WHITE SWAN, Wash. - A new type of lightweight panel is now in production and available for a number of potential applications.

Neucor is making a thin MDF panel that is pressed into a shape that acts as a rigid core. Surfaces and edgebanding can be applied to this core to create a finished panel. The weight savings over a traditional panel can be as much as 40 or 50 percent.

The company, formerly known as Trusscore, is making panels in a former Jeld-Wen plant in White Swan, Washington. This operation was previously manufacturing MDF door skins.

Neucor chairman and CEO John S. Fujii is a Washington state businessman with experience in panels and corrugated cardboard material. It is this cardboard process that forms the basis for the Neucor design.

 

The finished core is sanded to be ½ inch thick, with 1/8-inch faces applied on each side to create a standard ¾-inch panel thickness. The company also offers an 1-1/8-inch panel with 7/8-inch core.

Fujii believes this technology will last for many years. “This is nothing more than corrugated wood,” he said. “This is the same thing.”

The marketplace will depend on the innovation of people who use it. Fujii said that he has spent a lot of time with competitive analysis.

“We’re starting out with interior products, furniture, cabinets, and architectural,” he said. “The unique thing about this product is it’s not only lightweight, but it’s strong. We can make it at high efficiency, and we’re at a reasonable price point. This could have a broad market.”

Corrugated MDF process

Fujii’s experience with panel production goes back a number of years. He was involved in a process that used recycled corrugated cardboard material to make a lightweight panel, based on technology developed by the U.S.D.A. Forest Products laboratory. That project, developed in part by a large packaging manufacturer, was not ultimately successful.

This was originally a wet process, but Fujii believed that a dry process would work instead and developed that idea. They have been a developmental company, started as Trusscor in 2006, and later changed the name to Neucor. Fujii said it will take three to five years to be a sustainable wood products company.

Meanwhile, Jeld-Wen was making MDF door skins in White Swan, near Yakima, in a six-opening press line. The door skin product was developed over a number or years. In the mid-1990s, the plant was running 24 hours a day.

Fujii had contacted Jeld-Wen about producing lightweight panels here on a contract basis. But Jeld-Wen had the capacity to make a similar product at a newer plant in Louisiana, and production of the door skin product was moved there.

Jeld-Wen closed this operation in 2011, and Fujii worked on making the acquisition through 2012-14. He credits Jeld-Wen with being cooperative and true to their word, even as the acquisition took a while to complete. Jeld-Wen closed the plant but continued to maintain it.

Today, material is trucked into the White Swan location. The Yakama Indian Reservation operates two sawmills, which provide dried planer shavings of ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir. Another third of material is a hybrid poplar green chips provided by Greenwood Resource.

Panel production process

In White Swan, one thin MDF line with a six-opening press is now used to make the panels. There are two lines, each with the annual capacity of 70 million square feet, so the plant has an overall capacity of 140 million. The older line was made in 1984 but has newer controls. The newer line was made in 2007. Neucor has been making panels here for several months, and is running periodically to satisfy current orders.

Will Savage, director of manufacturing, said that raw material from wood chips is refined to create fiber. A fiber mat is put into the press, which creates the shape of the lightweight panel core.

The normal product is a 4 x 8 foot panel, but 5 x 8 panels can also be made. The finished core is ½-inch thick.

Savage worked in the Jeld-Wen operation and has manufacturing management experience in that process. He said that control systems on this line have been updated, even though basic functions are similar to the original.

“Raw material is stored outside the building in large bins,” he said. “The first step is a thermomechanical refiner. That’s where the refining of the wood chips to fiber takes place. That equipment is conditioning the wood chips, through the use of steam pressure. It’s holding those wood chips in a steam vessel for a period of time to heat, moisten and soften the lignin. It’s more of a separation of the fibers.”

Also, the resin is mechanically blended in a non-formaldehyde process.

Neucor is producing a fiber mat that is up to 2 inches thick. It is formed by vacuum beneath, which is making a consistent mat.

