April 2006 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal
Pushing the Envelope
Tolko’s High Level,
Alberta sawmill is truly
extending the envelope
on recovery, efficiency
and added value with a
BC based Tolko Industries has recently completed a $43 million upgrade of its softwood dimension sawmill in High Level, Alberta. The investment is part of a continuous program to lower operating costs at this high production sawmill and to find extra value wherever possible, in an environment where energy, transportation and lumber tariff costs are taking huge bites out of its bottom line.
“With this investment, we have the capability of working a lot smarter,” says sawmill superintendent Mike Dextrase. “With full profile scanning and auto-rotation on all three lines, we now have the technology of our competitors.”
Prior to the investment, the sawmill had one debarker operator for each of its three debarker lines. Now, it has one operator strategically located who runs all three debarkers, which are housed out of sight inside a separate building. The operator keeps a keen eye on debarker throughput by watching several monitors and controlling most of the area through the click of a computer mouse.
In the primary breakdown area, one operator now monitors both the new USNR vertical shape sawing line and the upgraded USNR quad canter line, with a similar story at the new Mill-Tech stacking area where two stacker operators are able to run this highly automated system with no strip pilers.
Sawmill staffing has remained stable, at 250 employees. Those made expendable by the new production approach were offered opportunities to retrain and have subsequently taken up positions created at the planer enroute to the anticipated increase in fibre and the 22.4 per cent gain in daily production expected from the modernization.
Unlike many Eastern Canadian sawmills that face closure or rationalization due to a lack of fibre, the main thrust behind the investment in High Level, which is one of Canada’s most northerly dimension sawmills, was the prospect of a huge leap in available fibre. This was due to entering into a joint Forest Management Agreement (FMA) with one of the world’s largest oriented strandboard plants, Footner Forest Products, which basically sits on its doorstep. With Footner harvesting new areas of mixed forest to acquire its required hardwood resource, this provided Tolko with a substantial uplift in its softwood fibre supply from the forest land base that it manages jointly with Footner. The challenge was how to use the synergies of the companies to extract it at an affordable cost.
The company began shopping for a group of vendors who could help it maximize return on investment from both its existing and future fibre source.
Tolko High Level is a typical example of a new breed of high production Canadian softwood lumber mill. These mills are leaving no stone unturned to operate more efficiently while also working hard to find added value in its finished products. The great urgency to harvest large swathes of time-sensitive mountain pine beetle-infected forests in the BC Interior, the softwood lumber tariff, and the rising value of the Canadian dollar are helping to drive investment into this particular type of high efficiency/ high throughput/high value recovery mill.
For example, the High Level sawmill has installed an in-line NMI moisture detector after its trimmer, which helps to sort green lumber into kiln charges of similar moisture content. This results in greater kiln efficiency and more uniform charges of dried lumber. In theory, a sawmill should be able to produce more consistent and higher grade volume using this sorting method. Furthermore, one of its planer lines is equipped with a Metriguard stress rated machine and an Autolog linear grade optimizer. The sawmill plans to upgrade its second planer line to house similar technology.
The sawmill operates three production lines on a wood diet of primarily 14- foot blocks of white and black spruce averaging 6.5 inches in diameter. About 97 per cent of its logs are either white or black spruce, with the remainder being jack pine and balsam fir. The average diameter is expected to get smaller as a result of accessing the entire profile of softwood species and tree sizes on the joint FMA. That is why hourly production is so important. The sawmill is projecting a production increase from 1.25 million board feet per day to slightly more than 1.5 million board feet, and increased recovery of approximately five per cent per cubic metre. While much of the wood is small, it tends to have excellent strength properties given the tightness of its growth rings, which is why investing in MSR and grading at the planer makes sense.
Tolko focused its investment in High Level in six areas. These were: improving cut-off saw capacity; debarking enhancements; investment in a small/medium log line; improvements in scanning and auto-rotation on the canter quad line; building re-entry capability for the twin band saw line as well as enhancing its Porter scanning system; and replacing the lumber stackers with BC-based Mill-Tech stackers.
