Oregon Panel Maker Adapts to Change

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North Douglas Wood Products adds finger-jointing line with Conception RP System

DRAIN, Oregon — Every time the business world sends North Douglas Wood Products lemons, it turns them into lemonade.
The managers of this south Oregon company are so creative and optimistic, they seem to consider every new market challenge an opportunity to show how resourceful they are.
Take the challenge of competition from China in the value-added wood products sector in Pacific Rim markets. The rise of Chinese companies could have put North Douglas Wood Products out of business, said assistant general manager Mike Grimes. Chinese competitors offered less expensive products to attract North Douglas customers in the region. Some of the U.S. company’s best customers were from Japan and Korea. Transportation costs and more expensive labor make it difficult to compete against Chinese businesses.
“The Chinese have come into the world marketplace in a strong way in the last few years,” said Mike.
Instead of trying to compete against Chinese companies that had advantages
in Asian markets or giving up entirely, North Douglas instead turned its attention to new markets, such as Germany and North America.
“The first 17 years of our existence, our largest customers were always off shore,” said Mike. “Just in the last three years, our largest customers are actually in the United States.”
They are still working with some of the same exotic woods, but the difference is that now it is brought to Oregon mainly by Ameri­can companies that are importing the material.
North Douglas Wood Products, founded in 1984, has had to re-invent itself several times during its relatively short history in order to adapt to changing markets.
“Our outlook is that probably the worst is behind us,” said Mike. “We have gone from feast to famine several times in the history of this company. The product line, the customer base, the resources have drastically changed many times. We have realized you can’t count on anything staying stable for very long. You’ve always got to be looking for that next customer, that next product, all the time. If you’ve got that mind set, it’s no more of a challenge than you’re up to.”
A certain part of the management team’s perseverance is rooted in its civic mindedness. The managers feel a civic responsibility to make the company thrive and prosper because it is one of the largest employers — about 40 workers — in a small town.
“The determination of our management to continue to find innovative ways to service customers and keep the business alive is very important to our small town,” said Mike. The management team also is strongly committed to the forest products industry, he added.
North Douglas Wood Products is a firm believer in efficiency in its manufacturing operations, and the company consistently invests in leading edge technology. It has used several different finger-jointing systems over the years. When new technology offers significant advantages, the company spends considerable time researching it to determine if it should make a new machinery investment.
A little more than a year ago North Douglas sold an old finger-jointing system — its No. 2 line — rather than invest a significant amount of money to refurbish it. Since business was down at the time, it did not seem necessary to run two lines. That soon changed, however, as business picked up again and the company was in the market for a new machine for a second production line.
North Douglas recently invested in a CRP 2000 finger-jointing system from Conception RP Inc. in Quebec City. “The incentive for Conception to get their machines into the marketplace was pretty important to them, and they were willing to give us a pretty good deal,” said Mike. “And the machine itself was impressive, how they had engineered things differently.”
The Conception RP system provided solutions to challenges that were a concern with previous finger-jointing systems. “Everybody who builds finger-jointers is building a quality machine,” said Mike. However, they make different approaches to overcoming the challenges of the finger-jointing process. North Douglas has had a close supplier relationship with Western Pneumatics, which also makes finger-jointing lines, and has been using its machines for more than 18 years, Mike noted.
The Conception RP CRP 2000 system provided a machinery solution that North Douglas believed would be efficient and profitable.
Another reason that North Douglas chose Conception RP was that the Canadian supplier made a commitment that it could install the new line and get it up and running at production speed very quickly. “They thought it would be up and running within three days and in a couple more at production speed,” said Mike.
Conception RP made good on its promise. “The machine was up and running in a few days, and we were getting production speed in about a week,” said Mike.
North Douglas also chose the Conception RP CRP 2000 line because of its speed and flexibility. North Douglas makes a considerable volume of custom products. Since it does not run the same product day after day, it is important to have a finger-jointing line that offers the flexibility of quick change-overs. The Conception RP CRP 2000 line can change sizes and widths at the touch of a button. It also features an automatic lug or block feeding system capable of loading up to 160 pieces of wood per minute into the line.
The learning curve for machine operators to master the new technology was a little longer than for a less sophisticated system. However, once the employees learned the new equipment, they were as sold on it as their managers, said Mike.
The Conception RP CRP 2000 finger-jointing line is designed for both hardwood and softwood operations. It takes blocks from 41/2 to 36 inches long and from 11/2 to 8 inches wide. The automatic lug loading module uses a belt transfer and indexing mechanism to automatically feed incoming blocks, pre-sorted by width, into the shaper. It features adjustable speed with variable frequency electric drive. A laser measuring system detects any blocks under the minimum length.
