Quality management of the pellet production process is essential for assuring that the end product conforms to the intended product quality requirements. Going back 20, 10 or even five years, those for the pellet industry have been relatively loosely defined. As a result, quality management systems commonly in place at pellet production sites have historically not been as robust as the quality processes commonly used by industries with strict standards such as the automotive or pharmaceutical industries, where accreditation to quality management standards such as ISO 9001 are the industry norm.
The game changer for the pellet industry is that over the past five to 10 years pellet quality requirements have been defined by the Pellet Fuels Institute, the European Pellet Council, the European Union's standardization body CEN, the International Standards Organization, the International Wood Pellet Buyers and several large-scale European utilities that have developed their own quality requirements. With these new standards, it is essential that pellet production facilities, both newly constructed and those that have been in operation for many years, adopt quality management systems that assure conformance.
Two standards provide guidance for the development of quality management systems: the PFI's Residential/Commercial Densified Fuel QA/QC Handbook and the EPC's ENplus handbook. These quality management schemes outline how producers can certify their production and include a quality mark that is placed on product packaging or shipping documents to signify compliant product. Through my work to help facilitate the adoption of the PFI and ENplus quality management schemes at several production sites within the U.S. and Canada over the past several months, I now have a much better feel for what pellet production facilities commonly have in place to manage their product quality and what is required to convert these practices into quality management systems that comply with these standards.
In several facilities, the quality management system is already quite robust. At the most advanced level, some producers have used standards such as ISO 9001 as a guide for their quality management systems and have developed highly detailed quality manuals, standard operating procedures, work instructions, data tracking systems, etc. It is actually more common for production facilities to not have a written quality manual. It is not that quality isn't considered important or that quality processes are not in place, but rather that the quality management system is a relatively loose system of practices that at the end of the day works for the facility. What I find is that most of the components required in the PFI or ENplus quality management schemes are already in place, but are not well-documented. As with any formal quality management standard, the PFI and ENplus schemes require a written quality manual and quality practices to be documented. Documentation is usually the biggest job that production facilities have in converting existing quality management systems into ones that qualify under the PFI or ENplus schemes.
In addition to the manual, setting up an internal laboratory can be a large undertaking. An internal lab is not required under the PFI standard, but is highly advised and most often necessary. ENplus does require an internal lab. Operating an internal lab can be a challenge. It involves purchasing special equipment, setting up a lab layout, learning testing procedures, calibrating equipment and training staff. These tasks are not that difficult, but are usually poorly understood. As a result, most of the deficiencies I note when performing PFI or ENplus compliance audits are related to the lab.
Pellet quality standards are now in place. Because we are on the leading edge of the standard adoption, there is still time to convert old systems into new ones. But as I have seen firsthand, many producers who seek assistance in developing and implementing a quality management system do so with a sense of urgency because a potential opportunity requires the system. I encourage a proactive approach. Developing or converting a quality management system takes time.