Newberry’s manufacturing giant Louisiana-Pacific Corporation recently expanded the size of its press, a $14.5 million project that makes it possible for the plant to increase its output by roughly 15%. And, thanks to technology, they’re managing the increased workload with no additional environmental emissions.
Plant production shut down for nearly a month while the expansion project was underway, and 50 contractors joined plant workers onsite to assemble the equipment. Some components came from as far away as Germany. Work was completed on November 15, though the plant staff is still making minor adjustments.
No new jobs were created, but the increased productivity further secures the value of the plant. Formerly able to produce approximately 145 million square feet of siding a year, the plant can now complete about 165 million square feet per year.
There’s much that Plant Manager Jack Johnson can’t share about the expansion for proprietary reasons, but he is pleased with the upgrade.
“Yesterday [December 9] we set a new plant production record,” said Johnson.
Johnson is also very proud of the plant’s crew.
“Our employees worked extremely hard on the project and were the ones that pushed it across the finish line,” said Johnson, who is originally from Grand Marais and has made a career out of working for LP. He’s managed other plants and has been “home” at the Newberry plant for two years.
Johnson and the Newberry plant crew are putting out a product unlike any other in the world. The Newberry Louisiana-Pacific plant makes LP® SmartSide Siding, a treated engineered wood siding with a 5/50-year limited warranty. And the plant is the only producer of siding in sizes up to 4 x 12, much larger than the standard 4 x 8 sheets produced most of the time. Some projects need siding up to 12 feet in height, and Johnson says clients are willing to pay a premium for it.
“We do some four-by-eight,” said Johnson, “but it’s all the other lengths that make us special.”
Many of the logging trucks that go lumbering up Main Street are headed to LP, offering timber that mostly consists of aspen but also includes basswood, white birch, and balm of Gilead. More than half the wood comes from the Upper Peninsula, Johnson said, with the Lower Peninsula and Canada also contributing.
Travis Kangas, procurement forester for LP, said both LP and the logging suppliers are compliant with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative’s Forest Certification Standards, which aims to balance responsible forest management operations with the conservation of forest resources.
“If we don’t sustainably manage forests, we lose our aspen and cannot go on making our products,” Kangas said.
After it is cut down, the roots of an aspen tree naturally re-generate 50 to 100 new trees, Kangas said, and those trees are ready to harvest in 40 or 50 years. That’s half the time of other hardwoods, like maple, which rely on seeds for regeneration and grow at half the pace.
Aspen, which makes up about 85% of the wood used at the plant, is a low-density hardwood that compresses very well.
While getting compressed into siding, the long mats of flaked wood go from about four inches thick down to less than one-half of an inch, the thickness of the finished product. The process of going from log to finished product can take as little as two hours.
As adept as they are at their work – running the huge plant machinery takes only 18 crew members – they are extremely focused on safety. Take a tour of the plant and you’ll be decked in safety gear and will see safety measures taken every inch of the way.
“Safety is number one, above all else, including production,” said Ann Wornstaff, who works in Human Resources for the plant. “We want you to go home in the same – or better – condition as you came in that day.”
The focus has paid off – it’s been more than 500 days since the plant has had a recordable injury. A cut with a single stitch, or an injury that requires a doctor to prescribe something, is a recordable injury.
“We make a big deal out of it,” Johnson said. “If we make a big deal out of the smallest injuries, the bigger ones may never happen.”
Johnson said the plant has budgeted for 125 employees in 2020, which is slightly more than currently work at the plant. Pay starts at $19.15 an hour and includes full benefits. Johnson hopes local students will take note of the opportunities in the trades that are right here at home. And, thanks to innovation and a unique product, this part of Newberry is here for the long haul.