KEEPING UP TO SPEED
Weldwood’s HI-ATHA sawmill in Alberta is engaged in a program of regular upgrades to keep up to speed in an increasingly competitive lumber market.
By Tony Kryzanowski
Weldwood of Canada Limited has made a number of improvements to its HI-ATHA sawmill in Hinton, Alberta over the past four years, always with an eye to remaining competitive in a marketplace that can only be described as challenging. The sawmill is a major softwood lumber producer, manufacturing 260 million board feet of lumber annually, mainly in 2 x 4 and 2 x 6 dimensions from spruce and pine. About 85 per cent of its production is sold in North America, with about 15 per cent J-grade material exported to Japan. As an employer, the 270 direct jobs at the sawmill are extremely important to this community that has recently suffered a number of job losses due to coal mine closures. While the lumber market has changed dramatically over the past four years, Weldwood has experienced some changes of its own—in its ownership.
Weldwood was owned by forest products company Champion International. But in 2000, the company was acquired as part of Champion’s purchase by International Paper Company—the largest forest products business in the world, with more than 100,000 employees in 50 countries. Like many other Canadian softwood producers, Weldwood management has chosen to let designated association groups in both Alberta and British Columbia make any public statements on issues related to ongoing negotiations on the American softwood lumber tariff issue. With a large sawmilling presence in both Alberta and British Columbia, however, it has a considerable stake in the outcome of negotiations.
Company spokesperson Eduarda Hodgins says there is no doubt that there is extra competitive pressure on the HI-ATHA sawmill as a result of the current 27 per cent American duty on Canadian softwood lumber. However, Weldwood has always focused on making wise capital investments. In fact, she says that focus has made the company one of the most efficient operators in Western Canada. “The trade file is one factor that we need to look at,” she says, “but we are always pushing ourselves to make sure we are making investments that are the best for our business in the long term.
Has the trade issue put on added pressure? Certainly. But other companies are facing that same pressure.” Mill manager Laurie Cerenzie agrees. “I think everyone is driving to be competitive,” he says. The capital investment over the past four years has been focused on three particular areas—grade maximization, lumber recovery, and productivity. The sawmill operates a large and a small log line, featuring two Kockums (now USNR) canters. The small log line takes logs up to 14 inches, while the large log line takes logs from 14 to 24 inches. Starting in the year 2000, Weldwood installed a 10-inch Newnes McGehee gang edger with a 700 horsepower arbor. It accepts 10-inch by 17-inch cants and runs at 375 feet per minute.
It is a three-saw edger with a top head for chipping and produces up to 39 boards per minute. The following year, the company moved toward greater optimization by installing Porter true shape scanning on one of its lines, and also improved productivity with a Linden double action step feeder. The year 2002 marked a significant period in maintaining production flow with the installation of its cut-to-length line. This is a line using 16-foot logs where, in the event of a problem in the merchandizing area, the mill can maintain production flow from material on this line alone, as these logs do not require further merchandizing.
Weldwood also installed a Porter true shape scanner on its second line in 2002. Last year brought some further significant capital spending. In June, the company installed a VKB Kodiak 22-inch debarker. A fire in August, however, resulted in an unexpected capital investment in two more new debarkers—a Nicholson 27-inch, model A7 debarker and a 22-inch model A8 debarker. The sawmill was back in production within a month. The trim line and lug loader were also relocated, complemented with the purchase of a Coe/Newnes scanner and trimmer, a Coe unscrambler, a Comact lug loader and a Coe/Newnes stick placer. Improvements in this area allowed the mill to increase production from 118 to 140 lugs per minute. The capital program also called for the installation of a second step feeder. Management at HI-ATHA has proposed installing a new gang edger in 2004 “that is going to give us a further recovery and productivity improvement,” says mill manager Cerenzie.
While its main focus has been on operating as competitively as possible in the dimension softwood lumber market, Weldwood has also partnered with another Alberta company in a value-added venture. It is sorting and marketing its trim blocks for the manufacture of finger joint lumber. Continued improvements like these are expected to help the HI-ATHA operation maintain its position as one of the top three sawmills, from a production standpoint, in Alberta.
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