A highly competitive climate has developed in the wood machine industry as manufacturers in the UK and across Europe struggle to get sufficient orders to keep their factories turning over. It is particularly evident in the UK market which is still perceived by some as having potential for development.

A number of contacts have also noted growing concern over the possible effect on staffing levels of higher National Insurance rates beginning this month.

“We’ve still got the after-Woodmex [sales] effect but it is very competitive out there. I’ve just had a salesman on the phone saying one of my competitors has slashed prices again and we can’t believe it,” one manufacturer said, adding that some firms are offering to match any price quoted by rivals. “We are still doing quite well and taking orders but I do hear competitors saying the war in Iraq is causing some problems.”

Reduced orders

Another said demand could be better: “We were quite busy up until Christmas and were very pleased with the number of enquiries. We are also fortunate in that we’ve had a few orders for export but it is definitely very slow decision-wise in the UK. We have been receiving a good level of enquiries but in the last two weeks the telephone has hardly rung.”

Despite current circumstances, the contact said that over the year as a whole, the company had done quite well, although prospects for the next financial year are uncertain. “We are reasonably pleased that we’ve had a good year but ordinarily we would have expected a little flutter of people with a few pounds to spend around now. We are not getting that and I’m a bit surprised.”

“We’ve had a very good year,” another contributor said. “We budgeted for this year [2002-2003] approximately the same as last year and we are on still on track to achieve that. We didn’t set ourselves any silly targets, like 20% growth.”

Demand for sawblades and tooling continues to decline in the UK, mainly because big industrial manufacturers have steadily been buying up independent timber merchants. In addition, standard carcassing is often cheaper to buy-in than manufacture in the UK.

One contact in the sector said he could see no end in sight to the decline. “There is no way for us to address the problem if the market place is changing to ‘supermills’. If you walk around Woodmex now you can see that a lot of the equipment is well out of the price range of smaller operators and, realistically speaking, they buy their standard products now from bigger operators and do specials.”

&#8220We are reasonably pleased that we’ve had a good year but ordinarily we would have expected a little flutter of people with a few pounds to spend around now. We are not getting that and I’m a bit surprised”

As another indication of the state of the sector, the contact said over the past couple of years his firm had noted a gradual increase in the length of time taken by many smaller saw sharpening shops to pay their invoices. This has been accelerated by recent start-up sharpening operations by large European and Danish service com-panies, he said.


“There is overcapacity in the UK sawblade and tooling industry and rationalisation invariably follows. The small, independent, British-owned sharpening shop is going to be under more pressure in future.”

Around Christmas and early in the new year, enquiries for debarking machinery were quite strong according to one contact, who said people are “trying to make something” out of residues. It seems that residues in the form in which sawmills are currently able to produce them – commonly 30mm chip sizes – are not attractive to a sufficiently wide market. “Everybody is looking at adding value to any product they have at the moment,” said the contact. “It doesn’t matter what it is, nobody wants any waste of any kind. Sawmills are getting virtually nothing for their residues.”

Smaller residues

Most enquirers appear to be seeking machines that can reduce chips below 30mm or produce more ‘fibrous’ residues in smaller, finer particles. The obvious machine for this is a flaker but the contact believes such equipment is beyond the financial reach of many UK mills. “We feel that the machine that can do this job is generally far too expensive for the market – at least for the customers who are contacting us.”

Other options for chip reduction include hammer mills, although with a relatively low throughput capacity and costing a lot to run, these machines are unlikely to slot comfortably into high-efficiency modern sawmills. And while 10 years ago you could have picked up one of these machines for “next to nothing”, nowadays they are rarely available second-hand, which could exclude some less well-off firms altogether.

Perhaps this demand could prompt innovative machinery makers to come up with a low-cost solution for minimising chip sizes which is compatible with modern sawmill operations.