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‘The sky’s the limit’: OptiSaw 2020 presents the latest technology, innovative solutions

October 20, 2020  By  Ellen Cools

This year’s OptiSaw Mill Optimization and Automation Forum was unlike any other, taking place virtually on Oct. 14, to ensure the safety of all participants during COVID-19.

But one thing remained the same: industry-leading experts gave presentations on the latest technologies so attendees could learn new ways to optimize their operations and boost their savings – something that’s more important than ever during the pandemic.

Approximately 150 industry professionals, consultants and researchers registered for the live portion of the event, which took place from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. EST.

AI and X-Ray technology

As in previous years, one of the hot topics was the potential that artificial intelligence (AI) presents for sawmill operations.


Jere Heikkinen, co-founder and CEO of Finnos, went so far as to say that sawmills are a “fruitful playground for AI,” during his presentation on using AI and X-ray to map material flow.

Heikinnen shared multiple case studies of European sawmills using Finnos’ X-ray sorting and log scanning technology, and the impact the technology had on their yield and revenue. For example, at a sawmill with a 400,000 cubic metre intake, initially 20 per cent of the logs were U/S classes – unsorted classes. But with the x-ray sorting technology, yield was increased by 50 per cent, resulting in an annual profit of 270,000 Euros.

The X-ray technology can also be used for component products with a certain annual ring width and knot-free areas. It identifies knotless parts of the log and allows operators to control and operate the raw material flow through a built-in simulator. All data for the logs is stored in the database, where operators can see how the log classes are distributed and see component yield value.

Finnos is also working on tracing logs from the forest through the sawmill using data from harvesting machines. This presents an opportunity for using artificial intelligence. The typical requirements for using AI is multiple data sources and target variables, the possibility to create feedback loops, and many simple actions that can be taken, Heikkinnen explained.

The creation of feedback loops is the most important, he said. In a sawmill, a loop can be formed between the log sorter and the sawline. “Fingerprint” technology is critical in being able to detect the board that arrives at the sawline and match it with the original image.

What exactly is fingerprint technology? Each log carries a lot of information in it – knots, heartwood, etc., – that can be extracted by X-ray scanners between the log sorter and sawline. These features form a type of fingerprint that looks like a barcode, unique to each board. The fingerprint from the database needs to be matched with the correct board among thousands of options. Currently, this system is 99.9 per cent accurate, Heikinnen shared.

“A system like this transforms the working philosophy from operating to managing,” he said.

The operator or production planner can also receive alarms and suggestions from the system. All suggestions are based on a comprehensive background simulation, which considers the product portfolio, with the aim of maximizing the overall value of the production.

This is just the first step in traceability, Heikkinnen said. Finnos is now working on using the fingerprint detection technology to match the original log with the correct board. This is not in production yet, but tests will be completed by the end of the year. The goal is to hit 100 per cent accuracy, to provide a “gapless traceability,” he explained.

Short-coupled edgers

The second presentation of the day focused on optimization further along the sawmill process – at the edger. Joey Nelson, president of JoeScan, and Peter de Leeuw, consultant with Yield Strategies, presented on the benefits short-coupled lineal edgers and snapshot scanning.

Short-coupled edgers are ideal for sawmills with a small footprint, de Leeuw explained. This is because there are a few limitations to short-coupled edgers: there’s a limited amount of throughput, you can only go so fast with it, and pieces need to be presented wane up.

So, when deciding to replace an edger with a short-coupled lineal edger, this needs to be considered.

For sawmills with a small footprint that do not need pieces to be wane up or down, there are multiple benefits to short-coupled lineal edgers. They are mechanically simpler and have fewer moving parts, which means they are more maintainable. The short movement of boards between scanning and cutting also means that pieces don’t need to be physically skewed. Additionally, compared to transverse edgers, short-coupled edgers don’t have a problem with unstable edges, which is an advantage with certain types of woods. This also means that accuracy will not be as much of a problem.

The defining feature of a short-coupled edger, however, is the scanning, de Leeuw said.

According to Nelson, there are three things to look for in a scanning system: reliability, speed and accuracy.

Oftentimes in transverse and long lineal systems, it’s a “set it, forget it,” system, Nelson explained. With a single zone lineal, a board needs to travel the entire length of the belt to be scanned.

But for a short-coupled edger, JoeScan has found a solution: installing scanners with multiple lasers and zones, which means a piece only needs to travel 1/3 of the length required for a lineal edger.

