AUSTRALIAN Sustainable Hardwoods in Heyfield has developed innovative hardwood engineered products that are a world first, positioning itself as a major presence in Australia's rapidly growing mass timber market.
Engineered wood - where traditional planks of wood are glued together under high pressure to create a product as strong as steel - is expected to play an increasing role in building construction.
Australia's mass timber market is already estimated to be valued at $1 billion.
Landmark engineered wood buildings in Melbourne have used European native forest softwood, but ASH now manufactures large engineered Victorian Ash hardwood columns and beams in a single production process using the largest CNC (computer controlled) German Hundegger machinery.
The products, a form of glue-laminated timber dubbed MASSLAM, are up to 12 metres long.
The process gives ASH 'more bang for its Ash buck'.
The company has just completed a number of large MASSLAM projects including one at the University of Tasmania in Burnie.
Ten other projects are confirmed, with others in the pipeline.
The timber packages alone are worth between $100,000 and $4 million each.
The mass timber market in Australia has been served from Europe, but X-Lam's cross-laminated timber factory in Albury-Wodonga and ASH are changing that.
Cross-laminated timber panels are made with planks criss-crossed at right angles and glued under pressure.
ASH managing director Vince Hurley said this was a good opportunity.
"We recognised the huge gap in domestic production," he said.
ASH took the plunge into the new technology to build on its existing strengths after suffering its near-death experience several years ago and re-creating the business.
"We are the largest finger jointers and laminators in the country, and the most experienced with polyurethane adhesives, so we decided to build another plant that extends on this knowledge," Mr Hurley said.
Daniel Wright from ASH has driven the project.
The first step was to research the market.
"You can't make a product and shove it down the market's throat," Mr Hurley said.
"Listen to the market and give it what it wants."
The company had already created columns and beams in small end sections, such as at Margaret Court Arena and the Macquarie Incubator Building.
Building on its experience in Europe and China, "we were able to learn how to make a line that can produce these mass timber products in one pass", Mr Hurley said.
The company's Swiss wood engineer, Joel Minder, had specialist training in programming and running the Hundegger machine.
In Europe, they made mass timber products in two passes, then joined them together to make a bigger single product, Mr Hurley said.
However, sometimes those two products did not fit together.
"We can start at one end, and in a continuous process go all the way through," he explained.
"We have made a specially designed four-sided planer that can do 450 millimetres deep by 1300 millimetre wide, which is the biggest four-sided planer in the world.
"We were the first to build a planer 450mm deep."
The biggest beams and columns are 1300mm by 450mm.
The big Hundegger CNC machine means all the MASSLAM products go to site ready to be installed.
"That's the key," Mr Hurley said.
"It has all the connections - whatever connection detail, the services detail, whatever the decorative detail - it's done here.
"It goes to site and gets erected, and then it is in - you don't have to do anything on site, other than put the Meccano set together."
MASSLAM's columns and beams match perfectly with cross-laminated timber, which is generally used in ceilings and floors, and sometimes walls.
ASH's emphasis is on appearance grade.
"It is seen structural, not hidden in the wall, it's on show," Mr Hurley said.
"We would not do a mass timber building if it's not on show.
"Buildings with a classic column and beam structure are magnificent, with glass letting in huge light.
"Everything is bespoke.
"It's not a commodity. Every building, column and beam in a building is different - nothing is the same.
"We supply direct to a builder and the specification is extremely detailed."
MASSLAM blends well with ASH's other products - staircase components, linings and joinery.
"Appearance grade timber in all forms - that's our game," Mr Hurley said.
The Hundegger line cost $12 million.
To replace the two factories and equipment bought in the past 13 to 14 years would cost close to $28 million.
However, ASH engineering and projects manager Garry Henthorn was experienced at building new lines and was a bit of a 'Steptoe' bargain hunter, Mr Hurley said, able to find high quality parts to link lines together.
Already, the new factory has created seven new jobs.
"We intend to go to two shifts, so will double that, then we will have a series of other jobs in 'polishing and packaging' beams," Mr Hurley said.
The beams and columns all have 'detail'.
"Nearly all are sealed and stained before they leave, packaged in such a way to get to the site and be craned into position," he said.
"One of the columns may be worth $13,000, so you can't afford to have a big chip out of it."
Mass timber cross-laminated timber and glued laminated timber are mostly done in softwood, but ASH is the only company also doing glued laminated timber in hardwood.
"The advantages are incredible," Mr Hurley said.
"MASSL AM has a 40 to 45 per cent strength advantage over European spruce.
"You can carry 40 per cent more load, or make the columns and beams 40 percent smaller, to carry the same load."
The ASH plant now has nine departments, of which six are manufacturing, with MASSLAM the latest.
The others include staircase components, kitchen bench tops and panels, mouldings, reprocessing, a retail outlet, a green mill, drying mills and kilns run with biomass energy from the plant's sawdust.
"Our game is selling manufactured timber products," Mr Hurley said.
"We are marketing around that, because we are not selling commodities anymore."
The company's total employment is now 170.
"We went from 245 down to 140, then built back to 170 through reshaping the whole business," he said.
"That's not bad, considering what it could have been."
ASH processes up to 90,000 cubic metres of wood annually, most supplied from VicForests.
However, the company imports American Oak and buys local plantation hardwood logs from Hancock Victorian Plantations and the Gippsland Agriforestry Network - Shining Gum and Mountain Ash from the Strzelecki Ranges.
ASH has devised a technique to process plantation hardwoods and is exhausting all that are available.
"The ASH crisis brought it on - absolutely," Mr Hurley said.
"It has forced us to think outside the square.
"However, the underpinning of our business, the unit costs of production, the critical mass - the critical parts - are the regrowth logs from VicForests.
"That is still the underpinning.
"We are making Radiata Pine MASSLAM, but we don't want to.
"Victorian Ash is one of the strongest timbers in the world for its weight.
"It's easy to manufacture with and glue with.
"It beats imported spruce mass timber hands down in strength, deflection, fire - you name it.
"And it's visible, looks much better than spruce - we don't have knots.
"Visually, it looks magnificent."