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Ahead of the Curve

Alberta’s Buchanan Lumber stays ahead of the curve, with recent upgrades, including curved sawing.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Buchanan Lumber was among the first forestry companies to recognize the potential of Alberta’s forest industry and epitomizes the fierce entrepreneurial spirit of that province. As a family-owned business with a 56-year history, it continues to succeed today in the face of competition from huge multinationals. Now being managed by the second generation of the Buchanan family, its owners believe that flexibility, efficiency and product diversification hold the key to its continued success.

The objectives of a recent $11-million modernization at Buchanan Lumber were improved efficiency and creating more product variety. The upgrade is expected to result in a 15 per cent increase in fibre recovery.

That explains the $24 million the company has spent over the past six years upgrading its sawmill and expanding its product line. Most recently, the company completed an $11-million modernization of its sawmill that will result in at least a 15 per cent increase in fibre recovery from its existing wood basket. Buchanan Lumber’s primary product line is eight-, nine-, and 10-foot studs, manufactured from spruce, pine and fir.

After years of making minor upgrades, it was simply time to re-evaluate and replace all the sawmill’s major production components in order to remain competitive, says Buchanan Lumber vice-president, Greg Buchanan. The sawmill manufactures about 100 million board feet of lumber annually and that is not expected to change in the future. The objectives of this modernization were to improve efficiency and create more product variety. The sawmill employs 200 workers, which increases to about 260 during the peak logging season. The expiry of the American softwood lumber agreement and a hefty tariff on Canadian softwood lumber have encouraged many Canadian sawmills to diversify their product mix and investigate new markets.

Buchanan Lumber is no exception. The company wants to produce more random length lumber and metric sizes to serve markets other than the United States. Buchanan Lumber already has considerable experience supplying the Japanese market and believes there is more market opportunity in that part of Asia. The company’s finger jointing plant, built in 1995, is just one initiative in Buchanan Lumber’s overall strategy to diversify, add value and maximize fibre utilization. The driving force behind that project was the realization that there was plenty more value in manufacturing full-length studs than the high volume of shorter length lumber that the sawmill was producing.

The company also takes a decidedly different approach to its finger jointing process so as to maximize end product value. Rather than finger jointing blocks of planed lumber, the company finger joints smaller pieces of rough lumber. Buchanan explains why. “If you finger joint rough lumber, you get a full size on your 2x4,” says Buchanan, “whereas, if you make it out of trim blocks that have already been planed, then it ends up being undersized, which is a little bit less desirable.” However, the objective at the finger jointing plant isn’t necessarily to manufacture 2x4’s in standard lengths. “The goal is to make a structurally long-length product,” adds Buchanan. “We can make up to a 50-foot-long piece of 2x6. We’re presently shipping material into Japan and the US out of that plant.” There are many more examples of the sawmill using residual wood material to diversify its product mix or lower production costs.

For example, its latest renovation includes a fire log manufacturing facility, featuring the use of shavings and sawdust. Using what is called a bricket machine, Buchanan Lumber will manufacture fire logs for use in fireplaces or wood heating stoves. Further on the efficiency front, part of its overall $24-million capital investment has included a $3-million KMW heat generating plant, producing heat from burning wood residuals.

This investment has replaced the sawmill’s entire natural gas requirement, providing heat for its dry kilns and buildings. However, the company’s most recent focus has been on replacement of primary lumber production equipment. Buchanan Lumber contracted Nanaimo, BC’s GME Consulting for a lot of its equipment integration plans and execution. GME Consulting’s principal owner is Gerhard Mueller, who has earned a reputation for integrating advanced sawmill equipment designs with laser scanning optimization. The overall objective is to achieve product diversification, a flexible production process and high-speed production, while maximizing fibre recovery.

Sawmills designed by GME Consulting tend to require less sawmilling hardware. The consulting company’s approach is to combine powerful computer technology with high production equipment. As a result, sawmills can achieve the same or better production results with less equipment. That is in fact what has occurred at Buchanan Lumber. It has reduced its production lines from three to two. “It’s called simplification of process,” says Buchanan. “The results are less maintenance costs because you have less equipment. Also, we have installed higher speed equipment. For example, we’re going to be producing lumber at 600 feet per minute compared to the old mill where we ran at 250.”

