Forestry's Green Warrior
Summary: Engineered lumber products are rapidly replacing wider-width and longer-length lumber that is becoming harder to get as old-growth timber harvests decline.
By Reg Barclay
As the global supply of wood for construction changes rapidly, new ideas and new products based on research are developed and implemented by the wood products industry. Unfortunately, it seems the industry seldom receives credit for new ideas from their own research and development.
The essential ingredient of these new products is reconstituted fibre. In comparison with commodity lumber, these products are more consistent in strength, performance and stability. They are more efficient in use with less waste and have a higher recovery from the log. They can use the large standing timber volume of species heretofore considered unsuitable for lumber - mainly poplar and aspen.
Hence these new products satisfy many environmental concerns about conservation. They provide part of the answer to the question of where supply will come from in the next century, as demand outstrips conventional product supply. Engineered lumber wood products are a good example of the new technology outpacing the old methods and products. At first blush these products are more expensive per unit of measure than the generally cheaper commodity lumber products; however, experience does show savings to the end user.
The challenge for the timber trade worldwide will be to market the technical know-how and advantages of these new products. Its a simple case of stressing in-place cost rather than product cost. This will require a complete reversal in thinking by the wood products trade. A whole range of products has been developed, which are relatively new to the market.
Thus far, they are sold under proprietary names rather than as a a commodity. The generic term for these products is laminated veneer lumber [LVL]. There are a number of variations, such as parallel strand lumber [PSL] and laminated strand lumber [LSL]. Oriented strand board [OSB] and particleboard are part of the family, but are considered to be panel products and are therefore excluded from this discussion, even though LVL products are often used in combination with OSB to make wood I-beams, a popular new engineered building product. LVL is produced from thin veneers, rotary peeled from a log.
After drying, the veneers are placed parallel to one another and, with glue applied, are bonded together under heat and pressure. This product, supplied in a wide range of thicknesses, widths and lengths, provides a high-strength alternative to large-dimension lumber for use as window and door headers, structural beams and flange material for engineered wood I-floor and ceiling joists.
The size and length can be supplied according to the load and span length required. LVL can be produced from high-strength softwoods or yellow poplar. PSL [parallel strand] is made from veneer peeled from logs which is then cut into thin strands, dried and then with glue applied, laminated together with their grains parallel to one another under heat and pressure. This product can be used in furniture or cabinetry to provide flexibility over-curved surfaces, or as an alternative to large-dimension lumber 4'' and larger for use as posts, columns, beams, and window and door headers.
This product is usually produced from Douglas-fir, hem-fir and southern pine, but a new plant will use yellow poplar. LSL [laminated strand] reduces the log to thin strands up to 12'' long that are then bonded together to create a billet from which smaller-dimension pieces, can be cut for use as rim board, window and door headers, and millwork core material.
This product is made from aspen and poplar. The market acceptance of these products has been slow, chiefly because their main competition, commodity construction lumber, has been cheaper per lineal foot. However, since 1990, declining harvests have resulted in skyrocketing, volatile prices. As old-growth timber is either harvested or placed in reserve for wilderness parks (or for the spotted owl), the shortfall, has been partially made up by increasing the cut of second growth and less desireable species. As a result, wider width and longer-length lumber in the better construction grades is becoming scarce.
Thus, engineered lumber products, which are more costly per lineal foot, but represent in-place savings and a better quality of construction, particularly in home building, have been gaining in popularity with end users. As necessity is the mother of invention, so is scarcity the impetus to try new ideas. The growth in use of engineered lumber products and building systems has been particularly rapid since 1990.
Russ Taylor and Associates in Vancouver, in an article in Widmans' World Wood Review Newsletter, estimates that the sales of engineered wood products will double in 1995 to $800 million, which represents a share of only three per cent of the potential lumber market in single and multiple-family residential construction in North America.
Len Guss and Associates of Bellevue, Washington in a widely circulated 1993 report for Durand-Raute, estimated that from 1987 with three plants and a production level of 200 million fbm, production of LVL increased by 1993 to 10 plants and production of 340 million fbm. By the year 2002, this will triple to 1.0 to 1.25 billion fbm, and the number of plants will double. This production level represents a value of roughly 1.5 to 2.0 billion dollars. Since the early 60s in North America, Trus Joist Corporation, with head office in Boise, Idaho, has led the way in development of LVL and wood I-beams and web beams.
