How do middle-aged, basketball-loving UMD researchers get court time with the 7-foot-1-inch Shaquille O'Neil? They
Though most of them are a bit short, can't hit the jumper, and certainly won't be one of Dick Vitale's "Diaper Dandies," researchers at the University of Minnesota Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) and the USDA Forest Service's Forest Products Laboratory have played a highly visible (but let's say "supporting") role in this year's men's--and women's--National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) basketball tournament and the National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Star game. In fact, they've had a major "impact" at just about all the big basketball venues.
Though it doesn't get as much attention as the breathtaking athleticism on court, the wooden floor underneath the action is an important part of the game. To say it must be durable is an understatement.
The floor must withstand endless pounding (imagine having Shaquille O'Neal jump up and down in your living room 50 times a day for a few years), and it must be versatile with a surface that's quick to set up and take apart—it's not unusual to have a hockey game, a rock concert, and a basketball game at the same venue in the same week.
One of the oldest and most successful wood manufacturing companies is the Horner Flooring Company of Dollar Bay, Michigan. Horner has been around since 1891, the same year James Naismith invented basketball. The company specializes in making high-end portable hardwood flooring surfaces for many NBA and NCAA venues. Since 1983, every NBA All-Star Game and NCAA Final Four has been played on a Horner floor.
Bring on the "Dream Team"
As with the rest of the wood products industry, Horner Flooring feels the economic pressure of the global market. The company employs more than 100 people at its headquarters in Northern Michigan and is an important outlet for the hardwoods from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. However, many small companies lack the resources to implement the technological and manufacturing advances of their larger competitors. So, like life on the competitive basketball court, it's the teamwork that counts. In this arena, NRRI Forest Products Program Director Brian Brashaw is the head coach. Facing especially tough overseas competition, NRRI is boosting the wood industry's regional defense by creating a team of experts, like the talent at the USDA Forest Service, who can help companies like Horner improve their bottom line to stay in the game.
NRRI's game plan is to work from the inside. Brashaw says his team is unlike typical consultants who inspect a business from the outside and offer recommendations without really engaging the company.
"We truly work hand-in-hand with them," he says. "We start with folks in the company doing ground level work, who have ideas about how to improve the process, but don't necessarily have ways to get them to upper-level management where the change can occur. We also support their ideas with needed technical and engineering expertise."
So while NRRI focuses on improving the manufacturing process, the USDA Forest Products Lab works to improve the product. Together, the dream team helps Horner at the tip-off.
"We were able to come up with an improved flooring system that was easier to manufacture," explains Bob Ross, a researcher at the USDA Forest Products Lab. "We improved the connectors that hold the floor together. We looked at the base and structure—which is usually plywood or oriented-strand board—products that got their genesis at our Forest Products Lab. We also looked at finishing and drying schedules as well as moisture absorption and vibration characteristics."
Ross also says that getting to work on a project like this was a thrill he won't soon forget.
"You watch some of these games being played, and you think, wow, I had a hand in that," he quips. "It's a good feeling. And I also realize this was probably the only way a middle-aged guy like me was ever going to get on the same basketball floor as Shaq."
NRRI AND WOOD PRODUCTS
The wood products industry is one of the primary economic drivers for the Western Great Lakes region of Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, employing more than 300,000 people.
The goal of NRRI's Forest Products Group and the USDA's Forest Products Lab is to help the industry stay competitive while maintaining the overall health of the forests. Ross says, "To properly manage our forests, to maintain a proper balance of mature and young trees, we need markets for the timber that needs to be removed from our forests. What we strive for is a situation where jobs are maintained, rural economies remain strong, and forest health is protected."
If you have a forestry-based business and are looking for advice, visit NRRI at http://www.nrri.umn.edu/ or call 218-720-4294. Contact the USDA Forest Products Laboratory at http://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/ or at 608-231-9200.
The Natural Resources Research Institute was established at the University of Minnesota Duluth to foster the economic development of Minnesota's natural resources in an environmentally sound manner to promote private sector employment.
The USDA Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory, located in Madison, Wis., was established in 1910 with the mission of conserving and extending America's wood resources. Today, its research scientists explore ways to promote healthy forests and clean water, and improve paper-making and recycling processes.
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