How a European timber drying leader grew forth

More than 40 years ago, in 1970, the first timber kiln was built by Utec, later to become Valutec, in Skellefteå, Sweden. Two years later, the company gained its first patent for its dynamic drying process, which was then followed up by rapid development in the areas of both design and technology. This is the story of how Valutec, which is currently Europe's largest supplier of timber drying equipment, grew forth.

Anders Lövgren and his brothers Mats and Pähr founded Utec, which after several acquisitions and long-term growth is known today as Valutec. Thanks to their business sense, entrepreneurship and technical interest, they founded and developed several companies together in the Skellefteå region of Sweden.

The entrepreneurship is something handed down within the family. As a young man, after having attended the high school technical program, Anders got involved in his father Alfred's building firm, together with his brothers Mats and Pähr.
“It was natural for me to become a structural engineer, I already knew I would at the age of seven,” says Anders. “We also had a fantastic education. My mathematics and physics teachers were really inspiring with their knowledge.”

Drawings from 1911

And the company was successful. Lövgren's family company was unusually rational for the time, which meant that they simply managed to do more during the workdays.
“We worked a lot with the usual problems like water damage and so on. But we also had communication radio, self-controlling units and had developed a smart invoice processing.”
One of the jobs they were hired for was an project at Myckle Såg outside Skellefteå, which wanted to build a new timber kiln, among other things. An experienced ventilation and plumbing consultant was entrusted to design the kiln.
“That's where my interest in timber drying was born. I saw that there was a great deal of technology in the kilns and I understood that I had to learn more about the process.”
Said and done. Anders visited the library and borrowed three books with the educational titles Sawmills 1, Sawmills 2 and Sawmills 3. There, he saw a drawing of a timber kiln and it was from 1911. It was the same drawing the ventilation and plumbing consultant had used.
“I said to him, surely something must have happened since then.”

“See if you can do any better, then!”

The consultant became furious, threw the drawings at Anders, promised to report his disrespectful behavior to Alfred and blurted out “See if you can do any better, then!” That was exactly what Anders did: Instead of a model from 1911, Myckle Såg got a forklift-fed batch kiln, something that was very unusual at the time. It was brick-built, equipped with sliding doors and wet-bulb and dry-bulb temperature control, where the equipment was delivered by Honeywell.
“It worked excellently compared with other kilns, which in the best case were controlled by cam wheels and many came to look at the new creation.”
Shortly thereafter, Svensk Träforskning released a report entitled “The seven main problems in timber drying” written by two prominent and well-respected professors. The report spoke of leaks, logistics problems and problems with control.
“There were many brands on the market at the time, including German Hildebrand, but none were really good.” The largest competitors were actually lumber yard kilns.
There was much yet to do. Utec developed the doors, which at the time were most often made of steel or wood and opened to the side, which caused problems of ice formation in the winter. Utec's patented design was made of aluminum girders between two woven plastic sheets and motor driven, which folded together when the aluminum profiles were lifted up.
“We hired IUC to conduct tests of our doors. They showed very little air leakage and thereby became saved energy when used in the timber kilns. The door company was sold in the 1980s and the doors are sold today under the brand Megadoor and can be found at most airports around the world,” says Anders.
Controls were another area that could be improved considerably. Anders contacted Kjell Lidström, who was a skilled electronics engineer, to look at how the controls could be improved. He has since worked as a problem solver and inventor for many companies in Sweden.
“Our major advantage was that we didn't know anything. We solved problems instead of looking at what others had done and we both got lucky and showed up at the right time. The timing was perfect.”

Obtained patents

They increased capacity by increasing the air velocity and the heat in the kiln. They also began looking at the relative moisture ratio as the main control variable, instead of wet-bulb and dry-bulb temperature. And soon, the world's first adaptive controller for timber drying was born.
It was controlled by circuit boards where gas pipe figures showed relative humidity and temperature in the kiln. The method was awarded a patent in 1972, and supplemented with new patents over several years for the development of the method.
The first processor used, called Processor 1001, was then replaced by a new model they called Processor 2002, which was in turn followed by Processor 3003. And so on. They constantly found new ways of using measurements that were made during the drying process, all with the aim of becoming even better at reaching the desired final moisture ratio. In 1980, the P7000 control system was introduced.

A good kiln operator more important than the CEO

As the control became more advanced and more and more gains were to be had from efficient timber drying, Valutec became increasingly aggressive in its messages.
“We often stressed that a good kiln operator can earn more for the company than the CEO. There was much truth in this – anyone interested in timber drying who ran things well could make big profits, and the same still goes today.”
The company was increasingly entrusted with projects among the sawmills, both in Sweden and Europe, and in 1997, a new milestone was achieved in conjunction with the first acquisition.
“The choice fell on Valmet, whose core business was process equipment for the paper industry. They also knew continuous kilns, which we didn't have in our product range and were also very strong in Finland.”

“Really tough competitors”

At the time, the main competitors in the Nordic market were WSAB and ABB.
“ABB was really tough to compete with. They had the advantage that companies listed on the stock market bought from them thanks to their strong brand. It took a strong sawmill manager to choose something other than ABB if they had problems with the equipment. We competed more against the brand than the technical solution.”
ABB's history in timber drying ended with Valutec acquiring the division in 2006. Three year's later, WSAB was acquired.
From the beginning until today, the common denominator is that Valutec has continuously driven development in timber drying forward. The secret?
“We’ve always focused on customer benefits and always had the ability to recruit capable employees. Today, our business is run by an accomplished team that truly understands timber drying. It’s wonderful to see how hard they work at optimizing designs and constantly improving the quality of the seasoned timber by exploiting modern technological capabilities,” concludes Anders.

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