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July Aug 2003

Creating the world’s largest sawmill

Some $26 million worth of upgrades to Canfor’s Houston, BC operation will make it the world’s largest production sawmill, taking annual production to a stunning 600 million board feet.

By Jim Stirling

Canfor Corporation is justifiably proud of creating and operating the world’s largest sawmill. But behind the headlines, there’s another lens to view what’s happening at the company’s Houston operation in west central British Columbia. It provides a broader perspective of the course Canfor is aggressively pursuing. The company is determined to sustain profitability by running continuously high volume/low cost, efficient and safe wood processing centres. That way, it can ensure an enduring presence in its communities. At Houston, that dedication is clear. A $26.4-million upgrade—supplementing a previously announced $7.8 million project—will boost annual production to a very impressive 600 million board feet annually.

Canfor’s Leroy Reitsma: “We’ve notified our logging contractors that we’re movingschedules to allow a more consistent flow of logs directly to the mill deck.”

The focus is on meticulous attention to detail. A vision that encompasses equipment in the vanguard of sawmill and planer operation technology to best utilize available wood fibre now and in the foreseeable future. The project is designed to further smooth out material presentation and eradicate production bottlenecks for a cohesive flow from mill yard through to the shipping of quality, premium value finished lumber products that fully meet customer requirements. Dennis Hotte is Canfor Houston’s general manager and sums up the venture with verve. “We’re big, flexible, aggressive and focused on safety, quality and costs. That’s what we’re all about at Canfor Houston.” The Houston sawmill has grown steadily since opening on site in 1968.

It was a flagship producer under its previous ownership, Northwood Pulp and Timber, which Canfor acquired in 1999, and it has continued to thrive with Canfor’s stewardship. Canfor Houston’s four production lines already constitute North America’s largest sawmill by production at 450 million board feet annually. When operating at full capacity—anticipated by the end of this year—it will surpass production of the Klausner sawmill in Wismar, Germany, which has been in the top production spot. Canfor cannot unilaterally control lumber market demands, currency fluctuations and trade relations with the US. But the company is helping control its own destiny through economies of scale and a reduction in conversion costs. Canfor describes them as the cost of producing a unit of lumber from the input of raw materials. The $26.4-million project covers the investment of $13.3 million in the sawmill, including $2.6 million in dry kilns and $10.5 million in finishing.

Canfor has adopted a very aggressive construction schedule on the Houston upgrade. There will be no shutdown at the mill and the installation work is to be completed by the beginning of October.

A further breakdown of those figures for the sawmill part of the project includes $1.2 million spent on wood preparation; $5.4 million on primary breakdown; $2.5 million on edging; $1.3 million on trimming/sorting and $2.6 million on optimization. Two hundred feet of kiln drying capacity is being added. A major re-configuration in the planer mill includes the installation of two new high speed planers; the addition of MSR capability; a second linear grade optimizer; two new trimmer/grading lines; a retrofit of the two existing sorters and a new packaging system. The Houston project’s scope reverberates through the woodlands operations. The mill’s annual log consumption will increase from 1.55 million cubic metres to 2.054 million after the upgrade.

The largest uplifts in fibre supply will come from the Fort St James Forest District (an annual increase of 225,000 cubic metres) and outside purchases (215,000 cubic metres). Moving the additional volumes from the western sections of the Fort St James district makes sense because they are the low or equivalent cost delivery point, explains Leroy Reitsma, divisional accountant with Canfor Houston. The region’s mountain pine beetle epidemic is a huge link to the project, he continues. “When we looked at the economics of the project, we went over our wood supply seven to 10 years from now. We are positioning ourselves to be the most efficient, lowest cost producer in the region and to be sure we can compete for fibre when that time comes,” says Reitsma. “We’ve notified our logging contractors that we’re moving schedules to allow a more consistent flow of logs directly to the mill deck.” It’s part of the company’s just-in-time concept of inventory management. And there’s a safety component.

Expanding scale hours and re-scheduling will smooth out logging truck traffic, he predicts. Incoming logs can be delivered directly to either of the mill’s two merchandising decks by a LeTourneau. The installation of Bid Comact wave feeders on the merch decks is part of the mill’s strategy to realize an average 30 per cent increase in piece counts between log decks, debarking stations and delivery for primary breakdown. The mill has five debarkers and considerable flow flexibility exists between the debarker lines. The sawmill’s three chip ‘n saw lines and one chipping canter line will be upgraded from the RT 2 Porter Engineering scanning and process control system to Porter’s True Shape system. The LRF increase from True Shape Scanning is projected to be 5.7 points and will reduce raw material costs per finished unit.

