Dynamic operations: Ben Hokum & Son bets big on optimization
By Ellen Cools
Four hours northeast of Toronto in Killaloe, Ont., Ben Hokum & Son Ltd. has been making some big changes to optimize their operations.
The family-owned company has been one of the largest producers of white and red pine products in the region since 1956, when Ben Hokum Sr. and his son, Ben Hokum Jr., started the company with a circular headrig.
In 1974, the circular headrig was replaced by a band mill with a carriage. Then, in 1993, Ben Hokum Jr. built a second sawmill in Killaloe and repurposed the band mill to run logs 10 inches or larger, cutting 14 mmbf per year. The second sawmill was built to handle small diameter logs under 10 inches, using entirely conventional equipment, cutting 45,000 feet per day in one shift. Between the two mills, the company was cutting around 24 mmbf per year.
In 1998, Ben Hokum & Son decided to invest in a new Sawquip automated small log mount line with an automatic trimmer, 60-bin sorter and a stacker to reduce their costs. The small log sawmill built in 1993 was shut down, and production on a daily basis doubled through the new small log line.
Fast forward to 2015: Dean Felhaber, Ben Hokum Jr.’s oldest grandson, bought the company out from his grandparents. In 2016, he began planning a number of modernization projects.
“I decided that we needed to make some further investments to bring our production costs down, particularly in the medium-sized sawlog, which we get quite a volume of,” Felhaber explains.
Originally, the company planned to replace the big log line. But, because a lot of the company’s white pine lumber is air-dried, they realized that increasing the volume of wood that would go through this sawmill would result in a bottleneck at the grading and shipping departments.
Instead, they chose to reduce the big log line to one shift and do some upgrades, including installing a new carriage built in-house in their machinery shop, North American Sawmills, with new optimization software from Welk Electric. They also added a new PHL resaw and replaced the original boardway with a new one from Combermere, Ont.-based TruWay Machinery.
Most of the company’s efforts, however, were focused on upgrading their small log sawmill to run larger logs. After some brainstorming, they decided they would replace the main sawline with highly automated equipment that can take logs up to 17 inches in diameter on the butt end, and saw lumber up to 12 inches wide, compared to eight inches wide on the previous line. This would drastically reduce the number of logs going through the big log mill.
But to accommodate the new small log line, the company first had to expand its existing mill building from 18,000 square feet to 28,000 square feet.
This was completed in 2018. The Sawquip sawline that was installed in 1998 continued running until September that year, when they shut it down to remove the old sawline and install the new one from PHL (owned by BID Group). By Nov. 13, the mill was back up and running. To complete the project, 60 tradesmen worked day and night during that time. Ben Hokum & Son did the project management, working with the main contractors.
The new sawline includes a new wave feeder with a gap control system that allows operators to control piece count and spacing between every log going through the line. The logs then go to a True Shape 3D scanner from BID Group ahead of a flying log turner, where they are automatically rotated based on the solution provided by BID Group optimization software and controls.
Thanks to the scanner and optimization software, the mill can choose the best sizes to saw from each log based on dollar value. The data from each log and sawing pattern are retained for future use, such as running “what if” scenarios through the simulator section of the software, Felhaber explains.
The logs then go to a set of canter heads, followed by some very unique quad saws.
“There’s only three of them that have been built in the world,” Felhaber says. “The difference with these quads versus the conventional quads is that we’ve provided four feet of space between the two bandmills and we have some side rollers in between to hold that cant as it goes through the saws.”
This helps hold the shorter logs steady, resulting in more uniform lumber from all four bandmills, he adds.
The two-sided cants then head through a second scanner and a positioning system ahead of a canter gang. Then the lumber goes through a custom-built double-arbor 12-inch gang saw from Comact, which has two clusters of saws. Each cluster can be set for each individual log, depending on what pattern needs to be sawn out. The saws along the centre on both sides of the cluster are telescopic and also shift.
“When we’re sawing white pine, we have a wide variety of thicknesses and widths that we have to produce in the same run, and this gang allows us to do that with three variable pieces out of every log,” Felhaber explains.
The company also installed a fully optimized board edger with the infeed to replace two manual edgers. The board edger also includes new Autolog scanning and optimization controls.
All of the new motors on the line nearly doubled the mill’s electrical load. As a result, Ben Hokum & Son built a second electrical room and bought a larger transformer. All electrical work was done by Welk Electric.
But they didn’t stop there. They also worked with Carbotech to build a new lug loader to feed the sawmill’s mix of lumber and timbers into their existing trimmer and sorter line.
“This is a very unique lug loader because we saw a lot of red pine timbers – we’re the largest producer of 4×4 and 6×6 timbers for the pressure treating business in Ontario,” Felhaber explains. “So, the lug loader had to be capable of loading these big 6x6s into lugs to feed into the line. We had a number of challenges with it, but we’ve got those all ironed out and it’s working very well now.”
Now, in just one shift, the new sawmill processes around 7,000 logs. Despite dropping the night shift at the big log mill, the company’s annual production capacity has increased 20 per cent from 33 mmbf to 40 mmbf per year, thanks to these upgrades.
