By Bill Tice
For about 150 employees at the Canfor sawmill in Quesnel, B.C., China has been a lifesaver. Canfor shut down the dimension lumber mill in January 2010 due to poor market conditions in North America, but re-opened the facility just a few months later after they secured a major business deal with a large customer in China.
|The Canfor Quesnel sawmill features two identical side-by-side Comact DDM6 primary breakdown lines.|
“Prior to the shutdown, this mill was producing 2X4 and 2X6 products up to 16 ft. in length and primarily for the North American market,” says Dan Alexander, Canfor’s general
manager, Quesnel Division. “We had to shut down because the markets were terrible and, quite simply, our costs exceeded our revenues.”
Alexander, who has been in charge of the Quesnel mill for four years, says the decision to restart the mill was made in June 2010 after the company’s Wood Products Marketing group in Vancouver procured the Chinese customer, who wanted custom cut and metric sized products to a maximum of four metres
“That first customer got us started and we cut exclusively for them until October of last year,” explains Alexander. “Since then, we have broadened our scope and we now sell to a variety of customers in China through Canfor’s sales offices in Shanghai and Vancouver.”
Alexander says one of the main reasons the Quesnel mill was chosen as a key supplier to the market in China was its diet of almost 100% Mountain Pine Beetle (MPB) affected logs. “At this mill we specialize in producing lumber from MPB logs and for our market in China, the lumber is heat treated rather than kiln dried so the low moisture content of the MPB logs works well for this process,” he explains.
The mill’s main supply of MPB logs comes from within about a 150-kilometre radius of the mill and most of it has been dead for about 10 years or longer. Alexander says this wood is still usable for the products they produce, but he adds that some of the characteristics of the MPB wood make producing high-grade lumber from it difficult.
As the lumber being shipped from the Quesnel mill to China is heat treated rather than kiln dried, it requires a Phytosanitary Certificate, which is an official document issued by the plant protection organization of the exporting country (in this case it is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada), to the plant protection organization of the importing country. The Phytosanitary Certificate certifies that the lumber has been heat treated for the amount of time required to eliminate pests and fungi and will conform to the standards as set by the authorities in China. The mill works with an independent grading agency – Canadian Mill Services, which also handles grading certification for the Quesnel mill. Alexander says they don’t grade to North American standards and the product goes to China as “mixed grades.”
|The Canfor Quesnel mill produces about 230 million bd. ft. on an annual basis, all for the market in China.|
Apart from adapting to new grading standards, Alexander says the mill staff didn’t have to do much to get the mill to the point where it could produce the required products. “We had to change our trimming configuration so that we could handle the metric lengths and we altered our saw spacing slightly to deal with the metric widths, but we didn’t have to make any other major changes,” he says. “We did reprogram our controls to optimize for metric products, but we were able to do that in house.”
For the Quesnel crews, Alexander says it was more a case of modifying the manufacturing process to deal with the diet of 100% MPB logs than changing the mill configuration to make the products required for the markets in China. “We had to make some changes that would allow us to deal with the characteristics of MPB logs, including dry wood and checked wood,” he explains. “We needed to minimize the breakage during the handling process as broken pieces can interrupt the mill flow significantly. We did this by modifying many of our conveyors and transfer chains and by directing any broken pieces to waste conveyors, which go to our chipper.”
Although the Quesnel mill has produced up to 375 million board feet annually in past years, that was on a three-shift basis. Today, they run two shifts, four days per week and produce about 230 million bd. ft. on an annual basis. The first shift starts at 6 a.m. and the second shift finishes at 3:30 a.m. the next day. Half an hour is scheduled between the shifts for minor maintenance with major maintenance performed on the days off.
Mill flow starts in the log yard where two Caterpillar rubber-tire butt-n-top loaders deck log inventory and a third feeds three infeed decks designed to handle cut-to-length (CTL) logs. Three older model Valon Kone Kodiak debarkers are next in the process, including two 22-inch models and one 17-inch model. The debarked logs go to one of four log-sorting pockets (bins), where they are sorted by diameter. From the pockets, the sorted logs are fed to one of two identical Comact DDM6 primary breakdown lines, which are equipped with quad saws. Side boards go to a Newnes edger with Comact optimization, while everything else goes to a Comact multi-saw trimmer. The line also features an NMI in-line moisture meter while an older model Comact sorter and stacker rounds out the sawmill portion of the process.
Once the lumber packages exit the sawmill, they are taken to one of the mill’s four dry kilns, which are all Wellons double-track gas-fired models. Alexander stresses that the lumber is not kiln dried in the kilns, but is heat treated. “We bring the kilns up to the desired temperature and then we hold that temperature for a specified duration of time,” he explains. “What we are really looking at is the internal temperature of the lumber as that is what is important in the heat treating process.”
Once the heat treating process is completed, the packages are delivered to the planer mill, which is equipped with two infeeds and two planers – a Stetson Ross model and a Coastal model. Both planer lines run parallel to each other and then converge to one line, which is equipped with a lug loader that feeds a grading table where the products are assessed and marked for trimming with a multi-saw trimmer. The planer mill has one older model J-bar sorter and two older model stackers. The primary product goes straight from the multi-saw trimmer to one of the stackers, while other products are sorted in the J-bar sorter before going to a stacker. Both stackers come together at a single bander and then all packages are wrapped before being loaded directly onto a railcar or put into inventory for shipping at a later date.
All products leaving the Quesnel mill go out on centre beam railcars, which head 120 kilometres north to the CN container-loading terminal in Prince George. The lumber is then transferred to containers, which are put on another train that goes to the container port in Prince Rupert, B.C. Here, the containers are transferred to ocean-going ships for the journey to China.
Any waste from the lumber manufacturing process is used for chips in the pulp and paper process or for other secondary uses. Alexander explains that Canfor Pulp owns the chips and they use some at Canfor’s pulp mills and trade some with other pulp producers. They also sell sawdust and shavings to West Fraser Timber, where it is used for medium density fibreboard (MDF) at the plant in Quesnel or sold to pellet producers. “We don’t send anything out of here that hasn’t been manufactured into a usable product,” adds Alexander, who has been around the lumber business for 36 years and has worked for Rustad Bros., Northwood and Weldwood in addition to his tenure at Canfor’s Quesnel mill.
When asked about the specifics of the end products going to China, Alexander smiles coyly before explaining that they prefer to keep specific product information to themselves for competitive reasons, but he did say he could reveal that most of the product from the Quesnel mill is used in concrete forming products and as blanks for remanufacturing. “Nothing goes rough,” he adds. “All of the products we ship are sized through the planer mill.”
He does explain that the metric lumber lengths produced at the mill are similar to the 8 ft., 10 ft. and 12 ft. lengths they used to produce for the North American market plus the 4 m and that the metric dimensions are similar to 2X4 and 2X6.
|Products produced at Canfor Quesnel are shipped by train to Prince George, where they are containerized before
going to the Port of Prince Rupert and eventually to China.
As for quality control, Alexander says their main customer in China has an office in Vancouver and they visit the mill often. “We try to meet with them monthly to ensure that we are meeting their needs and that the products we are producing for them are consistent with their expectations,” he notes. “The key is our direct working relationship with the customers and having them continually look at the product on site and before it gets into the
Canfor’s Quesnel mill is the only operation in the company that is solely dedicated to the market in China at this time. Alexander says most of the other Canfor western Canadian mills produce products for China in addition to their more traditional sizes and grades, but they are not exclusive to the one geographic market. “The bug-killed timber works well for our customers and we specialize in processing bug-killed wood and we are good at it,” he concludes. 150 back-to-work employees won’t argue with him on that.