Going Green — A Blend of AG Materials and Technology

New technology has contributed to continued growth for one manufacturer.

As consumers continue to demand more environmentally friendly products and have increased concerns about indoor air quality, manufacturers need to make sure that the products they produce meet these expectations. It’s universal, it’s global, and in some cases, it’s starting to be legislated by the U.S. government.

While wood particleboard still remains the norm, a new particleboard is starting to receive increased consideration as an alternative. It’s made from wheat straw and sunflower hulls.

PrimeBoard Inc., located on the Great Plains of North Dakota, just south of Fargo, has been one of the only companies in the world to master the art of blending agricultural waste materials to produce particleboard. Not only is the company’s product a blended particleboard but it exceeds all particleboard requirements and its interior grade, making it useful for healthcare facilities, educational facilities, government facilities, commercial office spaces, retail stores and residential applications.

What is green?

Figuring out what a “green” product is can be a challenge in and of itself. The list of questions can seem endless. Is it a recycled product or material? Is it recyclable? Was the process of making this product earth friendly? Deciding that agricultural particleboard products are environmentally friendly is pretty easy because our raw materials are a waste product to start with. The straw used would be either burned by farmers emitting high levels of CO2 and other gasses into the atmosphere or tilled back into the field which is becoming a less appealing option for farmers given the increase in yield from today’s new farming techniques. The sunflower hulls that are utilized are a post process waste material.

The quality of the air we breathe at work, at home, at school or indoors in general has begun to change customer’s expectations of PrimeBoard’s products. As consumers learn more about the negative health effects from the toxins that we breathe they are demanding products free from dangerous chemical emissions such as urea-formaldehyde. Unlike most wood particleboard agricultural particleboard products do not contain urea-formaldehyde.

Market influences

According to Dave Sexton, vice president of sales and marketing at PrimeBoard, one year ago, only 4 percent of customers were buying their products for key features such as emission-free or environmental friendliness. Today, however, that percentage has grown significantly to over 36 percent. And the trend isn’t just driven by consumers, but by a desire for a more efficient use of our forests and forest products.

“Considering particleboard and those harvesting the timber, they are becoming more and more responsible at harvesting and resource utilization,” says Sexton. “?’Tree-Free’ particleboard extends our forest resources ever further and allows our businesses to manufacture products more closely in tune with nature. We see our products as highly complementary to existing materials available and as part of an overall enhanced resource management strategy as opposed to an across the board replacement for them.”

The push for sustainable products will continue and ultimately, increased consumer awareness and the purchasing power they command will determine the rate businesses will have to integrate green practices.

And while green products continue their upward swing in the market, it should be noted that these products would not necessarily be the saviors to the challenges that are facing the woodworking market with regard to global competitiveness.

Pioneering technology to make particleboard

PrimeBoard’s plant was commissioned in 1995, and after eight years of operation, continuous research and development and a focus on quality, the company is starting to harvest the fruits of its labor.

Although the technology of making particleboard from agricultural fibers is similar to that of wood particleboard, it is not the same. The company’s employees didn’t have a business blueprint to follow, as they were the first of their kind. They used lab results and theory to developed a business model and a manufacturing process to set corporate objectives.

The PrimeBoard staff has worked with local farmers to specify their farming practices to exclude the use of certain chemicals and pesticides and the utilization of 1 ton square bailers that work better for storage and factory operations. From equipment that has been modified to meet the specific needs to blending fiber and resin, PrimeBoard has spent countless hours and tens of millions of dollars to this point. “Everyday, we face another challenge to be better than the day before. We won’t settle for being just another particleboard plant, because we aren’t,” says production manager Denise Hartshorn.

The company’s challenge, according to Sexton, is capacity. “We have to add capacity to add products.” The company currently produces 28 million sq. ft. of board. While the plant is designed to produce an annual volume of 56 million sq. ft., a second press line is required to facilitate that capacity.

“We stand ready to expand. Not only is our facility expandable, it can be duplicated. There is enough agricultural waste material in this country to supply hundreds of particleboard plants just like this one,” says Sexton. “We posses the capability and the expertise to help our industry expand exponentially even if this means formulating strategic partnerships with larger corporations seeking to broaden their product offering.”

