By Diane Mettler
The Seneca Sawmill Company has been part of the Eugene, Oregon landscape since 1954. That year, Aaron Jones operated one mill and produced 18 million board feet. Today, the company runs four sawmills and produces over 650 million board feet annually.
Todd Payne, Seneca’s CEO, explains that today’s Seneca is comprised of four companies.
“Seneca Sawmill Company is our flagship company in Eugene. It oversees three of the four sawmills. The fourth sawmill, purchased in 2011, is located in the small town of Noti, Oregon.”
Other companies include the Seneca Jones Timber Company, with 167,000 acres of sustainably managed timberlands (they just planted their 37 millionth tree), and Seneca Sustainable Energy, which produces 19.5 megawatts, enough to power 13,000 homes. Combined, the companies employ about 450 people.
The company went through a successful ownership transition around 2012, from Aaron to his three daughters, Becky, Jody and Kathy Jones. All three, like their father, believe in the quality of their wood products and the future of their sawmills. Over the last seven years they have invested significant capital in the facilities—some $130 million (U.S.).
The impetus behind the investments and upgrades was the fundamental shift in the domestic market toward dry lumber, which Seneca recognized taking place back in 2000.
“We have always been a large green Douglas fir lumber producer, both for studs and dimension lumber, and we wanted to develop a long-term capital plan that provided the capability to dry a large portion of our production to match the growing market trend,” explains Payne. “We started off with the renewable energy facility, so we had a thermal power source, a steam supply. We built new stud dry kilns that moved our dry capabilities up to about 80 per cent at the stud mill. Now we’re focused on the dimension mill, aimed at the same dry capacity.”
The first major investment was a co-gen plant. Planning got underway in 2007, with the groundbreaking in 2009.
“I have a lot of respect for the owners,” says Payne. “They made a decision in the depth of one of the worst markets we have seen, to spend $65 million on a facility that we didn’t have a lot of experience with. But we did a lot of due diligence, and we built a facility that has so much automation and technology that it runs with just two people. We kind of take it for granted now, but others come through to see it, and are just amazed.”
Approximately 75 per cent of what’s burned at the co-gen plant comes from sawmill residuals—mostly in the form of bark and a little sawdust and shavings. The balance is forest biomass, which comes from the company’s tree farm and other local tree farms.
Of the $65 million spent on the co-gen plant, 25 per cent was dedicated to air emission control equipment and technology. “We were held to very strict air permit standards—probably the most stringent in the United States,” says Payne.
The plant’s permit does not allow the burning of anything painted, stained, treated or containing glues or resins. “It has to be 100 per cent organic coming in and the ash byproduct is now considered 100 per cent organic going out,” says Payne. “Today we have a partnership with a neighboring agricultural company, SureCrop. We stockpile our ash, and they apply it to their fields as a soil nutrient when they till their fields after harvest. It’s 100 per cent recycled.
“The co-gen facility is a firm power source,” adds Payne. “We control both the input (wood biomass) and output (electrical production), giving us the ability to produce based on real-time market needs. This is in contrast to the other renewables, such as wind and solar, that only produce when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. Co-gen is a great compliment to the other sources of renewable energy.”
Seneca started the second wave of improvements in 2014, which included upgrading the dimensional mill with new equipment and technology, installing additional dry kilns and upgrading its dimension mill planer, as well as expanding the log yard and shipping/loading areas.
One of the first projects was installing three aluminum American Wood Dryers kilns built to Seneca specs—two for dimensional lumber and one for the stud mill—with more to come. The steam from the co-gen plant is moved overhead to the dry kilns. There, it is condensed back into water after use, which is sent back to the co-gen plant to go to the boiler. Nothing is wasted.
Payne says aluminum is more expensive, but the advantages, like less rusting, outweigh the cost.
The log yard was expanded to give Seneca more decking and storage capabilities. And the shipping and loading area was expanded as well.
“Originally, the rail spur came across the property and basically cut us in half, so we reoriented that rail spur to the south, doubling our car capacity. We also expanded a parallel line for chip cars, which allows us to ship our chips further distances,” says Payne.
Payne says Seneca does have an advantage having reciprocal rights with two Class 1 railroads—Union Pacific and Burlington Northern. “We can bring in both suppliers and then ship to different destinations. It gives us a lot of flexibility, because there’s a lot of customers that are on one or the other rail line, but not both.”
Because the dimension mill was going to take a lot more capital and time, Seneca first put the infrastructure in the stud mill facility. The focus then moved to the dimension mill and related facilities. Key to the sawmill upgrade was a new 60-bin USNR sorting line complimenting an existing tray sorter line, giving adequate sorting capacity ahead of the new dry kilns
Automation, Payne says, is the key to this project. “We’ve employed a very unique edger outfeed system that coupled new automation with existing technology, thus eliminating a very manual process under the previous product flow. Our engineer and mill management came to the table with an idea that hadn’t been tried before in this fashion, but sold its capabilities. And true to Seneca nature, it worked as planned. It was truly a team effort and something everyone is most proud of. Seneca’s been known for their internal designs and this is no different. It’s our competitive edge”
The technology is bleeding edge, says Payne. An example is the new USNR BioLuma 2900LVG+ grade scanner. “Instead of just looking at the physical dimensions of each board before we cut it to width, we’re now identifying all physical defects such as knot size and location, split, rot, etc. We then apply the finished grading rules as part of the optimization process, giving us much more accurate results prior to manufacturing. This is one more element of the ever so important lumber and value recovery equation.”
The dimensional mill planer upgrade will incorporate a top-of-the-line Lucidyne grade scanner and new Gilbert planer.
But equipment is only as good as it’s maintained, he notes. “We have a lot of pride in our support staff,” says Payne. “Our programming and controls department are charged with maintaining all of our optimization, vision, scanning and controls technology, plus our fleet of millwrights and electricians take care of all the mechanical and electrical support, and they do that 24/7.” This group is second-to-none, he says.
Right now the entire mill feels like it’s in training with all the new equipment.
“Key aspects of our upgrades incorporate elements that haven’t been tried before. You can put it on paper and it looks like it’s going to run just fine, but until you get it up and in place and turn it on, you don’t know where the shortcomings are,” says Payne.
Completion could have been earlier, but the mill was operational throughout the entire process. “We tried to minimize the downtime,” says Payne. “We scheduled the equipment changes around holidays when the mill was normally down. The last of the sawmill upgrades was around the second week of January, and within six to eight weeks we were almost back to full production. We’re pretty proud of that.”
Local mechanical and electrical contractors did the bulk of the work. Seneca also purchases equipment locally when possible.
One of the challenges Seneca didn’t anticipate was longer lead times for some of the mill equipment. Some companies had pulled back during the recession, others had merged, or gone out of business. Now that the recession was over and mills were going after capital projects, Seneca found itself waiting much longer for equipment to be manufactured and delivered.
But despite such challenges, their work crews performed safely. There were no safety issues associated with the project.
“That’s nothing short of phenomenal because of the amount of extra traffic that was in the middle of our plant site that had to co-exist with our existing rolling stock,” says Payne. “Part of that comes from the fact that we’re very safety conscious internally, as are the contractors that we employ. We set the expectations early and often.”
It’s obvious just walking through Seneca Sawmill’s office lobby and seeing celebrations for employees’ 40th and 45th anniversary that the people here are dedicated to the company.
During the recession, Seneca kept their entire crew, when other mills were letting people go. “We figured out how to keep everybody here. It was not easy,” says Payne.
“We do things slightly different than most companies,” he adds. “We try to hire the right people with the right attitude, then focus on training and promoting within. I think that helps with the loyalty and longevity of our workforce.”
Payne says that what he’s most proud of are the people he gets to work with every day. “They are the ones that came up with a very unique and automated design that allows us to maximize both volume and value. And that’s important, because raw materials (logs) are a huge cost in any manufacturing facility, particularly lumber mills, so our goal is to get as much lumber board footage (and value) out of every given board foot of log.”
Because of the incredible workforce, the passion of the owners, and a continued investment in the future, Seneca now has the flexibility to go green or dry depending on market needs. Seneca is excited about the future. The move to dry has opened up new markets across the country for the Oregon company—and helped to secure its future.
On the Cover:
The Seneca Sawmill Company has been part of the Eugene, Oregon landscape for more than 60 years. It’s now nearing the completion of a second $65 million upgrade which included upgrading the dimensional mill with new equipment and technology, installing additional dry kilns and upgrading its dimension mill planer (Photo by Diane Mettler).
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