The machine has two high precision cutter head spindles that are driven by a 20 hp electric motor with adjustable speeds up to 4800 rpm. Each of the two profiling sections has a trim saw with a 10-inch blade and two scoring saws with 8-inch blades; they are mounted on the individual high precision spindles. A 10 hp electric motor drives the saws via a flat belt at a fixed speed of 6000 rpm. Digital readouts are provided for the saw and spindle adjustments.
The glue system ensures a precise deposit of cold set adhesive. It can glue up to 200 pieces per minute and is guided by a programmable logic controller.
The automatic corner transfer changes the material flow direction through 90 degrees to transfer the cut blocks into the assembly machine. Maximum capacity is 160 pieces per minute.
The North Douglas system has the capacity to finger-joint up to 20 feet long and edge glue up to 16 feet long, 4 feet wide and 6 inches thick.
The flexibility and speed of the machine have been two of its biggest advantages, according to Mike. “It can really fly,” he said. With its speed, the company uses the Conception RP line for high volume jobs and its second production line for smaller runs.
Originally, most of North Douglas’ business was in making 4-foot by 8-foot finger-jointed, edge-glued panels of Western red alder. The company is located in the heart of Douglas fir country at the north end of Douglas County, but only its name is related to the species of wood. Western red alder, a hardwood found only in the Pacific Northwest, is similar to birch, cherry or maple. It is uniform in color and features a fine, light grain pattern. Its natural grain plus its unique color uniformity make it easy to match and finish, so it can be stained to look like cherry or walnut, for example.
The company later added a metric equivalent for overseas customers, then began making edge-glued solid wood panels in a variety of sizes for customers. The panels are sanded on both surfaces and graded for one- or two-side usage, depending on customer requirements.
Business really started to pick up when Weyerhaeuser asked the company to do some work for its Springfield, Ore. mill, taking all the smaller pieces of wood and finger-jointing them into panels.
North Douglas always has seen part of its role as helping to conserve natural resources and improving the environment, noted Mike — using wood that may have ended up in landfill or on a wood pile and making it into something useful and beautiful. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, he remembers seeing wigwam burners at sawmills.
“There’s an ongoing concern in this country especially but world-wide that there is a finite source (of wood) out there,” said Mike. Although wood fiber is a renewable natural resource, unlike some other natural resources, “The better we can use that, the better our standard of living,” said Mike. “We can also make more money by not being wasteful.”
It has taken some time to educate consumers and furniture manufacturers about the value of engineered wood products, Mike observed. However, they seem to be embracing the idea of using every part of the tree and that engineered wood can provide more strength and stability.
The business relationship with Weyerhaeuser was a profitable partnership for both companies. Weyerhaeuser retained ownership of the wood raw material and finished product and paid North Douglas for the finger-jointing process. Weyer­haeuser convinced North Douglas it would be a good idea to increase capacity by adding another finger-jointing line, but about a year later the company closed its mill in Springfield.
“We found ourselves with excess capacity and went out to find some new customers,” said Mike. “At least half of our business now is that type of thing, where we bring in other people’s wood and process it and they sell it.”
Most of the finger-jointing services that North Douglas provides for customers in this kind of arrangement involve processing alder stock. Custom work for other customers involves finger-jointing “every kind of wood under the sun,” said Mike. North Douglas has gained an international reputation as a company that can help other businesses add value to expensive exotic woods, according to Mike.
“This week we’re working on Jelutong from Malaysia,” he said. “It’s a tropical species that kind of reminds you of balsawood.” Jelutong is very clear white in color with kind of a yellowish tinge. North Douglas also routinely works with red oak, Douglas fir, hemlock and ash. It receives raw material from as far away as Russia, Chili, Brazil and New Zealand.
Not only does North Douglas make finger-jointed products from small pieces of wood, but sometimes it uses larger material, removing slices and joining them with other stock to make products like door frames. Large material is too valuable to use alone, said Mike.
Some customers come to North Douglas with an idea for a product, and Mike’s creative team figures out a way to come up with the desired result in the most efficient, economical way possible. The North Douglas staff gets a lot of enjoyment in sharing its expertise with customers and helping them devise solutions, he said.
The company’s biggest challenge in the future will be continuing to adapt to the changing world market place, said Mike. “It used to be that your customers were largely within 500 to 1,000 miles of where you were. Now they are up to 10,000 miles away and have opportunities to buy products from around the world.”
Nevertheless, Mike is optimistic about the future because the North Douglas business plan calls for continued innovation — constantly searching for new customers and keeping up to date with advances in wood processing technology.