An investment of around £110,000 in a cut-to-size facility based around a Holtec packsaw is expected to deliver savings in excess of£100,000 a year to papermaker and converter James Cropper plc.

The new Holtec is used to produce materials for Cropper’s on-site pallet-making operation, accurately and cleanly cutting full packs of both sawn timber and chipboard to the wide range of sizes needed.

Situated at Kendal, in the Lake District, Cropper is Europe’s leading supplier of coloured and specialist papers, producing uncoated papers and boards for internationally famous brands in over 50 countries.

Producing a vast array of different ranges, the company needs an equally diverse variety of pallets on which to deliver the materials. In total, around 53,000 tonnes of paper are produced each year and 1,500-2,000 pallets are used each week.

Until the early 90s Cropper bought in pallets, but then started to make them on site in a production area equipped with specially designed manual jigs.

‘We saved a fortune just by assembling the pallets from cut-to-size softwood and chipboard that we purchased from various processors,’ said raw materials supervisor Chris Green.

Cost savings

However, that was just the first stage. The problems affecting all papermakers – rapidly escalating pulp prices coupled with the appreciation of sterling against other currencies – mean that cost-saving is a high priority. As well as seeking improvements in efficiency and waste reduction in the papermaking process, the company continued to look at savings in pallet production.

‘Buying cut-to-size materials was expensive, so we investigated the possibility of bringing this work in house and bulk buying 15mm chipboard in standard 2440×1220mm sheets and 15mm pine in 2.4m and 2.7m lengths direct from UK panel producers and sawmills,’ said Mr Green.

Four years ago one of the pallet assembly staff visited the Woodworking Ireland exhibition and saw a video of the Holtec saw that was being shown by the company’s UK and Irish agent Woodtech Machinery. Recognising the potential this offered, he brought a copy of the video and other information back to Cropper.

This was presented to Cropper’s projects department, which investigates employees’ ideas for cost savings and productivity improvements as well as managing the company’s property and plant.

Initially the focus was on cutting packs of wood. Project manager Ken Dawson looked at similar saws before deciding that the Holtec offered the best performance. However, Cropper does not use a huge volume of sawn timber in the pallets – the top face being chipboard, with the blocks made from resin and sourced from Sweden.

‘Given the tight economic climate in the paper industry, short payback times are required for any investment,’ said Mr Dawson. ‘With some 30m³ of timber used each week, which one operator would be able to cut manually within a week, the fact that the Holtec would process whole packs at a rate of around 10m³/hour did not show high enough savings to justify the cost.’

The turning point came when Woodtech Machinery confirmed that the saw could also cut packs of chipboard. At the time the only company doing this was in Germany, so Holtec arranged a visit by Cropper staff to check speed and quality of cut.

‘We also received a great deal of help from FJ Reeves of South Shields, which uses the saw to cut packs of timber and agreed to run some tests on our chipboard,’ said Chris Green. ‘This was invaluable, because we quickly identified that we would need a larger capacity motor than the Reeves’ saw, and that we would need to use TCT blades for cutting the chipboard rather than the standard chainsaw blade.’

One year payback

&#8220Now we have the Holtec, we can buy standard sizes of chipboard and sawn timber, which are readily available for quick delivery, so we don’t need to keep much in stock”

Ken Dawson then revised the project justification, on the basis of cutting all the timber plus 50% of the company’s chipboard requirements. This showed a payback of one year and the investment was approved. Once the machine was ordered, Mr Dawson arranged for two packs of chipboard to be delivered to Holtec’s factory in Germany so that he could visit the company for final testing of the machine before delivery.

Overall expenditure totalled £110,000, including the saw, a Holtec manual grinding machine to sharpen the TCT blades, and a new building to house the facility and to store raw board. Cropper’s site, adjacent to the River Kent from which it draws water for the papermaking process, includes pockets of poor ground so a ‘floating’ concrete foundation had to be laid. The building is of interesting design – constructed from creased aluminium and resembling a Nissan hut – and took two weeks to erect once the foundations had been completed.

‘We place high priority on health and safety,’ said Mr Dawson. ‘Anti-strobe effect lighting has been installed above the saw in accordance with the regulations for woodworking machinery, and the whole project was based on the Construction Design and Management Regulations.’

With the Holtec installed, Cropper is reaping major benefits. Many customers have specific delivery requirements for the number of packs of paper per pallet. The company made 61,000 non-standard pallets last year as well as 35,000 standard pallets, so the savings achieved by cutting materials in-house rather than buying expensive cut-to-size components are significant.

‘Although the original justification was based on processing 50% of our chipboard requirements, we are already up to 60-70%,’ said Mr Green. ‘The saw cuts a 50-board pack in 30 seconds, working to a tolerance of +/-1mm on our sizes. The cut finish is excellent – which is essential because, as an ISO 9000 company, quality is the key to everything we do and the appearance and construction of the pallet must not let the paper down.

‘It’s very quick to change the blade and we sharpen them after every 30 cuts – again, erring on the side of caution to ensure we maintain cutting quality. We’ve just sent the first TCT blade back to Holtec for re-tipping, and it has been re-sharpened probably 18 times.’

Cost reduction, however important, is not the only benefit recorded by Cropper. When the company bought-in pallets it had to keep large stocks – including special sizes that had to be ordered in advance – to cover the requirement for up to 2,000 pallets a week for deliveries. That created significant storage problems. In addition, the chipboard deck had to be protected from rain, so wrappers were used which customers then had to dispose of or recycle.

On-site assembly addressed some of these issues but the company then had to hold large volumes of pre-ordered components in various sizes.

‘Now we have the Holtec saw we can buy standard sizes of chipboard and sawn timber, which are readily available for quick delivery so we don’t need to keep much in stock,’ said Mr Green. ‘The saw gives us total flexibility in producing different sizes and quantities of components as we need them. We make pallets to any specification required by the customer, on a just-in-time basis for their order – which means we have also eliminated the need to keep large numbers of assembled pallets in stock.’

With the saw currently used at around 65% of its capacity, Cropper also has the option to offer contract cutting services to other companies – such as trimming truck bundle parcels of sawn timber for merchants to produce square end packs.

New opportunities

‘What started as a purely cost-cutting exercise has opened up new opportunities,’ said Mr Green. ‘We are on target to achieve payback on the Holtec investment well within the 12 months specified in the proposal, and we will continue to develop the pallet-making facility. For example, we are looking at offering our service to other companies that need non-standard and standard pallets.

‘It’s possible that the pallet facility could become not just self-financing, but profit-generating,’ he added.

With local spares and service support provided by Woodtech Machinery, the Holtec saw will continue to make a solid contribution to the pallet making operation.

In its report for 2000, Cropper states that the paper market will continue to be challenging, with success coming from innovation, specialisation and service. The company believes that its breadth of capabilities provides the platform to achieve this success.

Those comments refer to paper production; but the humble – and invariably under-rated – pallet is also proving to be a key factor in Cropper’s business.