By James Careless
Trying to decide how much technology should be added to a sawmill can be a delicate tightrope act. Should the entire plant be automated, reducing payroll costs but boosting investment debt? Should the mill stay manual, and remain vulnerable to an aging workforce? Or should the risks be balanced, so that the mill can get the best of both worlds, while hopefully minimizing the worst from either?
By James Careless
For his part, Eddie Heideman believes in balance. The president and second generation operator of Lavern Heideman & Sons’ mills in Eganville, Ont. uses both technology and manpower to produce softwood and hardwood lumber products.
“We have updated our main mill with a resaw, replacing gang saws from the 1970s,” he says. “But we still prefer to have our wood cuts judged by human eyes, rather than scanners.”
Lavern Heideman & Sons is located southwest of Eganville, which is about two hours west of Ottawa, Ont. It is a sprawling property that is home to the main mill and a scragg mill. The site also contains wood storage, and piles of sawdust and chips awaiting recycling. All told, the company employs about 85 people; including those working in its logging operations. They sell locally and throughout Ontario, with all of their products being shipped by truck. Lumber residuals are also shipped by truck to pulp mills in Canada and the United States.
The company was founded by Lavern Heideman in 1974. “He had always done logging on his own, and decided that moving into sawmilling made sense,” says Eddie, who is one of Lavern’s sons. “Eventually, all four of his sons – including me – joined him. Today, I’m the only brother still in the company, along with my son, Kris.”
The main Heideman sawmill was built in 1978, and was expanded and upgraded in 2005. The upgrade made room for a resaw – complete with remotely controlled wood-moving tables and belts – that replaced the mill’s gang saws. “With the resaw, which is human operated, our options are unlimited: We can do all kinds of cuts without downtime and get the best out of each log,” Eddie says. “With the gang saws, we were restricted to cuts of 3 in. to 6 in. in width, and changing widths was time-consuming.” Now, the resaw operator simply keys in the type of cut he is doing each time and the data is transferred to the sawmill’s database and made available to customers.
The upgrade required the removal of one plant wall, the addition of a new wing at right angles to the original cutting run, and a new roof for the entire plant. “We ordered the equipment in May 2005 and started making boards in the third week of November,” says Eddie, who adds the operation was only shut down for four weeks, with the sawyers working around the changes the rest of the time. All of the equipment for the upgrade was supplied and installed by T.S. Manufacturing of Lindsay, Ontario. Training was handled in-house, with help from the supplier.
Heideman’s scragg mill is aimed at the smaller diameter red pine lumber that the company began harvesting in 1992. “Red pine had been ignored by the market, but it takes treatment really well and is widely available locally,” says Eddie. “We started cutting it and processing it through our main sawmill initially. But the reduction in output that caused, combined with the growing demand we saw for red pine, convinced us to build a dedicated scragg mill for it back in 1997.” Again, the equipment here was made and installed by T.S. Manufacturing.
The Production Process
Trees being cut at Heideman’s main mill are initially stripped using a Rosser debarker. The logs are then loaded for feeding into the main circular saw, and fed one at a time. The initially cut wood from this saw is fed down by belts and wheels to a sorting area, for edging, forwarding, or redirecting to the resaw. All of the decisions here are made by men on the line, on the fly.
The resaw works in a complicated ballet, as the operator selects logs, slices off slabs, then directs them over to the edger for finishing on the left side of the saw, as he sends the rest of the log around on the right for more cutting. “It’s sort of a merry-go-round,” says Eddie. “But it allows us to get the very best we can out of each log, resulting in better grade lumber. We can also custom-cut to fit a client’s specific needs. This allows us to produce lumber on a just-in-time basis, rather than making one cut with gang saws and having to stick a load on the lot, waiting for a buyer to want it.”
The scragg mill’s operations are similarly balanced between automation and manpower, except that a gang saw is still used instead of a resaw. This makes sense as the small diameter wood being cut here is meant for a relatively limited range of posts and slabs.
In both mills, the finished wood is sorted and stacked by hand. It then goes directly to the yard for storage and pickup. “We only do green wood here,” Eddie explains. “Drying is handled by the wholesalers we work with.”
Eddie is satisfied with his mills’ mix of machine and muscle power. “The sawyers who work for us are people with strong roots in the community, so they are here for the long haul,” he says. “When you have access to expertise like this, it makes sense not to replace it with technology. “On the other hand, machinery makes for faster and safer work in the mill, so we use it wherever it makes sense. Right now, I think we’ve got the mix just right.”
That mix reflects Eddie’s belief in having a long-term business strategy and maintaining a good workforce. Combined with his efforts to ensure a reliable wood supply and to seek new markets wherever possible, it explains why Lavern Heideman & Sons has weathered the economic recession, and is poised to stay in business for many years to come.