Fibre Factory Part 1 of 2
Leaving the comfort of my Comfort Inn at dawn, it’s clear the Vaagen Bros. sawmill is no typical western interior dimension mill. The two extended log sorting lines and the time-worn co-gen plant are my first clues. Yet, the differences go beyond these traces of Scandinavia in the yard.
By Scott Jamieson
The next clue comes over coffee, as I ask Russ Vaagen how business is going. The first words out of his mouth are all about chips. “We’re making 42 odd loads here a day (Colville, WA), and Usk adds 30 or more, so we’re doing all right, all things considered.”
At most sawmills, such talk might be a sign of the times. Lumber is after all a loss leader for many companies today, allowing the lucky mill to break even on residuals. At Vaagen, the attitude has deeper roots, and flows through the entire team.
“We don’t make residual chips or by-products,” explains fibre resource manager Josh Anderson. “We bring in so many metres of wood, and we target a certain percentage of our production to our different products – so much lumber, chips, shavings, sawdust, and hog. We treat all of them as products with value, and at the end of the day they make our total business.” You get the sense listening to Josh talk that if a new product stream came along, it would only be a matter of minutes before he had it lined up with the rest in his spreadsheet.
It’s not that the Vaagens aren’t serious lumber folk. Far from it. The mill is a showcase of high speed small-log efficiency for key suppliers like HewSaw and VK Brunette. The latter has even given the mill a plaque celebrating the “World’s fastest debarker.”
Lumber quality is central to the mill’s lumber marketing strategy, which often involves direct selling to clients that appreciate the value proposition of buying lumber that’s a little bit better, or stronger, than the average bundle. Use high-end lumber to build it right the first time, avoid claims, and be happy is the message the company’s sole salesman John Branstetter brings their better clients, and it seems to be working. Finally, the nature of the company’s single-pass lumber production strategy (they run only HewSaws at their two mills) means they make a high portion of square edge lumber.
No, high quality lumber has always been important at Vaagen Bros., a proud fourth generation sawmilling company that despite terrible markets will make 175 million bdft at its two single-line mills this year. It’s just that they don’t let it go to their heads. Lumber is just one of many important products the company makes from its local supply of small logs, an approach that has been a key to success over the years in dealing with what traditional western sawmillers still refer to as marginal material.
At this point in the conversation, current owner and third generation sawmiller Duane Vaagen pulls out a pie chart showing where a typical Vaagen Bros. log ends up, including shrinkage. It’s not the first time he’s explained the mill’s 100% resource utilization, that much is clear. Despite a jaw numb from an early morning dentist visit, his message is also clear – As a small-log specialist, lumber occupies less than half of the chart. Good as you get, the rest of the log ends as pulp chips, sawdust (panel plants), shavings (animal bedding), and today’s favourite, heat and power (hog fuel). So you might want to take that portion of the pie seriously. In a region with some of the highest log costs in the world, the Vaagens do.
For this reason, neither Duane nor Russ is shy to use the term “fibre factory” to explain what they do. They take in small logs, getting 100% recovery in some saleable product or other. This more often than not starts with the high-speed small-log sawlines, but the final mix of what leaves the “factory” depends on markets, transport costs, contracts, local landowners’ forest management needs, and long-term profitability. The rest, as they say, is detail.
In this case, that starts with the company’s two locations in Colville and Usk, WA. Colville is a good sized town just south of the BC Interior border, while Usk is about an hour away towards the Idaho panhandle, on curvy roads that make any motorcyclist drool. The company got its start in the Colville area, where Duane’s grandfather ran small mills over the years. Things got serious when Duane’s father Bert and his uncle Bud founded Vaagen Bros. Lumber Inc. in 1952.
“Dad was involved at an early age and stuck with it,” Russ says. “He was the passionate one of the next generation when it came to the sawmill, so he eventually took over.” Duane took some ownership when his father died in 1975, and then when Bud died in 1981 resumed full control after what Duane calls a “difficult transition”.
With Duane in control, the company in many ways took a familiar path for western sawmillers in those heady large-log days – acquisition, expansion, and good times through the 80s as markets and big timber were plentiful. In fact, a youthful, moustached Duane Vaagen adorned the cover of Timber Processing’s 1989 issue as that US publication’s first ever “Sawmiller of the Year.” He owned three large-log mills and had over 500 employees at the times. Yes, the future seemed bright.
Only it wasn’t. Along came the 1989-91 recession, the spotted owl debacle, federal timber withdrawals, and suddenly the good old days were just that. Like everyone in the Pacific Northwest, Vaagen Bros. was hit hard by these events. Harvests from the Colville National Forest went from 120 million bdft in 1989, not counting small logs, to less than 26 million almost overnight. Family mills vanished, and the Vaagens shut all but the main Colville location. Still, Duane had already put in place a plan to start changing the operation’s focus a few years earlier, a move that would eventually change the company’s business model and likely its fate, as he explains.
