Building returns: Resolute’s newest mill faces challenges and successes
June 12, 2017 - Gilles Plante, general superintendent of the newly opened Resolute Forest Products Atikokan sawmill in northwestern Ontario, has plans for the future of his mill: to be the best.
By Maria Church
The former Quebecer, who transplanted to the sawmill in January 2016, says he wants to see Atikokan sawmill outshine Resolute’s other mills; not just in Ontario but across the company.
“My challenge is to be Resolute’s No. 1 mill. I think we can achieve that,” Plante says during Canadian Forest Industries’ tour of the new mill. “We are proud and we are focusing on being the best sawmill in the company. I want to beat my buddies in Quebec!”
Situated a half-hour drive east of the small town of Atikokan, 200 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, the sawmill began lumber production in the summer of 2015 after an accelerated 13-month build. The chosen site was a former Buchanan Forest Products’ AFP mill, but Resolute began fresh by levelling out a new portion of land to accommodate a larger operation that would house a sawmill and planer mill under one roof.
The new mill was the most significant element to an almost $100 million sawmill-investment plan by Resolute in northwest Ontario. Resolute is the largest forest products company in Eastern Canada. The company has several other operations in the area, including a pulp mill, paper mill, cogeneration plant, sawmill and a pellet mill in Thunder Bay, and a recently reopened sawmill in Ignace – 250 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay.
Much of the mill’s sawline equipment was brought over from Resolute’s former Oak Hill sawmill in Nova Scotia, which closed in 2012. Built in a brand-new 220×40-foot building, the mill is a single-line 16-foot sawline that is almost entirely supplied by Comact, including the new TBL-3 curve sawing gang edger with a 10-inch arbour, which allows them to produce 2×3 2×4 2×6 and 2×10 boards.
The mill’s two infeed decks lead to two Nicholson debarkers for 17-inch and 22-inch logs. From there the logs are separated into three sort bins for large, medium and small sorts. A Comact scanner picks up the shape and defects in the log before a double log turner and canter quad, followed by the TBL-3.
Resolute also invested in new material handling equipment purchased from Fabmec, a dust collection system acquired new from Rodrigue Metal and a natural gas kiln supplied by Wellons. A second natural gas kiln was moved from Oak Hill, upgraded and installed by Wellons. A stacker, strip system and Samuel strapper were repurposed from closed Resolute mills in Nova Scotia and Quebec. A CAE chipper on site supplies high-quality wood chips for Resolute’s pulp mill in Thunder Bay.
In the saw filing room are several Vollmer machines, as well as a new Kirschner LKX automated brazing machine from Scies BGR Saws. The Kirschner machine automatically removes and brazes carbide tips and features a pyrometer temperature control system, annealing system, and a vibration-free sorting system that uses laser optics to recognize carbide tips.
On the planer side, which runs under the same roof as the sawmill, Resolute purchased new a complete high-speed planer line, which was supplied entirely by USNR save for a Comact GradExpert scanner. The planer mill opened in April 2015, a few months before the sawmill was up and running. The planer also receives wood from Resolute’s Ignace 9-foot stud lumber sawmill located 165 kilometres north of Atikokan.
The bulk of Atikokan’s boards are hauled from the mill to the town of Atikokan where they are loaded onto rail and sent to U.S. markets.
Finding the workforce
The mill operates with two 9.5-hour shifts a day, with a 2.5-hour gap between shifts for maintenance. The sawmill’s 2016 production output is short of its 150 mmbft target.
“We’re encouraged by our steady progression in log counts per shift, but we’re not where we need to be,” says Michael Martel, vice-president of forest products operations for Resolute in Ontario and Quebec. “The ramp up is longer than anticipated, primarily due to challenges around the availability of people and logs.”
The sawmill employs about 90 staff, maintenance and operations members, most of whom are from Atikokan or have relocated there. Some employees are fly-in from other towns or cities.
The town has seen an employment boom over the past few years with the reopening of the Ontario Power Generation plant after a two-year conversion project from coal to wood pellets in 2014. California-based Rentech opened a wood pellet operation nearby around the same time. The result is that the 2,400-person town is drained of employee capacity, which has been one of the main challenges for the sawmill.
“We’re finding that the staff who are hired not from town aren’t as likely to stay long term,” says Scott Manford, Atikokan’s health and safety superintendent and an Atikokan local. “To get people to commit themselves to spending the next 15 years here is very difficult.”
Median age of the mill staff is much lower here than at Resolute’s other mills – somewhere around 35. For some of the operations employees this is their first job or first job in an industrial environment, so training needs to be extra thorough and Resolute’s standard safety protocols drilled in, Martel says. When it comes to skilled tradespeople, the mill faces the same challenges as many industry operation across the country.
“It’s very competitive in Canada for skilled electricians, optimization people, millwrights, saw filers, you name it, so we’re all challenged to find those same skilled workers with an aging workforce,” Martel says. “Quite frankly there has not been enough emphasis on the need for trades development. We haven’t valued it in Canada to the extent that we should have.”
To help tackle the worker shortage in trades and operations alike, Resolute is reaching out directly to the Town of Atikokan and to nearby First Nations communities. The company has partnered with Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ont., and Confederation College in Thunder Bay to train First Nations students as apprentices with the goal of them working for a mill near their hometowns.
“We have three recent First Nations apprentices that went to Cambrian College, who will be employed this spring,” Martel says. “Our plan is to have another intake of students starting in 2017 at Confederation College, with 10, I believe.”
All yard work on site is contracted out to Dallan Forestry LP, a 100 per cent Aboriginal-owned partnership between Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation, Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation and Dale Levesque, a member of the Fort William First Nation. Dallan also provides mill yard services for Resolute’s Thunder Bay and Ignace sawmills and Thunder Bay pulp and paper operation.
Manford hopes part of the draw for people will be the sawmill’s safety culture – a Resolute standard for its mills. Last November, Atikokan marked 365 days without a recordable injury. “We want everyone to go home safe every day,” Manford says. “You come to work, you do your job, you do it safely, and you go home and enjoy life. That’s the mentality we want.”
Atikokan’s wood is supplied by about 10 logging contractors that harvest from Resolute’s Atikokan and Ignace woodlands, all within an average 187-kilometre radius of the sawmill. The sawmill’s wood mix is mainly spruce and jack pine, and the average target log size coming into the mill is 0.17 m3 per log.
Fibre supply has been an ongoing challenge, with logging contractors facing similar employment shortages and with harvest areas often hundreds of kilometres away from the mill. This past fall was particularly challenging for the contractors that were dealing with extended fall weather. The ground was not yet frozen in December.
Challenges for contractors mean challenges for the sawmill, and for Atikokan it meant a shortage of log supply on hand since start-up.
“Helping our woodland contractors achieve and working to increase the capacity of the woodlands operations is very important,” Martel says. “We have had to bring in contractors from Quebec to augment the local business community.”
To help on the employment side, Resolute developed a web-based tool to make people aware of employment opportunities with logging companies. Interested parties submit their resumes to Resolute, and the company then pushes those out into the contractor community.
“We’re taking a more hands-on approach to connecting the potential labour force with the employers, recognizing that they have a variety of skills and limited time – these are very busy entrepreneurs – to be able to dedicate to that,” Martel says.
For Resolute, the relationships its people are creating – whether it’s with First Nations partners, logging contractors or municipal partners – are what will help the company overcome challenges and build returns.