By Tamaryn Whittal-Steynberg
FSA Interview: Meet mechanical engineer, Tamaryn Whittal-Steynberg (B.Eng, GCC, MBA), who recently joined the PG Bison team and oversees Innovation and Operational Excellence nationally.
Meet mechanical engineer, Tamaryn Whittal-Steynberg (B.Eng, GCC, MBA), who recently joined the PG Bison team and oversees Innovation and Operational Excellence nationally.
Moving into a new sector is challenging with an inevitably steep learning curve ahead. While there are synergies across manufacturing businesses, getting to grips with industry specifics and decisions informed by historical and practical knowledge takes time. With that said, my journey into forestry and timber processing has been made smoother by the generous support from the team at PG Bison, with their hands-on culture and depth of experience. In many ways, I am simply standing on the shoulders of giants who have added value to the sector, and country, for many years.
It is energising to be part of a manufacturing industry that is dynamic, continually growing and has a large natural landscape to it. One of the things that makes a career in forestry and timber processing so interesting, is that South Africa’s commercial plantations are the starting point for so many products, created along several value chains. Forestry supplies our sawmills, pulping plants, board mills and mining timber mills. From there we get pulp, matches, lumber, layons and wood chips, that go on to service a host of tertiary industries, manufacturing hundreds of different products, all rooted in forestry.
At PG Bison there is a saying, “from seedling to lifestyle,” summing up the company’s vertical integration. It demonstrates the company’s belief in the forestry sector value chain. I am also drawn to the fact that wood is a part of our everyday lives, whether it is the homes we live in or the ice cream we eat or the clothing we wear, you simply cannot get away from forest products. This makes forestry an exciting and essential industry to be part of and one where engineered wood is going to play an increasingly bigger role.
Engineered wood involves taking virgin or recycled wood and forming a composite by binding fibres, strands, particles or veneers with resins or additives to make a range of products that include particle board, medium or high-density fibre boards and plywood. It has been traced back to the tombs of the Pharos, and to the Chinese that constructed composites over 100 years ago but really gained in popularity when natural forests began to be depleted and solid wood became scarce (Credit: APA – The Engineered Wood Association, 2021).
Initial applications of engineered wood were door panels and running boards in the automotive industry. With the invention of waterproof adhesives, a world of opportunities became available. Engineered wood is stronger and stiffer than the sum of its parts, allowing for its use in myriad applications. Forestry, as an industry, has evolved, and that is also true for the products further down its value chain, like engineered wood. Innovation has seen us move from cross-laminating veneer sheets together into plywood to using cross-laminated wood strands to produce similar strength products like Orientated Strand Board (OSB) as the available natural resources change.
The production process too has become more sophisticated, with increased process control and AI leading to efficient use of raw materials, increased productivity, and better quality for our customers. What many people do not realise is that, as well as being more cost effective, engineered wood is also more sustainable. Logs, by their very nature, yield lower percentages for solid timber. Waning, knots and asymmetry results in much of the original log being cut away to produce the required planks. Engineered wood processes tend to use much of that sawmill waste as feedstock. In other words, more of the log can be processed and used. Engineered wood processes lend themselves to the use of recycled wood sources, reducing their impact on the environment.
At PG Bison we are using engineered wood to create beautiful interiors, whether this be in office spaces, shop interiors, classrooms or in your kitchen and home. Beyond our own products, engineered wood is also widely used and recognised in laminate flooring. In other parts of the world, engineered wood is used in the construction of buildings. In parts of the United States, Australia and Europe, houses are manufactured in OSB. I think there is potential for this application in the South African market. OSB technology offers the potential to create robust, affordable and safe housing, that is less energy intensive to manufacture and relatively quick to construct. It is one of the reasons, in 2008, we built 100 of these homes for our employees at our Ugie plant. The challenge, however, is moving the customer mindset away from expensive and energy intensive brick homes. Local market acceptance is one of the major stumbling blocks. With stronger demand for this method of construction, there would be more feasibility in building local manufacturing capabilities for OSB, as currently all OSB is imported into South Africa.
However, we are exploring, with other industry players, what the future of South African OSB could look like and its potential to assist in breaching the housing gap for those desperate to have their own home. With established international standards and methodologies, quality assurance would be easier to manage. But we are probably still some time away from seeing large scale construction of homes using OSB technology in South Africa, as this will take a sizable investment and downstream buy-in from the banks and public sector.
Interestingly, the engineered wood industry has been incredibly robust during the COVID-19 pandemic, with double digit growth across many product categories. This has been driven by people choosing engineered wood to upgrade their homes and home office spaces during lockdown. The increased demand for engineered wood products locally is expected to continue. Global demand is also forecast to remain strong for the interim period. This is part of the reason that we are investing in new assets, to support this growth and the exciting next growth phase for our business.
Looking forward, as climate change becomes more of a reality and growing populations with needs for housing, place more pressure on society, engineered wood provides an attractive solution. It is cost effective, often quick to install, a greener construction material that requires less energy to manufacture than steel and concrete and one which acts as a carbon capturer. Using engineered wood acts as a carbon capturer, so if farmed sustainably, is the ultimate green material. We are already seeing wood being used increasingly more in construction across the globe, even in high rise structures and I look forward to this trend being replicated in South Africa. When I look at how engineered wood may evolve in the future, I think much of the innovation will focus on the processing of engineered wood, improving sustainability and helping us move towards a more circular economy. There are also applications for the technology and products that are not currently being explored in South Africa, which I think we may well need to do in the not-too-distant future.
This is part of the role that I fulfil, with my PG Bison colleagues – to look into new opportunities, and to ensure PG Bison is globally competitive from an innovation, cost and quality perspective. We benchmark our products at an international level, driving operational efficiencies and establishing international technological partnerships for new ideas. Furthermore, we are pursuing new ways of doing business, including more sustainable manufacturing, new systems, optimised and alternative energy usage, all underpinned by constantly building our people. There is no doubt that forestry and timber processing are constantly evolving, making it a very exciting and rewarding sector in which to be involved!
Source: Forestry South Africa