Firing up a bio-fibre market
Firm's owner long preached importance of supply chain
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/06/2015 (2662 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
For several years, Sean McKay, the CEO of the Composites Innovation Centre, has said for the bio-fibre composites industry to develop in Manitoba, a proper supply chain needs to be developed.
That means some kind of reliable supply of raw material and some fundamental processing of the bio-fibre composite material to get it to a form in which manufacturers could fashion it into parts.
The motivation is these kinds of products could be used to replace heavier and more expensive fibreglass composites that also carry a much denser greenhouse gas load.
Mark Myrowich, the owner of Erosion Control Blankets (ECB) has been subjected to McKay’s prodding for some time.
He’s about to take the bait.
“My entrepreneurial senses tell me this is the time to really start looking at this and get this thing going from the supply side,” said Myrowich.
For 13 years, Myrowich has been building a growing business making the namesake erosion control blankets.
Operating out of plants in Riverton and Blumenort that employ about 50 people, he has been selling the product, primarily made from wheat straw, to the heavy-construction industry across North America.
Last year, he signed a joint-venture agreement with a European company that makes flax-fibre mats that are used by a variety of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in Europe.
The partnership with the company, called EcoTechnilin, will create a Canadian company to sell those flax-fibre composite products into the North American market.
Among other things, they include natural-fibre floor underlayment used between subfloor and hardwood floors. In Europe, EcoTechnilin also sells flax-fibre composite parts to European automakers.
Being the experienced businessman he is, Myrowich wants to see if there is demand for the product before he takes the next step — investing in new production capacity in Manitoba.
“It all comes down to cost,” said Myrowich. “It’s nice that it’s green. But to me cost is a better (market) driver than the environmental factor.”
At ECB, he uses the raw straw in its process. It does not need to separate the fibre from the chive, a process called decortication.
But EcoTechnilin’s product needs the fibre separated and buys it from other suppliers in Europe that operate decortication facilities.
Myrowich’s plan is to work the market here, and when he gets to around $3 million in sales — maybe in two to three years — he will take the plunge and build his own decortication plant to produce flax fibre in Manitoba.
McKay believes that could be a key trigger for the bio-fibre composites industry to really get established, because it will create a source of fibre that is ready to be processed.
Myrowich and some local flax producers are heading to England and France next month to observe how the supply chain works there. They have sent a container load of Manitoba flax straw to get a first-hand look at how it will perform through the various processing phases.
Eric Fridfinnson, chairman of the Manitoba Flax Growers Association, is supporting the efforts.
It’s his flax straw from his farm near Arborg that will be shipped overseas.
“This could be a good opportunity for growers to be able to have another way to dispose of our flax straw,” he said.
He added there is growing flax acreage in Manitoba as it is, and because of its strength, flax straw is particularly challenging to dispose of. Much of it ends up being burned.
He said it’s not like there is an expectation producers will start earning big bucks for their straw, but it could be a nice additional source of demand for a hard-to-dispose-of by-product of their oilseed crop.
Fridfinnson said this project has as good a chance of success as any because it’s being headed by someone who is already an experienced practitioner.
“Mark is one of the few people who has a track record of actually bringing some of this to fruition,” he said. “So I am pretty optimistic that something will come of this.”
McKay will also be in France in the coming weeks and will also meet with the European operators.
“Mark is doing an excellent job trying to create some business in this area,” said McKay. “He has been looking at the right time to jump in and make the move.”
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.