The next phases
Yet this was only phase one of four for Ben Hokum & Son. The second phase was the installation of a new grading line for their white pine products, which began in 2019 with the construction of a new 18,000 square foot building to house it.
The company worked with Carbotech and Autolog to build the line, consisting of an automatic trimmer, a 25-bin sorter and a unique packaging system designed by Carbotech engineers.
The packaging system is unique because in pine markets, many of the bundles are packaged at random lengths, from six to 16 feet. When this is done by hand, it’s easy enough to splice six- and eight-foot pieces end-for-end in a 16-foot package, Felhaber says. But doing so mechanically “takes a bit of ingenuity.”
The solution to this problem was a staging and tray system where the lumber lengths are scanned, and an optimizer stages tiers of lumber before it goes to the stacker. The lumber is then packaged either in random lengths or one length per unit, depending on what the market calls for, Felhaber explains.
“We designed it so it would be able to do everything that we were doing before in the grading shed by hand, but a lot quicker,” he says. “We designed that line to process, in a nine-and-a-half-hour shift, 11,000 pieces per shift of whatever size we’re grading, and we’re actually hitting up to as many as 16,000 pieces, so it’s outperforming even what we expected it would do.”
The project was completed in October 2019, and Felhaber says it worked fairly well right from the start.
The next phase of the plan is to install dry kilns in 2021 and then a new planer in 2022.
‘Like nothing we’ve ever seen’
These upgrades would not have been possible without funding from the Ontario government. In 2016, Ben Hokum & Son applied for funding through the Jobs and Prosperity Fund. Ultimately, they received $5.5 million over five years to help execute their four-phase business plan, create five new jobs and support the company’s 95 employees.
“The way the program works is there are milestones within the contract that we have to reach after the five years. Once those are reached, the government will grant up to 50 per cent of the loan back to us, and then the remaining amount is repaid as a loan with a favourable interest rate,” Felhaber explains. “It was a great help to leverage the financing that we needed to cover the additional expansion.”
All told, the company has invested $22 million in the first two phases of upgrades. The optimization they have done so far is “like nothing we’ve ever seen before in the pine market,” Felhaber says.
“We’re getting very good recovery out of all of our logs, so we’re utilizing our fibre to the very best that we can, and we’re able to get feedback instantaneously on many different factors within the sawmill. It gives us a whole lot of control over the line, like never before. So, we’re very happy with it.”
Today, the mills produce a range of products, including custom orders. In white pine, they produce four-quarter, five-quarter, six-quarter and eight-quarter products, four to 12 inches wide and six to 16 feet long. Approximately 15-20 per cent of the company’s white pine is sold green to distributors who supply the big-end box stores.
In red pine, they produce 4×4, 6×6, 6×8 and 8×8 timbers for the pressure treating market, as well as one-inch lumber for the industrial and flooring markets. They also produce sawdust and chips for the Roseburg Forest Products MDF plant in Pembroke, Ont., and haul chips to the Kerry Foods plant in Renfrew, Ont., Domtar’s pulp and paper plant in Espanola, Ont., Unibord’s plant in Mont-Laurier, Que., and to Papier Masson in Masson-Angers, Que.
The equipment upgrades will help Ben Hokum & Son continue to bring their products to the Ontario and Quebec markets, as well as to the Middle East and the U.S.
Currently, the pressure treating market for their red pine products is strong, thanks to the boom in home improvement projects caused by COVID-19 and the strong housing market, Felhaber says.
The right direction
Unlike many sawmills in the western provinces, Ben Hokum & Son hasn’t faced any challenges when it comes to fibre supply. The company is the largest Crown timber license holder in the Ottawa Valley Forest, and has timberland in the Westwind Forest and the Bancroft Minden Forest. They also get some fibre from the Algonquin Forest Authority, and bid on many of the surrounding counties’ red pine plantation tenders.
To harvest these areas, they contract a number of loggers, specifically in plantations and in mixed forests. They also buy wood on the open market and from other Crown license holders, and trade logs of the species they don’t saw for the species they do saw.
Felhaber also has some experience on the other side of the coin; since 2004, Ben Hokum & Son has run their own harvesting crews, with a John Deere harvester with a Waratah head and a Tigercat 14-tonne forwarder.
The company uses eight Western Star trucks to haul the logs and chips, as well as other contractors in the area.
The stable supply of fibre, strong markets and the sawmill upgrades have put Ben Hokum & Son is in a favourable position for the next five to 10 years, Felhaber says.
However, Felhaber admits he would like to see more users for low-grade pulpwood in the area.
“We’re very interested in getting involved in whatever that new project would be to utilize that low-grade wood because we’ve got an excess amount of it within our region. Our markets for that low-grade pulpwood are few and they’re at a distance, so it’s just marginally economical to haul to those markets,” he says.
Regardless, Felhaber believes things are going in the right direction for his company and the industry.
“I look forward to the future and what changes we may see coming forward and making improvements along the way,” he says.