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The Tolko Kelowna operation (above), located just blocks from Kelowna’s downtown, has a fair amount of land, with an 11.5-acre site. But that has to accommodate the sawmill, a dryland sort, a veneer operation, a co-gen facility, kilns and all the support equipment and buildings that makes all this run smoothly.

Tolko’s Kelowna, BC, sawmill has recently completed some $15 million in upgrades, including a new Comact small log line, that will allow it to handle mountain pine beetle wood more effectively.

By Paul MacDonald

When the lumber markets get tough, the tough get more efficient. That’s the approach Canadian forest companies and sawmills are taking in the face of low lumber prices, due to significant declines in the US housing market.                                   

Tolko Industries’ Kelowna, BC, sawmill is taking that approach to heart, and recently completed a $15 million upgrade that is allowing the mill to produce more lumber more efficiently, handle mountain pine beetle wood more effectively—and do all of this in a more environmentally friendly manner, with reduced air emissions.                                   

A focus of the production improvements at Kelowna is a new Comact Industries DDM6 small log line and significant planer changes, including a Comact GradExpert automated grading system. Comact’s involvement on the project includes a Wave Feeder, a DDM6 with profiling section and C1-Scan scanner, two electric trimmers, a 0-bin drag chain type lumber sorter, a double fork high-speed stacker with stick placer, all transfers and conveyors, controls, variable frequency drives, start-up and training.                                   

“The real driver for this project is the fibre base we have to work with and the availability of mountain pine beetle wood—we need to extract as much value and recovery as we can from that resource,” says Tolko Kelowna site manager Greg Maralia. “This new equipment will fulfill those objectives.”  The new small log line will give the mill the flexibility to better optimize the smaller diameter logs that are coming in, and produce a wider range of products going out.                                   

“The new line is also about balancing fibre management throughout the sawmill operation,” Maralia adds. Previously, 6 per cent of their logs were handled on the Newnes/McGehee-equipped large log line, while 7 per cent was handled on the then-existing smaller line. The new small log line has taken pressure off the large log line—log handling is now balanced, with 50 per cent of logs going to the small log line, and 50 per cent to the large log line.                                   

The new line also features full profiling, so product will not require edging. “It will profile to whatever solution we program in,” notes Bill Morey, lumber superintendent at Tolko Kelowna. “It gives us the capability to do a valueadded square component out of the log profile, including four-inch stock.” The mill produces 4x4 and x4 blanks for reman customers. “With our previous set-up, we had to do a batch run for these customers. But the new Comact line allows us to do that on the fly—it gives us the opportunity to make that product routinely.”                                   

This dovetails nicely with the mill’s effort to move beyond being a stud mill, to produce added value. “It’s a big step towards producing a broader range of products,” says Maralia. “We want to produce other products besides studs, such as J-grade for the Japanese markets, and move beyond being just a stud mill.”                                   

The new equipment set-up allows them to get the most out of beetle-killed timber. “That’s something we need to do because we are definitely seeing more bug wood and more deterioration in that wood,” says Morey. That said, the deterioration is pretty much halted once the logs make it to the Kelowna mill. The sawmill, located just blocks from Kelowna’s downtown, sits right on Okanagan Lake. And that’s where most of their log inventory is stored. “There’s very little deterioration to the logs once they make it to the mill and into the water,” says Maralia.                                   

And Maralia says it actually pays to be a stud operation when it comes to processing the checked beetle wood. “With the large amount of checking, it’s a lot easier to make a stud out of it than dimensional lumber,” he says. Carrying things further down the production chain, the improvements the company is making to the planer operation will allow them to optimize grade and value, and reduce their operating costs thanks to increased automation in grading.                                   

Maralia says that when the mill went through the planning process for the upgrade, they married the sawmill and the planer mill.                                   

“What I mean is we will be able to produce 850,000 board feet a day on two shifts, and the planer mill will be able to handle that production volume. If there is an uplift and we have more timber, everything—the sawmill and the planer—can move up in tandem. We did not want to build a planer mill that would be falling behind the sawmill. They won’t be bottlenecking each other two years down the road because one can’t keep up with the other.”                                   

By putting these two projects together, Tolko Kelowna has increased its current capacity and the future capacity of the sawmill, adds Morey. “That two-shift opportunity is not here right now, but when it is here, when market demand returns, we can ramp up to higher productivity levels.”                                   

The new small log line allows the operation to handle 16,000 logs on a single eight-hour shift, versus the 10,000 logs they were doing previously. Maralia and Morey say the mill opted for the Comact small log equipment for a few reasons. “The quality of the product is extremely good, and it’s a proven machine,” comments Morey.                                   

“We also liked the options that were available, like the full profiling heads to increase recovery. And we ordered it with the option of the Southern Yellow Pine arbor—it will shift according to the product that you want.”                                   

Comact’s DDM6 comes with strong features including high speed (up to 700 fpm throughput), straight sawing and optimized curve sawing modes, full profile scanning/real time optimization and minimum space requirements. That last point was critical at Kelowna—the line had to fit the limited space they had available in the mill. The Tolko Kelowna operation has a fair amount of land, with an 11.5-acre site. But that has to accommodate the sawmill, a dryland sort, a veneer operation, a co-gen facility, kilns and all the support equipment and buildings that makes all this run smoothly.                                   

“Our sawmill space is very tight, but we believe the lack of space has actually made us a more efficient operation,” says Maralia. “We have to keep our lumber inventories low and approach things on more of a just-in-time business model simply because we don’t have extra space.                                   

