The Idaho sawmill of Woodgrain MillworkIdaho Mill Gets High-tech Makeover

The Idaho sawmill of Woodgrain Millwork is definitely on the upswing

By Barbara Coyner

Many thought the final epitaph had been written for the historic sawmill site in Emmett, Idaho, when the Boise Cascade sawmill closed in 2011. A string of new owners came and went after that — but uncertainty seems to be in the rear-view mirror these days since Woodgrain Millwork purchased the site in 2016.

Eager to outfit the dormant facility with a major high-tech makeover, the mill is now up and running the latest in sawmill equipment, indicating that the new owners see an optimistic future in southern Idaho.

“It’s been quite a journey over the last couple of years,” says Emmett Woodgrain mill manager Bob Shaw, a hometown boy who began his wood products career at the old Boise Cascade mill. When Boise Cascade left town, Shaw moved over to Woodgrain, managing the company’s door plant at nearby Nampa, before being tapped for the manager slot at Emmett.

The home office for Woodgrain Millworks is just miles away in Fruitland, with other manufacturing plants across the U.S. and in Chile. The company churns out doors, mouldings, and some 60 other secondary wood products, with Home Depot featuring Woodgrain as its largest moulding supplier.

New HewSaw

The new sawmill at Emmett stands out as the company’s first primary breakdown facility since its earlier days in Utah in the 1950s.

Rattling off a long list of mill upgrades and improvements, Shaw notes that the new HewSaw SL250 2.2 multi-side breakdown line is the star of the show, now handling up to 16-foot logs compared to the past 12-foot log length. The mill’s older large log side has seen some upgrades, as well, but the small log side is all new.

The Idaho sawmill of Woodgrain MillworkThe new HewSaw SL250 2.2 multi-side breakdown line is the star of the show, now handling up to 16-foot logs compared to the past 12-foot log length.

“We’ve changed the layout of the mill drastically and improved the flow,” he points out. “We looked over where we could change things for better efficiency. It’s not up to full production yet, but we’re getting close.”

The choice of HewSaw evolved after Woodgrain researched equipment and booked a trip to Finland. “We liked the logs-to-lumber line,” Shaw says of the HewSaw. “One pass and you’re done. We’re still not up to full volume and are at 1,500 logs per shift. But we hope to be up to 2,000 logs per shift before too long.”

“Independent sawmillers are our main customers,” explains Bruce Delicaet, general manager of HewSaw U.S. “These customers rely on us to find the right balance between cost, efficiency, and reliability. They need usable technology that enhances their sawmill’s productivity without unnecessarily adding to its complexity.”  

For Delicaet, the Emmett facility is all about practical innovation, with HewSaw pulling together a tried-and-true group of equipment suppliers that has fine-tuned its team after years of working together. He touts the whole installation as a turnkey approach, reducing risks to the owners. “We tend to see ourselves more as partners than suppliers,” he adds.

The Idaho sawmill of Woodgrain MillworkInstalling ProLogic+

The basic needs of the new small log side were met with the flexibility of the HewSaw itself, allowing Woodgrain to mill Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and white fir, always being nimble to changing markets and manufacturing needs. For example, the saw’s chipper canter can maneuver to take five boards off the cant, then turn 90 degrees to re-scan, sending the products on to the bull edger, again maximizing every log for full value.

The high-tech wizardry is augmented by ProLogic+, using LMI scanner heads, to fine tune the scanning and optimizing capabilities. In this instance, Woodgrain opted to install two scanning zones, one at primary breakdown and one prior to the bull edger.

Choosing Bosch Rexroth

Bosch Rexroth came in with sophisticated Sytronix hydraulic drives, and as Bosch’s Rodney Trail notes, “It’s the most advanced system we’ve done to date for HewSaw. This machine is so advanced that it has a mind of its own, so the information going back and forth is really mind blowing. The HPU can actually tell the operator what’s wrong with itself. It is very intelligent.”

Trail defines the hydraulics as the heartbeat of the system. “Hydraulics get the tools in position fast, and they have to be reliable. It’s all done with hydraulics and if the hydraulics stop, it all stops. Motioning pulls it all together. It’s how a machine motions. That’s where it all starts.”

While Trail can give a good primer on the importance of hydraulics, he’s more enthused to talk about the forward thinking that has come into the field. He’s especially impressed with the freedom he and others had in designing the system for Woodgrain.

“The owners were open to all forward thinking, and they really took advantage of that forward thinking, which will save them buckets full of energy,” says Trail.

