Doing Less with More
By Bill Tice
At most sawmills these days, operators and owners are trying to do more with less. But at Sexton Lumber near Bloomfield, N.L., the management team is taking a different approach, and it’s paying off in big ways.
“Until about a year ago, we were a one-line mill and we were running that one line hard and fast on one shift per day,” explains owner Kevin Sexton. “Log supply has always been an issue for us, which is why we have traditionally only operated on one shift, but when the AbitibiBowater pulp and paper mill in Grand Falls, N.L., closed down in 2009, the provincial government took back its timber and that resulted in more logs being available to us and other companies.”
With a bigger potential log supply on tap, most mills would have just added that second shift, but Sexton and his team had other ideas. “We sat down and had a good hard look at the situation as we simply didn’t want the added cost and the wear and tear on our existing machine of an extra shift,” he explains. “Instead, we looked at adding a second breakdown machine, while still staying on one shift.”
By the time they had finished crunching the numbers, Sexton, his wife and business partner Susan, and the mill’s controller Neil Greening, had determined that the mill had enough extra debarking and lumber capacity to produce an additional 80,000 board feet of lumber per shift over what they were doing, and that was without spending any additional capital. “However, our single breakdown machine was running at full capacity, which is 550 fpm, so even though we had that extra debarking and lumber capacity, we couldn’t squeeze any more out of the breakdown line,” explains Greening, whom Kevin affectionately calls the “Finance Minister” for his cool, calm and collective way of looking at the mill’s economics. “That’s when we determined that if we added a second breakdown line and ran both the old line and the new line at slower speeds, we could easily pick up that extra 80,000 board feet per shift, while only adding one man to the crew.”
Kevin was all for the idea. “With only one extra crew member and using the existing infeed, debarkers, trimmers, sorters and stackers, that extra 80,000 feet per shift would be the least expensive lumber we have ever produced,” he explains. “We didn’t even have to add an extra forklift.”
Making it Happen
Armed with their reports and figures, the “Finance Minister” called in Rock Fournier, HewSaw North America’s local capital representative for the region, and explained what they wanted to achieve. The existing machine at Sexton Lumber was a HewSaw R200 and Kevin wanted the second breakdown machine also to be a HewSaw so that they could take advantage of some synergies, such as maintaining a smaller parts inventory and having crews that could easily switch between lines. By the time they were finished, Sexton Lumber was expecting delivery of a second R200, this one equipped with edging capability.
“Rock did a great job for us,” adds Greening, who really appreciated the fact that they did not lose any production time due to the installation of the new HewSaw line. “He was able to get us what we wanted at the price we wanted, and he was around to support us through much of the installation process, most of which we did ourselves to keep the cost down. We couldn’t lose any production time due to the installation, as we needed to keep our cash flow moving. We even did the main electrical connections on a weekend, and at the end of the day, we didn’t lose one hour of production time.”
Greening says they always knew the second line would be good for the mill, but it wasn’t until after they started running the side-by-side lines that they realized some of the positive impacts of being able to run slower. “With our capacities, after we installed the second machine, we could have continued to run one line at full speed and one line at 30%, but instead, we went from running 550 fpm on one line to running around 300 fpm on each of two lines,” he explains. “This has really improved our uptime.”
Kevin concurs. “We are experiencing far less breakage, fewer saw problems and more logs per minute,” he says. “Between the two lines, we get 50 logs per minute with a bigger gap. Before, we were running 23 logs per minute on the one machine because we had to factor in for the breakage and other issues related to running at full speed. Plus, with two machines, if we do have an issue on one machine, we can direct all of the logs to the other machine while we fix it. That keeps the rest of the mill running while we solve the problem.”
New Planer Gear
The decision to add the second HewSaw line was made just a little easier for Sexton Lumber’s management team due to a major planer mill upgrade they finished in early 2010. With the major overhaul of the planer already completed and proven, they knew any increase in sawmill production wouldn’t hit a bottleneck at the facility’s planer mill.
The core of the planer mill is a Stetson Ross 20-knife planer that was installed in the early 2000s after a fire destroyed the mill’s original Yates planer. The latest planer mill rebuild, which was primarily completed over the Christmas 2009 holidays, was what Kevin calls “a complete rebuild” as the only thing remaining from the old planer mill was the infeed, the Stetson Ross planer and the trimmers. “Everything else was removed,” Kevin explains. “We put in a new sorter, a new stacker, a new lug loader and a new automatic wane-up system from Carbotech with VAB optimization on it.”
Kevin is particularly proud of the mill’s wane-up system and says they were the first mill in Atlantic Canada to install this type of technology. “It turns every piece of lumber so that the wane side is up, which of course improves our recovery,” he says. “It allows us to take the smallest amount possible off the bottom of the board and a little more off the top, which removes the wane. Turning the boards manually, we could only get wane-up about 60% of the time and after we saw this system in a mill test, it was a must for us.”
