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Twenty first century timber

Cumbria’s West Port is applying 21st century manufacturing technology to the oldest building material known to man – to make it a thoroughly modern and sustainable product.

The company’s technology and techniques owe a lot to the automotive industry, but its four-vertically integrated factories produce timber windows and doorsets rather than automobiles. The computer controlled ‘robotised’ operations combine the rapid turnaround of mass production with the flexibility to roll out bespoke products. So, unlike the antique pioneer of the production line method, Henry Ford, West Port says its customers can have any colour they want – even black.

It’s a far cry from expectations; when told it works with timber many people expect to find a joinery workshop not a hi-tech manufacturing facility. Some of its equipment is somewhat esoteric even by manufacturing expectations. For instance, its Celaschi window profiling plant is unique in the UK and its Eisenmann paint plant is one of only two in the country – the other one is at the Jaguar car plant in Coventry.

A lot of people look at the map and go ‘Maryport’ – there can’t be anything up there, but when they see the factory their problems go away,” said West Port’s sales director Steve Hutchinson. “We don’t have a joinery workshop, we have a manufacturing facility. In fact, our joiners spend much of their time on development work, helping with design and improving the manufacturing process.”

The company enjoys a technical challenge, and is proud of its record in coming up with solutions to complex design problems. Having the facilities and the expertise under one roof plays a big role in meeting its clients’ expectations. For example, in a project for Homes For Islington, they successfully created curved vertical slide windows that some believed could not be made without harking back to more traditional skills and techniques.

Hutchinson added: “We like to stress that we don’t have a standard product. Everything we make is bespoke. We have total control of our manufacturing process and wood is a versatile product.”

Timber is expected to make something of a comeback, giving uPVC a run for its money.Certainly, West Port does not see itself as in competition with other timber-using companies – but as taking on the uPVCwindow and door market. It believes the strengths of its products and its raw materials, particularly in these ecoconcerned times give it a strong basis to take on a wellestablished incumbent.

"If we fight with the timber people all we end up with is a big piece of a small pie,” Hutchinson said. “If we can convince people of the benefits and the sustainability of timber, what we end up with is a small piece of a great big pie.” Sustainability is a huge chunk of West Port’s case, but not the whole story. The physical and aesthetic properties of wood also play a role, enhanced by the company’s production methods to turn out what is essentially an engineered product. Once it comes from the assembly line,the product is finished and fit to install with no on-site preparation or treatment required.

Timber suffered in the 1980s, Hutchinson explained, because frames were made in workshops and sent out to sites where they were to be treated and painted. However, sometimes the treatment may not have been up to standard,or wood may have needed to be off-cut on site to fit the scheme, and this led to avenues for weather and rot to take root. In that environment, uPVC was able to gain ground as wood fell out of favour. Now the pendulum could be swinging the other way, though not because uPVC is seen as shabby and second points needed to release government grants.

"Timber helps them to achieve that,” Hutchinson said. Furthermore, West Port’s accreditation with the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) means that social housing clients also gain an audit trail for windows and doors that stretches all the way back to the forest. “The trees that we source all come from well-managed and sustainable sources,” he continued. “The timber arrives in numbered batches so we can trace that batch number back to the part of the forest it was felled from. Our clients are also assured that for every tree felled three more are planted, so we’re enhancing the environment.”

Although West Port occasionally uses hard woods, its staple is European Redwood – a soft wood that arrives pre-formed into laminates. This provides standard lengths, minimising the wastage from off-cuts. This is pulped for use by the pet industry as bedding. The company is also looking to install a wood-burning heating system, which will use pellets made of the sawdust to heat the factory and so reduce its use of natural gas. One of the problems with timber is that knots may ‘bleed’ sap no matter what treatment is applied, to adversely affect the product’s durability. So a further advantage of using the laminated timber is that these knotty problems have been removed.

Understandably, the company is a little coy for commercial reasons about every detail of its manufacturing process, but the wood is first cut into shape and planed in the first stage of the computercontrolled manufacturing process. The wood is corticed and has the profile cut into it by the Celaschi machine. From there, the shaped component parts are sent to a high-pressure tank to be impregnated with preservative. Following this procedure, moisture content is monitored until it reaches the optimum 14per cent, after which it is rolled on to the assembly line. Once assembled, the frame is suspended from hooks and carried along a hoist to the paint plant.

Differences in electrical potential between the hooks and frame (negative) and the water-based paint spray (positive) work to pull the paint around the frame so that every recess and face is covered. The company manufactures and mixes a range of colours on site and says it can match any colour a client desires. After this stage, the product spends time in a “thermally controlled” environment for drying, before it is rolled into the glazing machine and then assembled, packed and either shipped or stored on site ready for the client. Fittings and locks are supplied only by market-leading brands. The whole rocess from raw material to finished product takes up to six weeks. Depending on the exact specifications of a design, West Port’s 135,000 square foot manufacturing plants can churn out roughly 1,500 windows a week on a single shift system, and anticipates developing its business further in future.

Formed nine years ago, the company was privately owned until April this year when it became part of the Danish VKR Group, which was impressed by the hi-tech facilities. These were a legacy of founder James Watson, who ploughed in £2 million of his own money – a daring venture just to ensure supply of windows for one’s own construction company. Now his legacy provides employment for 170 staff and is looking to expand, with more staff, more business, and more production – to convince even more people of the benefits of timber engineering. “We’ve probably been Cumbria’s best-kept secret,” Hutchinson added. Not any more – so look out uPVC.

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