There’s never been a more important time for TIMCON. On the eve of the timber pallet, case and packaging sector body’s ground-breaking first annual conference, that was the view of both outgoing president Paul Davidson and successor Graham Nicklin.

The organisation has been around for 60 years and in that time the timber pallet and packaging industry has been through seismic change. Production technology has been completely transformed and, in the last few decades, manufacturers have had to front up to serious competition from rival products in plastic.

But, according to Mr Davidson and Mr Nicklin, latest developments in European standards and international plant health rules, increased raw material supply and the environmental sensitivity of the market place mean that the sector today faces an unprecedented combination of challenges and opportunities. And these make it more critical than ever for the industry to act in concert under the auspices of TIMCON.

It is perhaps not as widely known as it should be that the pallet and packaging sector remains one of the key engines of the UK timber industry.

‘We have been seen as the poor relation,’ said Mr Davidson. ‘But, in fact, the industry’s turnover is around £0.5bn. Around £270m is accounted for by pallets, £120m cases, boxes and crates, and the balance by cable drums, casks, vats and barrels.’

‘We’re also a major timber consumer,’ added Mr Nicklin. ‘According to estimates based on National Statistics data, we use around 2.2 million m3 every year, and we account for around a third of UK homegrown softwood, which makes us the second biggest consumer after construction.’

‘The industry performs a vital function for the wider timber sector,’ continued Mr Davidson. ‘Modern sawmills need to sell all grades and we are the primary outlet for falling boards.’

Against this background, TIMCON believes pallet makers will play a key role as British softwood production booms over the next few years.

‘We’re looking at a major increase in the timber harvest and applications will have to be found for it,’ said Mr Nicklin. ‘Some lower grade material will be chipped for panel products, but pallet and case producers will be an important outlet.’

TIMCON also believes the industry can capitalise on customers’ growing ‘green’ awareness. ‘Timber pallets have major benefits over plastic in environmental terms,’ said Mr Davidson. ‘Our raw material is renewable and the production process is low energy. Returnable pallets can be mended too. If a plastic pallet breaks that’s it – plus they’re five times more expensive.’

‘In the past we’ve lost out to plastic because we haven’t lobbied and made our case effectively,’ said Mr Nicklin. ‘But now TIMCON has a very active marketing committee and we’re looking at ways of promoting the environmental benefits of our products – perhaps learning lessons from the new Wood for Good campaign.’

While girding its loins to step up promotion and marketing for its members’ products, TIMCON will continue to devote considerable energies to overcoming obstacles in their way, among them the new international phytosanitary regulations.

Under the proposed new rules, due for adoption in 2002, all timber used for packaging products will have to be heat-treated to a core temperature of 56OC for 30 minutes and there’s a possibility it will have to be kilned to 20% moisture. The heat treated product will then have to be marked.

‘The industry has a number of concerns here,’ said Mr Davidson. ‘Currently most pallets and cases use unseasoned timber and all drying facilities are fully in use. To make the rules feasible, we clearly need more kilning capacity in the UK and Europe.’

‘We’re also concerned that the marking requirements are reasonable – at one point there was a suggestion that every pallet component should be marked,’ said Mr Nicklin.

The new phytosanitary rules will be issued in April 2002 for 12 months’ consultation. During that time, TIMCON, in association with the European pallet industry organisation FEFPEB, will continue to press for it to be framed and implemented in a ‘realistic and practicable’ way – and one that doesn’t leave pallet makers short of raw material.

A still greater concern of the sector – Mr Davidson cites it as the biggest issue of his presidency – is the European packaging waste directive, which is under review and likely to be tougher than existing regulations on waste recovery. The industry has already successfully lobbied for timber packaging to be considered to have a uniform density throughout its life, making the rules fairer and simpler. ‘But we’re still concerned that the emphasis is too heavily on recovery and re-use rather than recycling, and we’re pressing for that to change.’

Another subject of ‘very lively debate’ for TIMCON is the European pallet repair standard which is also in the pipeline. By underpinning repair quality, this could be a major benefit to the sector but, stressed Mr Nicklin, manufacturers must influence the way it’s formulated.

To ensure its voice is heard by the various standards committees and to stay abreast of latest developments, TIMCON has appointed industry expert John Mead as special technical consultant.

‘There is a mass of work to be done on standards and it’s critical that our industry’s interests are represented,’ said Mr Nicklin. ‘Working closely with our technical committee, John Mead will ensure that happens.’

In part to strengthen its lobbying arm further, TIMCON has also developed a Code of Practice for members covering all aspects of their business.

‘This should both increase our influence with the authorities and make TIMCON more visible with the industry’s customer-base,’ said Mr Davidson.

‘The code will cover operating issues and regulatory compliance,’ said Mr Nicklin. ‘Initially it will be quite inclusive, with the aim of making it more stringent in the longer term.’

And TIMCON has launched a number of other initiatives recently to raise the profile of the industry and enhance its services to members in today’s increasingly competitive and demanding market place.

‘There was a perception in the past that TIMCON was little more than a luncheon club,’ said Mr Davidson. ‘That’s changed. The association is now much more focused on trading and marketing issues – helping members develop their business.’

To tailor its services precisely to their requirements, TIMCON undertook a membership survey last year. The verdict was that it should place even greater emphasis on communication and consequently Spencer-Bolland Associates was appointed as TIMCON’s full-time secretariat.

As part of the communication drive, the organisation is also overhauling its website. Earlier this year, it also published a new technical handbook and, on April 6, will hold its inaugural industry conference.

Held in conjunction with TIMCON’s annual general meeting, the event will include a presentation on its new ‘stake-holder’ pension scheme and a view of the European pallet sector from FEFPEB secretary-general Fons Ceerlaert. There will also be an update on internet pallet auctions (the subject of a forthcoming feature in TTJ) and presentations on crisis management and the global packaging market.

Besides enhancing its service and relevance to existing members, TIMCON’s latest activities are also intended to attract new companies.

‘Given today’s increasingly demanding trading and regulatory environment, it’s vital for the industry to work together on the key issues,’ said Mr Nicklin. ‘In the last six months, we’ve increased membership by 17% to 130. With all the changes and developments we’re introducing, we’re confident that in the next two years we can double that.’