Firm flaxes its muscle

Friday, August 17, 2007

Firm flaxes its muscle
Processor finds uses for flax fibre

by Martin Cash

The largest flax fibre processor in the world is trying to kick its cigarette paper habit by encouraging the use of flax straw in everything from bus doors to tractor parts.

The Winkler company, Schweitzer-Mauduit — the Manitoba arm of the Georgia-based global giant of the same name — is looking for more uses for the 200,000 acres of Prairie flax straw it processes annually.

Besides cigarette paper, the flax fibre that the company produces is also used to make the super-fine paper in Bibles.

Greg Archibald, Schweitzer-Mauduit’s vice-president in Manitoba, said the company is just starting to develop an alternative market using flax as the raw material for composite materials. So far the interest has been strong.

“We are working with about 15 to 20 companies looking to start up manufacturing using flax fibre composites,” he said.

“We are embarking on a new adventure. We think there is a lot of spinoff industries that can come from this.”

Archibald had a chance to tell composites experts from around world about the potential for flax fibre at a national conference this week in Winnipeg.

“There is a lot of interest in flax but they don’t know where to get the fibre,” said Archibald. “We process about 200,000 tonnes per year.”

Archibald and his company are working on a number of projects with the Composites Innovation Centre (CIC), an industry-public sector research centre at the University of Manitoba’s Smartpark.

Mercedes Alcock, the CIC’s bio-products project leader, said there is growing interest in bio-materials because of environmental concerns.

“I’m overwhelmed at the increased interest in the 3 1/2 years I’ve been with the CIC,” she said.

One of the projects the CIC has worked on is the production of lightweight flax-composite bus doors for Motor Coach Industries.

Mark Townsley, a production executive with MCI, said the company is now looking to use the flax doors on many of its models, and it’s in the process of developing other parts for its coaches.

“It is important to MCI to have green products,” he said, referring to the fact that flax is renewable resource. “Our U.S. owners are conscious of that and our customers are conscious of that.”

Townsley said in addition to the green component there is a significant labour-saving element to the new products.

“The CIC is well aware that we set the goals to bring the product in at a reasonable cost,” he said. “That is one of the prerequisites, making it practical for the industry. Money is extremely important.”

Sean McKay, the executive director of the CIC, said this week’s conference in Winnipeg will add to the profile of Winnipeg’s composites industry.

He co-chaired the conference with Glen Manchur of Boeing Winnipeg, the largest composites manufacturer in Canada.

“The industry cluster knew what it was doing when the CIC started,” McKay said. “Boeing’s presence is a big influence but there are all sorts of other industry sectors involved. We’re working on 26 different projects with another 31 in the proposal stage.”

In addition to the flax fibre, Schweitzer-Mauduit is also working with the CIC on all sorts of products, even using the core of the flax straw, called shive. Formerly it was a waste product in the production process.

But in partnership with a Minnesota company they have built a prototype for a seed cover lid that could be used on John Deere seed-spreader equipment replacing 20 per cent of the Fiberglas with flax shive.

Alcock said the prototype weighs 10 per cent less than the original model without compromising the structural integrity of the part.

© 2007 Winnipeg Free Press. All rights reserved.

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