By Tony Kryzanowski
The town of Cochrane, Alberta has grown a lot from being the quiet suburb on the western edge of Calgary, where Spray Lake Sawmills (SLS) calls home. And the sawmill has grown along with the town, having recently invested in a significant upgrade to its planer mill and a new line of sienna-colored, treated wood products.
Owned by forest industry veteran Barry Mjolsness, the 73-year-old business has prospered by aiming for 100 per cent wood utilization, focusing on value-added markets by manufacturing high volumes of treated wood products, and supplying primarily the western Canadian market.
“This operation is set up quite a bit differently from most other sawmills, gearing towards higher value-added and quality products versus aiming for commodity markets,” says Arnold Fiselier, SLS senior vice-president and Chief Operating Officer. Fiselier joined the company four years ago, bringing 25 years of industry experience with him.
On the solid wood side, about half of the company’s production is treated wood products for the agriculture, permanent wood foundation, decking and fence market, which complements its commodity dimension lumber sales. It also markets wood chips, peeled and treated fence posts, cattle bedding, and operates a successful division called Top Spray. All of the company’s byproducts and residuals are marketed through Top Spray. It uses a fleet of blower trucks to apply bark mulches and soil blends.
Nothing goes to waste at SLS, and that is reflected at both the sawmill and in their log harvest where, unlike many other sawmills in the province, they do no slash pile burning. Instead, their three main logging contractors process at the stump and leave branches in the cutblock to help promote natural regeneration, which complements their reforestation efforts.
One other unique aspect to the business is that logs processed at the stump are skidded tree length to roadside for delivery to the mill. That’s because the company operates a highly selective log merchandizing line at the front end of their sawmill to ensure that the right diameter and quality log proceeds down the correct processing path on their three breakdown lines.
With the logs arriving tree length, that gives the sawmill more control and options to capture maximum potential value and recovery from each log. SLS can produce lumber in dimensions anywhere from 1” x 4” to 6” x 6”, up to 16’ long.
“Our mill is set up for cutting specialty wood products,” says Fiselier. “We poured a whole bunch of capital into our front end a while back, so we really have optimized scanning capabilities to find solutions based on value right from the cutoff saws.”
Front end merchandizing decisions are driven by the company’s product lines, particularly from their treated wood division, where demand for certain wood products like decking, fencing and fence posts are quite seasonal. The production schedule is set from a weekly sales meeting that compares market demand for certain products against existing inventory.
Tree length spruce and pine logs first encounter Perceptron true shape optimizing scanners at the sawmill infeed, and then proceed to the cutoff saws. Working in a booth looking down on the mill infeed, an operator processes logs in lengths anywhere from 8’ to 16’, based on the scanners’ solution.
“Based on the values we have put into the optimizer, the scanners will look for a certain diameter and instruct the cutoff saw to cut it to a certain length. It will have calculated, for example, that if the log is cut to a ten foot piece, it will for sure make a six by six and some two by six with some sideboards,” says Fiselier.
After the cutoff saws, each log is debarked either through a VKB 17” debarker for smaller diameter logs or a Nicholson 27” debarker for larger diameter logs. They are then sorted for processing down one of three breakdown lines. These are a HewSaw 200 line for smaller diameter logs, an Optimil Canter line for midsize logs, and a Forano headrig line for oversized logs. Before they enter the Optimil line, which processes about 90 per cent of the mill’s log volume, each log is scanned again with Perceptron scanning to verify the solution designed for it by the infeed merchandizing line scanners.
Speaking of this two-step optimization scanning process, Fiselier says, “it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good”.
“As long as they are in sync and the values somewhat match, the system will drive for higher value products and then work down to high recovery to ensure that we are still recovering as much as we can from each individual log.”
The sawmill accepts logs down to a 4.5” top. Smaller diameter logs that will yield little lumber value are diverted to the treated fence post line.
After the debarkers, logs are sorted into one of five bins. Three supply the Optimil line, which will process up to a 17” diameter log. One bin supplies smaller diameter logs that will yield at least a couple of two by fours to the HewSaw line, and the final bin contains logs over 17” diameter, for processing through the headrig line. The sawmill produces a lot of special order cuts on this line, such as large timbers up to 8” x 8” and odd sizes like 3” x 10” lumber.
Logs processed through the Optimil line first encounter Key Knife bottom, top and side cutting heads. The cant continues through a horizontal quad arbor edger (HQAE), which cuts the sideboards. They are diverted and processed through a Cantech board edger. The cant’s final cut occurs through a 10” Optimil vertical double arbor edger (VDAE), which comes equipped with a shifting arbor.
“The VDAE shifting arbor allows us to produce timber products in line along with our dimensional lumber products,” says Fiselier.
The lumber and timbers from all three processing lines proceed through a USNR optimized trimmer line, then into a 48 bin J-bar sorter, and finally into a Newnes stacker and stick placer. The green lumber is then dried in either a newer Wellons dry kiln or older Moore dry kiln.
To complement the high level of process control in the sawmill, SLS installed a new Comact GradExpert computer-based, lumber grading system in its planer mill, in 2014.
“We have seen gains around grade outturns, decreased trim, and overall productivity,” says Fiselier. “This was a very successful project for us, and has effectively improved our processing and made us stronger.”
The refurbished planer mill can now operate on a 60 hour work week versus an 88 hour work week, to keep up with sawmill production.
After the planer mill, about half the lumber produced is processed through the on-site treatment plant.
“Part of our business model is to actually grow our treating program,” says Fiselier. SLS was the first supplier of sienna-colored treated lumber in Western Canada, launching the product in 2012. Since then, it has steadily grown that market.
Fiselier adds that striving for excellence in all aspects of the business and a “never give up” attitude has served the business well. Most noticeably, the diversity of the business made a big difference to help the company survive the general industry downturn precipitated by the American housing crisis in 2008.
While SLS currently produces about 124 million board feet of lumber annually on a two-shift basis, it was forced to reduce production and only operate on a one-shift basis through the downturn. However, as markets improved, SLS was able to return to two shifts in 2013. Overall, current production is more than they were producing before the downturn in 2008.
Returning to two shifts has meant a lot to the town of Cochrane, especially with the oil and gas sector having suffered a major setback over the past few years. SLS is the town’s largest private sector employer, providing 300 direct jobs,
“The downturn actually had a positive and negative impact on us,” says Fiselier. “On the positive side, we had a fairly high turnover rate three years ago, but since the downturn, we’ve had some well qualified people join us. On the negative side, we have seen some softness in our Top Spray product lines, particularly in northern Alberta.”
Wood supply will present a challenge to the business in the coming years. The Alberta government has placed a moratorium on logging as well as any expansion to oil and gas activity in what is known as the Castle area of the company’s logging quota area north of Waterton Lakes National Park. SLS is in discussions with the province on what impact that moratorium might have on their log supply.
On the Cover:
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