations to provide an optimal feedstock for value recovery”.

Thomas Amidon, State University of New York, Syracuse, said the most optimistic estimates are that the world’s oil could last until the middle of the next century.

He quoted production time of oil, gas and coal at 200 million years, as compared with algae at one month, agricultural crops of three months to one year, grasses one year, shrubs five years and trees five to 80 years.

He advised expanding the use of biomass, “particularly abundant forest material” as an energy and material source to develop sustainable production/use cycles.

Professor Amidon called attention to the fact that forests cover about 9.5% of the Earth’s surface, but account for 89.3% of the total standing biomass and 73 billion metric tons per year, or 42.9% of the total annual biomass production.

A distant second on the list is Savanna and grasses, which contribute 11% of total biomass production. When measured in energy terms, the amount synthesised by the forest alone is equivalent to about three times the world’s 2004 total non-renewable energy consumption of 385 Quadrillion BTU (British Thermal Units).

Daniel Burciaga, president, ThermoChem Recovery Int, Baltimore, Maryland, explained his firm’s low temperature biomass gasification system. He said superheated steam consumes heat with biomass carbon components to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide fuel gases.

The system produces medium BTU syngas that can be customised for the downstream process. It is energy self-sufficient, using part of the syngas produced to fuel the heat exchangers.

He suggested importing regional biomass instead of importing energy.

Reducing refining energy costs

Anders Mattsson, Metso Panelboard, Sundsvall, Sweden, declared that Metso’s EVO Defibrator series offers the most efficient fibre preparation process available.

He said fibre energy consumption in preparation depends upon specific process components. Friction losses inside the refiner are a major energy consumer which is usually overlooked. Infeed and discharge design is important.

Mr Mattsson described the firm’s new uni-directional refiner grinding house. A helical fibre path, combined with a blow valve that opens in the direct fibre flow, facilitates smooth discharge without energy losses due to turns or fibre flow choking. A bearing unit with low-friction, spherical-thrust roller bearings contributes to low energy consumption, he claimed.

Robert Dickens, Temple-Inland’s continuous process improvement director, Diboll, Texas, emphasised the importance of mill maintenance. He broke it down into reactive, preventive, predictive, and proactive.

Pat Barry, Norboard NV, Genk, Belgium, compared the North American and European board industry, saying that the North American market is five times larger than Europe’s. “Europe thinks it’s better in brick,” he said.

A few more of his thoughts: “Prices fluctuate more in North America; flakes are thicker in Europe; all European OSB mills have had continuous presses for some years while North American mills are returning to multi-daylight”.

Michael Huddy, Barrier Technology, Watkins, Minnesota, described his ‘Blazeguard’ fire-rated panel treatment, which he said improves both strength and fire performance of plywood and OSB sheathing.

Kelvin M Chapman, MDF Tech Ltd, Christchurch, New Zealand, described sophisticated MDF fibre cost optimisation. Integrating different fibre supplies and sizes influences panel properties. Each requires different processing techniques. It all produces a useful tool to minimise fibre costs in the face of rapidly changing raw material and energy costs, he claimed.

Mr Chapman said: “The evidence that longer fibres improve MDF strength properties is strong. Generally, panels based on fibres made with sawmill residues require a higher density and possibly more resin to maintain property levels, with some plants adding small quantities of chips to improve strength properties”.

He concluded: “The processes that produce the residue stream will give particles with a fibre length distribution that is particular to that operation. It is necessary to carry out the analysis on each of the available residue streams”.

Brock Landry, Venable LLP, Washington, DC, described the state of California’s Air Resources Board proposal as “the toughest standard in the world.” He said it would be applicable to all applications. There would be no allowance for averaging or treatment and there would be draconian penalties for non-compliance.

Brent Takemoto, CARB, Sacramento, California, said the proposal would reduce composite wood emissions by 15%. He said it does not eliminate the potential use of any existing resin systems. He added: “We need to stem the flow of high-emitting products into California from overseas”.

