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Managing the millyard in Merritt
Faced with limits on the space they have for log storage—and a good appetite for timber from their sawmill—Aspen Planers of Merritt, B.C. has found LeTourneau log stacking equipment to be a good ally in managing their millyard efficiently.
By Paul MacDonald
Independent sawmilling operation Aspen Planers Ltd, of Merritt, B.C., has always had to be resourceful.
Being a standalone sawmilling operation, and family owned, it does not have access to the kind of capital that the big forest companies, the Canfor Corporation’s and West Fraser’s of the world, possess. So they make do with what they have—and make a success of it.
Founded by the Ghog Family in 1959, the business has grown over the years to include an additional planer mill in Merritt, and post and rail facilities in Merritt, and in Princeton, B.C.
The main focus for Aspen Planers, however, continues to be their sawmill facilities in Merritt, in B.C.’s Southern Interior.
In the town, Aspen Planers actually has three sites. The sawmill is located right off the main street leading into the town, on 24 acres. Site 2, with the planer operation, is two blocks down, and site 3 is a log storage yard a few blocks over from that, used mostly at break-up, and also is home to the forestry department office. The two latter sites are about 67 acres, combined.
That may sound like a fair bit of land for log storage, but keep in mind that the sawmill operates seven days a week, and has a pretty good appetite for timber. An average day will see 85 truckloads of logs through the yard, and at break-up, up to 125 truck loads, to build up an inventory of logs.
“We’re quite limited for log storage, space-wise, since the sawmill is pretty much right in the middle of town,” says Surinder Momrath, mill manager at Aspen Planers. “It’s a big challenge for us.”
Helping them meet that challenge of managing wood in the millyard over the years, and steadily feeding the sawmill, have been LeTourneau log stacking equipment.
Momrath, who started out as a sawfiler at Aspen Planers and is a long term employee, explained that through the 1980s, they were running tree length wood through the two lines at the mill, a headrig and chip ‘n saw line. “We had one bucking station at the time, and we were able to keep up with logs for the mill and the two lines.”
In 1987, the mill bought its first LeTourneau, a 50 ton model, to help reduce log breakage and be able to stack wood more effectively in the mill yard. “With our mill yard, we also needed a machine with a sharp turning radius.”
Through the 1990s, Aspen Planers, which holds its own forest licence and is a joint venture partner in another forest licence through Qwa’eet Forest Products Ltd. with four local First Nations bands, started to get into more cut-to-length.
Momrath notes that one of the big transition points for the millyard came in the mid-1990s, when they purchased two 60 ton LeTourneau machines, a 2794B and 2794A. “The truckloads were getting bigger and heavier, and we wanted to cable the logs and stack them four high in the yard.”
In the mid-2000s, the operation went completely CTL.
Around the same time, they also installed a Comact DDM10 saw line at the mill. “That’s when we shut down the bucking station and went completely cut-to-length,” explained Momrath. “There was no way we could supply enough logs from our bucking line to feed the DDM10.
“Even before the DDM10, as the production at the sawmill increased, we would try to buck multiple logs, but we were losing recovery because it couldn’t buck tree length and get accuracy.”
In addition, over the years, the truck loads have gotten larger, with more axles, and the hauls have been longer, with the onset of the mountain pine beetle in B.C. “Some of the wood is being hauled from as far as 100 Mile House—the truckers are only getting one turnaround, so we have to get the volume to make it cost effective.”
The two 60 tonne LeTourneaus performed well, and faithfully, in the main yard until their replacement with a high tech, 50 tonne machine, which offers a number of benefits. That includes an 8’ 4” wide grapple, which makes it easier to unload short log trucks, with their CTL wood. The new machine also features operating lift capacity of 110,000 lbs. and lift height of 24 feet.
These days, they are operating two 5594 log stackers, and a 2594SS stacker in the main, site 1 yard.
“With the new technology, there is less maintenance, and the machines are faster,” says Momrath. “The operator loves it because the 5594 has an oscillating seat. All the controls are electronic—there was some resistance from the operator at first, but once he got used to it, he did not want to run anything but the LeTourneau.”
