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American Wood Fibers Launches New Plant: Company Continues Long Relationship with Premier Tech Systems for Key Equipment
American Wood Fibers – Company Continues Long Relationship with Premier Tech Systems for Key Equipment
By Diane M. Calabrese
Date Posted: 3/1/2009
MARION, Virginia – Wood fuel pellets, animal bedding, and industrial grade wood flour send a loud, clear message about the ongoing exchange of goods and services: commerce may ebb, but there is always flow.
American Wood Fibers, headquartered in Columbia, Md., makes all three of these products, and business is brisk.
So brisk, in fact, that American Wood Fibers (AWF) is completing the installation of equipment at a new plant in Marion, Va. Unlike eight sister facilities, the Marion plant will manufacture all three product lines of AWF. The other plants each make two of three.
Rashid Shakir is director of engineering for AWF and has recently been spending his time at the Marion plant, located in deep southwest Virginia only 37 miles northeast of Bristol, which is split between Tennessee and Virginia. He is overseeing the start-up of the new plant, including testing and fine-tuning new machines. It’s a process Rashid knows well, having been with AWF for more than 29 years.
For going on two decades, AWF has relied on Premier Tech Systems, which is based in Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec, to automate its bagging and palletizing operations. (Premier Tech has a U.S. parts depot in Brea, Calif.) AWF uses Premier Tech equipment at all of its plants. Consequently, Rashid is very knowledgeable about Premier Tech equipment and has interacted with its staff frequently over the years.
“We’ve been working as long as 15 years with Premier Tech,” said Rashid.
At Marion, the operations to produce animal bedding were up and running in early November, and the wood flour manufacturing lines were expected to be fully operational before the end of the month. Operations to produce wood pellets, too, would be fully functioning soon.
AWF has origins to 1966. The company’s operations are based on “total wood waste utilization,” in the words of founder Frank Faehner. Locating its operations near abundant sources of wood fiber has been a key business strategy. Consequently, AWF has shifted some locations over the years. For instance, a plant in Sugar Grove, Va. is being phased out as the Marion plant comes into service.
“We are a manufacturing company for post-industrial wood waste that we turn into useable product,” explained Rashid.
The idea is to take waste wood fiber that is a problem for one company, such as scrap wood, shavings or sawdust from a secondary manufacturing facility, and add value to it. As secondary wood manufacturers move or alter their operations, AWF adjusts its strategy.
Having confidence in a vendor is important. Rashid said AWF’s relationship with Premier Tech is a good one. “We like them for many reasons,” he said. “They are very professional people. They stand behind their product. I have a very good relationship with their engineering team, their sales team and even their management team.”
Reciprocity defines the long-standing business link between AWF and Premier Tech. “We give them some ideas for improvement,” said Rashid, and Premier Tech has responded positively to that kind of input.
At the Marion plant, AWF is putting into service three major machinery systems from Premier Tech. One is a Premier Tech VP-400 series baling system. “It takes animal bedding and compresses it into a poly bag, seals it, and then this compressed bale of bedding is manually stacked onto a pallet,” said Rashid.
The Premier Tech VP-400 series baling system is designed to perform compression packing. For generic purposes it is sometimes called a “press pack baler,” said Rashid.
The second Premier Tech system at the Marion plant is a Form Fill and Seal (FFS), a system that bags the pellets to a precise weight. “It has two built-in scales,” explained Rashid, to ensure the bags are filled to the correct weight.
The Premier Tech FFS system makes a plastic bag from bulk film roll stock, fills the bag, seals it, and then conveys it through a check weigh system and finally into the automatic palletizer.
The new plant also has a Premier Tech AP-425 fully automated palletizer in use. The system palletizes 40-pound bags of wood fuel pellets into a single unit load on a pallet. It stacks the bags in 10 layers on the pallet, five bags to a layer. The Premier Tech AP-425, after loading the pallets, transfers them to the Stretch Hooder to apply a stretch hood, which covers and seals the unit load. The stretch hood is a covering that helps stabilize the load and provides added product protection for outside storage.
The product line breakdown at AWF is about one-third wood fuel pellets, one-third animal bedding and one-third industrial grade wood flour. AWF sells wood pellets and animal bedding wholesale under its own brand names and under private labels for non-competitors that serve other geographical areas.
AWF has a fleet of trucks and trailers to haul its raw material — post-industrial wood waste from secondary manufacturing companies. Walking floor trailers simplify loading and unloading. The company uses its own trucks and some contract truckers for deliveries.
Premier Tech offers a full range of weighing and packaging solutions. Dosing, loose fill bagging, such as FFS bagging, open mouth bagging, valve bagging and FIBC bagging, and load securing systems are on its roster alongside compression bagging and palletizing. In addition, Premier Tech provides screening and mixing, industrial data processing systems, and field preparation and peat harvesting solutions. For example, the Premier Tech FFS-200 series horizontal bagger has a capacity of 32 bags per minute.
Premier Tech also offers a wide range of options and features for bags. The FFS series bags can be complemented with handles, zip closures, corner seals and other ease-of-use features.
The long association between Premier Tech and AWF has been positive, said Rashid. “They’re pretty cooperative,” he said. Premier Tech’s staff is forthcoming when questions are raised and provide strong service to keep systems running, he said.
