Product Innovation Case Study: Columbia Forest Products

Columbia Forest Products is a privately held wood products company that until recently was based in Oregon for the past 50 years. It is now headquartered in Greensboro, NC, with operations throughout North America. As one of America’s largest employee-owned corporations with more than 2500 employees and 11 manufacturing operations, Columbia is North America’s largest manufacturer of decorative hardwood plywood and veneer, used primarily in cabinets and furniture.

Formaldehyde-based adhesives have been used in decorative hardwood plywood manufacturing for decades. As an employee-owned company with a history of environmental stewardship, Columbia was determined to find a safer alternative. Eliminating formaldehyde from its manufacturing process, they reasoned, would be good for employees, for the communities in which it operates, for the customers who used Columbia products to fabricate cabinetry, furniture and architectural millwork, and good for the ultimate end users. The challenge was finding a solution that was environmentally benign, performed as well as urea formaldehyde-based adhesives, and didn’t add any additional cost to the manufacturing process: not an easy order to fill.

In 2002, Columbia’s head of innovation was attending a wood products industry meeting in Seattle and attended a session with Dr. Kaichang Li, a professor and wood scientist from Oregon State University. Dr. Li shared with the audience about an experience on the Oregon coast where he witnessed mussels adhering to rocks despite being repeatedly pounded by waves. This observation led him to try and replicate this adhesiveness in a lab setting through the use of soy protein, which Dr. Li modified as a means of replicating the mussels’ behavior. The end result was an adhesive that was stronger, resistant to moisture–an advantage over urea formaldehyde adhesives–and completely environmentally benign, even compostable.

Columbia’s head of innovation approached Dr. Li after the presentation, and that initial conversation began a partnership that led to the commercialization of a pioneering adhesive for hardwood plywood and other panel products. Three years later in 2005, Columbia Forest Products announced the conversion of its entire manufacturing operation to this formaldehyde-free.

Despite the significant research, implementation and infrastructure costs, Columbia successfully switched its operations process and now offers formaldehyde-free plywood at no additional cost to the customer. Through this conversion, Columbia Forest Products reduced mill emissions by as much as 95%, created a healthier workplace for employee owners and, continued to solidify their market position as a leader in the industry, having been repeatedly recognized for innovation and environmental consciousness.

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