India exists on imported logs

Androneil Ganguly, Center for International Trade in Forest Products, University of Washington, Seattle, outlined the challenges and opportunities of the Indian panel products market.

With a population of just over one billion, he described the country’s economy as the world’s fourth largest. He said imports have increased more than 10% annually since 1993.

He said India’s plywood and panel industry is better organised than the sawmill sector. It now relies almost exclusively on imported logs.

Since 2004, India has been the world’s third largest log importer. In 1995, Indian mills produced 2,554m3 of wood based panels, imported 240m3, and exported 206m3.

Some 400 medium and large mills – with widely varied capacity – produce plywood, particleboard and fibreboard. In addition, more than 2,000 small-scale mills produce plywood.

The government estimates particleboard production capacity as 113,000 tons in 1995 with 40% capacity utilisation. In 1997 they estimated a 63,000m3 MDF capacity, with about half that actually produced.

With timber harvesting restrictions, the government has eased tariffs on timber imports, but still had high tariffs on value-added wood products. Lowered duties have encouraged exports.

Stefan Zipf, Dieffenbacher, Eppingen, Germany, described ‘Maximum upgrade in minimum time’ when his firm installed a 12ft OSB multi-opening press to replace a failing existing press in a mill.

In a presentation capped by a fascinating fast-motion video of the entire installation, he described the project which “developed into a very interesting and successful complete solution”.

He said communication and planning between engineering and the project team was critical, together with suppliers, the customer and the installation companies all working together.

After a study of the existing press problems the decision was taken to replace the entire press, to minimise downtime and to maximise teamwork.

The project required new concrete foundation piers, which were built outside in the parking lot, thus reducing installation time by four weeks, with both piers being installed in 24 hours.

Many components were pre-assembled in four weeks of work and fed through a roof opening into the production hall. In spite of the major nature of the work, the mill was out of production for only eight weeks.

Didier Goesaert, Schenckmann-Piel Engineering, Leverkusen, Germany, described his company’s work with high–capacity dryers for particleboard and OSB. It offers dryers with capacities of up to 75 tons per hour of dry material, mechanical throughput.

He said large installations can use one or two of the large dryers whereas three or more smaller dryers have been common in the US and Canada for the same output.

They also minimise strand breakage, consequently minimising fines percentage in the mix, said Mr Goesaert.

Sizing the drum diameter and length, based on longer retention times and a lower airspeed, along with a discharge box with lower inlet and outlet temperatures, provides better heat transfer at lower temperatures. A support disc system air-classifies the strands to produce more even drying, minimising strand heat damage, said the speaker.

George Meek, Evergreen Engineering, Eugene, Oregon told the group that downtime information is essential to correct ongoing machinery problems and deficiencies and to fine-tune the maintenance and operations management systems. He said many facilities do not measure downtime, or if they do, they often miss opportunities that can help the plant in larger ways than correcting one downtime event.

He warned that downtime costs plants millions of dollars each year in lost production, downgrade and loss of customers. It is important to know what information to collect, what is causing the downtime and how to use this information to correct ongoing problems. With good information on plant downtime and plant management systems in place, problems can be solved in advance and downtime reduced, he said.

In a poster session, Conrad Chmielewski, Aeroglide Corp, Trevose, Pennsylvania, advocated using existing rotary veneer dryers as pre-heaters to reduce initial moisture content, followed by a conveyor dryer for the final, low temperature stage of 275ºF (135ºC). He said this could reduce necessary air treatment.

Björn Engström, Casco Adhesives, Stockholm, Sweden described his company’s on-line formaldehyde emission monitoring. He said it detects extremely low levels – even that of natural wood.

Kai Greten, GreCon GmbH & Co, Alfeld-Hannover, Germany, described the success of the company’s Dieffensor x-ray to inspect mats. He said it detects mat-damaging metal objects as well as providing continuous weight measurements per given area of mat.