Wood Business

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Maritime Missile

Fornebu Lumber Company may not be in the middle of nowhere, but, as the saying goes, you can see it from here. Brunswick Mines is little more than a name on the map roughly 45 minutes northeast of Miramichi, N.B. Yet, this
little-known sawmill in this unknown town currently runs one of the world’s fastest HewSaw lines. This feat is made all the more impressive by the fact that until a few years ago, the mill was best known as a chip producer for area pulp mills.

Mill and maintenance superintendent Claude Paulin with the HewSaw line. “We’re focused on making lumber now, and that’s a nice shift,” he says of the new owner’s objectives.
Log feeders supply a pair of Nicholson A5B 17-in debarkers. The mill has plenty of debarking capacity to handle increased production.

“We were basically a chip factory,” says mill and maintenance superintendent Claude Paulin, as we walk through the mill yard jammed with 8- and 9-ft. sawlogs. Paulin is referring to the mill’s role within the Miramichi region’s pulp and paper sector, most recently as part of the UPM empire, and Repap prior to that. 

The change began in 2009, when the mill and woodlands operation were purchased by Norwegian shipping and renewable energy giant Umoe under subsidiary Umoe Forest. Originally drawn to the region by the prospect of building a solar panel plant, a flooded photovoltaic market led the company to switch its focus to lumber. Despite a depressed market, the owner saw a long-term future in supplying lumber to a recovering U.S. housing market.

As Paulin leads us to the HewSaw 200 MSA line added in 2010, it’s obvious the chip factory days are over. The line is running the mill’s smallest sort, producing a single 2x4. The logs blur by at blinding speed, with gaps of little more than 18 to 24 inches. At 700 ft./min., I wait for the jam up that never comes. After a few minutes of this relentless pace, the bin runs dry and the line shifts to some relatively beefy logs making four 2x6s.

“Our slowest speed is 450 ft./min.,” explains Tim Beaulieu, vice-president and general manager, sawmill. At that pace, the mill is making several 2x6s and 2x4s from its largest logs in the 10- to 12-in. range. Still, the mill’s log supply distribution curve shows the vast majority of Fornebu’s fibre is in the 5- to 8-in. range.

Beaulieu notes that the mill was upgraded with that shrinking log diet in mind.

“We had some people suggest that we had to include a large log line in the mix, but when you look at the current log distribution, there’s not a lot of need for it. We looked five to 10 years down the road and saw that a large per cent of our supply will be coming from a managed forest, which around here means the logs will get smaller still. We couldn’t see the justification for adding another $2 million or more in the upgrade. Instead we’re a simple single line, small-log mill. We think we can be successful at that,” he says.

Fibre First
While the HewSaw line is the centre of the operation, the foundation for its high-speed success is laid in the woodlands operation. Fornebu receives 100% of its logs in cut-to-length sections of 8 and 9-ft. Beaulieu explains, “Larger logs are traded to area sawmills in exchange for smaller logs, so we’re all getting the profile we need.”

The mill focuses on 8- and 9-ft. markets, leaving the 10-ft. market to neighbouring sawmills. This pre-sort allows the mill to sort logs into 14 different cutting patterns despite having just seven log bins ahead of the HewSaw. This, in turn, allows Fornebu to batch feed the line with minimal gap and set times, a necessity for survival when sawing such small wood.

Tim Beaulieu, vice-president and general manager, sawmill, with a load of lumber. “The new owners have been good for us – they’ve invested over $11 million in the mill, which is why we’re still running today.”

“We looked at HewSaw’s log positioner,” Beaulieu recalls, “but we couldn’t see the payback with our log diet. Especially in our smaller sorts, it’s best to pre-sort into as narrow a range as possible, close the gap up, and batch feed through the mechanical infeed.”

A pair of Liebherr 934 wheel loaders feed the mill. There, a Caterpillar M322MH loads the two S. Huot infeed decks. Two step-type feeders supply a pair of Nicholson A5B 17-in high speed debarkers, giving the mill more than enough debarking capacity to feed the single line.

From here a ProLogic system sorts the logs by pattern into one of seven Hollins International bins, in turn feeding the HewSaw R200 MSA.

“The HewSaw line is unique in more than just the speeds we run it,” Beaulieu points out. “It runs with six 200-hp motors, four on the heads and two on the MSAs, which made it the most powerful R200 out there when we had it built.”