“I had been over to Finland in the 80s, and saw the mills there using small logs to make lumber, and quite efficiently for the time. I thought, ‘We have wood like this, and nobody is using it. Why not us?’ So in 1988/89, we added that first HewSaw, an R115 off to the side of the big lines, and made our start as small-log sawmillers.”
When it became clear in the early 90s that federal lands would be inaccessible for some time, Duane re-tooled and re-focused the business 100% as a small-log producer. He added a HewSaw R200 in 1995, removed the last of the large log lines, and in 1996 shut the original R115. The focus became feeding logs through that solitary HewSaw R200 at a pace even his suppliers said couldn’t be done. It has on days broken the one million bdft mark, although this year will likely produce 90 million bdft despite log shortages, poor markets, and reduced running hours.
Sorting it out
Today, production starts at Colville on those two Scandinavian sorting lines. The mill accepts both tree-length and CTL logs (35%), which enter the yard via an unmanned scale house. Logs are off-loaded by a massive P&H crane with Mack grapple. CTL logs go directly to a 16-bin sort line, where logs are scanned and sorted according to diameter. Tree-length material goes first through a Multimeg (Comact) transverse optimized bucking line, and then through a lineal Porter log scanner/sorter line. After a Finnish style log turntable puts logs tops first, the resulting 8 to 20 ft sections travel along a 30-bin sort line with a simple tipper mechanism to divert logs to batch feed sorts. Two of the bins are for rejects or pulp logs.
Batch fed logs go through a Linden Step Feeder which in turn feeds that “World’s Fastest Debarker”, a VK 550 triple-ring debarker (one for flare) that serves the entire mill. Running a wide range of species, including burnt and frozen wood, it runs at speeds to 650 fpm. From here logs go up another Linden Step Feeder, this time with Comact gap control. “Our goal is two feet gaps, but three feet is probably the average now,” Russ says of the 13-year-old sawline that runs at 570 fpm in smaller logs. Patterns range from two 2x4s on the small end up to two 2x6s and three 2x8s on the largest logs they take in.
Comact was also involved in the line’s add-on optimized log rotator. When the Vaagens were looking at rotators, HewSaw had just announced its now-proven log positioner (often sold with ProLogic+ optimization). It was too new for the Vaagens’ comfort level. “Comact had their system working well elsewhere, so we knew it worked. In fact that project remains the
fastest payback we’ve ever seen. We’re looking at adding a log positioner to the HewSaw R200 Plus we have at the Usk mill, which only has the banana-style infeed now, so the uplift potential is big. Space is an issue, but we’re looking at ways to make it work with ProLogic+ and HewSaw.”
Out of the HewSaw, lumber goes through a Hi-Tech Comact trimmer optimizer and Hemco (USNR) trimmer and into an older Hemco (USNR) sling sorter and stacker/sticker placer. The latter has been rebuilt, and is in the midst of another upgrade by local stacker supplier MoCo. Russ says they also have plans to add another stacker.
“We’re trucking in a lot of the green solid packed lumber from our Usk mill for drying and planing here, and in this market we’d like to do more of it. Also we’re working on a portable HewSaw project (trailer mounted design complete with barker and chip conveyor – to see a video of it running visit www.woodproductsonlineexpo.com/content.php/116/2515/hewsaw_mobile_sawmill.html) that could work areas that are too far away to truck the small logs, but where shipping out solid packed lumber makes sense. We’d bring that here for stickering and processing as well.”
The mill runs four double-track Coe kilns (188,000 bdft ea), with steam from its own biomass boiler-cogen system. While all the rage these days, Vaagen Bros. were ahead of the curve on this investment like so many others, having added it in the mid 1970s. Duane recalls it had little to do with fuel prices, and lots to do with being a good neighbour.
“There were two mills in town with wigwam burners, and depending on the species we were running it would smoke something awful. There’d be a haze over town, and you’d be at a ball game wondering which mill it was. It was embarrassing. Land filling it involved tipping fees, and there was talk of fines for excess smoke, so it got me thinking that there had to be a way to turn this into an asset.”
The result is a four-cell biomass burner rebuilt by Wellons and a 1950s vintage GE turbine that provides the mill with all its heat and steam needs, as well as a maximum 4.25 MW of power. The mill uses 2.5 MW, with the excess sold to the local utility, although of course the actual contract is more complicated (or less advantageous) than that.
The Colville mill dries and dresses some 135 million bdft/yr, and up until recently that was all done over two shifts in the original planer built in the mid 70s. Since 2005, however, that same volume is being done on a single shift in a fully optimized and automated planer mill. That starts with a skookum 24-knife Coastal (USNR) planer that whines through the lumber at over 3,000 fpm most of the time. “It gives a very nice finish on top of that,” Russ says as we walk the new line.
Close coupled to the planer outfeed is a new generation Metriguard MSR machine that takes readings each inch and a Wagner APEX moisture meter and control system, all tied to a bit of proprietary technology Vaagen helped to develop with western systems integrator Concept Systems. Now dubbed the Board Hound, the board tracking system starts by tagging each piece with an IR code.
