Caught in the middle: Slumping building industry has MSU wood-products group at crossroads


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Posted: 7/30/2009


The Dispatch

Dan Seale has been developing TimTek for six years now, and the engineered wood process has evolved the way a good cookie recipe emerges.

In the last three years, though, people just haven’t been building houses as often as they used to, causing would-be demand for the product to slump.

"It is brutal," said Seale, a professor in the forest products department at Mississippi State University, as he sat staring at a graph showing drooping numbers of pine shipments on a computer screen Tuesday in one of his many workspaces on TimTek Road on campus.

To say the market is suffering is an understatement, he said. "It’s hemorrhaging," he said. "It’s worse than suffering."

And yes, the problem has worsened since a recession took hold of the economy last year.

One effect? A $140 million TimTek equipment staging facility in Meridian built to produce equipment for TimTek machine centers—which in turn could construct engineered lumber products commercially—would be operational by now, resulting in the creation of about 300 new jobs, but is not.

"We’re in the process of making some additions in the scope of our project that will allow us to move forward in the very near future," said Anderson Thomas, vice president of Shuqualak Lumber Co., which has a license agreement to build the Meridian facility.

Walter Jarck, director of TimTek, which is based in Clarkesville, Ga., said the project was "on a slow schedule because of this down-cycle that we’e in."

But he is optimistic the building market will rebound and TimTek factories will spring up around North America.

Seale said he would not want to see six years’ worth of research—including over 418 variations on the product—burn down to nothing.

He traces the TimTek story back to the start of the 21st century, when the paper industry declined in the wake of the possibility of a digital, and thus paperless, age. The industry still has not recovered, nor has demand for pulp and paper.

"We had a huge surplus (of pine trees), and we needed something to do with them," Seale said, sitting in the office of the head of his department, Rubin Shmulsky. Seale estimated around Mississippi there were "6 million acres of pine plantations that didn’t have a home," because mills were shutting down.

At the same time, people interested in new home construction were expressing interest in bigger pieces of wood than what was common among lumber selection.

Two problems had surfaced, Shmulsky explained: oversupply of pine trees and changes in wood product demand.

TimTek had been in existence in Australia, where researchers were tinkering with the process of chopping up wood and then gluing many strands together to form thicker, longer and stronger slabs. The company decided to look for an institution to further develop the process, and settled on MSU.

Since then, Seale said, he and about 36 students have managed to strengthen the wood, eliminate holes, dry pieces more completely and improve it in other ways. Research continued this week.

Seale thinks the process might be ready to be adapted for commercialization, but the economy stands in the way.

Andy Miller, manager of East Mississippi Lumber Co., said he has seen the struggle playing out across industries.

"Well, of course, with the downturn in residential construction," he said, "a lot of companies have scaled back their plans for implementing these new products as well as scaling back the production of existing products, like (oriented strand board). ...A lot of them are waiting until there’s a somewhat upturn in the housing market that would warrant the financial investment needed to get a plant like this up and running."

Forest Products