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Island mill gets big upgrade
The $38 million upgrade of Western Forest Products’ Saltair sawmill on Vancouver Island is allowing the mill to more efficiently produce lumber now—and positions it well for the future.
By Paul MacDonald
In sawmilling, it’s important to have an efficient operation today, but it’s also key to be prepared for future market cycles. Investment is critical to maintaining a sustainable business—it allows you to remain competitive and enhances your ability to operate through the market cycle.
B.C.-based Western Forest Products (WFP) is a firm advocate of that approach. At the end of 2011, WFP announced a $200 million investment plan with $125 million earmarked for strategic investments. The first major investment was the Saltair sawmill, slated for a $38 million upgrade.
The upgrade at Saltair, located in Ladysmith on Vancouver Island, allows the mill to more efficiently produce lumber now—but it also positions the mill well for the future.
The Saltair mill sits on a relatively small site fronting Ladysmith Harbour on the eastern side of Vancouver Island, about 25 kilometres south of Nanaimo. It produces lumber for just about every market going, including Japan, Europe, Australia and North America. It converts mid-size coastal logs, with tops in the 10 to 24 inch range, into high value specialized hemlock, yellow cedar, Douglas fir and Western Red Cedar products.
“We’re one of the few mills that can cut four species,” says Saltair Division Manager, Dan Bowes. “At any one time, we’ll have 12 order files, from customers from around the world.” As a result, the cutting programs change daily—sometimes hourly.
Depending on markets, which are now quite robust, Saltair will produce upwards of 215 million board feet of high value lumber a year, consuming some 850,000 cubic metres of timber in the process.
With those kind of numbers, the mill is producing almost 20 per cent of the 1.1 billion board capacity of all of WFP’s mills. It’s a significant strategic asset for WFP, which is the largest log and lumber company on the B.C. Coast.
Prior to analyzing the capital investment opportunities, Saltair underwent what mill management terms a “no capital” improvement process. This involved making improvements—at little or no cost—to get the mill running at its optimum with the existing equipment.
“We worked towards meeting goals in process reliability with the existing equipment. Once we got up to that level, we knew that was as good as it was going to get and we could see where the opportunities were,” explains Iain Donaldson, Manager of Strategic Planning, Manufacturing for WFP.
Before the upgrade started, using the services of Ches Piercy Consulting, mill management worked on where they could improve uptime in the mill.
“We did a lot of data analysis on where we could make gains, and where the bottlenecks were,” said Donaldson. “The data clearly showed that most of the bottlenecks were at the back end of the mill—and that we could gain 14 per cent more uptime with some upgrades.
“We presented a plan to WFP’s management as to where we could best spend the capital.”
The “To Do List” had a lot on it: the project delivered upgrades to the back end—the edgers, trim line, a sorter upgrade, chipper and residual conveyors, and the stacker/inline strapper.
Anthony-Seaman of North Vancouver did the design and engineering on the mill. And the edgers, trimmers, sorter and stacker upgrade involved well-known names on the equipment supplier side. Among the major suppliers were USNR, Carmanah Design and Manufacturing, Lucidyne Technologies, Mill-Tech Industries, Comact Equipment Inc, and Samuel Strapping.
The major contractors included Advanced Millwright Services, New West Mill Installations, Irwin Installations, Tebo Mill Installations, Van Isle Fire Protection Ltd. and KJ Electric, who handled all of the electrical work. Other companies involved with the project included Duncan Iron Works, Norcan Fluid Power, Can-Am Chains, Warnaar Steel-Tech and MicroWest Design (please see the sidebar story on MicroWest Design).
The contractor selection process was careful and methodical. “We used a tender package approach, but the contractors had to qualify early on to be involved in the bidding process,” explained Terry Charlton, Manager Special Projects for WFP, who managed construction of the project.
“When we were reviewing the contractors, we were looking for people who rated high in safety, because one of our drivers with the project was that no one was going to get hurt.” Charlton noted the company put their contractors through an extensive safety orientation, so they understood WFP expectations/processes. “We selected contactors based on their plans and how they were going to do the work. We asked them to submit an overview on how they were going to approach the project.”
As a result, there was an overall resourcefulness in how the company and its contractors approached the project, and installing the new equipment. For example, Advanced Millwright Services (AMS), of Vanderhoof, B.C. used a novel approach to take out the sorter without taking off the roof. They placed guiderails across the top of the sorter, built a carriage and rolled the pieces to the end, then lifted them out. The carriage returned to be loaded with the next section of the sorter, and then the next, and so on. Mill-Tech Industries supplied the sorter expansion. The sorter totals an impressive 82 bins (the existing two sorters have now been combined into one). The mill switched from a j-bar type sorter to a push style.
It was innovative ideas like that of AMS and its approach to taking out the sorter that led to success of the project, and pre-planning meant that it would be well coordinated, and done safely.
Major components that added to the safety focus were daily tool box meetings, held with WFP project personnel and contractors on site, as well as daily hazard assessments out on the job site. Ongoing audits were conducted using WFP’s bundle of written audit reports that covered all the bases.
Right from the start of planning the project, Bowes said, the mill wanted to make sure their customers were well served. “We still had volumes to ship to customers overseas, and North America. Being aware that there was an upgrade planned for the mill, customers were a bit nervous about how the shutdown might affect them and delivery of their product.”
