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Maintaining the sawmill edge
West Fraser’s Blue Ridge Lumber sawmill in Alberta focuses on advanced equipment —including new equipment from a recent upgrade—and a skilled work force to maintain a competitive edge.
By Tony Kryzanowski
Just as the price for softwood lumber tends to follow cycles, so does the flow of new technology into the forest industry. Right now, investment is on the upswing largely due to breakthroughs in optimization technology that can improve efficiency, recovery and capture more lumber value.
This is a good example of the investment that West Fraser Timber has made in its Blue Ridge Lumber sawmill. The investment is one of many that West Fraser is making in several of its North American sawmills. In late 2010, the company approved the largest capital spending program in its history, a total of $230 million. This is being spent in all three geographical areas where the company operates—Alberta, B.C. and the U.S. South. In an interview with Logging and Sawmilling Journal last year, company CEO Hank Ketcham said the company would be seeking high payback projects, going through all of their mills to seek projects with the most return, and that are the most strategic.
Installation of more advanced equipment is only part of the equation in the quest by many forest companies to achieve greater efficiency, recovery and value uplift in its forest products. With more powerful computer devices, more refined and faster digital optical readers, and faster processing equipment, companies like West Fraser realize that it takes a more advanced skillset among its employees to take full advantage of new technology. So in addition to welcoming improvements being made at their locations, sawmills like Blue Ridge Lumber are putting out the welcome mat to attract more journeymen and apprentices to challenge themselves within this environment.
Blue Ridge Lumber, located just east of Whitecourt, Alberta, had already proven itself as one of the company’s most efficient sawmills. The sawmill took no downtime through the downturn, staff remained fully employed, and the sawmill actually produced more lumber than it had previously because it was such a low cost producer. West Fraser is a major employer in the area, operating both a sawmill and a medium density fibreboard plant in Blue Ridge. The sawmill operates 24 hours a day, five days a week and attracts workers from several communities in the area and is among the company’s largest dimension lumber producers by volume in Western Canada.
As a result of West Fraser’s recent capital investment at Blue Ridge Lumber, its aim is to increase throughput in its refurbished planer mill to 3000 board feet per minute and increase its overall production volume by 20 per cent.
The sawmill produces lumber in dimensions from 2 X 4 to 2 X 10 in lengths from 8’ to 20’ from logs consisting these days primarily of lodgepole pine. In support of the Alberta government’s program to prevent a mountain pine beetle epidemic similar to what has devastated B.C. Interior forests, West Fraser has adjusted its annual harvest in many of its Alberta operations to focus on harvesting more lodgepole pine. This has resulted in a slightly larger log diameter being delivered to the sawmill and more production of wider dimension lumber. However, about half of the sawmill’s production is still 2 X 4.
About 20 per cent of the logs delivered to the sawmill are cut-to-length (CTL), with the remainder being tree length.
David Ehl, sawmill superintendent, says that Blue Ridge Lumber has taken the approach of processing a combination of CTL and tree length logs because “we are a recovery-driven mill and we base a lot of our decisions around that.” This log combination is best suited for keeping wood costs reasonable while providing the sawmill with a log diet that fits its engineered design, helping it to continue to operate as a low cost producer and competitive mill.
Blue Ridge Lumber is a two-line sawmill, processing and optimizing logs through a small or large log line, which feature a 20” chip and canter and a 30” chip and canter respectively.
“Log costs are one of the highest costs in any sawmill, so we work to get the most out of the logs that we bring in here,” Ehl says. “We look at both value and volume recovery, but even when we make value decisions we always keep in the back of our mind what impact that is having on our volume.”
A new building was constructed as part of the overall investment to house Blue Ridge Lumber’s new high speed trim and sort line.
“With the engineering design on our old trimmer line, we were kind of maxed out on how fast we could run it and how much wood we could push through it,” says Ehl. “So we basically replaced it with a new, more efficient line that is much faster.”
The sawmill has also purchased a new kiln to bring its kiln complement to nine while investing in existing kilns to improve efficiency. In the planer mill, West Fraser has made a number of new purchases in planing and computer assisted grading technology, which will allow the planer to achieve higher throughput while also optimizing lumber to capture more value.
Ehl says that many recent advances in technology being provided by equipment manufacturers are actually being driven by industry requirements.
“Processing requirements are pushing the manufacturers to increase the productivity of the equipment that they are currently designing,” he says. “We’re looking to go new places with our mills and we’re pushing our manufacturers to provide the engineering and equipment to get us there. We’re looking for higher recovery, higher production, better speed, better control, safer operations, better guarding—we are pushing them in all those directions.”
Rick Johnsen, Blue Ridge Lumber general manager, says that West Fraser shows no preference to any particular equipment manufacturer, but works hard to match the equipment that best suits the needs of individual sawmills. Equipment manufacturers have been highly responsive and easy to work with in terms of helping West Fraser meet its needs.
In terms of matching the labor force to equipment, he adds that Blue Ridge Lumber is being more proactive to attract more journeymen and young people to the forest industry by helping them to understand that the sawmill environment offers them a challenging career, using state-of-the-art equipment. For example, Blue Ridge Lumber intends to participate in a number of local and college job fairs with the goal of attracting more people to careers in forestry.
Johnsen adds that the sawmill’s program to raise its profile and attract more people to the industry goes beyond the need to have a workforce with the proper skillsets to operate today’s more advanced technology and equipment. It is also with an eye to the future, recognizing that a number of experienced workers currently employed at the sawmill will be leaving the industry over the next 20 years as the population ages.
“Sawmills are specialized and highly technical,” says Ehl. “We are really trying to make sure that people understand what’s available to them. Sawmills have become so specialized and technical that it can be quite a challenging and rewarding career. There’s lots of opportunity.”
Blue Ridge Lumber has a positive story to tell in terms of employment opportunity. It offers a number of apprenticeship, intern and co-op programs for skilled positions at the sawmill. It also offers a positive and safe working environment for experienced journeymen interested in what the forest industry has to offer.
Both Bernie Jagola, planer mill quality control, and Jeff Victor, planer mill superintendent, indicated that they enjoy the challenge presented by the installation and operation of today’s advanced equipment in the planer environment. They find it personally rewarding and take pride in learning about the equipment’s full capabilities and integrating them so that the planer achieves maximum benefit from the company’s investment.
Employees also have the benefit of working in one place and because the sawmill operates 24 hours a day from Monday to Friday, they can drive home to their families after working each shift. The sawmill also offers a safe working environment. Johnsen says that worker safety is a major priority at West Fraser and throughout the forest industry as a whole. It shows by the steady decline in job related accidents.
Working for a larger forest company also has its benefits. West Fraser is Alberta’s largest producer of forest products, operates a variety of businesses in Western Canada and also has extensive forestry operations in the southern United States. Given the size of the company, Johnsen says that this provides employees with advancement opportunities within the company and the chance to experience different work environments.
In terms of wages and benefits, Johnsen says that it’s a myth that other industries like the oilpatch pay a better wage to journeymen and apprentices in Alberta’s resource-driven economy. He says that the forest industry offers a comparable hourly wage to working in the oilpatch, plus it provides employees with the added benefits of steady, secure, long term employment.
“We’re here for the long run in Alberta,” he says. “We have a bright future and we have a good fibre supply that is well managed."
Blue Ridge mill upgrade involved many suppliers
The upgrade project at West Fraser’s Blue Ridge Lumber operation involved a number of suppliers. Below is a list of some of the companies involved in the project.
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