May June, 2003

 

 

 

 

CHIPPING AWAY AT A “NEW” FOREST INDUSTRY

Grinders, like the Brute, offer potential profits

By Carl Clayton

Not so long ago chippers, grinders, mulchers, and other fiber reduction devices were rarities in the forest products industry. Today, reduction equipment has become the foundation of one of the industry's fastest growing sectors. In the future, forest land owners, harvesting contractors, mill owners, and value added manufacturing firms alike are likely to make use of the equipment to enhance profitability as a changing industry finds itself unable to be fully profitable without the ability to deliver a broad range of products, other than logs and lumber, from both forest and mill.

Forest Service scientists have pointed out that in most harvests the majority of the fiber available is left in the woods. Climate science, forest health science, emerging public policy, and plain old economics demonstrate the need to turn more of that fiber into product — a signal that growth in the residue reduction industry is likely coming.

Yesterday's "waste" is today's resource.

Showing the Way
Sawmills have led the way in change taking place in residue reduction and use in recent decades. Over the past quarter century, residue in the form of bark, bits and pieces of wood, mill ends, and sawdust has gone from being expensive throwaway to a valued resource mined for fuel, premium chips, mulch, compost, landscape materials, and other specialty products. In the process, the breakdown center — grinder — has been transformed from a necessary evil to a significant machine important to both the smooth operation and the profitability of the plant.

At West Salem Machinery, a major Northwest manufacturer of residue reduction equipment, Mark Lyman, the firm's president, points to electricity as just one example of what's happened in the modern sawmill. Old hands, he points out, will remember that decades ago most mill residue was burned, buried, or simply left in large piles to rot. Today, according to the Departments of Energy and Agriculture, "Biomass process streams and residues provide 56 percent of the electricity and heat used by the pulp and paper industry and 75 percent of the electricity and heat used by the solid and engineered wood industries and composites" in the U.S. today.

Lessons learned in the recycle yards can be applied to produce profit at the harvest site.

Following the Lead
In coming years Mark believes the industry will see the use of harvest residues expand at rates comparable to those seen in mills in recent decades. Ongoing efforts by government to reduce greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, the end of slash burning, the creation of new products utilizing oils and esters extracted from organic matter, and further increases in the utilization of biomass to generate electricity will, he believes, create the economic incentives needed to make harvest residue processing economically viable. That will mean much of the fiber now left lying in the woods after a harvest will be gathered, processed, and utilized for product. And the machinery West Salem and its competitors produce will become commonplace at harvest sites in coming years.

The Future is Now
“The change coming to the woods means grinding is no longer ‘just’ grinding,” says Mark. “As more sophisticated products are created from wood residues, the equipment used to reduce those residues must meet ever more demanding parameters.” And manufacturers of reduction equipment have responded to the new needs with a broad range of sophisticated machinery. “In the 2000s, residue reduction is an industry sector that has grown up, professionalized, and taken its place at the forefront of progress,” says Mark.

On the processing side, for example, Wellborn Cabinets, a national firm with headquarters in Alabama, represents a vivid demonstration of the enhancements a well-planned program of residue use can bring to a sawmill or secondary manufacturer. Wellborn is one of the U.S.’s leading cabinet manufacturing firms as well as one of the more completely integrated forest products companies in the country. Utilizing 1.2 million square feet of manufacturing facility, Wellborn saws and dries its own lumber and then uses that lumber to build eight to ten thousand finished cabinets per week. Virtually all scrap in the plant is converted to product as well — primarily fuel to drive the company's kilns and to generate electricity for in-house use.

Because the boilers producing the steam needed to drive a kiln or the turbines of an electrical system require suitably prepared material, Wellborn uses three separate West Salem Machinery chipping and grinding systems to reduce its scrap to reliablysized fiber. Each grinding center was selected by the cabinet company to fit a particular need in its process. The three machines, operating together, transform a very broad range of fiber — everything from bark and log pieces to fiberboard, sawdust, and lumber scraps — into the right consistency needed to efficiently fire Wellborn's power and heat generating facilities. “Energy production, both in the form of heat and electricity, is an increasingly popular option among our customers,” says Mark. "The recent power crisis seen in the West really put the spotlight on energy costs. Many firms are looking closely at generation to protect themselves from the kinds of dislocation they saw last year. Just as important, scientists report that a shift from fossil fuel to biomass generation of electricity will play an important part in future efforts to reduce global warming. Companies using their residuals to replace fossil fuel are providing substantial public improvement in environmental terms even as they serve their own economic needs."

Finding a New Niche
Not all residue is best utilized in power generation. Oregon Pallet, a Salem, Ore. pallet repair and recycling company, produces chips for the manufacture of building products and other wood fiber based products. The company was founded four years ago with just one account on the books. Today the firm's annual revenues exceed $5 million. The rapid growth of Oregon Pallet is due in no small part to the firm's innovative approach to grinding. The company reports that a substantial portion of its revenue stream comes not from pallets but from the scrap produced as pallets are repaired in the firm's facility.

Scrap is combined with construction debris and other clean wood fiber and ground into salable product. Oregon Pallet uses a West Salem Machinery "Brute" portable grinder, a machine designed to match the heavy-duty grinding capacities of the firm's stationary units, yet transportable in breaking its scrap down. The fiber is then sold to manufacturers for use in making building materials including pressed board, particle board, and medium density fiberboard (MDF). Oregon Pallet also grinds hog fuel for pulp and paper plants, which then utilize the product to generate electricity for their operations. As markets for processed fiber expand, Mark says there is no reason companies like Oregon Pallet cannot take machines like the Brute and process on-site the products of the new millennium.

Sawmills have led the way to environmental preservation using biomass for electricity. In future years this may be the industry's fastest growing sector.

Grinding Out the Profits
The forest products industry has changed dramatically over the past several decades, with the growth of the chip board and OSB industry and the increasing attention paid to everyday products like mulches, composts, soil amendments, and erosion products. Materials once considered waste have become value-added products. And that change is likely to continue. Mark believes that landowners, harvesting contractors, mill owners, and others in the industry who are looking to profit in coming years will increasingly look to grinding in their business plans as a way to enhance margins. “To the firm of the future, in the woods or out, the grinding center may also be the primary profit center,” says Mark.

TW

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This page was last updated on Tuesday, September 28, 2004