They had the mill running and trucks being loaded right up to the last possible hour. “We continued to run the mill at a full 100 per cent and delivered to our customers—meanwhile we had millions of dollars of equipment coming into the yard, taking up space that is normally used for lumber storage and movement,” said Bowes.
For this scale of upgrade, and with the number of suppliers and contractors involved, it’s an understatement to say that a five-week upgrade is an aggressive timeline. They did not want to affect production for too long because, simply put, the mill was making money. Limiting downtime was essential during a time of positive markets.
To do that involved a massive amount of pre-planning, and staging equipment in advance of the mill shut. In other words, logistics was key to the success of the project. There was a day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, review of what was going on and who was doing work on the relatively small site.
One of the major issues they had was space. In addition to the mill itself, the 23 acre site also has five kilns, plus a planer mill. “We really don’t have a whole lot of room,” says Bowes. “Right before the upgrade, we had lumber being moved around in the yard, trucks being loaded. Meanwhile, we are getting ready for a shut that has four phases to it, with five different main contractors. All of this with a very big focus on safety.”
Communication was key to the project, says Charlton. “We put out a weekly newsletter to employees and contractors working on the job, to let people know what was coming up. We had to be on the same page. Essentially, we had to make sure we didn’t miss anything during the shut. When you’ve only got a five week shut, you can’t have one bolt missing.
“We laid things out while still running the mill,” Charlton added. “We cleared an adjacent parking lot, and were bringing in equipment to lay out there. So we had it all staged, and we had five major contractors including the electrical, and they each had their own space with equipment.”
They actually shut down one sorter before the major shut happened.
“We had to make some changes with our order file for it to work well with the construction team, to give them time on the equipment,” said Donaldson. “So a week before, we gave them the sorter. That meant we had to change the business slightly at the mill before the shut.”
Things happened quickly once the shut start. During the first upgrade graveyard shift, they had cranes in place taking down the old line, cutting pieces up and then placing them on truck trailers.
And sometimes the work involved a blend of contactor and mill employees. Local Ladysmith contractor Irwin Installations, which installed the edger, utilized 14 of Saltair maintenance superintendent Jan Saabel’s crew to help with the installation. “These guys would normally be doing other things during a shut, but we knew this was important,” said Saabel. “It’s also helped us in that after the start-up, these guys were all more familiar with the equipment, because they worked on the installation.”
Saabel added that while there was a lot of new equipment installed as part of the upgrade, the mill had also been working to install associated new support equipment in advance, knowing that the upgrade was going to happen. They knew that the focus was going to be on the back end of the mill, and wherever they could, they worked in associated equipment, such as drives, that would fit well.
Saabel commented on the new technology that is now incorporated into the mill, noting that throughout the mill, employees are going to be called upon more for their brains, than their brawn. “You don’t have to be Arnold Schwarzenegger any more to work the line,” he joked.
But there was a lot of muscle, equipment-wise, that went into the upgrade. Rather than remove the entire roof of the mill, they cut seven holes in the roof, above strategic points in the line. Equipment was then lifted out using heavy duty cranes, and new equipment placed in.
The new edging equipment from USNR was installed in a very speedy
All this hard work has paid off for Saltair. Four weeks after start-up, the mill was running at expected production levels. Some mills can take months to reach that level after an upgrade. Production is now far more streamlined and the production numbers are where they should be. The goal was to achieve a 14 per cent increase in production and this was achieved.
Donaldson notes the upgrade positions the mill well for the current market, and the inevitable downturns that come with the market cycle. “I can’t think of another mill on the coast that does as many things as well as this mill does.”
“When we got to the end of the project, we had the very best equipment in place, installed safely and now we are hitting our production targets,” he summarized. The project did not have any lost time accidents, which Donaldson says is a tribute to the hard work of the contractors, suppliers and WFP employees.
There is a much-earned feeling of satisfaction among all involved in a job well done. “The most critical thing for us right now is that the upgrade was done safely and what we have is working really well,” said Donaldson.
“This project has been extraordinarily important to us,” added Bowes. “I’ve been around this business for a long time, and seen coastal mill assets depreciate. So getting capital for our business, and investing it wisely, was important for everyone who works at the Saltair mill.”
But, he added, they are constantly going to be working on improvements. The back end changes have created a big pull-though on the primary end, illustrating improvements that can now be made at the front end, at the cut-off saw forward.
At the front end, logs go through a Nicholson A5 ring debarker. Logs after bucking are processed through a 6’ CAE quad band saw/canter with Porter optimization. Secondary breakdown is on Newnes transverse scanning (up to 12.5” thickness) and two sided canter followed by two 12” Ukiah gangs with moving line bars.
Now that the new equipment is up and running the key is working out the bugs. “Our biggest challenge is the change we need to accommodate,” said Bowes. “We have 12 different cutting programs, and each program has its own unique characteristics, and challenges. We’ll hit our pro-forma production numbers with one program, and take a nice deep breath. And then we’ll change the program, to a different species or size, and you start over again. So, it’s like a learning curve times 12, but we are seeing success and hitting our production targets and making improvements.”
Other challenges exist outside the confines of the mill. As the company’s mills become more efficient and competitive, they are operating at higher rates. A secure supply of fibre is critical to feed the mill and warrant further investment. Protection of the working forest and a secure operating environment are critical to a steady diet to these mills.
In the bigger picture, for Western Forest Products, the $38 million upgrade is all about creating a safe, efficient mill that they can continue to operate and invest in, knowing that it is competitive and making best use of a public timber resource.
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