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More wood less chips
An edger optimizer upgrade at Alberta’s Spray Lake Sawmills has reduced its edger rejects by 45 per cent, and the sawmill is now generating more solid wood and fewer chips.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Lance Carew, sawmill quality control and optimization technician, says edger performance is critical to generating high-value outturn from the sawmill.

Every great army loses a few battles. Do they retreat and go home? No, they don’t. They regroup, plan a new strategy, improve their weapons arsenal, and counterattack. That’s the approach that Alberta’s Spray Lake Sawmills (SLS) is taking to survive the current downturn in the forest industry.   

Most recently, the Cochrane-based, independently-owned sawmill has invested about $250,000 in an edger optimizer upgrade with equipment from USNR and Optimil. This involved the installation of Dynavision B800 sensors to replace their obsolete M6 sensors, and new USNR Mill Expert operating software to replace Mill Manager. The scanning and software system interfaces with the company’s Optimil/Catech transverse edger. 

Operations manager Jason Quantz says the mill had gotten as much life out of its older scanning system as it could, and was concerned that parts and service support was no longer available on that system. The solution offered by USNR and Optimil allowed the company to upgrade within the same physical space. Lance Carew, sawmill quality control and optimization technician, says edger performance is critical to generating high-value outturn from the sawmill. “Since the edger is a remanufacturing machine centre, all the pieces that go to the edger need some kind of remanufacturing, whether it be a re-saw or a re-edge,” he says.                                   

Carew has considerable experience with mill optimization. He was part of the team that quarterbacked the complete modernization of the sawmill line at Millar Western Forest Products in Whitecourt, Alberta. That project involved replacing three breakdown lines with one, state-of-the-art, Optimil high-speed breakdown line that had seven optimization centres. “It’s very important to get an accurate scan so that you make the proper decision and you don’t have a piece of lumber fail at the trim line,” he says.                                   

With the edger optimizer upgrade at SLS, Carew says the sawmill has now reduced its edger rejects by 45 per cent, meaning the sawmill is generating more solid wood and fewer chips. The edger throughput is between 55,000 and 75,000 board feet per 10-hour shift.                 

The new Dynavision sensors provide resolution every three inches instead of every six inches, meaning that the operating system is gathering more information per individual board and catching more defects.                                   

The Mill Expert software works in tandem with the new sensors. “It’s the latest and greatest, for lack of a better phrase,” says Carew. “It gives you a little more flexibility. You can design certain outcomes with certain products as opposed to designing certain outcomes that impact all your products.” Carew adds that it is a little more user-friendly than their older Mill Manager software, offering more options to make adjustments to the system. The system is set up so that it can be left unattended, since an alarm system and shutdown sequence is triggered if it experiences a problem. Carew monitors the system a half dozen times per shift. The entire upgrade was installed over a weekend and did not hamper production. Other than a few of the usual start-up glitches, Carew says the system has worked well, with excellent service support from USNR.                                   

Owning a responsive and reliable edger optimizer system is critical to operations at Spray Lake, given the variety of products that the mill produces. Their product line includes timbers, decking, J-grade lumber, dimension lumber, treated wood and posts. Product diversification is a key component of the sawmill’s business strategy.                                   

Their primary focus at present is the Canadian market. Given their close proximity to booming Calgary, their clients include a variety of wood product retailers in the immediate area. Carew says producing such a large variety of products is beneficial because it allows the company to market a number of products to each customer.                                   

Timbers range in size from 4x4 to 6x6, but SLS has the capability to manufacture products with unique dimensions based on customer needs. The Optimil/Catech edger is used specifically to produce high quality dimension lumber ranging from 1x4 to 2x10.

New Dynavision scanners in advance of the Catech edger at Spray Lake Sawmills are able to read information every three inches instead of every six inches on the sawmill’s old system, meaning that more information is collected.

Carew is also responsible for setting the sawmill’s cut plan on a weekly basis and says that typical commodity dimension lumber in the 2x4 and 2x6 range is actually considered downgraded material based on the weekly cut plan, given the company’s focus to seek products with the highest value return at the moment.                                   

“It’s a balancing act because making money is the name of the game,” says Carew. “It’s a balancing act between product value and recovery. You sometimes take a small hit in recovery but get a better dollar value at the end of the day.                                   

We manage that very tightly.” Being able to respond quickly to customer demand is also an important part of the SLS philosophy. “It’s actually a very simple process for us to make adjustments from one-inch lumber to five-quarter decking to dimension lumber,” says Carew. “We can make changes and have the product at the customer’s doorstep very quickly.”                                   

SLS realizes that its employees must also work efficiently to achieve optimum equipment performance. It was the first Alberta primary sawmill to participate in Forintek’s eight-week lean manufacturing training program more than a year ago. Carew says the company’s management team has maintained its focus on instilling lean manufacturing concepts into the daily routine of employees. In fact, many lean concepts are written on a whiteboard in the office of operations manager Jason Quantz as a reminder to employees and as a work tool for use during management meetings.                                   

One central concept behind lean manufacturing is to minimize waste in material, which explains the investment in edger optimization. It is a process of continual improvement.                                   

Lean manufacturing is the main philosophy used by car maker Toyota, which today far outpaces its North American rivals in profitability. It has been using lean for over 30 years—but the company notes that it is still only part way toward full lean implementation.

Spray Lake Sawmills has experienced a 45 per cent improvement of on-grade lumber outturn from the edger, meaning that the trimmer operator (left) is a lot busier these days. Optimizer system technician Lance Carew (below) checks in with the USNR Mill Expert software the sawmill has installed as part of its edger optimization program.

“Lean manufacturing wasn’t something that was just the flavour of the day and was shelved after we took the training,” says Carew. “When we communicate as the lean management group, we communicate using the lean manufacturing concepts.”                                   

In terms of benefits, he says tools are now where they are supposed to be, there has been waste reduction throughout the facility, and the company is committed to instilling the “do it once/do it right” approach among all employees. There have been challenges to gain company-wide acceptance of the lean approach, Carew says. “In this business, everyone is used to doing the same thing the same way,” he notes. “They’ve been trained and taught that way. So it’s human nature. You get a little bit of resistance.”                                   

The booming Alberta economy, which has resulted in staff turnover at the saw mill, has also showed how quickly lean concepts can be implemented as each new employee has to be introduced and trained in the objectives of lean manufacturing. Management remains committed to the system.                                   

There is no doubt that exposure to the lean methodology as a work practice was a real eye opener for some people, Carew concludes, “but I would recommend it for every business.”