Long time Aspen Planers employee Shalinder Wahid runs the LeTourneaus, and is assisted in the yard by Darren Martin, with a Cat 996 loader. A Taylor loader stacker also helps out in the yard. Interestingly, they still have their original 50 ton LeTourneau 2694 machine, which works over in Site 3, stacking wood at break-up and for inventory.
“The LeTourneaus have really proved to be the machine for us,” says Momrath. “We’re very happy with them and we’ve had success with them. Especially with the work that we do, having such limited space.”
Reliability is key to any millyard equipment, and the LeTourneau machines over the years have proved their stuff.
“LeTourneau itself has been great,” says Momrath. “They’ve helped us a lot. Our mechanics pretty much do all of the maintenance, and they have been to LeTourneau School, to be trained on the equipment. But if we need help, the LeTourneau people will help us troubleshoot over the phone, from Portland. And on some of the bigger maintenance jobs, LeTourneau will come in and help us out.” Momrath noted that they use LeTourneau parts exclusively for repairs and maintenance.
They have a Preventative Maintenance program, which was set up with the help of LeTourneau.
“With any equipment, you can still have a component fail, and unscheduled downtime, but a good PM program goes a long ways to reducing that, with regular 50, 100, and 250 hour servicing,” says Momrath. “The guys can catch a lot when they do the regular PM.
“The operators, though, are key,” he added. “They are the number one source of feedback. Shalinder runs that machine all day, he’s the one who is going to notice things first. If something does not sound right, he can give the mechanics a head’s up.”
They keep a reasonable number of parts in stock, but extra parts are fairly close by, either from the LeTourneau office in Prince George, or the main LeTourneau office in Portland, Oregon.
To help their mobile equipment out, and increase the overall efficiency of the millyard, Aspen Planers now has a paved millyard.
“Logyards are always dusty, and Merritt is a windy town,” says Momrath. “Since we were right in town, we were using water trucks in the yard, to keep the dust down.
“But with it being unpaved, and the weather and traffic, come spring time we would have ruts out there, and the machines would be running through them. Tires take a beating, and it’s hard on the machines and the operators.”
A paved millyard means happier operators, and longer machine life.
Keeping dust to a minimum in the millyard continues to be a challenge, though it’s generally manageable. Aspen Planers handles a lot of mountain pine beetle wood, which is usually dry and brittle, which poses challenges inside the mill and in the millyard.
“We’re into the beetle wood pretty hard right now, and as the machines run over the small dry pieces of bark in the yard, it creates a fine dust, like talcum powder.” To help keep dust down, the yard is swept once a week.
When it comes to equipment, and employee training, Momrath says the overall approach at Aspen Planers reflects the philosophy of the company’s owners, the Ghog Family: give employees the right equipment to do a good job.
Momrath also says the family takes prides in knowing their employees, some of whom have been at the company for 40 years, and in making decisions locally. “We don’t have someone sitting in a head office in downtown Vancouver.”
They also took pride in having kept their employees busy, and the mill operating, right through the recent downturn.
The family approach and local emphasis is promoted when the company seeks to hire new people, such as mechanics and millwrights. The company is not only competing with the major forest companies for employees, but also new mines which have opened in the area.
“I think it helps that we’re a family operation,” says Momrath. He noted the Ghog family works to develop its employees, and promote from within. Momrath is an example of that, having started as a summer student at the company.
And they continue to invest in the operation, most recently with improvements to the planer mill in the last several years, with the installation of a new Comact GradExpert line, with trimmer, optimizer and scanner upgrades. The upgrade also included a new Gillingham-Best stickering stacker in the sawmill. This has reduced stacker manpower to a single operator.
Out of all the mills that have a GradeExpert system, Aspen Planers had the distinction of having among the most difficult wood to grade. Their wood has lots of colour, ranging from light brown decay in spruce to black fungal decay, and all shades of red, brown, blue and even purple in the heartwood.
But again, being ever resourceful, they worked with Comact to successfully implement the system.
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