Western Pneumatics Inc.
- Written by: Ivy Carter
- Produced by: Sean O'Reilly
- Estimated reading time: 6 mins
Western Pneumatics Inc. (WPI) designs, manufactures and installs wood and fiber material handling systems. Four integrated groups – pneumatics, machinery, installation, custom fabrication – work together at WPI to offer expert services for the biomass, renewable energy and clean air markets.
Rick Nicol, Rick Sanders and Bruce Livesay founded WPI in 1982. Although initially focused on a narrow niche in high- and low-pressure pneumatic conveying systems, the company has continually turned to diversification and subsequently has expanded greatly in 30 years. “We started as a sawmill dust cleanup company, and grew from there,” says Robert (Bob) Marshall, who has experienced his own trajectory of growth at WPI; joining the company soon after its inception, Marshall became a partner in 1989 and is now both a part-owner and vice president.
WPI offers commercial fabrication, construction, start-up and maintenance services from the company’s 130,000-square foot headquarters, located on 10 acres in Eugene, Ore., These facilities, which currently employ around 150 employees, include three fabrication/assembly shops (with CNC machining and laser-cutting centers for pressure vessel/tank building), a sandblasting and heated painting shop, an engineering department and quality control offices. A subsidiary, S&E Design, operates in Jonesboro, La., with 30 employees.
Getting More out of Wood
WPI is renowned for its turnkey services, which include the design, fabrication and installation of finger jointer systems for molding and millwork and engineered wood plants, as well as the fitting of dust-filtration and other environmental pollution control equipment. The company is especially adept when it comes to any facility converting wood products into fuel. “We have a special little niche in the wood industry,” says Marshall. “Our company is one of maybe half a dozen in the U.S. with wood processing knowledge that offers what we do.” WPI’s beginnings in sawmill waste wood cleanup have evolved into a complex role working with highly specialized plants. And Marshall says, “We’ll continue to go down that path, drawing from the knowledge gained in over 30 years of working with various species of wood and learning how to utilize wood particles to the best of its ability, and still not contaminate the environment.”
For example, WPI was a key partner in the realization of an important biomass clean energy plant: the largest wood pellet mill in the world, built in Waycross, Ga., in 2010 – 2011. As a contractor on the Georgia Biomass plant, WPI was an integral part of the project. The plant produces approximately 750,000 metric tons of wood pellets per year, which are now being exported to Europe for energy use.
In Europe, the wood pellets are ground back down to fine wood particles and used to replace coal in a lot of European power plants currently being modified and converted to utilize wood. Most of the larger pellet manufactures in the U.S. are shipping their pellets to Europe, which signed the Kyoto Protocol and aims to eliminate the use of coal by 2016.
This wood pellet plant, and others like it, use WPI machinery to capture and process wood dust particles by either using pneumatic air systems or mechanical conveying systems. It’s a highly specialized process, so WPI does far more than just fabricate and erect components. “Many times we will operate the equipment [we design and manufacture] after commissioning and during the start-up phase,” says Marshall. “We tend to rely on our staff to operate the new equipment and train the customers’ employees, which helps eliminate equipment damage during the learning process. We make sure we get good people working for us.” Reinforcing this philosophy, WPI works with trusted strategic partners for electrical controls and power wiring.
WPI was also contracted to assist KiOR Inc. in the construction of a pilot plant in Columbus, Miss., intended to make biofuels out of wood. WPI manufactured major dryer components, and supplied low- and high-pressure pneumatic systems for the refining area; and construction crews installed the Green wood yard, dryer and Hammermill equipment.
“The process is to grind the wood to two millimeters or smaller, deliver and pass it through a typical oil refiner cracking tower then add some proprietary ingredients for manufacturing biofuel for cars and trucks,” explains Marshall. Carbon neutral is the goal, and Marshall is happy to be able to say that WPI is “a piece of the puzzle.”
Changes from Coast to Coast
Despite the company’s Pacific Northwest location, much of WPI’s activity is in the Northeast and Southeast. “The reason most plants are in the East Coast now is because of the abundance of Southern Yellow Pine trees, which have a 20- to 30-year growth cycle on most the larger trees and only a 15-year growth cycle on trees big enough to use for pellets,” explains Marshall. To take advantage of these natural resources, WPI is beginning the process of constructing a new manufacturing plant in Maine, which is an adaptive reuse project making use of an old abandoned paper plant in Millinocket, which will begin construction in the third quarter of 2013.
The plant intends to use torrefaction (dry product, no biological activity) technology creating a 100,000-metric-ton super pellet (with over 10,000 BTU which burns hotter than the average wood pellet of 8,000 BTU). “You can store the Torrified pellet outside on ground and it won’t soak up water,” says Marshall. “Torrified pellets has a comparative BTU value as coal and can be stored and processed similar to coal, so plants to do not have the major expense of converting their plants to be fired on wood.”
WPI’s main focus right now is alternative-energy plants that use biomass to produce power. The company is working to construct a new wood pellet mill in Woodville, Texas, as well. Manufacturing took place in 2011, and with construction commenced in December 2012 operation is expected to be in June 2013.
Eventually, Marshall foresees “further expansion into the Southeast in the next two to three years, and five years out, developing bioenergy and biomass plants on the West Coast. Eventually we’ll be going to China with pellets, and the wood basket in the Northwest can supply China a lot better than the East Coast.”
Hard Work Pays Off
WPI is able to accurately forecast the company’s best positioning for future endeavors because of the wealth of firsthand experience within its leadership. For example, Marshall spends a lot of time on the management and sales side of larger projects, traveling to witness the processes personally so he only spends 50 percent of his time working out of the Oregon office. It’s this hands-on, in-the-field approach that has cemented WPI’s market presence. “I work with our customers to help develop their products,” says Marshall. “For our bread and butter, we typically go in and help [clients] develop projects to the point where they feel we are a partner and not just a contractor who’s out there for hire.”
Marshall and WPI also encourage young people to apply themselves to the trades. The company works with high schools and colleges to try to save shop class, to implement training programs, and to tout the benefits of hard work in skilled trades. “I began to understand long ago what you learn in those jobs carries forward throughout your life,” emphasizes Marshall, who created a lasting profession for himself through hard work, integrity and a commitment to skills building.
“I went to a small community college and took classes to achieve a welding certificate for welding metal together,” he explains. “Eventually, this afforded me the opportunity to get training in the sheet metal trade, becoming a journeyman craftsman, worked at a couple of shops, installed the equipment for many customers and then joined Western Pneumatics. Once you try those things you understand you’re capable of taking on many tasks. You work hard to get good at it – welding, cutting and fitting – and you never forget how to work hard.”
Marshall would like the industry to get re-established to a point where there is a “long-term base for employees, so we can rely on younger people coming in to replace some of the older people.” Robots will never be able to provide the personal attention that has allowed WPI to establish its valued relationships with employees and clients alike, assuring efficiency and accountability. WPI equally appreciates its liberal arts and engineering program graduates as well, but Marshall emphasizes how good it feels to work with a tangible product to harness the power of machinery and create a working system or, as he says, “… to roll up your sleeves and see something completed at the end of the day that makes sense. This is something that I can be proud of.”
A one-stop shop for clients building processing facilities in the specialized wood industry, Western Pneumatics Inc. proudly promotes stability and a tradition of crafting more from less.
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