in a Tough Market
Fort Nelson, the world's largest chopstick plant produces eight million units a day for
demanding Japanese buyers.
By Tony Kryzanowski
Copyright 1996. Contact publisher for permission to use.
Back in 1989, the naysayers scoffed. Give it a year max, they
said, and it will fold its tent and go away. They all do. But the Canadian Chopstick
Manufacturing Co. Ltd. hasn't folded. Its plant at Fort Nelson in northeastern British
Columbia is the largest of its kind in the world. By far. The company has had its
setbacks, and it continues to face challenges. But the Canadian Chopstick Manufacturing
Co.'s unique value-added plant has bucked the odds, thanks to a patient and understanding
ownership and a committed workforce.
The labour-intensive operation uses aspen to produce a climbing
average of eight million high-quality chopsticks a day for the demanding Japanese market.
That word 'quality', incidentally, is often heard around the CCMC in tandem with
"This plant is a success. It's supplied a large number of
people with a reasonable income they hadn't had before by utilizing a non-utilized
resource in BC,' points out Tom Gilgan, CCMC's manager - human relations. "But we're
in an extremely competitive market. We're seeing more chopsticks coming into the Orient
from the states that comprised the USSR.' Chopsticks are the disposable knives and forks
of the Orient and represent a massive market of perhaps 90 million per day. To increase
market share, you need a superior quality product or produce it at a lower cost,' notes
The chopsticks are accepted into the market only if they are made
from clear, knot-free, stain-free aspen with no checks or blemishes. And therein lies the
source of one of CCMC's enduring problems. When the company was granted its aspen
harvesting licence, the forest inventory indicated seven of 10 stems were chopstick-grade
material. Experience has shown only two or three make the grade. It's extremely tough to
tell from the outside of aspen the quality of fibre inside. It has to be cut first then
assessed. The result is a large proportion of residue aspen that can't make the quality
standards for chopstick manufacture. But it is fibre that comes with the same harvesting
and transportation costs as chopstick grade. The other factor compounding the situation
and beyond CCMC's control was that a pulp mill planned for Fort Nelson with an appetite
for residue aspen never materialized.
There's no compelling demand for high-priced residue aspen,'
notes Gilgan wryly. But the company has been successful in marketing some into the BC
interior. And CCMC is working with Slocan's OSB plant in Fort Nelson to reach an agreement
for supply of residue aspen to its Polar Board plant. We've looked at pelletizing and
products like sushi boxes, and even kitty litter,' reports Gilgan, although feline
reaction to the latter product was underwhelming. Developing furniture components is also
being investigated as a viable product from the residue aspen.
"We've come a long way in the last nine months in terms of
our chopstick production,'continues Gilgan. The target is to produce 1,800 boxes a day.
There's 5,000 chopsticks to a box, which translates to nine million sticks daily.
"We've achieved a record production of 1,784 boxes so far,' says Gilgan.
CCMC's plant operates one eight-hour shift daily, employing 120
hourly people and 33 staff. "We have some very good people,' says Gilgan. He adds
more automation designed into the plant will help relieve repetitive strains and improve
workplace ergonomics. "Automation yes, but we can closely maintain the number of
people by changing the roles more into quality-control specialists. The person-machine
interface is a vital component of automation. It's a long-term initiative.'
Chopstick-grade logs entering the mill are in maximum lengths of
7.3 metres, says Gilgan. A wheeled Barko 275 A grapple loader feeds the infeed decks. Logs
are fed singly through a 183-cm cut-off saw which essentially bucks for defects. A 76.2-cm
Nicholson handles the debarking chores. PLC systems are from Square D. Logs are reduced to
short bolts on a slasher deck and because the aspen is frequently frozen delivered into
one of two hot ponds for thawing and conditioning. Frozen wood in the plant can crack
veneer coils, gives a less smooth finish and creates lost volume. It's also tough on lathe
knives. A gas-fired submersible burner maintains the temperature in the 75¡ to 84¡
range. "We're experimenting with that,' says Gilgan. Too high a temperature, for
instance, can discolor the aspen. The bolts are kept on the move in the ponds for about a
day and a half. A jack ladder recovers the thawed bolts and feeds them to a deck where
they are directed to either the south or north end of the mill.
The plant has nine automated lathe lines. Photo cells examine
each bolt, determine its diameter and automatically position and centre it in the lathe
chucks. The bolts are spun through the lathe knives to produce veneer. The material comes
off in coils and short lengths which are separated and fed into choppers. The coil and
short choppers are the same machine set up differently with photo cells to determine
defective ends and eject core material to a waste conveyor.
Quality-control checks and analysis for improperly formed or
defective chopsticks kick in with avengeance once the lathes produce veneer. For example,
quality is monitored at regular intervals by operators on the choppers and defective
material is culled.
The dryer is a key component of the production process.
"It's a hybrid based on an original veneer dryer concept put together by Salton, but
it has a number of modifications and it's specific to us,' explains Gilgan. It's gas-fired
with a series of eight cells and a constantly moving deck with the chopsticks piled to
about .6 metre depth. The goal is to reduce moisture content from about 40 per cent to 9
per cent. The chopsticks stay in the dryer for up to 1.5 hours at a temperature of about
240¡ F. "We constantly monitor the moisture content and the speed and temperature is
sensitive,' he continues. "There's an art to it. If it's too quick the sticks can
warp, if too slow they can split. And if they're not dry enough they can develop stain
after shipment. The proper operation of that dryer is vital.' Gilgan says CCMC continues
to look at how to optimize the dryer's capabilities.
"We're basically researching our options and the
consequences of each of them.'An associated area of research is developing more surge and
storage capacity, both ahead and behind the dryer.
Chopsticks exit the dryer for one of six packing lines. Any
imperfect sticks remaining are removed. Chopsticks are piled and boxed manually, sealed
and marked. A forklift delivers them to one of two sized shipment containers capable of
holding about 830 and 960 boxes of chopsticks respectively.
The containers are shipped by BC Rail to Vancouver and by sea to
China. In two locations there the chopsticks receive a further sorting and grading with
the final product packaged and delivered to the customer in Japan.