This type of scanning system needs to have the right scanning window, be able to identify the difference between steep wane and saw edges, and requires a lot of data so operators can see the wane as accurately as possible, Nelson said.

“In the end, what we’re looking for a machine that’s easy to set up and maintain, reduces downtime, and produces the best lumber you can get from your raw materials to increase your throughput and improve your recovery,” Nelson concluded.

Lessons learned

After a quick break, Travas Hack, superintendent at EACOM’s Nairn Lake sawmill – previously the general superintendent at EACOM’s Elk Lake sawmill – and Chris Graham, president of B3 Systems, gave a presentation on B3’s cloud-based data analytics dashboard platform. The system was installed at EACOM’s Elk Lake sawmill to automate a formerly manual KPI reporting process.

EACOM wanted to digitize all of the information from Elk Lake’s sawmill, planer, heat plant and kilns into different reports, including metrics such as safety statistics, production rates, downtime, and maintenance.

B3’s platform provided real-time live data which can be organized in multiple different ways – by hour, day, month, or by shift, for example. The supervisors can also get warnings and alerts via email, text message or native notification on an Android or Apple device.

This mobile-first approach presents multiple benefits to sawmill operators. For example, “If you get a new supervisor running the shift and you have to be at home, and they have an issue, you can go online and give some advice, or see where they’re having issues,” Hack said.

Based on the success of the system at Elk Lake, B3 and EACOM are now working on activating the dashboard in all of EACOM’s sawmills. B3 also developed a dashboard for EACOM’s corporate team. This dashboard includes an overall company scorecard, which presents the operations at each site side-by-side, broken down by sawmill, planer and kiln. This allows the corporate team to see which mill is beating its goals, which might be slightly off its goals, etc., Graham explained.

Fully activating the B3 dashboard at EACOM also creates future opportunities using AI. For example, because B3 is integrated with the PLCs running each machine, in combination with AI technology, the system will be able to automatically make changes to how the machine is running. Or, if temperatures on certain machines are changing, the program can start the machines’ autonomous activity. This means the mill can better do predictive maintenance, Graham said.

“The sky’s the limit on things – it’s only your imagination and the programming behind it that are needed to make it work,” Hack added.

Proactive reliability

The last session of the day expanded upon the topic of predictive maintenance. Khalil Elhadaoui, principal researcher at FPInnovations, discussed how proactive reliability can improve sawmills’ organizational and operational processes.

He began with a summary of the Asset Management Pyramid, which provides a comprehensive overview of the steps that need to be taken before an organization can focus on continuous improvement (also known as reliability management). Reliability management goes beyond tracking the performance of individual equipment. Instead, it is holistic knowledge that focuses on leveraging things such as management base care, performance skillsets and leadership, to achieve the best-in-class with regards to technology and reliability.

But how can sawmills leverage this? Through asset management assessment, Elhadaoui explained. This involves doing a complete assessment of the business to determine its strengths and the elements that need to be improved. Once those elements are targeted, a comprehensive roadmap should be created to lay out how a better result can be achieved.

But, maintenance should not just be reactive, Elhadaoui cautioned. The word itself implies that sawmills should also be focused on maintaining assets in good shape. But, once sawmills have a maintenance plan in place and have identified the issues, how can they move from reactive maintenance to proactive maintenance?

By developing reliability by design. The basic tool is root cause analysis, Elhadaoui said, which helps explain why a problem happened in the first place and how to mitigate it going forward. If the problem continues, then sawmills should apply failure-mode analysis. This involves figuring out which component within a machine is causing the issue and what can be done to correct it. If issues are ongoing, then sawmills should turn to reliability-centre maintenance (RCM). “RCM will help not only in achieving performance of equipment but will also solve safety hazards of the system,” he said.

Watch online

Missed the live event? All of the sessions are available on-demand. This includes both the live sessions, and two on-demand sessions: Smart sawsense: Bringing IIoT into the filing room with heat source monitoring by Justin Williams, CEO of Williams & White, and Demystifying the Dust Hazard Analysis by Francis Petit, dust collection specialist at VETS Group, and Jeramy Slaunwhite, senior explosion safety engineer at Rembe North America.

All of the sessions are available for free. Click here to register and watch.

Thank you to our sponsors Andritz, B3 Systems, BID Group, JoeScan, Royal Cylinders and VETS Group, for making this event possible.

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