The same thinking that caused a problem won’t help find a solution. This simple truth from none other than Einstein makes a good motto for the hardwood lumber sector right now, as mills set up only to saw quality lumber from quality logs to serve quality-driven markets struggle to stay afloat. More of the same is not the answer. For some different thinking, and a little market diversity, you needn’t stray farther than an hour from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. Once you fight your way out of the city’s west end traffic, head to Guelph. There you’ll find Cherry Forest Products, a dynamic private company that in the midst of a stagnant industry is doing quite a bit to brighten its own future.
By Scott Jamieson
CFP is owned and operated by three brothers – Robert, John and Jacob Baranski. It started off in the 1950s as a sawmill & pallet operation run by father Edward Baranski in Fergus, a farming community 30 minutes north of Guelph. CFP expanded into a larger sawmill in 1986 when it moved to a 10-acre site in the Kerr Industrial Park just off Hwy 401. The site now spans 20 acres, and the brothers each look after part of what is a markedly more complex and diverse business. CWP toured the facility with Jacob, who’s responsible for export sales and cut-to-size lumber for furniture, home finishing and cabinet clients. Other businesses include a joint venture in hardwood veneer for domestic and overseas markets, hardwood lumber drying and heat-treating, custom ripping and planing, residuals, and of course hardwood and softwood pallets and packaging.
Custom Slicing: The key to Cherry Forest Veneers Division is the years of experience possessed by partner Joe Abele. While the company does not do its own slicing, it sources out to experienced mills, and key people are responsible for supervising the custom slicing of the veneers. This common-sense approach is common throughout CFP operations, but it’s not exactly a hands-off operation either. The company sources the logs, arranges transport, stores product in a climate controlled warehouse on site, and hosts customers that fly in from as far as Europe and China to look at flitches.
Flexible Milling: Even in one of its core businesses – hardwood milling – CFP is not obsessed with controlling every step of the process, preferring to focus on final product quality and the bottom line. The company still runs that original 1986 mill, a Morbark circular headrig with setworks. The process is tailored to the downstream operation, with the sawyer looking for grade lumber outside and passing the cants on to the pallet operation for efficient conversion to pallet stock. It puts out eight to nine million bdft a year, and is about the only spot in the mill that has not seen investment over the past five years.
Still, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to CFP’s lumber business. It also farms a large volume of sawing out to local custom millers, another relationship that uses both parties’ strengths Jacob says.
“These smaller mills are very good at sawing for grade lumber, and are very happy to do that on a per bdft basis. We source the logs, handle all the transport, do the drying, finishing, marketing and handle inventory – the sides of the business they’d rather not get into. Every time we look at modernising and automating the sawmill, it means expanding it, and we reach the same conclusion. We’d just be creating a monster that would have to be fed, creating local log shortages, and losing control. This way we have sawn what we need, and do the rest of the value-added steps here ourselves.”
Beyond that, the mill also buys a substantial volume of green lumber on the market. All in all, it results in an annual volume of 30 million bdft. “We can saw in house, we can have our logs sawn elsewhere, or we can just buy certain species as we need them, or when the market says it makes more sense than buying them ourselves. We’re always balancing the three.”
A good example today is red oak. With many mills producing an abundance of it, it makes more sense to simply buy it from a major producer than saw it in house. “We can’t make it for the price some suppliers are selling it for, and our quality system insures that any lumber bought outside is rigourously controlled.”
Drying & Steaming: Some 16 million bdft of the 30 million bdft is dried on site in nine kilns. The company moved into drying in the mid 90s when it began selling cherry into Europe. Naturally, as newcomers selling into Europe, they did what many of their clients would do, and started by adding Hildebrand kilns. The next batch of kilns came from Cathild in Quebec, while the last three have been Nardi kilns sold and serviced in North America by Better Built Kilns out of the southeast. “They’re Italian kilns, but Better Built comes up to install and start up each one,” Jacob says of the mix of imported technology and regional service. “At one point we were putting up a kiln just about every year, but with space constraints and markets, we’ve tapered off. We do send out some products for drying, but we can handle most of what we need right here.”
That’s not to say investment in kilns is totally out. Just this year CFP added an 18,000 bdft wood steamer from Ontario’s Porta-Kiln. Designed to tap into the currently hot market for walnut, it is flexible enough to serve other purposes if (or when) designers tire of treated walnut. “Walnut’s popular right now, but these things come and go. The steamer is sized to create a quick conversion to heating chamber if necessary.
