With its consumption of wood residuals, the La Baie MDF plant has proven to be a good environmental asset to the forest industry of the Quebec's Saguenay- Lac St Jean region.
By Tony Kryzanowski
Since Canada has a fully developed and integrated forest industry, issues such as the softwood lumber dispute with the United States can threaten the viability of some marginal sawmills, but it could also create hardship for secondary industries dependent on sawmill residuals. One example of that scenario is the medium density fibreboard (MDF) plant located in La Baie, Quebec, owned jointly by Uniboard Canada and Sodexpan Inc.
Similar situations exist for other particleboard, MDF or HDF plants that rely on a consistent supply of softwood furnish. To this point, La Baie MDF has been a tremendous environmental asset to the forest industry in the Saguenay-Lac St Jean region of Quebec. General manager Richard Roussin says prior to the plant's arrival, sawmill owners were burning, landfilling, or shipping sawdust and shavings to other consumers situated further away. Now all that material is being used to produce a composite engineered panel right in their own backyard.
The La Baie MDF plant consumes 175,000 dry tonnes of softwood sawdust and shavings and manufactures about 250,000 cubic metres of MDF per year. Half is shipped to the US and half to Canadian markets. The plant was constructed in 1997 in an area of Quebec that represents 25 per cent of provincial sawmill production. Although there have been some recent temporary sawmill closures in the area, the MDF plant's furnish supply has not been drastically affected yet, according to Roussin. However, permanent closures or cutbacks in lumber production by a number of area sawmills would be another matter.
"If there is a problem that results in poor shipments to the United States by our softwood lumber furnish suppliers, it will hurt us down the line somehow," says Roussin. At this point, he is uncertain what impact lower softwood lumber prices-coupled with the softwood lumber dispute with the US-might have on them. Inevitably, however, reduced availability of furnish will have an impact on the price they pay and, in turn, on their MDF production costs.
As if the softwood lumber dispute and low prices weren't enough, La Baie MDF must also deal with the cost of natural gas, with heat being a critical component in the MDF manufacturing process. Roussin says they don't have many options to combat the high cost of natural gas, except that they recently substituted heating oil for natural gas because it is cheaper.
There is good news, however, concerning consumption of electricity. Provincially-owned Quebec Hydro has frozen the cost of electricity for the past four years. However, other engineered wood product plants located in areas such as Alberta, which has recently deregulated its power industry, are not so lucky.
In most cases, power costs have more than doubled for all sectors of the forest industry in Alberta because that province is experiencing a shortfall of power generation in a time of high demand. Roussin says being part of a larger company like Uniboard Canada, which in turn is owned by German-based Kunz Holding, has its advantages. Uniboard has plenty of experience in the manufacture of engineered wood products, from the selection of equipment to the manufacturing process.
Roussin says great strides have also been made in the quality of MDF over the past decade due in part to the advances introduced into the manufacturing process. La Baie MDF has benefited from technical improvements developed at the company's older Mt Laurier plant north of Montreal. "We produce a fibre that is really fine and the board has a really light color," says process and quality engineer Pascal Briere. "Our customers like that.
The machineability of the board is also very good." Roussin says that the MDF manufactured at La Baie has developed a reputation for unique features, making it a little easier to market worldwide-especially with customers who demand a board with high machineability properties. A significant percentage of their production is also shipped to other Uniboard plants where surfaces such as melamines and foil are applied.
The enhanced board is then sold further downstream for the manufacture of such products as kitchen cabinetry, countertops, furniture and store fixtures. The MDF at La Baie is manufactured from a mixture of sawdust and shavings. It is trucked to La Baie from suppliers located, on average, one to two hours away from the plant.
The furnish is stockpiled in the yard and, as the area is subject to considerable snowfall in winter, it undergoes a pre-steaming process to melt ice and snow prior to being refined and dried. The sawdust and shavings are stored separately and a loader feeds a chain conveyor leading into the plant. In addition to pre-steaming as the furnish enters the plant, it also undergoes a cleaning process to remove debris such as rocks and large particles.
The next step is refining. MDF La Baie uses a rather unique method in its furnish refining that it prefers to keep confidential and which ultimately has a critical impact on the quality of board it produces. The pre-steaming and refining equipment was supplied by Sunds, a Valmet subsidiary. After refining, the fibres are dried from an initial 100 per cent moisture content down to 10 per cent, mixed with glue and blown into a fibre bin.
The press line consists of a former, pre-press and press. It has a Schenk forming line with a Dieffenbacher continuous press. The fibre is dropped on to the forming line using mechanical pick rolls to produce a uniform mat. The thickness of the mat is determined at this point. The press is capable of manufacturing MDF in eight, nine or 10-foot widths. Excess material along the sides is recirculated to the storage bins.
MDF La Baie prefers to manufacture 10-foot widths because it is the most efficient use of their capacity and the most productive size in terms of custom cutting options later in the process. The temperature of the thermal oil inside the press is about 250 degrees Celsius and pressure will vary from 100 bars at the infeed to about 50 bars in the middle of the 125-foot long press. "At the infeed of the press, you want a lot of pressure to fix the surfaces," explains Briere. "And in the middle you want more heat to cook the core of the board."
The plant uses a specific profile for the press to achieve the highest quality panel at the highest speed of production without diminishing panel quality. As the manufactured panel moves forward it encounters a flying cut off saw, which cuts the panels into lengths between 16 and 24 feet. Each panel is also subjected to thickness, density profile and blow detector tests. "Every hour, we do a quality control test that includes an internal bond test, a density profile and a machineability test," says Briere.
Panels are then aged for 48 hours. Once sufficiently aged, they are conveyed through the custom cutting and sanding line. La Baie MDF uses Kontra equipment to handle its custom cutting and Steinneman sanders for sanding. The plant has 115 employees and operates 24 hours a day seven days a week. Roussin says it was a combination of factors that led to the construction of the $120-million building in 1997. These factors included a growing demand from their customer base, furnish availability in that area of Quebec-northeast of Quebec City-and Uniboard's participation, given its expertise in the business. The Mt Laurier plant, which is also owned by Uniboard, was built about 10 years earlier than the plant at La Baie.
The two are the only MDF plants in Quebec. Roussin was involved in the design of the Mt Laurier plant before transferring to La Baie and says many of the advances developed at the first plant were incorporated into the newer plant.
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