Lumber is then slowed down on two offset wide belts before being singulated by a PLC lug loader that Russ says has worked very well. Boards are then scanned on the first FinScan Board Master colour grade scanner, turned on a PLC board turner, and then scanned on the second Board Master scanner to get readings on all four sides. The Board Hound hands off the MSR and moisture profiles to the FinScan optimizer, which uses the combined data to make a value-driven trim decision in real time at 180 lugs/min.
“Maybe it’ll cut a 20-footer into a 10 ft, an 8ft, and 2-ft trim block,” Russ says of the system. “If that’s where the highest value is when we consider the MSR data and moisture profile, why not? We do a lot with our MSR grades in our marketing, so it is playing well with that. We also have a cut-in-two program (skip-a-lug). This has been a way to take all the information we were already collecting, and using it to drive the highest value from our products.”
To date the Vaagens are also pleased with the FinScan automatic grading system, although like the beta site Board Hound system, it took some effort to get where they want to be. While some mills have relied on manual graders during start up to phase in their automatic systems, Vaagen went cold turkey at Colville. From day one the system had to run graderless, without temporary grading stations to fall back on. Russ explains that like much of the technology in the mill, they felt that if it could work in Scandinavia in so many applications, it could work here with some tweaking.
“We’d seen it work in Finland in dozens of mills. We’ve got more species here than just pine and spruce, but the principle is the same. We didn’t want to have a crutch to lean on here, and felt it would be too easy to just fall back on manual grading. It took a lot of work, and we have a dedicated operator, Rich Sager, who spent months getting it where we wanted. We’re still looking closely at the bundles to make sure we’re where we need to be in this market, and we also had to convince our grading agency, but it worked. We’re graderless.”
The automation continues with a Hi-Tech/Comact double-shaft trimmer and paddle fence, followed by the supplier’s stacker fitted with a Ram Technologies vacuum lathe placer. Packages go to a Signode strapper and a J.S. Desco Auto-Wraptor (now handled by Signode), which applies a 5-side plastic wrap without staples. Bundles then move to the mill’s vast, fully-paved lumber yard, where a fleet of Taylor lift trucks move inventory.
From decanter to wrapper the new planer mill runs with 11 operators per shift, many of whom track production from a massive control and meeting room inspired by – where else – Finland.
Down market uptime
With the current market, new investments are being kept to a minimum at Vaagen. Still, they have plans. Duane and Russ continue with annual trips to Scandinavia for inspiration, and to discuss a potential new project with HewSaw parent company Veisto Group. They have plans on paper at least to add a new HewSaw SL-250Trio line (chipper canter; cant saw (side boards); and gang), which would allow the mill to take larger logs (to 16 inches top end) and provide more production flexibility (see CWP June/July 2007 at www.canadianwoodproducts.ca for more on this system).
For now these are just plans, and the real world continues in the face of tough markets for perhaps another year. Vaagen has adjusted its product mix, moved more into export markets, like Australia, and continues to work with clients in the northwest that will pay a premium for quality where it will save them even more in labour or claim costs down the road. But like any mill today, they’re also cutting costs and production.
“We’re down about 25% in operating time since the markets went south,” Russ says, “but we’re only down about 10% in production – that’s the key.”
He puts that efficiency gain down to spending more time on basics, like preventive maintenance, and training workers on the bottom line importance of uptime and recovery. And a big part of that program, he adds, is new hire Joe Alborano. Originally from the east coast – and you know it when you talk to him – Joe is now plant manager at Colville, and is making the impact the Vaagen’s hoped in hiring him, Russ explains.
“Joe’s done a really good job on maintenance and uptime, and getting everyone focused on it as a team. He came in last night with pizza for the night shift to celebrate 97% uptime for the week. He’s really big on efficiency, and wants everyone to be there with him. We’re really starting to see some improvements from that drive.”
Joe agrees that the mill is making strides in the right direction, with uptime now in the 90s. Still, he says he won’t be happy until they are consistently above 95%. “That’s where we should be in a mill of this calibre. We also need to be sure we’re getting the design maximum from all the systems the mill has invested in – Is the equipment doing what we think it is, and 100% of what it can do. It’s a good group here, and we’re getting to the point where I just point them in the right direction, and they’re moving there as a team, which makes my job a lot easier. Some of it’s really basic, like calibrating log turners, checking scanners, or cleaning and maintaining boilers. But it’s all crucial – that’s what I’m trying to really get across.”
He doesn’t have to convince Duane, who says the coming year will separate the best mills from the ordinary.
“The past few years have been tough alright, but now we’re in the playoffs, and at the end only the ones that get things just right will be left. There’s no room for mistakes now. That’s the message the employees have received, and they’re responding.”
In the next issue we look at the Vaagen’s recently purchased Usk mill, and this small-log specialist’s work in getting the region’s federal lands back in action, hard work which is at last bearing fruit.