The next step in the process is a flying saw, which cuts the mats to about a 54 x 100 inch size before they enter the press. That material is then fed into the six-opening MDF press line, which is similar to an MDF production line.

The six-opening Washington Ironworks press is pressing down about a 2-inch mat into a 1/8-inch thickness. This is done in an 80-second cycle time. A loader pushes the pressed mat out of the press, and formed pieces require only a short time to cool.  After the press, they’re called boards or cores.

Savage said you could go into a similar MDF plant that might have a 24-opening press. Today, a lot of MDF is made on continuous lines.

Male and female dies shape the thin MDF into its curved shape, much like a metal stamping press. Another 1-foot-wide die can be added to make a 5 x 8 panel. “There will be a market for a five-foot wide panel,” Savage said. “So we built the one-foot molds so we wouldn’t have to build a completely new mold.”

One MDF line requires only three people to operate

After MDF boards come off the line, a Progressive Systems two-pass saw cuts one side, then the other side, to make a 4 x 8 panel. The saw will cut to 49 x 97 inches, the standard size, but it could cut to any size.

A large Kimwood panel sander is used for size consistency, Neucor is making a completed product, what Savage would call a component. The Kimwood is accurate enough for calibrating core thickness.

Previously, Jeld-Wen had a paint line here to put primer on the door skins, but this capability has been removed.

“This was one of the best operated plants, a thin MDF facility,” Fujii said. “It is capable of producing a high-quality product, whether door skins or lightweight panels. We know how to operate this is a very advanced form.

“We want to have a very good, high quality product that is efficiently made with low emissions, and EPA certification.”

Products and markets

Originally, the Neucor panel was intended to be used as a core product, but there has been interest in finishing the core itself and using it as an interior panel.

“People have seen it and they want it as an appearance product, as wallpaper rather than a core panel material,” Fujii said. “This was developed for its physical performance and its technical qualities, not appearance.”

Fujii said that the company is also working to develop fire-resistant and acoustic panels, exterior structural panels, and tests have been made using OSB panels. Studies at Oregon State found that oriented strands on the face create greater strength of the panel. Also, heat transfer through an OSB panel is reported to be at a lower level.

They can also stack panels, an important benefit. And shipping nested product is also efficient. Conventional fasteners can be used with appropriate blocking and banding, and honeycomb panel fasteners can be used without blocking. Most wood adhesives can be used to bond surface layers to the Neucor panel.

“It’s expensive to render a paper honeycomb to be fire resistant,” Fujii said. “I think we will have a unique fire-rated product. These are things we will be offering that aren’t readily available from other sources.

“We want to start out with as many good applications (for) interior as we can.”

“There is a whole portfolio of Neucor products that we think are applicable not only to cabinet and furniture industry but also to green building,” Fujii said.

The White Swan operation has been making panels for several months, running part-time to satisfy orders. Future plans also include a laminating line in the White Swan operation. Fujii said that a sustainable growth plan could include as many as 120 employees, and 100 indirect jobs, benefitting the whole community in Yakima County.

“We want to stay flexible, and we want the ability to keep shorter runs,”. Savage said. “We don’t anticipate that our full production capacity will be sold as panels.”

“Whatever the customer wants we’ll be ready to (provide),” Fujii said. “We’ll have the cores, and probably edging capability.”

Neucor Inc.

Vancouver, Washington

Product: Lightweight panels

Plant location: White Swan, Washington

Plant Size: 174,000 square feet on a 114 acre site

Web site: neucorpanels.com

Advantages of the lightweight panel:

Lighter weight, uses less material that plywood or MDF

Stackable, easy to transport, lighter shipping weight

Possible FSC certification and fire resistance certification

Many uses include furniture, retail displays, interior panels and architectural and structural applications

Cores can be laminated between two substrates, or used as a standalone product

Cores can be double-stacked for casework and trade exhibits