That kind of cooperation is important because AWF has one overarching objective, said Rashid. “We deliver what the customer wants.” As such, AWF requires a vendor like Premier Tech to be responsive to its unique requirements for accountability and performance, and it has found Premier Tech to be that kind of supplier.
AWF is certified by the International Organization for Standardization; the certification process means that AWF voluntarily meets quality standards related to its manufacturing processes and products.
Wood flour produced by AWF is a critical raw material for some plastic manufacturers. It is used as a filler or additive and also combined with plastic to make composite wood products.
When AWF announced plans for its new facility in Marion, it anticipated hiring 50 employees. We have about 60 employees here – 55 full-time,” said Rashid.
With the slowdown in the sawmill and lumber industries, brought on primarily by the decline in the home building market, secondary wood manufacturing operations are down, too, generating less waste wood. To compensate for the decline in raw material available in normal markets, AWF started up operations at three plants to process low-grade logs into chips and wood shavings.
Some of the machinery and equipment is custom built, and some is purchased from major manufacturers. “We buy from the source,” said Rashid. AWF also has fairly extensive capability to design and fabricate equipment.
Rashid has a 30-year anniversary coming up with AWF in May. It is hard to believe that three decades have gone by, he said. It feels more like three years. “I helped to build every plant,” he said.
A mechanical engineer by training, Rashid got into the wood products industry by chance. Responding to a newspaper ad after completing college in Pakistan and Italy, he soon found himself employed by AWF. Automotive assembly had been his specialty, but he was flexible and endlessly intrigued by new mechanical processes.
“Right from childhood, I was very keen to know how things work,” said Rashid. A can opener beckoned him to take it apart. “My mother said she had to hide new things from me because I would take them apart.” He put them back together, too.
His goal as an engineer has been to “make things work safer, better, more ergonomically.”
In that respect, he has a great deal in common with the engineers behind the products from Premier Tech Systems. The staff of Premier Tech takes pride in their equipment, he noted, as the employees of AWF take pride in their operations and products.
AWF chose Marion first and foremost because of its excellent access to wood fiber. It is located along Interstate 81, which goes from southwest Virginia up the Shenandoah Valley to northwest Virginia and is reasonably close to other interstate legs running north and south.
The town is famous for Mountain Dew, the soft drink, which was developed there by a local businessman, William H. “Bill” Jones, in the early 1960s. Pepsico purchased the flavor formula in 1964.
The administration of Gov. Tim Kaine publishes a newsletter that promotes business and economic development in southwest Virginia. When announcing the move of AWF to Marion, the newsletter reported that AWF would invest $9 million in the new plant. Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio competed to attract the new AWF plant.
The AWF site at Marion spans more than 40 acres. Several buildings are in use, including Quonset-style structures that have a fabric cover over steel frames, concrete walls and concrete floor. The structures are used for storage of raw materials as well as to feed the multiple product lines.
AWF provides additional services for companies that purchase wood flour. The AWF staff monitors the manufacturing processes and ensures that wood flour formulations meet customer requirements for moisture content, wood density, particle distribution and other factors.
ISO-certified companies make a commitment to continuous improvement. The wood flour product line at AWF recently earned ISO 9001:2000 certification. The high-level ISO certification reflects the purity and predictability of the chemical and physical properties of the wood flour.
There are many variables in the wood flour formulations, depending on the customer and its industry. Customers can choose species, particle distribution, color and chemical and physical properties. Manufacturers of absorbents, adhesives, fire logs, putty and caulk, rubber and soil extenders all have special requirements in their component wood flour. In North America, AWF is the largest supplier of wood flour.
The wood fuel pellets produced by AWF, made of hardwood material, is certified by the Pellet Fuels Institute.
Animal bedding products are intended and marketed mainly for confined animals and manufactured for an animal’s comfort as well as to absorb urine and odor. AWF sells its product under the names PetsPick, Premier Pet and America’s Choice.
Premier Tech Systems has a reach that extends to 30 countries. Automated solutions for wood products complement the equipment it offers to horticulture, agriculture, chemicals, pet foods, grocery manufacturing, animal feed, insulation, minerals, seeds, construction and other industries. Chronos Richardson Systems, which focuses on customers in Europe and Asia, is the sister company of Premier Tech Systems.
Having fortuitously landed in the wood products industry, Rashid has enjoyed his work. The opportunity to “build new machinery” and “entire systems” has been gratifying. “I just enjoy it so much,” he said.
AWF keeps moving forward. After its first 22 years in business, Eastern Wood Fibers became American Wood Fibers in 1988. The founder of the company wanted a name that indicated that AWF had grown from a regional firm in Jessup, Md. to a company with a national scope. AWF also serves markets in Canada and Mexico.
With more than 50 years experience in processing wood fiber, AWF has found a vendor in Premier Tech that is a near match in experience borne of age and hard work. Premier Tech has roots that go back 40 years; it has been making bagging machines for 20 of them.
Although he did not know his career would be tied to wood fibers, Rashid could not be happier with the outcome. “The proof is in the pudding,” he said. “I enjoyed the work” and stayed. “My colleagues are awesome people.”
When he has free time, Rashid divides it among several interests. “I enjoy family, friends, traveling,” he said. “But engineering is just in my system.”
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