GME Manufacturing, a subsidiary of GME Consulting, was also a key contributor to Buchanan Lumber’s modernization program. For example, GME Manufacturing designed and installed a prototypical log bucking system at the sawmill’s infeed area. Buchanan Lumber has also reduced its complement of debarkers from four to two. At present, the company has kept an existing 32-inch VK debarker, but has added a new double ring, 17-inch VK debarker.

Once debarked and sorted in bins according to diameter, individual logs proceed down one of two primary production lines. Larger logs proceed down a line featuring a McDonough double cut band headrig. It was purchased and installed in 1997. After the headrig, cants are scanned for optimization with lineal scanning hardware and software provided by CAE Newnes and then conveyed through a USNR gang edger. Buchanan has retrofitted its USNR gang edger with an in-house designed and manufactured curve-sawing device. A number of Canadian sawmills have installed curve-sawing capability on their production lines because it results in more fibre recovery.

After the USNR gang edger, boards proceed to the existing J-bar trimming and sorting line. It was installed in 1997 at a cost of $1 million. It trims board ends at a rate of 160 pieces per minute, then sorts them in preparation for stacking and kiln drying. On its smaller log line, Buchanan Lumber has installed a CAE Newnes canter with a quad saw box behind it, leading to a CAE/McGeehee robogang edger, which also has curve sawing capabilities. Boards from this line merge with those from the large log line, onto the J-bar trim and sort line. Buchanan says this latest modernization project was quite complicated because it required the removal of old building space and construction of new building space in tandem with sawmill production.

A 45,000-square-foot building now houses the entire sawmill. “Our modernization was built somewhat around the old sawmill because we wanted to use our existing J-bar sort line and of course our band mill that was installed in 1997,” says Buchanan. Downstream from the rough lumber manufacturing process is the planing mill. In 1995, Buchanan Lumber installed a new Stetson-Ross P16 planer. Once the lumber is planed, it is stacked, strapped and shipped to customers. While the company continues to invest in some of the most modern and efficient sawmilling processes available, it has also earned a good reputation for responsible forest stewardship.

Its forest management practices were recently certified by independent audits that were conducted through Alberta’s FORESTCARE Program. Administered through the Alberta Forest Products Association, the program’s standards are among the most stringent in Canada. Each year, Buchanan Lumber plants in excess of 1.4 million trees. About 60 per cent of its wood basket comes from government allocated quota.

The remaining 40 per cent comes from private wood purchases and purchasing wood from owners of other provincial forest quotas. Buchanan says certification not only assures the public that the company practises sustainable forest management, but it also helps to maintain good relations with its customers. “A lot of people continue to express concern about forest sustainability,” says Buchanan. “Although there is not a lot of pressure from Japan in that respect, we still have our Japanese customers asking us what we are doing about certification and sustainability. So, yes, it’s a good thing and an important thing. It forces companies to continue to improve their performance and look after the forest as it should.”

As a division of Gordon Buchanan Enterprises Ltd, Buchanan Lumber is part of a highly diverse mix of business interests. These include a company in Nisku, Alberta called Advanced Panels, which manufactures a foam-insulated injected panel product. Other company interests include Canadian Clay Products, Buchanan Contracting, an Edmonton real estate firm and a re-load centre. Diversification helps to cushion the blow should one or another sector suddenly take a severe turn for the worse.

A number of Buchanan family members work at Buchanan Lumber. In addition to vice president Greg Buchanan, his wife Donna is the woodlands administrator, his sister Lois Baroldi works at the sawmill office, one brother-in-law, Rob Wishart, is the finger joint plant superintendent and another brother-in-law, Dave Baroldi, is the log yard and safety supervisor. Greg’s father, Gordon, founded Gordon Buchanan Enterprises and lives in Edmonton, maintaining an arm’s length management relationship with Buchanan Lumber. “Our survival depends on being lean and mean,” Greg says. “Our goal is to keep our management level fairly tight so that we don’t have a large overhead, which tends to happen in bigger companies.”

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