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February 2004


Positioned for success

With a $35 million investment that saw it switch from handling long wood to cut-to-length logs, and a lot of beetle-killed wood, Slocan’s Quesnel operation is now positioned to get the most from each and every log.

By Jim Stirling

In recent months, operations have been transformed dramatically at Slocan Forest Products’ Quesnel Division in the BC Interior. An elderly sawmill geared to conventionally harvested long wood has all but vanished. Replacing it on the same physical footprint is a sophisticated and highly mechanized plant dedicated to cut-to-length logs. Revolutionizing the division’s woodlands operations, materials handling and log processing functions has not been a simple process. But the challenges are being faced and overcome daily. The quality of wood entering the mill yard has improved steadily.

Photo pg 14 - Steve Planeta, operations leader for Slocan’s Quesnel division. The company wanted a straight line mill with a minimum of transfer between log and final product out.

Lumber production is surging encouragingly toward target levels. And the vision for an efficient, customer-oriented and highly competitive plant is being rapidly realized. Slocan invested $35 million in the project. The production target is 1.1 million board feet a day on two eight-hour shifts. The mill’s products are 2x3 to 2x6 in six to 16-foot lengths and MSR lumber. A close analysis of wood fibre was a major factor in re-designing operations. The fibre basket in the Quesnel area of the British Columbia Interior is dominated by mountain pine beetle-infested wood. (See story on the characteristics of lumber manufactured from bug-killed timber on page 44.)

The worst forest health disaster in North American history has endangered $20 billion worth of timber in the Interior. The area affected expanded at an alarming 60 per cent between 2002 and 2003. The beetle epidemic is the fibre supply lightning rod. It’s dictating Slocan Quesnel’s timber profile now and what will most likely be available in the future, says Steve Planeta, operations leader for the division. The blueprint for a more efficient processing plant is one that extracts the maximum fibre from each log and drives down costs, he adds. Target log size for the new-look mill was reduced to a 16-inch diameter from 20 inches. The small percentage of logs in excess of 16 inches are sold or traded. “We work hand-in-hand with other companies for the best fibre uses,” says Planeta.

The decision to use the latest technology to optimize recovery from stems four inches to 16 inches amounted to a reprieve for Slocan’s smaller specialty sawmill in Quesnel. Original plans included closing it down in favour of one highly mechanized and competitive plant. But the cut-to-length system permits control and delivery of a better product to each mill. Slocan believes the specialty mill will be viable. Between the re-configured “A” mill and the specialty mill, the aim is the optimum utilization of fibre from four to 16 inches.

Photo pg 16 - The three Comact log decks are equipped with wave feeders. The wave feeders offer easier handling of crossed logs and self-cleaning abilities. They also have a single drive system, simplifying maintenance.

The specialty mill focus is on extracting the most value from each log for the Japanese market. “We are the largest supplier of construction J-grade material into Japan by volume,” notes Planeta. “In ‘A’ mill, we wanted to go as high-tech as we could and stay simple. That was a tremendous challenge.” The mill it was replacing was old and employees had to learn new operational technologies. Having a user-friendly system was important in that process, explains Planeta. Similarly, Slocan wanted a mechanical system that was not a nightmare to repair, with easy to replace components, available locally wherever possible, he continues.

Also along the lines of the keep-it-simple philosophy, Slocan wanted a straight line mill with a minimum of transfers between log in and final product out. “We believe we’ve achieved that,” says Planeta. Slocan’s supplier partner in the endeavour was Quebec-based sawmill equipment manufacturer Comact. The company provided a turnkey operation, supplying and installing equipment and all scanning, control and programming systems throughout the mill and planer. “We felt very comfortable with that,” says Planeta.

Only two debarkers and two edgers from the old mill are incorporated into the new layout. A complicating factor for the project was lack of space. Slocan Quesnel’s Division is cheek-by-jowl with other mills, and congestion is a fact of operational life. Creating a new plant within the shell of the old was a monumental logistical problem. “We probably did the job in the most difficult way but our objective was the desire to keep employees working,” says Planeta, but working safely. “We said from the start that if it became unsafe, we would shut down.”