“That HPU is so smart in terms of positioning of tools, and positioning of controls and flow. It is excellent because of pressure control and the whole positioning loop. There is more velocity and more gap control. There is so much accuracy. It’s just a finely tuned ballet.” And that ballet, it turns out, is designed to operate with far less power being pulled from the power grid. The savings in energy costs for Woodgrain will be substantial.

“The Emmett system is the most advanced Smart System we’ve produced,” Trail says. “It was a joy to build, and it’s the crown jewel for us.”

The Idaho sawmill of Woodgrain MillworkBosch Rexroth came in with sophisticated Sytronix hydraulic drives, and as Bosch’s Rodney Trail notes, “It’s the most advanced system we’ve done to date for HewSaw.”

High Marks in Technology

With “Industry 4.0” the new measuring stick for manufacturing perfection these days, Trail feels the Emmett facility definitely earns high marks. Citing the fact that humans, machines, sensors, and devices all connect and communicate with one another, Trail notes that the automated systems also create a data history, putting that data in context. There is the symbiotic relationship between machines and people, as well, with machines taking on tasks too difficult or unsafe for humans. Ultimately, the machines are also capable of functioning in an autonomous manner in more routine situations.

Another advantage of this technology is that it allows mill staff to call upon the expertise of off-site specialists for technical assistance any time of the day. Here Delicaet weighs in on the importance of having smart technology that allows troubleshooting from afar. An equipment expert from Canada might be working in collaboration with a European specialist to help identify and correct an issue with a system located in Idaho, thanks to the commonality of supply and the worldwide cyber highways.

“We deliver an integrated package that is tried and true,” says Delicaet. “Our belief is this level of technology is not only functional but helps to mitigate the customer’s overall risk during the life of the sawline. Our customers don’t need added risk — they have enough without their suppliers adding to it,” Delicaet emphasizes.

Signode Industrial Group Strapping System

Placing the new Emmett mill in the bigger context for Woodgrain, there’s much to be said for having the primary breakdown facility just miles from other processing plants at Nampa and Fruitland. Because the boards from Emmett are destined to become appearance-based products, they need careful handling and packaging. Here Woodgrain looked to the Signode Industrial Group. “The company’s BPX strapping system really caught Woodgrain’s eye, with its top edge protectors, independent side compression units, and other features promising efficient and protective packaging and shipping,” says Dave Rentz, Signode Equipment Project Manager.

Additionally, the strapping equipment features easy-to-use modules, making the changing of strapping heads much simpler and eliminating the need for fork trucks or cranes. Signode furnished training for the fully automatic system, including equipment maintenance training.

The Idaho sawmill of Woodgrain MillworkHuman Safety Vital

Meanwhile, as technology fine tunes in the sawmill, it definitely has its strong points for Bob Shaw, who cut his teeth on sawmilling in an entirely different era. He has seen the human labor associated with the old green chain and other manual chores, and the eventual upgrades to scanners and computerization.

In the new Emmett system, he really sees the advantages in speed, accuracy, and efficiency, but human safety is one of the biggest selling points to the new technology. “Woodgrain doesn’t just look at safety as a priority, it’s a corporate value,” he says. “Priorities change, values do not. We want to make this mill as much hands-off as possible. For example, we have fences around the mill, and if a gate opens, the mill shuts off.”

The Idaho sawmill of Woodgrain MillworkThe new technology brings not only speed, accuracy and efficiency, but also — and mostly importantly — a new level of safety.

Economic Driver

Beyond the safety of his current 50 employees, Shaw is tasked with finding the new wave of mill workers, the ones who embrace technology and are tech savvy.

“It’s one of my biggest challenges, finding the right people. We held over some of the old employees, but this is knowledge work, not the old style labor work. We have to have some training for the new ways of doing things.”

For Shaw, the look backward to the old heyday of sawmilling in the region has been replaced with an excitement about Emmett’s and Woodgrain’s future.

“The owners, I believe, have built something special here. It’s good for the employees, it’s good for the customers, and it’s good for the community. The equipment and technology are so amazing.

“For a while, I have been focused on the short term, but now in the long term, I’d like to see us become the preferred employer and an economic driver around here. It’s been said that in the wood products industry, every dollar turns over seven times. The grocery store, the drug store, the hair dressers, and gas stations, everybody gets a piece of that dollar. I’d like to think this will help with a community revival as new businesses come in and there is new life in town.”

TimberWest November/December 2013
November/December 2018

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