Housing slump past, plant aids local economy

By Wayne Bryan Published December 29, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Nick Hillemann

Larry Daniel, production supervisor for the Flakeboard America plant in Malvern, demonstrates that before pressure and curing, the mixture of ingredients for the company’s finished product is still sawdustlike.

MALVERN — If the production of housing and furniture materials is any indication of the housing industry and of the national economy as a whole, things are looking up, and a better future is ahead.

Flakeboard America in Malvern is operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the number of employees at the company’s plant on Willamette Road has increased 17 percent in the past two years.

“Business is good,” said Mike Rhodes, operations executive of the Malvern plant. Our business is directly tied to the housing industry, and we expect a good year in 2014 and over the next several years.

Larry Daniel, production supervisor for the plant who has been with the company since 1983, said the company hired more production and maintenance-support personnel during the year.

The Malvern plant has

124 employees involved in the manufacturing of medium-density fiberboard, said Daren True, finishing manager for the operation.

Rhodes said the fiberboard made at the plant is used as interior-grade building materials that can also be used for making moldings, doors, countertops and furniture.

“It has at least 100 different applications,” he said, “but mostly what we make here is used for moldings and furniture.”

The manufacturing process starts as a major recovery and recycling effort from sawmills through southern Arkansas.

“Wood chips and dry shavings are trucked in from sawmills,” Rhodes said. “Instead of going to a landfill or being burned, we utilize it.”

Daniel said the plant uses about 30 truckloads of chips and shavings a day as materials for the fiberboard.

The sawmill waste wood, which is all Southern yellow pine, is much the same as is used for particleboard, but it is refined differently. It is ground up until the wood fibers look more like yellow wool than a part of a tree. It is referred to as heavy lint.

The wood fibers actually change chemically as they are treated in a steam pressurized “digester” and are then mixed with resins.

“It cooks in a heat-up to 320 degrees, and they come out of the process as a hard board,” Rhodes said.

When the fiber board first emerges from the cook, it is around 5 to 6 inches thick, and it is loosely packed, as Daniel demonstrated when he grabbed a handful from the line and demonstrated how it broke apart easily in his hands.

Next, the line of wood fiber and “glue,” as production personnel call the resin mixture, is cut into the board length that will be required for this run of product. Then the product is pressed under a great deal of pressure in a multistory stack of steel trays pressed together.

A low but loud moan runs through that area of the plant as the pressure builds on the trays. The press operator said the sound comes from air escaping from the fiber as the trays are squeezed together.

The wood-fiber panels, now less than 1 inch thick, go to cooling trays, where they are rotated slowly in the open area like spokes of a rimless wheel.

The boards are sanded to create a hard, smooth surface and are then sawed and trimmed to the customer’s needs and stacked for shipment.

True said the trimmings are saved and go through the process again, as the already reclaimed wood product is recycled again.

“About 2.5 percent of the materials used in making the boards are recycled trimmings,” True said. “We account for the resins in the mix.”

The Malvern plant was built in 1967 and has gone though several owners since then. The plant was purchased by Flakeboard in 2006. The company is headquartered in Canada with plants in New Brunswick, Canada; Oregon; South Carolina; and Louisiana, along with the plant in Malvern. Flakeboard is a division of Arauco USA, a forestry company based in Atlanta, Ga.

In April 2011, Flakeboard announced the completion of major upgrades to the manufacturing process at the Malvern plant. At the same time, manufacturing personnel were reorganized into what True called a structured approach.

“Teams were created for each production area that were given ownership and responsibilities for one specific area of the plant,” True said. “They focus on that part of the place, and most of the time, they make all the decisions, backed by the support of the supervisors.”

“The teams of hourly personnel run the plant,” Daniel said. “The supervisors are not always there but are on call.”

There are also teams for maintenance and administrative support. Both True and Daniel said the system is not only increasing efficiency and quality of production but is also reducing employee turnover.

The success of Flakeboard also reflects the success of another Malvern-area company.

In November, Prime-Line, a manufacturer of crown moldings, baseboards, frames for doors and windows, shelves and other wood millwork, announced it would build a new $6.7 million plant. The company has earned $31 million this year.

Prime-Line President Brian Feeney said he plans to create 50 new jobs over the next three years, which will more than double Feeney’s workforce of 46 employees.

The new factory will be on 66 acres near the intersection of U.S. 67 and Arkansas 171, next to Flakeboard, his company’s largest supplier.

“The move is strategic. We will lower costs being close to our biggest vendor,” Feeney said. “It will take longer to load and unload our trucks with supplies from Flakeboard than it will be to make the delivery. Our trucks will get from their plant to ours without having to hit the road.”

Both companies have a big role in the economy of the area, said Nikki Launius, executive director of the Malvern/Hot Spring County Chamber of Commerce, not only for today but in the future.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or at wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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