The wane-up system works by speeding up the boards to the back of the previous lug where they are turned if necessary by flags that come out through the chains. The low relative speed of these flags compared to the chains provides smooth turning with no risk of marking or overturning the pieces.
The planer mill also received a new VAB optimizer before the trim saws. “It basically does everything,” says Kevin. “When we put it in a year and a half ago, we became the first planer mill in the Maritimes that was 100% graderless. Our grading stations are now gone. There is nothing there.”
Today’s mill flow at Sexton Lumber starts in the log yard where incoming logging trucks filled with cut-to-length wood are unloaded by a Caterpillar 325 butt-n-top and a Liebherr 924. Both machines can move the logs to inventory, but Kevin says they try to hot load the mill when possible to minimize log handling. From the infeed deck, the logs are processed through one of two 17-inch VK debarkers and then a Prologic+ 3-D log scanner with optimization, which determines the best breakdown scenario and sorts the logs by sawing patterns, before sending them to one of eight sort bins. From the bins, the logs are fed onto a deck that is positioned just before the two side-by-side HewSaw breakdown lines. “Normally, we feed both machines from the same bin unless we have a sort with edging, and then we will put those logs to the new HewSaw because of its edging capability,” notes Kevin.
Another Prologic+ 3-D scanner on each of the two lines determines log rotation, which is then handled by a PHL log turner on the older HewSaw, while the new HewSaw line is equipped with HewSaw “Log-In” log rotation. Boards from both HewSaw lines converge on a common sort table prior to going trough an Autolog trimmer optimizer, a Carbotech trimmer, a Carabotech 12-bin sorting tray system and a Carbotech stacker with auto stick placement.
From the sawmill, the packages are delivered to one of four Wellons double track dry kilns, which are all biomass powered by a Wellons energy system
using planer shavings.
Following the kilns, packages are loaded into the planer with a TS Manufacturing tilt hoist, which feeds a Carbotech electronic lug loader that is capable of handling multiple lengths and sizes and is equipped with pneumatic actuators to independently control the stopping, loading and support of each board. From the lug loader, all product goes through the Carbotech wane-up system with VAB optimization prior to the Stetson Ross planer. Following the planer, a VAB linear optimizer scans the boards and a bar code is printed on every piece of lumber. This barcode is read further down the line and provides information that determines decisions on positioning, trimming, grading and sorting. This is the part of the planer mill where Kevin says they are now graderless. “We have one person at the tilt hoist and we have one person at the stacker and nobody in between,” he says.
Just before the Carbotech 18-bin sorter, a pair of trimmers from TS Manufacturing are positioned in tandem, providing the mill with the ability to produce studs in six different trim lengths. A TS Manufacturing stacker is positioned after the bin sorter and then a manual strap and wrap station completes the production process.
The mill also produces about 54,000 green tonnes of chips annually, which Kevin says are shipped to Kruger’s Corner Brook Pulp and Paper in Corner Brook, N.L. The Kruger mill also purchases most of the mill’s hog fuel, with the exception of a small amount that is sold locally to farmers for livestock bedding. It’s a fairly long haul to Corner Brook – almost six hours, and 500 kilometres each way, but Susan Sexton, who handles most of the trucking co-ordination, says they can just do the return trip within the Transport Canada guidelines for one driver. “It makes for a long day, but with the paper mill closures we have had in Newfoundland, they are the only market for our chips on the island,” she explains.
Although being on an island has limited markets for Sexton Lumber’s chips, Kevin says it has turned out to be a positive thing for the mill’s lumber sales. Eastern Newfoundland’s economy is booming due to the offshore oil industry and mining, and home building in the St. John’s area is growing at a rapid rate. “There is a real competitive advantage for us to be producing and selling lumber in Newfoundland,” he says. “ With housing along the east coast of the island booming, we can get our lumber to that market for far less than our competitors that have to ship it onto the island. We don’t know how long this is going to last, but we will take it while it does. For us, the Newfoundland market took off just as the U.S. market went into the tank.”
Five years ago, Kevin says 20% of their lumber would have stayed in Newfoundland. Today, he says that number is closer to 60%. The next largest market for the mill is New Brunswick, which consumes about 25% of the mill’s production, followed by the U.S. Northeast, which now takes about 15% of Sexton Lumber’s production. For this year, the mill is targeting 60 million board feet of production on one shift.
Looking forward, Kevin says they hope the worst is over for the lumber business and better days are ahead. “We are proud to be able to say we have survived and even expanded in some of the worst economic conditions we are ever going to see in the sawmill business,” he notes. “I have to say, a big part of our success has been reinvesting capital into the mill and investing in the latest and greatest technologies. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been good for us.”
Sometimes, doing less with more can pay off.