Getting into the Grind: Innovations in Wood Processing

Where there's bark ... there's business, at least when it comes to wood wastes. Drive down any street in the United States and you'll often find it lined with trees. While trees enrich our lives through their beauty and add to our bio-systems, they also represent a significant component of our waste stream.

Damaged in storms, blighted by disease and uprooted by developers, wood wastes generated from the urban forest can stymie a community's waste management activities.

Unlike other waste stream components, large volumes of wood wastes resulting from tree maintenance and manufacturing activities can be segregated easily. Once separated, these materials may be processed into either feedstock or end products.

Making a living processing wood wastes is not as simple as buying a grinder and selling whatever falls off the conveyor. It requires an understanding of the markets and of the product specifications. For example, mulch markets have become more sophisticated over the past several years, and regional preferences are developing for products that did not exist years ago. Understanding such factors will guide a wood wastes operator in his selection of equipment and in his marketing campaign.

In some instances, wood processing operations are developed as an offshoot of an on-going non-waste operation. In Wichita, Kan., Dean Frankenbery started the Wood Recycle and Compost Center by buying a pallet yard in 1993. This grew into a vertically integrated wood processing operation.

Next, Frankenbery added a mobile grinding service a function that allows him to perform custom grinding and land clearing services on a customer's site.

Now, the company has three operations, which collectively manufacture six types of wood mulches and a compost product for the wholesale and retail markets.

Wood Recycle and Compost Center has just completed a three-year contract with Springfield, Mo., and has a current contract with Kansas City, Mo. "We work with towns as small as about 1,200 people up to a million people and accept all types of wood wastes: pallets, construction materials, trees, branches, root balls and grass," Frankenbery says.

Creating market demand is a challenge. "Markets are not always there when you start out," Frankenbery says. Currently, the company is considering testing the market by coloring its mulch a product that is new to the community. He also is shopping for a bagging operation, which will help boost compost and topsoil sales. "We will spend a half a million dollars on a pre-automated system if we find that the market is good enough to warrant spending that type of money," he says. "If it's not quite that hot, we'll purchase a [lower-cost] system and [expand to] a more automated system later."

Trailblazing Markets Joe Kramer, owner of Kramer Tree Specialists, West Chicago, Ill., developed his company's current markets while searching for a reliable, cost-effective method to get rid of tree trimmings.

Kramer chipped larger material in the yard and processed it into firewood. "However, the market for firewood is marginal at best, and we were losing money on every piece of firewood we sold," he says.

As firewood continued to be an unprofitable product, Kramer determined that expanding his grinding operation to include heavier equipment would help his business. So, the company branched out from using a smaller, less aggressive grinder to using a tub grinder, which would allow it to regrind the chips into a more marketable product.

"We still grind all of our chips through this bigger, more expensive machine, but now we also grind all of our logs and tree trunks," Kramer says.

The company keeps these two wood wastes streams separate and sells the material individually through two product lines: "Double Ground Mulch," which consists of chips ground a second time through the tub grinder, and "Hardwood Mulch," which consists of logs, trunks and heavy branches.

Kramer attributes his marketing success to an aggressive advertising program. "In the first couple of years, we spent as much on advertising as the entire gross sales of the products," he says. "You couldn't turn on a radio or pick up a newspaper without seeing something about our mulch."

He promoted the product to both wholesale and retail markets through a campaign that went beyond "Buy Our Mulch" to "Why You Need Our Mulch."

Sometimes, marketing wood wastes can be a lengthy, meticulous process. Robert Heath, president of Fibar, Armonk, N.Y., started his marketing effort in 1979. While serving as a commentator for equestrian events in the United Kingdom, Health observed horse training tracks that were built with shredded wood fiber and decided to import the idea to the United States. Heath's firm refined the manufacturing process and developed U.S. equestrian markets for Fibar's Engineered Wood Fiber product.

"Between 1979 and 1985, we serviced about 60 training tracks throughout the United States," Heath says. Some of Heath's clients include prestigious farms in Kentucky, including the one where Secretariat used to stand and the one where Seattle Slew trained.

The wood fiber is used both on the track and in the breeding shed. "It's quiet and soft a friendly surface to horses, especially if they don't have on any shoes," Heath says.

