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Independent.ie

Friday 20 October 2017

An Irish alternative to inferior timber imports

Versatile: Coillte panel products, manufactured by Medite and Smartply, are suitable for most construction requirements.
Versatile: Coillte panel products, manufactured by Medite and Smartply, are suitable for most construction requirements.

William Merrivale

Coillte Panel Products (CPP) was established in 2006 and incorporates the Medite plant in Clonmel, and the Smartply plant in Belview Port outside Waterford city.

Both Medite and Smartply have grown to become leading brands in their respective markets - medium density fibreboard (MDF) in the case of Medite, and oriented strand board (OSB) in the case of Smartply.

Between the two plants, CPP produces panel boards suitable for most construction requirements - they should certainly displace inferior, imported products of very dubious origin.

While both are manufactured principally from spruce and pine pulp, MDF and OSB are different products, and within those two broad headings there is a further array of panel boards designed for specific end uses.

MDF is manufactured from wood fibre and adhesive resins bonded under intense heat and pressure. Traditionally it was primarily for interior use only and was a common component in many items of furniture, fitted kitchens and cupboards, often veneered on the 'open' surface.

Recently, however, CPP launched Medite 'Tricoya', hailed as the most innovative composite wood product in over 30 years. Produced by combining wood fibre with the chemical acetic anhydride, the resultant acetylated wood panel comes with a 60-year guarantee for external use.

The by-product from this acetylisation process is just acetic acid, resulting in a low environmental impact at manufacturing stage.

OSB is manufactured from engineered wood strands. These strands, which look like wafer biscuits, are aligned at right angles in a three tier structure before being bonded with thermosetting resins, again under intense heat and pressure.

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As with MDF there have been some significant innovations in the last two years including products such as Smartply's 'DryBacker' which is designed to provide structural grounds for heavy fixtures.

Currently, Medite's annual demand is for about 700,000 cubic metres of pulpwood. From this the plant produces 420,000 cubic metres of MDF.

Smartply is slightly smaller, with an intake of 550,000 cubic metres of pulpwood producing 320,000 cubic metres of OSB. Close to 95pc of all production is exported, 50pc to Britain and 45pc to Europe.

As a measure of the economic downturn, at the height of the boom the Irish market accounted for up to 30pc of the entire production.

Neil Foot, acting CEO of Coillte Panel Products, says the company has built up a good understanding of customer requirements and have established excellent relationships with all their main customers across Britain and Europe.

These range from furniture giant DFS, which manufactures 50,000 furniture suites per month utilising CPP's MDF and OSB, to companies fitting out yachts and cruise liners with veneered MDF panels.

The site for the Smartply plant was carefully chosen for its logistics.

From Waterford Port container loads can be shipped direct to Rotterdam for distribution throughout Europe.

The first OSB panel to roll off the production line was in 1996, shortly after the plant was formally opened by then Taoiseach John Bruton.

Originally a joint venture between Louisiana Pacific (LP) and Coillte, financial problems in North America forced LP to pull out in 2002 to concentrate on the US market. While LP remains the biggest single producer of OSB in the world, the company is no longer so active in Europe.

The Louisiana Pacific legacy meant that the plant was not ideally suited to the European market.

Specifications

All the presses were designed for imperial markets and to American specifications.

Accordingly, in recent years CPP knew something had to be done to update the plant to satisfy increasingly exacting European customers.

In July this year, the Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, announced the approval, with the agreement of his colleague, Brendan Howlin, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, for a major €59m investment in the Smartply facility.

It is anticipated that installation of equipment at the facility will commence during the third quarter of 2015, with the lines operational early in 2016. This will allow the production of an even greater variety of products specifically targeted at the European market, while continuing to supply existing customers.

What will this mean for growers?

It is probably premature to state that the development will mean an immediate increase in demand for raw material from the private sector.

Currently CPP's business plan is not to increase volume. Rather, it is to diversify into European markets with greater efficiency, and build on that to increase market share.

In any event, CPP is supplied almost entirely from Coillte's own forest estate.However, the forestry sector will benefit from the upturn in the construction sector.

Engineered timber products such as glulam beams and cross laminated timber panels, as well as MDF and OSB sourced from sustainably managed forests, are the future of a sustainable construction industry.

The embedded carbon of a primarily timber structure is considerable at 1.3t of CO2 per tonne of timber used, displacing steel and concrete to an ever increasing degree.

Ireland is now better placed than ever to compete in markets both at home and abroad for these products.

Indo Farming