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Editorial: Re-writing the game

When is it “broken” enough to warrant an overhaul?

August 19, 2019  By  Maria Church

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

We know there’s wisdom in these words. The effort to improve something is not always worth the return. On the other hand, it may be just another way of saying one of the most dangerous phrases in any company or industry: That’s how it’s always been done.

In our era of rapid, sometimes staggering technology advancement, companies that rest on the way things have always been done are in danger of being left behind. The key is seeing (or hiring the right people to see) where the current ways need to become the old ways.

The new way is not always a shiny new machine. Sometimes the entire system needs to be rethought.


That was the conclusion Western Forest Products (WFP) came to not long ago when they decided to challenge the model of saw filing rooms in every sawmill. Why not centralize filing for their seven Vancouver Island sawmills?

Our filing columnist and regular contributor, Trevor Shpeley, says the idea of a centralized filing room for several mills has been around for a while, but many are skeptical about its viability given basic logistical challenges. And, let’s not forget, it’s simply not the way things have always been done. Until WFP re-wrote the game, that is.

WFP’s general manager of manufacturing, Derek Haupt, and newly appointed saw filing superintendent, Neil Morris, led the charge to open the company’s centralized saw filing room at the Saltair Sawmill in Ladysmith, B.C. Shpeley drove out to visit Haupt and Morris in late May and get a sense of just how well the centralized system works for the Coastal lumber manufacturer. I’ll leave it to Trevor to fill you in on exactly how the company handled the logistics, and what they’re reaping for their efforts, here.

My takeaway, as a filing layperson, is more philosophical. As far as I can tell, nothing about WFP’s sawfiling operations was technically broken, and yet the company still chose to rethink how they went about it. How they’d always done things wasn’t good enough anymore.

Their main challenge is one we hear about often in the industry: there’s not enough skilled tradespeople. Centralization was their solution. Not only does that limit the number of required filers, the new filing room is stocked with the latest in robotics and automation, which will no doubt attract new tech-savvy would-be filers to the profession.

We know centralization is not going to work for everyone. Entire provinces separate some companies’ mills, making transportation costs insurmountable. Other mills have too many products to allow for standardized saws. But the point remains that WFP proved a centralized saw filing shop can effectively standardize saw quality and significantly reduce equipment costs. The way is paved for other lumber producers to explore centralization techniques for their mills.

And, more importantly, WFP reminds us that thinking outside the box can have enormous rewards with minimal costs.

These efficiencies are more important than ever for the B.C. sawmilling sector. We’ve all been watching closely as mill after mill in B.C. announced temporary or indefinite curtailments in the spring and early summer. At my last count in mid-July, the list of closures included four sawmills (Canfor Vavenby, Canfor Mackenzie, Tolko Quesnel, and West Fraser Chasm) and two OSB mills (Norbord 100 Mile House and Louisiana-Pacific Fort St. John). Many more mills have seen permanent shift reductions and/or temporary closures.

Recently, FEA Canada’s Russ Taylor shared highlights from the Global Softwood Log and Lumber Conference this past spring, breaking down the recent short-term impacts that have led to “unbalanced market conditions.” Read his take on the situation and look for up-to-the-minute market news and commentary on our website, including weekly updates from Madison’s Lumber Reporter.

My hat’s off to WFP for challenging the status quo when it comes to saw filing. I expect we’ll see a lot more similar shakeups in the months or even years to come.

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