One of the products the company has perfected is a M3 grade particleboard made from a blend of wheat straw and sunflower hulls, available in thicknesses from 3/8 to 1 1/4 in. Composed of three layers, a core layer and two surface layers, the blend of materials and a formaldehyde-free resin is a percentage of each material. A seven opening press uses heat and pressure to adhere these particles together to produce 5′ x 18′ particleboard panels that are ready for sanding and sizing.

Remaining globally competitive

As of late woodworking businesses have great concern about imports from the Asian or South American markets. It’s a concern that won’t go away. Sexton offers some advice on how to handle the global stage.

“We must focus on our North American strengths. We are creative, we are good at developing technology and we are good at identifying and exploiting market opportunity. Most of the import threats come from foreign companies using material, labor and operating cost advantages to mass-produce products for markets that we identify and develop here in North America. It would appear then that as North American companies we need to be very agile in terms of our plant capabilities, marketing message and products in general,” says Sexton.

“The timing for the decisions that we make can be the difference between thriving and merely surviving,” he says. “If we wait for customers to ask us for new products, features and services, the opportunity for margin is dramatically minimized. Many of our factories need to be smaller or set up to produce products in mass customization mode (batch size of one). It’s more difficult to compete with high batch output and much easier to compete with low batch size production highlighting the pertinent features of your product.”

Breaking down paradigms

“We’ve overcome the skepticism and the negative past performance characteristics of companies in the agri-based business,” says Sexton.

“You can’t over think some of our materials,” says Sexton. “Our Premium Blend, for example is a M3 grade board that will process through a wood shop like any high-grade wood particleboard.”

The other paradigm is that of price point. The cost of agricultural-based board is significantly higher, but it can be attributed to the resins involved in producing that board. All in all, a consumer will pay approximately a 20 percent premium to acquire all the features PrimeBoard provides in its product.

However, Sexton says, “Agri-based products are more consistent in price. I would predict that our industry will become more competitive in price. I think wood particleboard will continue to rise and we will remain relatively stable.”

Related to that, if PrimeBoard installs a second press line in 2005, Sexton says it will be even easier for the company to remain competitive, while at the same time, particleboard, MDF and OSB pricing will be going through the roof.

Value-added services

PrimeBoard has also integrated many value-added services such as cut-to-size, laminating, edgebanding, UV finishing, etc. in an effort to overcome raw materials costs to its customers. Offering a wider array of products decorative panels with a spectacular appearance has been another key to overcoming cost concerns.

“It shouldn’t be a scary thing to talk about the environment and manufacturing in the same conversation, but it is for many business people,” says Sexton. “We try to transition companies profitably into being more environmentally responsible. Marketing trends show that businesses will all have to be a great deal more environmentally conscious to be profitable.”

Green opportunity

“Why should somebody buy from us? They shouldn’t unless we can make their company perform better,” says Sexton. “If we (or any business for that matter) can enhance the financial performance of a business we will most likely develop a mutually profitable business relationship. Therefore we search for and need our customers who maintain better margins because they have selected to use our materials for key features such as environmental friendliness, emission-free, moisture-resistance, unique appearance, etc. and market these features as sales advantages or to occupy niche markets. Customers that we win on price and spec we will lose on price and spec.”

Manufacturers should consider all materials and features of a product that will help their company to perform better financially. The consideration to use agricultural particleboard in their products is not about the material but the features that help our customers establish product differential. If a company wants to sell casegoods into educational institutions, healthcare facilities or high-end residential market where LEED certification is a bigger tool, than considering agri-based particleboard is inevitable.

Considering using agricultural particleboard in addition to or in place of wood particleboard will be just one of many strategic decisions customers make.

What lies ahead

The challenges that face PrimeBoard are as much marketing oriented as they are performance oriented. Without an established distribution channel or a large marketing department, PrimeBoard relies on its potential customers to find them. However, despite not having those channels, the company has remained full of work.

“We are continuously researching new materials, new mixtures and new finishes,” Sexton says. “Commercially, for the last 1 to 2 years we’ve been forced to be competitive with regular wood particleboard. Eventually, the market will catch up and then we’re on to the next level.”

Environmental stewardship is everyone’s responsibility. Ultimately, going green may not just be a matter of responsibility. It may be an inevitability. Or it may be a matter of survival.