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Timber Products takes on major upgrade

Amid rising foreign competition and diminishing returns from aging equipment, Timber Products Co. has embarked on an ambitious makeover of its Medford hardwood plywood plant.

Phase I of the project is well under way, with S.B. James Construction Management both demolishing the existing 61,200-square foot wood structure and replacing it with an 88,800-square-foot prefabricated steel structure that will house updated veneer dryers, optical grading scanners and stackers, replacing decades old equipment.

"This is a major reinvestment into our operations to increase efficiencies and utilize current technologies so we can compete in the global market," said John Wasniewski, Timber Products' regional manager for Oregon Panel Products. "The plywood imported from China has had a major impact for our business for at least 10 to 15 years. Fifty percent of hardwood plywood consumed is now coming from imports."

Jackson County building permit records show the building alone will cost $3 million and permits fees to date have hit $117,282.

Timber Products acquired the site north of McAndrews Road and east of Sage Road in 1967. Today, there are 300 employees affiliated with the plant, which operates 24 hours, five days a week.

The decorative hardwood veneer used in cabinets and other surfaces is shipped by rail and truck from mills in Michigan, eastern parts of Canada and the U.S. Softwood pine, white fir and Douglas fir is primarily produced in Northern California near Yreka and hauled over the Siskiyou Summit.

Timber Products, one of the foremost hardwood panel producers in both the U.S. and North America, operates similar plants in Grants Pass and Mississippi.

With the exception of cutbacks during the recession, the plant has performed at or near capacity, Wasniewski said.

When the project is done, wood fiber leaving the dryer will go through electronic grading scanners that will detect moisture, sort dried sheets and automatically stack them into 12 bins using machinery built by Sweed Machinery of Gold Hill.

"It will be highly automated which improves our cost structure and safety," Wasniewski said. 

The existing dryer with three inputs is more than 50 years old, said Brad Beavers, the company's capital project manger.

"It's 1964 vintage and the technology has changed significantly," Beavers said. "It's a game-changer in how we look at our manufacturing and capabilities. It's way more efficient, not just for the throughput (of veneer) but in energy consumption."

That wood products firms would opt for metal buildings may seem strange, but after a 1998 fire destroyed Boise Cascade's Medford plant, the thinking changed, said S.B. James President Tom Hall

"When wooden mills burn they're being replaced by metal ones," Hall said. "While they are erecting the dryer, we'll be erecting the building."

The contractor said he was thankful the county expedited permitting to allow his crews to begin work before the weather turned.

"We had to get the digging done before the rain started," he said.

The project is expected to be completed by next summer.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.

Construction is under way on a new $3 million production facility at Timber Products in Medford. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch