By John Ellegard
When New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English officially opened the brand new $60 million (NZ) Red Stag sawmill line on the edge of the city of Rotorua on the country’s North Island, it marked another step along the path to creating a super-fast, super mill.
Already the largest sawmill in Australasia, the Red Stag operation might just be the largest in the Southern Hemisphere as well, although no one is quite sure whether there’s a bigger one in South America, such is the hush-hush business of timber milling in some quarters.
At any rate, it’s the world’s newest large sawmill, undoubtedly one of the fastest and most accurate, and it’s bristling with technology that is the envy of the industry.
A super mill is generally considered to be an operation that can put through more than one million tonnes of logs per year, and produce 600,000 cubic metres of timber.
Following the building of the new saw line, Red Stag has seen its production rise from 450,000 to 550,000 cubic metres and it’s on course to surpass 600,000 cubic metres by the end of 2018 once it gets a few “tweaks”.
If the decision to go ahead and spend a further $60 million on stage two of the expansion gets the green light, Red Stag will surpass the 700,000 cubic metres mark.
In the New Zealand context, it’s always been a super mill, producing up to 25 per cent of the market’s timber needs from its single site at Waipa. Around 60 per cent of production goes into the local market these days, with 40 per cent exported.
Originally constructed in 1939 by the government of the day to produce timber from the state-owned Kaingaroa Forest, the mill has undergone a series of upgrades over the years, with the main sawing line being replaced in the early 1990s. The mill passed into private ownership and was purchased by the current owners in 2003, when the Red Stag Timber name was established.
Under the guidance of the Verry Family, key components on the site have been replaced or upgraded, including a new acoustic grading system, dry mill planing plant with Comact GradExpert scanner, three Mahild counterflow drying kilns, new stackers, a remanufacturing plant incorporating WoodEye scanning and a Grecon finger jointer, USNR bin sorter pusher lug upgrade and now up to 98 bins, scanners and a second CAA pressure treatment cylinder.
But the remaining constant has been the saw line, and try as they might, the Red Stag team has never been able to make it work the way they wanted.
“The small log line was never a great saw line, regardless of what we tried to do to improve it,” says Tim Rigter, General Manager of Red Stag Timber.
Sawmilling is a very difficult business. You’re competing in a commodity market and the cost of logs has been going up in recent times, leaving margins wafer-thin, especially for products being exported.
The only way to increase margins is to lower costs and by 2011, Red Stag had squeezed just about every cent out of the system.
“We asked ourselves whether there was a more cost-effective way of doing it, either by modifying some of the mill or looking at a completely new mill,” says Rigter.
“We have done lots of improvements to various parts of the operation over the years, but we couldn’t find any way to make the existing system work better. Finally, we came to the decision that we needed a new sawmill.”
When the decision to start with a blank piece of paper was made with the new sawmill, sawmill manager Steve Roberts was given the task of putting the plan together. The target was to make the saw line faster and to increase the amount of recovery from each log.
“We aimed to get a three per cent recovery increase,” says Rigter. “Steve Roberts knew what he wanted and he came up with the design for the mill—he knows sawmilling better than any of us. He’s been here for 18 years, prior to the creation of Red Stag.”
Armed with Roberts’ shopping list, the Red Stag project team visited numerous sawmills in North America about three years ago to finalize what they wanted, and decide on the suppliers.
Instead of sourcing various items from different suppliers, Red Stag decided to put the whole project in the hands of one company: Washington State-based USNR, one of the largest sawmill equipment manufacturers in the world. This ensured they would get an integrated plant with all components designed to work seamlessly together—and only one company to talk to if things didn’t go to plan.
The biggest challenge would be ensuring the existing sawline continued to operate without interruption while the all-new sawmill was being built. Fortunately, Red Stag occupies a huge site by comparison to most other mills; but it still required some operations to be dismantled and shifted to make way for the new mill building, which would occupy half a hectare.
Standing alongside the existing mill, the new building has been erected where the previous chip system was situated. That meant a whole new chip screening facility needed to be established, further to the west, and new services laid underground. The chip plant is an important ingredient in the Red Stag operation, supplying quality grade chips to both the Kinleith and Kawerau pulp mills.
And the way Red Stag gets rid of waste from the new mill is unique. The new saw line sits on the first floor, allowing a huge area to be created on the ground floor where all the chips and sawdust fall onto conveyors to be carried away. There’s around 6.5 metres of headroom in the ground floor level.
In fact, the whole building is quite unique. While the ground level is built from concrete and steel, the hall above it that houses the new saw line is almost entirely made with wood. The roof is supported by massive engineered beams made from Red Stag’s own timber by TimberLabs, with each span weighing 30 tonnes, and the walls are lined with plywood, which minimizes dust. Plus, it’s been built to exceed current earthquake standards—by an impressive 20 per cent, according to Rigter.
The effect is one huge, open-plan space covering 5,000 square metres.
The saw line itself is also unique and thought to be the only one of its kind in the world, utilizing double-quad bandsaws, which have gone up from five feet with the old single quad saw line to six feet with the new one.
“Our understanding is that USNR hasn’t built a quad/quad before and we don’t know of any other around the world, so we could be the only one,” says Rigter, adding that the size of the logs dictated it.
The increase in saw size means the new mill can now process logs up to 60 cm large end diameter in size, compared to 40 cm with the old small log quad line, which helps to improve capacity. Up to 12,000 logs are processed each day.
The opportunity to start with a blank sheet encouraged the Red Stag team to include as much new technology on their shopping list as possible.
So there’s not just one or two scanners employed in the mill, but something like 13 scanners all up and the whole process is fully automatic, with just a handful of people overseeing the operation.
“We’re scanning the log to look at the shape and it automatically rotates the log to optimize the position for maximizing the conversion into boards—that’s been a huge plus,” explains Rigter.
“It’s scanned again and then we have an ELI (Extended Length Infeed) where we can do slew and skew. So basically the log has been rotated into position to go through the saw and then we can slew or skew the whole log on the ELI again to maximize conversion along the length of the board. Instead of getting two short boards, you can get one long board and one short board, so again it maximizes value out of the log.
“So that’s the positioning of the log to maximize recovery. And then we’ve got some chipper canters for the opening face and then it’s the first set of quads. The boards off the first set of quads go to Edger 1. It all goes pretty quick, up to 15 logs per minute, which equates to 60 side boards per minute.
“From Edger 1, the wood goes into our green line into the bins,” says Rigter. “The second set of quads sends sideboards to Edger 2. From there the cant gets processed, where the centre of the log gets turned on to its side and goes through the curve saw gang. It’s one of those dancing floor contraptions that USNR calls an HSS, a Horizontal Shape Saw—basically it’s a curve sawing gang that moves with the shape of the grain, floating on a thin film of oil to produce straighter stress-free timber. It’s just magic to watch.”
Then it goes to the trim line where it’s finished or gets trimmed.
“We have an unscrambler and then it goes through a scanner where there’s some sorting and then another scanner, which determines how it’s going to be trimmed and then into the bins,” says Rigter. “We’re up to 98 bins now. Originally we had 68, then we built an extra 10 and about two or three years ago, added another 20. It’s nice to have that many sorts, but we knew that we would need it for the new mill to cope with the volume.
“Then it goes through the stacker and that’s still a limitation as we only have one stacker. We’ll need another stacker as part of stage 2, which we still have to decide on.”
To go with the larger capacity, Red Stag also had to upgrade its steam pipe for the additional drying that is required. In place of the existing 6-inch and 10-inch pipes, a new 18-inch single pipe is being constructed, which should serve the mill for another 20 years.
In the past, Red Stag has been able to generate all its steam and electricity on site and also sell excess power back to the grid, but it is now consuming more than it generates. So a third boiler is in the process of being added, and a new generator and turbine will also be built to utilize the extra residues of sawdust and shavings.
With two sets of quad saws requiring saw changes every six hours on average, a brand new saw shop has been built right next to the big hall. As with the saw line, much thought went into the planning and equipping this important element of the operation.
The saw shop is bright and airy and features the latest automatic saw sharpening equipment made by Swiss manufacturer, Iseli, considered to be among the best in the world. Under saw shop manager Regan Eisenhut, the facility is kept meticulous.
The new mill continues to handle both Radiata Pine and Douglas fir, supplied from Kaingaroa and other local forests. In fact, it’s the largest processor of Douglas fir in New Zealand. Being harder wood than pine, it’s harder on the saws, so more saw changes are required when it goes through the line. The chips from the Douglas fir have to go into separate bins, too.
While the new mill is bigger and much faster, it still makes the same products as before. But it cuts it differently and needs more time to produce some lines like pith in packaging grades.
“The new mill produces a lot less industrial grade, which is good, because those are the lower grades,” says Rigter. “That’s been a big plus although it did create a bit of a shortage for a while because of the volumes that we used to produce.
“We process fewer small logs and more of the medium-to-larger structural log grades. Our green industrial production would have dropped by 40 per cent. There’s enough there for the domestic market, we just export less. That’s been good.
“We’ve also more than doubled our CCA capacity in our treatment plant, with another cylinder the same size, but the cycle times are faster. It’s gone from a 60,000 cubic metre capacity up to 140,000. That has opened up opportunities for us to go into posts and fencing.”
The number of people working within the new mill is down to 13 per shift. There are three people on the line that breaks down the log, where there used to be about 10, and then there’s about 10 people to process the wood once it’s actually been cut.
It’s still run on two shifts, with the option to go to three shifts if required. But the speed of the new mill has upped the ante in other parts of the operation, with more staff required on the planer mills, which now have three shifts and the treatment plants have gone from two to four shifts.
The sawmill itself works Monday to Thursday on two 10-hour shifts, with Friday reserved for maintenance, unless demand requires processing on that day through overtime.
Total employment has risen slightly to 290 employees and 80 full-time equivalent contractors across the entire site.
Prior to the new mill being built, there was a suggestion that the speed and volume of production would help to reduce the price of timber, but any savings that have been made are now being swallowed up by the higher cost of logs.
But the log prices are set by the international trade, so it affects all sawmills and the efficiency of the new mill means that Red Stag is now firmly in the driving seat as the lowest cost timber producer in Australasia.
Crucially, the new mill at Waipa has come on stream at a time when demand for its products in New Zealand has never been stronger, thanks to a building boom in the country.
“We’ve been fortunate in that we have expanded as the market has taken off—mind you, we took decisions when it wasn’t so good, such as putting in the re-man plant during the global financial crisis,” says Rigter.
“We’ve just done it, despite market conditions. But it’s paid off very well, because the market’s never been stronger.”
When the new mill started up, it was expected that the old saw line would continue for some time, while the new process was commissioned. But the installation went so well, the old mill was switched off, just over three months after the new line started up.
“It’s been brilliant starting from scratch and building it off-line because we could stage it, commission it and our production didn’t suffer because it was all off-line,” adds Rigter.
But it’s a complex process, with some ramping up left to do. “We’re not quite there yet. It’s a big operation and we’re still learning about it. We’re not quite there yet. It’s a big operation and we’re still learning about it.”
As for the old building and saw line, it will be demolished soon, as it doesn’t meet earthquake standards.
And the future? Stage two, which will require another continuous drying kiln (in addition to the existing three), more stackers, the new boiler and other handling systems, is yet to get the final go ahead, but it can only be a matter of time.
(This story was published in the March 2017 issue of New Zealand Logger, www.nzlogger.co.nz, and is reprinted with
their kind permission).
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