As it turned out, shutdowns were restricted to two, four-day periods. Apart from that, production continued despite there being periods without mill walls and roofs, and up to 120 contractors working on site. Amazingly, Slocan recorded no time loss accidents. Quantum leaps in sawmill operational systems require a learning process for everyone involved. And that process continues. Slocan’s logging contractors and haulers, which supply up to 700,000 cubic metres annually from company harvesting licences (another 400,000 cubic metres is acquired privately), had to invest in new equipment.

And they had to buy into new standards of log quality control. Slocan’s short wood ranges from 10 to 16-foot lengths, with the longest acceptable at 16 foot nine, says Planeta. Cut-to-length logs and tight space in the log yard have ushered in a new approach to wood inventory management. Two new rubber-tired Prentice ATL-640s equipped with pulp wood type grapples have the ability to deck and reclaim up to 34-foot heights with minimal fibre damage. Typically, a butt ‘n top loader feeds the mill’s three Comact log decks equipped with wave feeders. Oversize material can be dropped out and diverted for sale or trade. Wave feeders are used in the mill because of their singularity, easier handling of crossed logs and self-cleaning abilities.

The wave feeders have a single drive system, simplifying maintenance. Conveyors deliver the logs to one of three Valon Kone Brunette debarkers, a 17-inch and 22-inch machine with dual rings, and a second 22-inch with a single ring that can be upgraded to a double ring. They use the dual ring machines because bark is tougher to remove with bug-killed wood, explains Planeta. “It’s also an opportunity to get good quality chips with minimum bark contamination.” Logs are scanned after debarking and sorted into four pockets.

They are scanned for profile into set sizes to maximize the LRF and feed speeds of 550 feet/minute through the two main breakdown machines. Logs are designed to run with three or seven-foot gaps between them, depending on the profile. The two Comact single-length infeed DDM six-inch canting machines utilize thin kerf sawing with four quad canter saws for side boards. Planeta believes little is lost with the single length infeeds compared with double, given today’s levels of sawing technologies. And valuable space is conserved.

Sideboards are diverted to two Newnes edgers which have been updated and one changed from left to right feed. Planeta says the system has the ability to adjust rapidly to market conditions for products from side boards or cants. A double unscambler downstream of the primary breakdown facilitates feeding along the new Comact scanning trimming/sorter line. The line is designed to operate at 180 lugs/minute; the old configuration managed a maximum of 115. The old J-bar sorter has been converted to a push bar type to better handle the higher feed speeds and contribute to smoother board handling and control.

Ten new bins have been added, in part to accommodate a planned moisture sorting system. A double unscrambler leads to the new lumber stacker, again designed to accommodate the higher feed speeds. Lumber is pre-positioned ahead of the forks and speeds were being gradually increased from 11 tiers a minute to 17 with auto strip placement. A second line has been added in the planer, feeding a single sort system. A used Coastal machine, complementing the existing Stetson Ross, has been rebuilt to perform consistently at 1,600 feet/minute. Another Metriguard MSR machine was added to the new line.

A new unscrambler prefaces the Comact high-speed trimmer line. The new grading stations with automatic board turners allow four graders to work on each of two levels. Variable speed inclines are moderated to regulate a steady delivery of boards to the grading stations’ landing tables. The planer sorter has also been converted to a push bar style. Planeta says feed speeds of 200 lugs/minute are anticipated within a year of start-up. Two new package press and wrap stations were also added to the back end.

Planeta says two new sort trays were installed by the bin sorter. They do a lot of J-grade, where tolerances down to half a millimetre are required, he adds. Precision end trimming provides the finish required rather than running the product through the high-speed trimmer. Another challenge Slocan had to overcome was its power supply. The old system didn’t produce sufficient power to run a new mill and the specialty mill. Slocan invested about $1.4 million, which included installation of a new 69 Kv line with the capacity to run both plants. Layoffs were not nearly as dramatic as the 150 feared under the specialty mill closure scenario. The company sat down with the IWA union to look at early retirement packages, voluntary and educational severance options.

Planeta says about 50 people took advantage of the options, some extra people were required in the expanded planer, but the net result was very minimal layoffs. Along with the new mill comes an enlightened approach to communication within it. Ian Fillinger, recently appointed division manager in Quesnel, spent considerable time explaining the company’s 2004 business plan to employees. They were apprised of the complexities of the operation and the internal and external factors impacting its success. This initiative can only help the rejuvenated Slocan Quesnel Division perform with even greater efficiency.

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