Breaking Into the Cross-Laminated Timber Industry

By Beacon Staff

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock visited the Flathead last week, and one of his stops was Columbia Falls-based SmartLam, a cross-laminated timber company on the edge of a major expansion.

Cross-laminated timber (CLT) is extremely durable, with panels made from industrial lumber stacked together at strong angles and glued together. At SmartLam, these panels are typically used for oil drilling rig pads, pipeline construction platforms and temporary roadways and bridges.

The access decks act as roads, taking considerable punishment with the heavy machinery passing over. But these panels will likely last 10 years on the job, SmartLam production manager Jason Herman said.

The wood used in the panels is untreated, he said, though the adhesive used is waterproof.

Though the company has only been open for two years, CLT has been a major part of the European building and construction industry for decades. Only recently has the engineered wood made its way to the United States, and the 40,000-square-foot facility in Columbia Falls is one of the only CLT manufacturers in North America.

SmartLam general manager Casey Malmquist said he had discussed CLT uses before SmartLam got off the ground. CLT promoters in the valley had asked if he would use the panels in his building business, Malmquist Construction.

At that point, he was building much-needed housing in the Bakken.

“I got intrigued with the notion of it,” Malmquist said. “I said, ‘If you could find a commodity use for this then I would be really interested from an investment standpoint.’”

It all came together for Malmquist when he found that the CLT panels were being used for matting in the construction and oil and gas industry, which was and is still booming in the Bakken.

“That just connected the dots for me,” Malmquist said.

He helped group investors together, one of which is Western Building Center. The company also used two grants from the Montana Department of Commerce – a Community Development Block Grant Economic Development grant worth $380,000 and $206,000 from the Big Sky Trust Fund for job creation – to help get the business moving.

CLT panels are essentially carbon neutral, Malmquist said, and the raw materials needed to produce the panels could help revive the timber industry in the Flathead. Already, FH Stoltze Lumber and Land Co. provides the lion’s share of the lumber used, but SmartLam also uses wood from 12 vendors within 200 miles of the production plant.

SmartLam now uses one of the largest CNC machines in the world. A CNC machine uses computers to control tools, helping to shape and mill the panels at a much quicker rate than manual labor.

Malmquist said SmartLam was originally using 500,000 board feet of lumber each month, but that number has increased to about 1 million board feet since the addition of the CNC and new presses.

The expansion won’t stop there: now that the company has a handle on the oil and gas mats and access decks, the next step is producing CLT to construct buildings in the commercial sector and potentially in residential construction.

“We’re going to build a new plant, dedicated exclusively to construction-grade CLT,” Malmquist said.

That plant should be up and running by this time next year, he said.

Already, SmartLam employs about 30 people. With the new expansion, Malmquist said the employment numbers would increase, along with the amount of lumber used to build the CLT panels.

The use of CLT in construction is the answer to some of the largest problems facing the U.S. today, Malmquist said, because it provides a carbon-neutral way to build durable, strong projects while also reinvigorating the timber industry.

“It’s a mixture of all the right things that are occurring at all the right times,” he said.

For more information on SmartLam, visit www.SmartLam.com.

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