That extra horsepower was suggested by HewSaw after the supplier heard the patterns and speeds Fornebu wanted to run.

Key Investments
After the landing deck, much of the mill remains unchanged from the purchase. Lumber travels up a waterfall to a PLC lug loader, through an Autolog trimmer optimizer followed by a pair of Carbotech trimmers and sort bins, and finally to the mill’s original stacker.

Drying is in six Mec track kilns, two of which have been added since the new owner took over. At 100 million bd. ft. capacity, the mill is well prepared to ramp up production. Yet, drying costs were another matter, as Beaulieu explains.

“We’re still on propane, which gives us significantly higher drying costs in the per thousand than our competitors who use other types of bark burning systems. Definitely a competitive disadvantage.” 

To counter that, the mill has installed a wood energy system, which was ready to start up while we were on site in late March. Also supplied turnkey by Quebec-based Mec, it features a 600-hp Ideal Combustion burner system that provides hot air rather than steam to power the kilns.

“That means we don’t require a steam engineer on site,” Beaulieu says, a challenge for many mills, but a particular one for remote locations like Fornebu. Ideal Combustion is well known in the biomass sector, but this is one of the supplier’s first forays into lumber drying applications. It is a welcome addition, Beaulieu says, as it allows small- to medium-sized mills the option of air rather than steam.

The system consumes bark and other residuals, combusting them at 1,800 F. Blowers then draw in ambient air to cool the air stream down to 600 F before transferring it to the kilns. The mill planned on phasing in one kiln at a time through the spring, weaning itself off expensive propane in the process.

“This system will get our drying costs down to very competitive levels, and has been a key investment for us,” Beaulieu concludes.

A likely target for future investments will be the planer mill. A well-designed Guerette Industries (now DK Spec) line, the planer mill is nonetheless labour intensive compared to newer lines. The entire mill production funnels through two manual graders, a challenging setup, Beaulieu admits.

“We have to look there for investment. We’re looking at optimized grading systems to keep pace with the increasing sawmill production and to improve our grade performance. We’re looking at sending 40 to 50 million bd. ft. through per grader. That’s not sustainable,” he says.

An automated grader would also allow Fornebu to tweak recovery in the sawmill a bit more, as the planer mill would be positioned to handle more defect. Sawmill recovery has increased over 20% with the new HewSaw line, but future improvements would depend on planer mill upgrades.

Other areas on this manager’s wish list are the sawmill trimmer optimizer, whose software will soon be obsolete, and a high-speed stacker in the sawmill, currently a production bottleneck. 

The new owners added two more Mec kilns to bring the total to six track kilns and 100 million bd. ft. of drying capacity.

Still, production continues to climb with the investments already made. Fornebu made 70 million bd. ft. in 2011 on the single line, despite the small logs and being shut down for three months. The target for 2012, log supply withstanding, is 100 million bd. ft.

“Oh yeah, and the mill still makes chips – lots of them,” Beaulieu explains, adding that “Recovery has improved significantly, but we’re also putting a whole lot more logs through in a day, so we’ve had to add another chip screen to keep up and maintain chip quality.”

The mill now has four customers for its chips, and sends the bulk out via a CN Rail siding. That has made the mill far less dependent on any one client, a change that Beaulieu is happy with. “We’ve had some bad experiences relying too heavily on one chip buyer, so the diversity and rail option are great.”

Over 80 per cent of Fornebu’s lumber goes into the U.S., and almost all of that also goes out on rail.

Breaking Records
Back in Beaulieu’s office, the veteran mill manager pulls out a well-worn article from HewSaw’s own newsletter. It highlights a mill in Sweden that at the time of printing was billed as HewSaw’s fastest line. Beaulieu admits the Swedes still hold one or two records, but adds with a smile that several of the records are now Canadian-owned.

After less than two years’ operation with its natural log supply, the Maritime mill owns the record for most logs in a month, boasting an average of 1,847 logs/hr (7% above the previous record), and a best shift record of 2,386 logs/hr. As of press time, the mill was pushing 800 ft./min. on the smallest sort. Yet, Beaulieu says that the team is still not satisfied.

“Our goal with the smallest sort is to hit 850 ft./min. When you’re making a single 2x4, you won’t succeed unless you’re very fast. It’s fair to say that without this new line, we wouldn’t have made it through 2011 sawing this wood. Now we need to get better still.”