“Our ideal is to have a finely tuned wood production machine, from the bush right through to the storage of finished lumber.”                                   

To achieve this, they did as much planning as possible with the upgrade project. “The more you can solve on paper, the better off you are going to be with a project,” says Morey. The planning for the project started some 18 months ago and included visits to a number of Quebec sawmills with small log lines. “We went there to get a firsthand look at the small log lines at work,” says Morey.

Comact Industries was a major equipment supplier to the sawmill and planer upgrade at Tolko Kelowna. A good deal of planning went into the equipment and set-up so the mill and planer systems can work in tandem.

And both Morey and Maralia noted that Quebec sawmillers are one group who can really make their small log lines sing—with speeds of 1,100 to 1,200 fpm. “In addition to wanting high speed in the sawmill, we wanted to run our planer at 225 lugs a minute, and there are not a lot of places in BC that run at that speed,” says Morey. “When we put that 225 lugs number out there, some people were saying that was a bit of a stretch.                                    “But you don’t get the opportunity very often to capitalize on your whole planing mill. We did not want to settle for today’s production standard—we wanted to set a new benchmark.”                                   

The tour of the Quebec sawmills gave them ideas on what they wanted to do, and perhaps just as importantly, what they did not want to do. “The Quebec mills are like any other mills—they do some things very well, such as run small logs very efficiently, and other things less well,” says Maralia, diplomatically.                                   

Once they figured out what equipment set-up they wanted, they also wanted to make sure that it would be—no pun intended, considering it’s the forest industry—sustainable. “Our goal was to run at high speeds and the equipment has to have the integrity to do it hour after hour, day after day, month after month,” says Morey.                                   

“We need it to run fast and run well—and not have things unwind six months down the road. We don’t want to be looking at downtime or maintenance costs that were going to be over the moon.”                                   

The entire sawmill and planer upgrade project was ably overseen by Travis Stelter, capital projects manager for Tolko’s Kelowna Division.                                   

While the recent upgrades certainly prepare the Kelowna sawmill for the future, there’s still additional change to come. They could use an additional kiln—but the big change they are now looking at involves working with their woodlands department to get more cut-to-length timber.                                   

About 0 per cent of their timber comes in cut-to-length form now and that is being ramped up. Mountain pine beetle wood now comes to the mill in eight-foot multiples, which allows the mill to better manage the checking in the wood, and keep the grade of the final product as high as possible.                                   

Essentially they are looking to do more log merchandizing, but they want to do it in the bush. The end goal is to have the right-sized log being processed to achieve the right product. “We’ve already started down that road,” says Maralia. The Kelowna operation has been following Tolko’s company wide R4=M2 formula for some time. That means getting the Right log to the Right line at the Right time at the Right price (R4) = Maximum Margin (M2). Achieving that maximum margin means giving the customer what they want, and, if they can, perhaps a bit more.                                   

“That’s really what it’s all about,” says Maralia. “We can ship anywhere, and customers have different expectations about what a stud is going to look like, and we want to be able to produce to those expectations.”                                   

The mill, even though it primarily produces studs, essentially wants to differentiate all its products in the marketplace, and they can now do that with the new equipment. “We have the equipment that can dial in what a customer is looking for, and we can deliver it. We want to produce lumber to their specs,” says Morey.                                   

Overall, the sawmill upgrades are going to increase recovery, and the planer mill upgrade—with its automated grading system—is going to drive margin. “That’s how we look at it—we want to get as much as we can out of the log and then direct product to the highest markets. We can go after niche markets. If there is a $10 premium per thousand board feet for a product, even for a short period, we can dial in the profile for that product—it gives us lots of flexibility.”                                   

Added to this, the mill has also done some $2 million of environmental upgrades. The project involved the installation of a state-of-the-art control system that will automate the combustion process in the operation’s three biomass-fired steam boilers. This improved the efficiency of converting wood residue into “green” electrical power while also reducing air emissions. There was also an extensive retrofit of the division’s emission control device for the boilers.                                   

“Even though we were already meeting all the governmental permitting requirements, these projects underline Tolko’s ongoing commitment to the city of Kelowna and all of its residents,” says Maralia.                                   

Looking back and forward, Maralia notes there has been a sawmill, under a number of ownerships, on this site in Kelowana for 75 years—and Tolko is building for the long term, with the production improvements and environmental upgrades. “We’re investing for the future at Tolko Kelowna—we are here to stay.”

The Tolko Kelowna Project Team New small log line:

• Comact Industries (DDM6 line) • NX-tek (lug loaders) • Woodpro Engineering (engineering, mechanical) • Westwood Engineering (engineering, electrical) • Iggesund Tools Canada (chipping heads) Planer project: • Comact (GradExpert, trimmer, sorter stacker, material handling) • NX-tek (lug loaders) • Autolog (ink jet printer) • Woodpro Engineering (engineering, mechanical) • Westwood Engineering (engineering, electrical) • Systematic Mill Installation (installation contractor, mechanical) • Mueller Electric Ltd (installation contractor, electrical) • Norsteel Building Systems Ltd (building vendor) • Allied Blower & Sheet Metal (sawdust systems) Consultants: • CWA Engineers Electrostatic precipitator rebuild: • PPC Industries (supplier) • Systematic Mill Installations (mechanical contractor) • Mueller Electric (electrical contractor) Combustion Control System • Rockwell Automation (supplier) • Milltron Electric Inc (electrical contractor)