The production of wood-based panels is a clear exemplification of the meaning of “circular economy”. The Friuli-based group has decided to invest massively in this area.
Bearing the same name as his grandpa, who passed away few weeks ago, Marco Fantoni represents the fifth generation of the group named after his family. Despite his young age, he is the technical manager of the group, and we turned to him to talk about the latest investments made in Osoppo, the headquarters of the group, constantly focused on sustainability and promoting tangible and consistent initiatives in the circular economy space.
“I would say that our industry, by definition, has a focus on the big topics of sustainable development, due to the nature and history of the product we manufacture”, Fantoni said. “One of the key goals of the investments launched in 2015 was to make mdf a circular material, resulting from the transformation of recycled raw material, and being recyclable itself. These two topics are very similar, though not identical or interchangeable, although we believe that our latest investments respond to both statements.
Our goal was to create an mdf panel that contained at least fifty percent of recycled raw material, wood from waste or selected garbage collection, so equivalent to particleboard, while achieving an end product with excellent surface quality features, probably the most important feature in this product category. So, in 2015, we planned the construction of a factory, “Plaxil 8”, to produce “sandwich” mdf, consisting of three layers of materials, each with specific properties: the “core”, accounting for 65 percent of total thickness, would be entirely made from recycled raw material, while the surface layers would be made from virgin wood. We built the factory in two years and started production in May 2017. It was a massive investment, approximately 150 million euro, including a boiler to burn the raw material that cannot be used for panel production and a new line to increase our lamination capacity”.
“This was actually the first stage of a bigger plan, which we finalized in the 2020-2021 period,” Fantoni continued. “First of all, we build a cleaning and preparation plant for recycled wood to feed the three-layer mdf line of “Plaxil 8”, so that we could really manufacture an mdf panel mostly made from recycled wood and recyclable itself, as a result of the new cleaning process where the material is treated before being transformed. This is a 15-million-euro investment with interesting technological solutions that deliver a material with the required quality, from X-ray to infrared, plus many more innovative cleaning systems and special sensors that effectively identify and sort materials that would otherwise be difficult to separate, such as plastics, minerals or glass.
Until now, “Plaxil 8” had not been exploited to its full potential, because the panel core was still made of virgin wood. With the commissioning of the new cleaning system, the project has been finally completed.
This is a major milestone, even if it is not an innovative solution: in our Avellino site we already have an mdf production line using recycled wood, but it make single-layer panels for the packaging industry. Today, “Plaxil 8″ churns out top-quality panels, totally different from any similar experience. These panels can be used for furniture production, offering the same performance as virgin wood panels in terms of physical-mechanical properties and surface finishing. This is the great innovation of this plant, which we have decided to protect by patenting the product and the process”.
This is a strong contribution to circular economy…
“Sure. It’s a circular and sustainable product, combined with other “green” investments that have an impact on the organization and potential of the entire factory.
We have made significant investments in the “Industry 4.0” area, adding new automated warehouses connected to the production area and enterprise management systems; as a result, we have automated the entire panel management in the sanding and lamination stages, virtually eliminating the need to use operator-guided vehicles, that will still be required only for secondary flows.
We have also redesigned raw material logistics: the chipped material that used to be moved around with earthworks machinery is now handled by fully automated feeding systems. This plant has been operating since last October, based on a concept that eliminates manual handling, which has a high environmental impact. Just think what it means in terms of fuel, machinery, tires, human labor, as well as safety, repeatability and continuity of the material flow fed to the machines downstream. On the whole, it’s a 30-million-euro investment, which has taken us to much higher levels of efficiency than in the past”.
“There’s is another step that is even more significant in terms of circularity. It’s the necessity to enter the transportation business, which has led us to acquire a majority share in a company we have been working with for a long time, “Natolino Trasporti”, our partner shipping company who has been delivering panels to customers for decades. We are incorporating and supporting this company, which has decided to help us with “incoming” and “outgoing” logistics, now that they are part of the group.
So, we purchased twelve special vehicles, called “walking floors”, big truck that allow to load outgoing panels to be delivered to customers, and then “incoming” bulk materials collected from waste collection sites or customers that separate waste wood in their operations. With this approach, we have eliminated “empty” trips and we use our vehicles more efficiently, improving the sustainability of our transportation.
We are still fine-tuning our organization, as this is a recent acquisition, but once we get up to speed, we will be able to operate with these advanced vehicles; the bottom on the inside of the loading container, twelve meter long, is made up of aluminum elements that move the material towards the forward section of the truck. Once unloaded, you just have to clean the surface, which can be used to load our panels normally”.
Mr Fantoni, you have so many irons in the fire, and “Plaxil 8” will finally express its full potential.
“That’s right: we are still tuning up the system, but the project is now real and there is tangible excitement at Fantoni, as we are the first to develop this type of process and we are proud. We really believe our new recycled material cleaning plant is unique, a leading-edge system that offers the opportunity to define several “routes”, to optimize the result continuously. All of this will bring “Plaxil 8” to its maximum capacity, fulfilling the intuition we had back in 2015.
It’s a plant with a productivity of 1,200 cubic meters a day using “circular and sustainable” material: in the next few months, we will see – based on the feedback of our customers who are demanding this “greener” product – if these figures can be increased or redefined.
I can tell you that a few big players of furniture production are already purchasing more sustainable products from recycled material, so we believe that a significant portion of “Plaxil 8″ production will soon be entirely based on recycled raw material”.
You can “adjust” the formation of the three layers according to demand, although positive feedback seems to be taken for granted…
“The market is moving into this direction from all viewpoints, political, social and commercial. We can only be very happy with that, because we are the first – let me say it again – to offer this type of product. We are in an interesting position as we can boast a record, although we know that the transition from virgin to recycled material requires adjustments on a daily basis. But, with the type of plant we have selected and the investments we have made, this transition will be smooth. The first weeks of operations at full steam are proving us right.
Let me add that this process will not increase the volume of emissions: the plant has already been authorized to use this kind of raw material and we see no environmental issues compared to the existing technology; all the requirements are met by the environmental systems we have already in place.
The emission challenge persists with the finished product, I am referring to formaldehyde levels, a problem we have been working on for decades; now regulations seem to evolve towards the compliance with limits that take into account the uncertainty of measurement methods”.
You can be satisfied…
“Definitely. For us, it’s a major turning point, it’s the final evidence – if necessary – that Fantony believes in sustainability and the principles of circular economy. It’s an ace in the hole, but we will not linger on this achievement, as we have so many more aspects to be improved in the future”.