In 1985, an attendee at an Ohio nursery show suggested that Heath's product would make a good playground surface. Heath acted on the idea, and to date, he estimates that Fibar has surfaced more than 30 million square feet in playgrounds throughout the United States and Canada.

In order to meet current standards for playground surfaces, Fibar sets tight specifications for its raw materials. "We use material such as trim scrap, which comes from truss mills and new pallet operations," Heath says. "We require that it be a virgin material, not recycled pallets or demolition and construction [materials]."

The company, which has 30 plants nationwide, also processes "a considerable amount of clean waste wood that's generated from flooring operations and from furniture manufacturers," he adds.

While compost and mulch markets continue to be the primary outlets for processed wood, the processors that seek out the higher value markets will reap greater returns on their investments.

Like many manufacturing processes, understanding the feedstock requirements means the difference between processing a waste product and processing a raw material. The companies that seek innovation will be the ones that prosper, leaving their competitors just grinding gears.

Thriving in the competitive wood waste processing market means that manufacturers must understand how the market is changing and how the changes affect their customers' needs.

"The biggest change in our product line is the necessity for environmentally sensitive equipment to work within the industry and government in processing various aspects of the waste stream," says Larry Burkholder of Morbark Sales Corp., Winn, Mich. "In the past three years, environmental equipment has become a larger portion of our company's total output."

Customers can expect to see an expanded use of electronics to improve fuel efficiency and reduce air emissions in new machines, Burkholder says. He also predicts that increased safety measures will be a future force in the grinding market.

Safety considerations also affect the line of tub grinders from Bloomington, Minn.based Toro Co. Toro's products include systems that will shut down in the event of overload on the hammermill and electronic systems that will adjust the feed rates automatically inside the tub, says Toro's Chip Engdahl.

"Because our customers are looking for ease of operation, that has been the primary thrust of our product development," says Engdahl, who sees a continued movement toward higher output equipment. "Historically, tub grinders, or wood processing equipment, have been products with 200 horsepower (hp) to 500 hp. Over the past two years, the shift has gone from a middle to a high-end range, including 650-hp and 750-hp units."

A new safety system from Vermeer Manufacturing, Pella, Iowa, "consists of a deflector at the rotor that moves material to a cover located above the tub that then deflects that material back down into the tub," says Vermeer's Thomas Ogle. "We have reduced the thrown-object zone around the machine by a factor of five [to] 100 feet."

"Environmental laws, such as those that eliminate burning and restrict what materials go to the landfill, will drive most of the future growth within the industry," Ogle says.

Customers have driven the biggest changes in Bandit Industries Inc.'s (Remus, Mich.) product line over the past three years, according to Bandit's Leslie Kinnee. This includes improvements to older models, as well as the introduction of a new model and an 18-inch, hand-fed unit.

According to Kinnee, the market is demanding machines that can take care of waste anywhere. "People aren't able to fill landfills like they used to with certain materials," she says. "[Issues such as] environmental changes and burning laws are driving [the market]."

A customer that once just hauled the material to a landfill now is looking for a machine "to process those materials into other products and sell them," Kinnee says.

Sam Ozuna from Diamond Z Manufacturing, Nampa, Idaho, sees customer demand for durability and ease of operation as factors driving the industry.

"We've made changes knowing the market's demand and the operator's needs," he says. For example, the company has revamped its flagship machine by widening the frame rails and incorporating a new 990hp option.

Knowing the customers' needs helps manufacturers fine-tune their equipment. "We send out surveys and ask our dealers to talk to the customers after the sale to get their input on the machine," says Keith Hermanson of DuraTech Industries International Inc., Jamestown, N.D.

Moving the material to the end-user is a goal of Rexius Express Blower, Eugene, Ore., which manufacturers truck-mounted blowers that pneumatically spread or blow materials at a site.

"A wood wastes processor grinds the wood and then sells it as hog fuel for commercial co-gen plants that burn it for generating steam or electricity and heat," says Rexius' Dan Sutton. "[This system provides] a way to transport that material to a job site from the manufacturing facility and actually apply it for the landscaper."