Winstone’s site is 12.78ha and the plant covers just over half of that. Photo / supplied
Fletcher Building’s new $400 million Gib plasterboard manufacturing and distribution facility in the Bay of Plenty is planned to be fully operational next year but some key milestones are due to be reached soon.
tour of the new factory and storage plant was led by building products chief executive for Fletcher Building Hamish McBeath, Winstone Wallboards’ programme lead Stewart Vaughan and Winstone’s general manager, David Thomas.
From the first week of this month, Winstone Wallboards plans to start turning on motors, moving equipment and bringing trucks down from Auckland loaded with gypsum, they said.
All that is in preparation for the plant’s operation from 2023 and well before ships loaded with gypsum from Australia start arriving at the Port of Tauranga.
McBeath said the factory was “three-quarters of the way” finished.
In New Zealand, 94 per cent of all plasterboard used in construction is produced by one company: Winstone Wallboards.
That company’s Tauriko site in a new business park overlooks farmland at one end and is a 12.78ha plot of land of which the 67,000sq m plant occupies around half. The site was picked with the concept of expansion already in mind.
At 440m in length, the main manufacturing and storage building stretches nearly half a kilometre and is 110m wide. The reason it’s that long is because of the process of making a wallboard where the compounds within the plaster need a certain length of time – running for at least 330m at a certain speed – before they enter giant kiln-style ovens to be fired.
Only one line has been built inside the factory. Around 2.6 million square metres of plasterboard can be stored in the new plant’s main building. Plasterboard of 1200mm and 1350mm will be made at the plant but the line is also capable of producing the narrower 600mm Barrierline Gib.
McBeath said the plant’s commissioning later next year would make a big difference to New Zealand’s plasterboard supply.
“The new plasterboard line will have 50 per cent more capacity than the current Auckland plant,” he said, comparing Tauriko to the existing Penrose plant on Felix St which will be shut, with around 30 per cent of its workforce transferring to Tauranga, others going to other Fletcher divisions and some taking redundancy.
Winstone has a second New Zealand plant at Opawa, Christchurch.
It hopes the new plant will help solve the country’s plasterboard shortage once it opens, although there were signs in October that shortage was being resolved. Christchurch-based Co-operative Building Supplies chairman Carl Taylor said supply had improved a “fair bit” but it was not back to levels seen pre-Covid.
The Fletcher and Winstone chiefs said that early next year, the Building Research Association of NZ was due to reappraise the plant with the aim to have saleable board by May.
But it will take longer to get the plant fully operational.
McBeath said: “We are aiming to be fully commissioned by September next year but we’re currently planning to have board coming off this plant that’s BRANZ-appraised that’s available by May.”
From then, it will begin producing up to 22 different types of products including EzyBrace, Aqualine, Noiseline, Wet Area, Fire, Tough, Reverberation Control, Radiation Shielding and Rondo products.
McBeath said the plant easily had more capacity if needed.
“The great thing about this plant we’re building here is, even on commissioning, we will only be running 24 hours a day five days a week but we’ve also got the capability of getting this plant up to seven days a week,” he said.
Extended capacity was so great that “so this plant alone would be able to handle our peak demand without even looking at the Christchurch plant”, McBeath said.
New Gib board products would also be made at Tauriko but those haven’t yet been announced.
McBeath acknowledged the plasterboard shortage, saying “elements of the market have struggled with capacity for some period. We need to earn that back. We’re very confident that when we’ve got the capability that this facility will bring when we come online, we’ll be producing board out of here in May and we’ll be very quickly getting back to the best service, the best product and new products the market hasn’t seen will come out of here”.
Fletcher was well under way with the new plant when the Gib crisis struck.
The Government established a task force to look at the issue, complementing an ongoing Commerce Commission market study into the availability and price of residential building supplies.
At the end of 2019, Winstone Wallboards had shut down its two factories for maintenance over Christmas, meaning they weren’t producing any Gib. When the pandemic and level four lockdown hit, they weren’t considered essential, so stockpiles began to dwindle.
At the same time, there was a construction boom, and more people wanted to renovate their homes so the end result was much less supply, much more demand, and a market unaccustomed to substitute products. Ross Taylor, Fletcher Building chief executive, also cited stockpiling as a big factor.
“Since early this year, people are storing wallboard. Plasterboard gets used, and pallets come back. We’re not getting enough pallets back so that suggests there is wallboard out there,” Taylor said in June.
New Zealand was only building 35,000 to 40,000 new homes a year, despite consents running at more than 50,000, Taylor said in the winter.
McBeath said the new plant was safer and more automated: it had a fully automated bulk gypsum receiving and shed loading system which eliminated loaders and excavators carting the gypsum.
Trucks will be driven into that special receiving building and without drivers leaving their cabs. Loads of gypsum will be emptied into a pit, drivers tipping deck and trailer-loads into the new subterranean bay where it is then taken via conveyors into the storage shed.
Traffic management systems have also been improved with one-way traffic flows. Manual handling is reduced via higher levels of plant automation, particularly in the dry board takeoff area.
Waste plasterboard can also be recycled at the new plant and gypsum from old boards will be incorporated in manufacturing new products.
The main roof of the largest building has been designed to support solar panel installation and a new extra low-energy dryer will be 15 per cent more efficient than the existing Penrose dryer, McBeath said.
Bore water will be used in the manufacturing process. Waste water will be recovered from the truck wash and other processes on the site.
In total, 4000 tonnes of structural steel were used in the construction of buildings on the site.
Around 35 truckloads of plasterboard are expected to leave the site daily once production reaches full capacity. No plasterboard will go via rail because the plant is designed to produce material freighted via road. Rail would be slower and more expensive, the bosses said.
The gypsum will be stacked up to 15m high and around 120m long, with the purpose-built shed able to accommodate around 46,000 tonnes of product, heaped more up to peaks compared to Penrose where the product is stored in a more block-like shape.
Ovens or heaters imported from Sweden reach temperatures of 235 degrees Celsius and 140 degrees Celsius.
All up, McBeath says the new process at Tauriko will be vastly different from Penrose. The company had an opportunity to start afresh with the new plant and create better systems which were faster and safer than it has now.
* Anne Gibson travelled to Tauriko with assistance from Fletcher Building.