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Upgrading in a down economy
Stimson Lumber is taking advantage of the slower economy to make an investment in its stud mill, including the replacement of its canter and an upgrade to an optimized double length in-feed scanning system.
By Diane Mettler
Stimson Lumber Company, like a lot of sawmills, has taken advantage of the slower economy to make upgrades to its mill operation.
“It’s a good time for us to invest—when the economy picks up, we’ll be better prepared,” says Chris Stirk, manager of the company’s Tillamook, Oregon stud mill. “And if you have the funds available, equipment investments tend to be less expensive when the economy is down.”
Using mostly hemlock, as well as Douglas fir and spruce, Stimson produces 8 and 9-foot 2 X 4s with a small percentage of 2 X 6s.
To keep its customers happy—primarily the big box stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s—Stimson continually makes upgrades, like the recent $5.5 million replacement of the canter and upgrade to an optimized double length in-feed scanning system.
Stirk says they officially finished the upgrade this past October. “We fired the mill back up October 31, and were only down from October 8 through to the 31st.”
Even though the machinery at the mill is USNR-built, Stirk says the team shopped for the right piece for a year-and-a-half before choosing USNR. “We have used other brands at some of our other mills, but USNR was a better fit for the equipment we have and what we wanted to do at our particular mill.”
USNR did some training before installation so operators would be prepared for the new computer optimized system, and were also available during the installation. “They also hung out with us for two weeks to walk us through it and make sure we were up and running,” says Stirk. “They’ve been a great support partner for us.”
There’s no getting around shutting down when doing a major installation like this, but Stimson performed as much prep work as possible to minimize the production downtime.
The mill built up an inventory of upwards of 6 million board feet of lumber so the planer could continue to run.
Installation began in June, and they did everything from realigning other equipment, to building up inventory to construction of the building around the new canter.
The new building is approximately 6,000 square feet and construction went smoothly due in part to a well-organized team. “Cameron Mierau, the chief architect of the whole project, owned the project,” says Stirk. “He negotiated with the vendors, paid the bills, kept everything in line. We also had on-the-ground Stimson employee Orrin Greene as our day-to-day overseer, and he also did a fantastic job. Orrin doubled as the lead electrician.”
Stimson maintenance superintendant Mike Cates in conjunction with sawmill supervisor Jon Stevens took ownership as soon as equipment arrived.
“Jon and Mike were an integral part from beginning to end to make sure that everything going in was practical and applicable,” says Stirk
They also worked closely with the City of Tillamook and the Port of Tillamook Bay (POTB). “Our property is on the POTB, and we met with them and the County Commissioner’s office before we moved any dirt. We told them what we wanted to do, and they were just fantastic to work with,” says Stirk. “We’re one of the top three employers in the county, and we’re fortunate to have a cooperative relationship with the county and POTB.”
At any given time during the upgrade, 20 to 25 extra people, unfamiliar with the mill, were on site and there was increased potential for accidents. To counter that, every person on the property was required to take a one-hour safety training course at Stimson, regardless of who they were employed by.
With everyone at the mill aware of the increased risk, the contractors didn’t have any safety issues. “They were all very compliant and very cooperative,” says Stirk. “I know this sounds almost too good to be true, but they really were very good to work with.”
The primary purpose of the upgrade was fibre-recovery—to produce the same volume, but use less logs. Stimson could justify the project with a seven per cent increase and to-date they’ve seen closer to 10 per cent.
Initially, Stimson anticipated the upgrade would pay for itself in less than two years and Stirk says they anticipate it will be more like 18-months.
“This project was part one of a three-phase project,” he says. “We were hesitant to do it all at once, just in case. But this project went so well that we’ve advanced our plans on Phase 2, a vertical twin band saw, as well as Phase 3 to replace our hand-fed edgers with optimized edgers.
“The software that comes with the USNR optimization is essential because it gives us a more scientific way of measuring future results, especially if we upgrade,” Stirk added. “Without the optimization we can only take educated guesses as to what positive effects the equipment would have. Now we can scientifically predict what benefits the next two phases will be.”
Taking on a big project always has its challenges, and being familiar with upgrades, Stimson worked to be prepared for the unexpected. The biggest concern, however, was taking care of their employees.
“When we get new equipment, it’s exciting because everyone can see the investment. But in this case they were taking off three weeks, and we wanted to make sure the employees were informed and on board. We are concerned a lot about their welfare and their buy-in.”
The Stimson team handled the transition well. “They’ve been enthused to train on and learn the new equipment,” says Stirk. “The most fun thing for me has been talking to guys like Raymond Pyatt—a 20-year employee who has seen this mill in every stage—and seeing him sit in that command chair and the big grin on his face.”
Prior to the upgrade, the logs came in on the deck, went through a Nicholson debarker and then on to a chop saw. They would roll into a trough and into the canter. What has changed, says Stirk, is that they still go through the debarker and up through the chop saw. But now they go outside the building onto a long belt, into a surge bin transfer. The logs travel up and inside the building. Instead of randomly falling into a trough, they go through the scanner and then they are rotated and positioned, and sent through the new canter.
The spot where the old canter used to be located is now waiting for the new twin saw and when that happens, routing will change. It will mean a bigger adjustment, but Stirk is looking forward to the addition of the twin saw, because it will mean an increase in volume as they will be able to get additional cuts off larger-diameter logs.
West Coast Industrial Systems (WCIS) of Lebanon, Oregon, was the primary contractor for construction and installation on the Stimson project. As mentioned, USNR was a major equipment supplier. Linden Fabricating supplied the step feeder and log ladder. Key Knife supplied the canter heads and Western Integrated supplied the MCCs. Delta Fire did the fire system and APST was responsible for hydraulics piping installation. T&L did the electrical installation.
Stirk says that an upgrade like this one helps the mill better contribute to the entire company. “We have seven manufacturing facilities right now; four in Oregon and three in Idaho. Five of those are stud mills and one is a hardboard plant and one cuts dimension timbers. We employ over 600 people, and 95 at this plant.
“Because the project went well, it opens the door to pursue other projects within the company. Even though Stimson is a privately-held company, you still have to appeal to somebody to write that check. Just like any other bank loan situation, you’ve got to put a proposal together that says this is a good use of your money.”
More upgrades and expansions are in the works, in part because Stimson is optimistic about the future.
“Our view is that the economy has bottomed out and this year we’re on pace to be pretty much the same as last year with an optimistic uptake toward the end of the year.” Whether it’s the housing or the economy in general, Stirk says he doesn’t know for sure. “But our primary customers are steady and optimistic and whatever is causing that is good for us.”
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