The entire block handling area has essentially been
replaced, providing sorting, re-entry capability, and debarking
enhancements between the four cut-off saw lines and the
chip’n saws. Two of the cut-off saws have been fully optimized
with full profile scanning to optimize bucking decisions. Linden
Welding & Fabrication provided the flying cut-off saw while
Comact provided the controls and upgraded scanning to the
The infeed area also features seven Comact wave feeders, both fore and aft of the debarkers, and Pacificon controls for the entire area, including decks, sorting, and debarking.
The purchase of two new 22-inch Nicholson A8 double ring debarkers to complement the sawmill’s existing 30-inch debarker will give it the production flow it needs, as well as more modern technology to manage bark removal issues related to extreme temperature swings. New technology automatically adjusts for diameter as well as giving the operator greater ability to adjust tool pressure to take weather conditions into account, resulting in greater, more consistent bark removal. These two debarkers can handle over 90 per cent of the mill’s log mix diameter, if required, working at speeds of about 500 feet per minute. After the debarkers, the logs are scanned for size by Banner arrays so that logs are directed to the proper production line.
Tolko has replaced its small log line, which it described as using 1980s technology and 1970s machinery, with new USNR equipment. The decision to choose USNR was made only after an extensive review of replacement proposals from a variety of suppliers. It was felt USNR provided the best solution for its particular circumstances. Essentially, what the mill has ended up with is a large log line, and two medium log lines, each with small log processing capabilities. One just does it more economically than the other.
What this new USNR small/medium line has provided is true shape scanning (to replace the existing dual-axis system), autorotation, higher throughput speed, better recovery, and the ability to process a wider diameter range of logs.
After true shape scanning to plot a solution, the logs encounter USNR’s knuckle turner infeed system to rotate and skew logs for optimum sawing orientation. The chipper canters then make the opening faces and the quad arbor saw boxes remove sideboards from each side of the cant.
USNR says the heart of each breakdown line is its vertical shape sawing (VSS) gang with top and bottom profiling chip heads and sideboard profiler modules. VSS technology is unique to USNR and features a pivoting single vertical arbor with shifting saws and close coupled chip heads.
Tolko opted for the advanced options package that includes innovative profiling functions that incorporate slewing and skewing for maximum recovery. The objective is essentially to increase throughput by transforming logs into boards ready for trimming in a single pass.
The sawmill is anticipating substantial increases in lumber recovery from this line through the use of true shape scanning, proper positioning, shape sawing, and approximately a 20 per cent increase in canter throughput.
USNR has supplied its trademarked Smart Trican scanners, MillExpert optimization software, and ControlLogix PLC controls as part of this system.
In addition to the installation of a new small/medium saw line, Tolko also invested in true shape scanning and optimization in combination with auto-rotation on its canter quad line. This upgrade is expected to increase throughput by approximately 10 per cent and result in a smoother, steadier flow than the existing system, due primarily to scanning and auto rotation which translates to improved overall control to increase higher value 2x10s.
More importantly, from a financial standpoint, the sawmill can now produce much higher volumes of 2x4s from both its new USNR line and the existing canter quad line. This is as opposed to the necessity to produce higher volumes of lower value 2x6 centre cants due to physical limitations of being able to pull jacket boards and produce a 2x4 centre cant. Two-by-four production now represents over 45 per cent of production at the sawmill.
One of the newly purchased Comact wave feeders was also added to the large log line to maintain consistent log flow. It replaced an older bucket style incline, creating an entry system where the logs are better presented to the infeed belt and scanners.
A major investment in new stackers was also made to create more stacking consistency and increased efficiency through greater automation. Most importantly, Dextrase says they will allow for incremental production potential to be achieved.
Dextrase says with all the new systems in the sawmill, employees definitely required extra training and acquisition of higher skill sets. It took time to become more comfortable with the new systems, but within three months of being fully operational, the sawmill reached average months of over half the projected uplift in throughput, with days spiking to well over the projected volume increase. The objective now is to achieve throughput consistency and the lumber recovery factor (LRF) increases that were committed.
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