Cutting Out Waste
When it comes to the lumber business, a large part of CFP’s business is in giving a wide array of clients exactly what they want, and nothing more. Up until recently, the lion’s share of cut-to-size work was done on the mill’s dimension line added in 1992. It includes 12 manual chop saws set up in line with a ripping line. It can be a busy place when business is booming, but Jacob says it didn’t give CFP enough flexibility.
“We were getting more and more orders where we didn’t need to chop the lumber – The customer just wanted it ripped to a given width. It wasn’t effective doing it on the dimension line, as the chop saws were idle while we just ripped lumber all day.”
The result is a completely new building housing CFP’s latest, and largest investment: A dedicated, optimized rip line and a breakdown/grading/stacking line. The two lines were started up over the past 10 months, and built by T.S. Manufacturing as a turn-key project with Autolog optimization and controls. The line can either rip or plane lumber as required, with a capacity of 50,000 bdft/day of ripped strips.
“We’ve always done a lot of dimension work, and our idea with that, and the new line, is to be an outside source that can supply clients exactly what they need for all, or a part of their inventory, with more efficiency and no waste on their side. The little extra they pay is more than made up for in most cases by reduced labour, waste, and inventory costs. The new line just gives us a lot more flexibility. Let’s say a cabinet maker does a lot of smaller orders, so that lengths are changing each time so they can’t order cut-to-size pieces. Still, they may need a lot of the same width pieces over and over again. That’s where we can help with this line.”
Production starts with an infeed deck and tilt hoist to singulate lumber. From here it goes through the Autolog optimizer, which will tell the operator the best yield based on order files. “The operator will take that into consideration, but they make the final decision via a yes or no choice. Nine times out of 10 it’s yes.”
The system reads warp, bow, and other geometric issues to assist the operator. Autolog also did all the optimization and PLC work on the new grading line just across the shop floor. The new line also has a Brookhuis moisture control system to kick out wets.
The heart of the new line is a Mereen Johnson 40-in fixed arbour rip saw. This can be by-passed in favour of a new Newman-Whitney EPR-24-SS planer with quiet cut head. “We can’t do both in the same run – it’s set up either or, but for our needs it works well that way.”
A five-bay bin sorter rounds out the line, taking the main products. Less common products are dropped down to a manual sort.
The grading line also starts with a tilt hoist and singulator. This feeds dual T.S. Manufacturing grading stations with Autolog grader-assist geometric scanning and tally system. The line is used both to process and stack internal production for drying, or to break out and evaluate lumber from outside sources so the mill knows almost immediately what it has bought.
Either way, lumber is split between two grading lines, with the PLC monitoring flow to each line’s surge deck. Lumber gets dropped into each station, with the operator sitting right above the piece, roughly one-third of the way across the deck, for an excellent view. Lumber is turned automatically, with the operator registering grades into a control panel.
“The goal with this line is to deal with some of the labour shortage issues, especially in tough areas like lumber stickering and stacking. This increases the stickering quality through automation, and gets our production to a steady 50,000 bdft/shift in grading/stacking.”
This line only started up in July, so when CWP was on site in mid August, the crew was still dealing with start up issues to ramp up production. “It’s really the largest project we’ve ever done like this, with the extent of optimization and automation. We’ve never done something like this before, so I guess we are surprised by how long it takes to sort things out and get it all running together. But we can see where the benefits will be when it’s running like we want.”
Back to Roots
CFP started in pallets, so of course it has not neglected its Barco pallet division. Significant investment in recent years includes adding a Brewer resaw system three years ago to “significantly increase” cant breakdown for hardwood pallets. “It has been very reliable,” Jacob notes, “and very productive for us in terms of production and labour. It was another labour-intensive area that we’ve managed to improve.”
Barco has also added a Viking Turbo 505 pallet assembly line that puts out 10 loads of pallets a day with minimal labour input and greatly reduced risk of injury. The operation was also among the first to start heat-treating its pallets, and still has an edge in this field.
“We had the kilns already, so we could do the heat treating and keep quality up from day one. To some, a pallet is a pallet, but to us it’s more of a packaging system approach. We’ll work with customers to see what they’re using now, and where that could be improved to get the right pallet or package for each job, but no more. We look for optimized packaging.”
Of course, as is the case with its other markets, location is also an asset for the pallet division. Barco is right on the doorstep of Toronto and the golden triangle. It’s as valuable for the pallet division to be on the edge of Canada’s manufacturing heartland as it is for the custom cutting and ripping operations to be a stone’s throw from one of the country’s largest custom building and renovation markets. Either way, it’s not a bad view for an evolving hardwood operation.