In 1991, a joint venture was formed with MacMillan Bloedel Limited in Vancouver, Canada's largest forest products company. The new company was called Trus Joist MacMillan (TJM), and operates 10 plants in the US and three in Canada. Two new plants are scheduled to begin production in 1995, and capacity has been increased at several of the existing plants.
The Company employs 2,400 people. Their plant capacity represents about half of the total of North American LVL production. TJM has now expanded overseas with eight locations in Europe and the mideast, with headquarters in Belgium. Vic Worthy, Senior Vice President of MBL's Composite Wood Group and a leader in developing the joint venture, reports he is very satisfied with the progress of the new partnership.
"The partnership with Trus Joist was a perfect fit. TJ had experience in marketing engineered wood products. MBL contributed to the new company the production of two of its LVL type products, Parallam and Timberstrand. This gave TJM a broader product range and more flexibility in manufacturing. It also provided for better recovery from the log. Parallam utilizes the narrow veneer, which otherwise would be waste, as LVL uses the wide veneers.
Thus, with a good product base of proprietary products and better production economics, the company could continue to focus on its primary business, the structural framing market. MBL has also provided the company with full access to its large research facility and tied TJM into its distribution network, thus quickly expanding sales coverage."
He adds: "The partnership is very successful. Sales have doubled since it was formed in 1991. A second Timberstrand plant has been added and Parallam production increased. A new plant combining Parallam and LVL has been built., and I-beam production has been expanded."
The TJM partnership has permitted MBL to concentrate on what it does best - developing new manufacturing plants. Currently, MBL is holding various equity positions in seven projects involving new plants for OSB, MDF, particleboard and cement-bonded particleboard [for roof tiles] in Canada, the US, and Mexico. Worthy says, "these are the growth products of the future and we are locating plants close to markets, to lower freight costs. In addition, MBL must look outside BC for opportunities for growth, as the timber supply in the province is declining."
Today, under the category Engineered Lumber, Random Lengths Directory lists 21 plants in the US and three in Canada. However, only 10 plants in the US and two in Canada are producers of LVL. The balance are assemblers of systems such as wood I-beams, glulam beam production, headers, door stiles and other engineered lumber products.
Len Guss and Associates, in their 1993 report Market Perspectives for LVL, provides insight into distribution and end use of engineered lumber products in North America. In 1992, it was estimated that engineered lumber was consumed as follows: 44 per cent floor joists and roof rafters; 38 per cent residential beams and headers; and 18 per cent non-residential uses.
By the year 2002, it is expected that the proportion of non-residential uses will increase from 18 per cent to 40 per cent of total. Building code approval is essential for each proprietary product. Once received, LVL products can be used in the same manner as commodity lumber. For wood I-beams or trusses, building code approval is required for the specific product which the manufacturer must obtain. Distribution channels vary. The primary distribution point is the specialty stocking distributor.
As LVL and I-beams are supplied by a relatively few producers, suppliers usually insist that distributors have a single source of supply. Firms that make both LVL and wood I-beams try to persuade their customers to take both products from the same supplier.
The stocking distributor in turn sells to retail dealers who supply contractors or builders. Special sizes or requirements can be provided through technical assistance from the producer. However, as more LVL and I-beam producers enter the market, there could be a tendency to bypass the distributor and sell direct to the retailer; this is already happening in a few cases.
This trend will turn engineered wood products into more of a commodity, where proprietary brand names will be less important. While awareness and use of LVL, wood I-beams and trusses has increased dramatically in the past few years, engineered lumber products have made as yet only minor penetration in the end use markets, particularly the non-residential market. Dimension lumber is still the traditional material of choice, as it is familiar and readily available.
Market development is still needed to expand market awareness with architects, engineers and contractors/builders. It also requires engineering support, technical knowledge, and design software. Trus Joist MacMillan for example, has a complete line of computer design, specifying and sizing software which makes it easy for building and design professionals as well as dealers to make the most of engineered lumber's outstanding load-bearing characteristics and long span capabilities.
Architects are finding that engineered lumber not only exceeds requirements for strength and stability, but also gives them the opportunity to design houses with more open space.
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