New Optimil sawboxes are installed on the north chip ‘n saw line and a new Optimil gang is being added to the south chip ‘n saw line. Reitsma explains that the modifications on all production lines will remove bottlenecks and smooth out product flow. Comact is overseeing upgrades to the sawmill’s three edger system, including everything downstream of the unscramblers to the edger heads. The mill’s rejuvenated trimming and sorting function is dedicated to upgrading the presentation of lumber to the lug loaders, explains Reitsma.

The approximately 35 per cent increase in production and accompanying economies of scale are expected to drive the mill’s conversion costs down by 24 per cent.

Comact supplied the unscramblers and lug loaders. Both the 92-bin west sorter and the 76-bin east sorter will be retrofitted with Gemofor’s push sorting system. The size of the sorters reflects the increased numbers of sorts required to separate the production by moisture content. This ability was provided by NMI in 1998 and serves to increase drying efficiency. Gemofor’s push-style sorting systems combine speed with smooth transfer and fewer cross-ups. Reitsma says extending the track system and eliminating a transfer car will keep most product off the ground and directly loaded to the kilns. The mill has a dozen dry kilns. A new Salton kiln with 150 feet of capacity and the extension of an existing kiln to 150 feet gives the ability to efficiently dry 150 million board feet a year. NMI moisture sorts on the infeed detect any wets before planing. NMI’s service back-ups on its installations have been exemplary, notes Reitsma.

Production flow in the planer has been re-configured, resulting in a more direct route through to sorting and packaging. A new Milltech tilt hoist has been added. Two new Gilbert Tech planers represent the first installation of the equipment in BC, though they have been well proven in Quebec and elsewhere, notes Reitsma. The pull-style planers can operate at 3,000 linear feet/min, an impressive 50 ft/sec. A Metriguard MSR capability has been added to both lines, contributing an engineered premium to product values. A second Autolog lineal wane optimizer has been added, capable of addressing other characteristics like bow and twist at 3,000 ft/min in about 3/8ths-inch frequencies. “We’re very happy with Autolog. They’ve provided very good service,” says Reitsma. Autolog is also providing the planer controls package. The two trim/grading lines are supplied by Gemofor along with the retrofit of the 60-bin sorter.

Like its counterpart in the sawmill, it is a push type and is capable of 200 lugs/minute operating speed. Reitsma says Canfor has been impressed with Gemofor’s leading edge technology applications. The planer’s new packaging system includes a Signode bander and a Deltech paper wrap. The shipping systems have been re-configured for more efficient chip and lumber car loading. The plan is to create a more direct flow from the planer outfeed and is another step toward reducing inventory costs, says Reitsma. Woodpro, International Quest and Comact are all performing parts of the engineering for the project. Their roles are all the more important because Canfor has adopted a very aggressive construction schedule. “We’re not planning a shutdown and want the installation work completed by October 1,” says Reitsma.

Lumber product lines will remain the same after the upgrading project, 1x4 to 2x12 in eight to 20 foot lengths. Product value will increase through continued focus on Canfor’s relationship with Lowe’s and Home Depot, creativity, re-manning, innovations like MSR and the overall quality, finish and appearance of products. The approximately 35 per cent increase in production and accompanying economies of scale are expected to drive Canfor Houston’s conversion costs down by 24 per cent. But the upgrades also mean the loss of 35 hourly jobs and Canfor is working with the IWA to mitigate the effects.

A Behavioural Science Technology safety program helps employees recognize and minimize risk behaviour. It helped identify higher/at-risk positions for curtailment through the utilization of modern technology. This employee-driven program has resulted in a 60 percent reduction in medical frequency rates and a virtual eradication of time-loss accidents since its inception. On the positive side, the project will increase overall employment in the region. Changes in trim block processing have created employment growth at K2 Manufacturing, a local re-man plant. A 32 per cent increase in logging activity will benefit native and non-native logging contractors. And Kyahwood, a joint venture with the Moricetown First Nation, is evolving into a full scale finger jointing and re-man facility based on Canfor Houston’s low grade.

Canfor Houston has every reason to be proud of its people. A 30 per cent increase in production has been achieved between 1996 and 2002 without major capital expenditure. The largest sawmill complex in the world is as impressive as it sounds. But it’s Canfor Houston’s people who have to make it work and keep it working to maintain and build on the elevated new standards established.

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