By Mel Duvall  |  Posted 2004-10-01 Print this article Print

Trex mixed recycled shrink wrap and wood chips with automated manufacturing and logistics to nail slumbering lumber companies.

A Giant, Gooey Spitball'">

'A Giant, Gooey Spitball'

The bags are heated, melted and combined with about 300 million pounds of wood scraps annually, gathered primarily from Southeast furniture makers. "What you get when you bring it all together is something that looks like a giant, gooey spitball," says Harry Monahan, senior vice president and head of manufacturing.

Pigments give the material a shade, such as red Madeira, Winchester gray or saddle brown. Small amounts of polymers and coupling agents are added to increase adhesion. The resulting shaded spitball is pressed through a die like Play-Doh, creating long planks that can be cut into boards. "Each lineal foot of board contains the equivalent of 1,000 bags," adds Monahan. "Over the years, we estimate we've kept about 6 billion bags out of landfills."

The recipe is the result of an effort by oil giant Mobil to improve its "green" image. In 1987, organic chemist Roger Wittenberg developed the process to combine recycled plastics with wood chips. In 1992, Mobil purchased the process and hired Wittenberg to look for ways to use the durable material. In August 1996, four executives, including Wittenberg and composite materials general manager Robert Matheny, decided to acquire Trex through a leveraged buyout.

Matheny is now the firm's chairman and chief executive. Monahan, who served as logistics manager for Mobil's North American petroleum products unit, joined Trex in 2000.

Grabbing billions of bags is achieved through a combination of technology and old-fashioned telephone work, Monahan says. The technology is based on a PeopleSoft EnterpriseOne planning system that tracks transactions, distribution and manufacturing.

The software allows Trex to accept orders from customers such as Home Depot, calculate production and raw material requirements, generate production plans and forecast demand. Trex contracted management of the applications to OneNeck, in Scottsdale, Ariz. The software is housed on servers at OneNeck facilities in Charlotte, N.C., and data is sent back to Trex' users via a secure network.

Monahan says the company wrestled with that choice. "We were growing fast, and pulling together a 14- or 15-person I.T. team was too big a pill for us to swallow," he says. "Now we're at the point where we could pull it in-house, but we've been happy with the service and arrangement."

OneNeck president Scott Meyers says Trex gets a 24/7 help desk as well as access to code, so programmers can customize the software when required. "If there's a problem, they only need to turn to us—ours is the one neck on the line," Meyers points out.

"Over the years, we estimate we've kept about 6 million bags out of landfills"

Trex' manufacturing is controlled by software called Intellution, from General Electric's Fanuc Automation unit. The software allows managers to collect data such as material temperatures, what's in storage tanks and how machines are performing, from 5,000 points in its production lines and raw material feeders, according to Maria Richards, Trex' technology director. The information can be sliced and diced by equipment operators to spot trends such as problems with tint or adhesion, and to maximize production.

Then comes the old-fashioned part: telephones. Once the PeopleSoft system calculates the amount of materials required, Trex' purchasers call the operators of dozens of recycling centers and of major distribution centers for companies such as Home Depot. Supplies include not just recycled shopping bags, but the plastic shrink wrap used to hold together pallets of boxes shipped to the distribution centers. Trex has signed long-term contracts with Wal-Mart, for example, for millions of pounds of used shrink wrap that used to be discarded.

Even though Trex' appetite for recycled plastics is ravenous—6,200 truckloads a year, each filled with 48,000 pounds of material—Monahan says the company hasn't yet come close to running out of supplies. About 11 billion pounds of plastics are produced each year in the U.S. This year Trex will consume about 160 million pounds, or less than 2%.

While Trex has a sizable lead in wood composites, the giants are no longer sleeping. Weyerhaeuser now has a competing product called ChoiceDek. Georgia-Pacific now offers SmartDeck. Louisiana-Pacific has WeatherBest.

Monahan watches the giants clamber to their feet, but he maintains the race is still Trex' to lose.

Contributing Editor
Mel Duvall is a veteran business and technology journalist, having written for a variety of daily newspapers and magazines for 17 years. Most recently he was the Business Commerce Editor for Interactive Week, and previously served as a senior business writer for The Financial Post.


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