Breaking into new markets: Solid wood for New Zealand

Text: WEINMANN Holzbausystemtechnik GmbH.

Images: XLam NZ Ltd.

 

In New Zealand, timber work is traditionally very strongly rooted in the form of “timber framing”. Around 90 percent of detached and semidetached houses are designed with a timber frame construction. This is encouraged by the fact that their light, elastic designs offer better protection against earthquakes in the country’s extensive earthquake zones.

As in Germany, there are also products made from cross-laminated timber (CLT). However, these have not played a major role in the building industry for a number of years. One of the reasons for this is that these are imported products, with dimensions restricted by the necessity to transport them by sea.

 

 

Quick start from zero

However, in spite of this back-ground, over the last few years there has been a strong trend towards CLT construction methods in New Zealand, which is partly to the credit of XLam NZ Ltd, located in Nelson. This company was founded by brothers Robin and Ian Jack. When they started the first production of cross-laminated timber in the southern hemisphere in 2012, the solid wood elements were produced exclusively manually at that time.

In other respects they were also starting from zero: “If I look back today, at what we did when starting XLam, I can hardly believe it,” remembers Robin Jack, the former managing director of the company, who has recently retired: “We built up the production for a product that nobody knew what do with — that hardly anyone had even heard of! But someone needed to pave the way, and CLT is the biggest opportunity I have ever seen in my 40 years in the timber industry.”

After using a market study to check that there really was a market for the new material, the next step was to invest in a WMP 240 from WEINMANN. This solid wood portal was to process the elements that would be manufactured in production.

“Not because we had problems with manual work,” explains Neil Dodunski, the General Manager at XLam: “We had qualified employees, who were proud of their craft. But we would not have been able to grow without accelerating our processing of elements.”

Equipped with a flexible sawing unit and a 30 kW 5-axis main spindle that can spin at speeds of up to 18,000 revolutions per minute, the WMP 240 processes solid wood elements of up to 350 mm thickness at high speed and with high levels of precision. At the same time, the saw and the spindle can be swiveled through up to 90 degrees in the A axis and rotated through up to 360 degrees in the C axis, which opened up a large range of processing options to XLam.

All the more so, as the main spindle is equipped with an 18-slot disk-changer, which enables different tools and additional units to be replaced automatically during processing. As the machine works through the orders fully automatically, it is operated by just one man.

 

Fast, precise, safe

The employees who previously processed the CLT elements with manual machines are now respon-sible for work preparation using Lignocam software in the Nelson plant. Their initial fears that their jobs would lose their attraction due to the introduction of CNC production were unfounded.

Neil Dodunski: “Their timber work specialist knowledge is still required in order to expertly plan the machine’s processing steps, and they must watch out for every detail.”

Gary Caulfield, the new Managing Director of XLam, sees great advantages in the use of CLT elements on the construction site when compared with traditional construction methods: “This enables construction sites to be very clean and tidy places, because the main part of the work is carried out with the machine in the production hall. This also means: Safer construction sites for the workers. And special focus is placed on safety in Australasia.”

However, in New Zealand, it is not just a matter of safety. The biggest strength of the new construction method lies in the short assembly times: Because the elements are very lightweight in comparison with other solid construction materials, it is currently no problem for XLAM to mount fit 100 m2/h on a construction site — as long as the elements have been produced to the required level of precision. This is so high, that in Nelson they are already dreaming of a construction site without a meter rule.

 

Torea Studio in Tasman, Nelson, is built using CLT supplied by XLam. The project was a finalist in the 2017 NZ Timber Design Awards for Residential Architectural Excellence


Greater capacity & new work opportunities

To get to this point, the company had to come a long way. Amongst other things, it needed to produce the appropriate evidence for the building inspection authorities for the product — substantially knot-free cross-laminated timber from the fast-growing, native Radiata Pine. There was also a lot of convincing to be done in architectural practices and at universities to open up the doors for the new building material.

The reward for all of the hard work is an excellent position in the market. Since the product was introduced, demand has increased steadily; currently, larger properties such as schools, kindergartens, halls of residence, department stores and even hotels are increasingly built from CLT. This is only in part due to the fast construction method and the high load-bearing capacity: This sustainable and emissions-free construction method is a fitting match for the strong ecological awareness in Australasia.

Commercial enterprises can make an ecological statement with buildings like this; day care centers become particularly attractive when using the natural, healthy living construction material. The design options of the new material with its fine surface finish are also convincing — including when used in combination with the 5-axis capabilities of the WMP 240: “We are happy to tell the architects: If you can draw it, we can make it,” explains Gary Caulfield: “Although we are making our life difficult by saying that. Of course, then the architect comes back to us with a design that doesn’t have a single right angle in it.”

XLam now delivers its elements to New Zealand, Australia and the surrounding islands.