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March 2005  - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal


Elk Lake hunts for lumber recovery

Ontario’s Elk Lake Planing Mill—which includes a sawmill operation that will soon be going to three shifts— combines a very strong approach to achieving lumber recovery improvements with implementing cost control measures.

By Ray Ford

If you can’t judge a book by its cover, no one should judge the Elk Lake Planing Mill by its name. The innovative Ontario operation includes a planing mill, but it also boasts a sawmill, drying kilns, and a unique ownership structure combining a strong regional player with an industry giant. With ownership split between majority owner Domtar and Liskeard Lumber, “it’s almost like a custom sawmill,” says general manager Mark Stevens. “We saw for Domtar for four weeks, then Liskeard Lumber for two weeks.”

Elk Lake general manager Mark Stevens. “Our biggest challenge is to improve lumber recovery. There aren’t more trees to cut, so we have get more products out of the logs we have.”

The shared approach dates back to the mill’s inception during the mid-1960s. Back then, Len Wilson of Liskeard Lumber and Morgan Grant of Grant Lumber operated a half dozen sawmills in the bush around Elk Lake. Reckoning to add more value to their product, they established a joint planing mill in 1965. The planing mill worked so well that Wilson and Grant followed up by consolidating their smaller sawmills into a large central one. By the time the new sawmill’s blades started spinning in 1968, the Elk Lake Planing Mill moniker was already established, and the name stuck.

Today the mill, with its 130 workers, is the major employer in the town of about 500, producing more than 100 million board feet of SPF bound for markets in southern Ontario and the United States. Changes are on the way for the operation, however. In January, Domtar announced that a third shift would be added at Elk Lake to process wood that has become available due to the closure of the Tembec sawmill in Kirkland Lake, Ontario.

Employees at Elk Lake are constantly focused on trying to make improvements, whether big or small, to the mill and its operations. “The problem is, the better you do, the harder it gets to make those improvements, but you never stop,” says Mark Stevens.

The processing of this additional fibre will require 56 additional people beyond those currently working at Elk Lake. The additional wood supply to the Elk Lake sawmill is expected to not only improve its competitive position, but also enhance job security for both sawmill employees and contractors involved in harvesting and hauling activities. It will also enable the partner companies to better leverage the $12 million in capital investments that have been made in Elk Lake in recent years, which include a new kiln, a new planer, saw line improvements and new debarker and boilers.

Elk Lake illustrates the pressures affecting Ontario’s forest industry, and demonstrates how a joint venture can maximize productivity without breaking the bank. “I look at our mill and think it’s labour intensive, but one of the advantages is we’re efficient with what we have, without having to pay the bills for big capital investments,” says Stevens, who has held the mill’s top job since 1998. When the mill was established, it was easy to make huge strides in output and efficiency simply by consolidating operations and bringing in more wood. Now, Elk Lake operates in a mature industry where gains in productivity come from small innovations as well as big-ticket renovations. “Our biggest challenge is to improve lumber recovery. There aren’t more trees to cut, so we have to get more products out of the logs we have,” Stevens says. “Since 2000-2001, when we first cut 100 million board feet, it’s been a slow and steady climb of continual improvement.”

Elk Lake draws its timber—mostly jack pine and spruce—from the Timiskaming, Shining Tree and Temagami Forests, all within 200 km of the mill. The timber “is fairly typical of the boreal forest,” comments Stevens. “I tend to think we have smaller and more crooked logs than other mills, but that’s a subjective opinion.” During the past decade, the mill owners implemented two multi-million dollar projects to get more out of those logs. In 1998, the mill added curve-sawing technology to boost recovery on smaller wood, along with two debarkers and a new electrical substation feeding underground cables—eliminating the need for overhead wires around the mill.

Two years ago, the planer and heating plant were revamped, along with the addition of another drying kiln. The most recent addition, installed in 2004, is a Fuji King debarker for processing short logs, from Carmanah Design and Manufacturing. “When we process our tree-length wood through the slasher, it generates these tops that are less that eight feet long,” Stevens says. “We’ve added a short lumber line at both the planing mill and the sawmill to capture the value of short lumber, rather than chipping it. Lumber is more valuable than chips, so why not make use of it?”

Logs are delivered to the mill in tree-length form, processed by a single gang slasher and bucked into lengths of 16 feet or less. Smaller diameter logs flow through two Carbotech 18-inch debarkers installed in 1998, while stouter logs are debarked by a 22-inch Nicholson unit put in place during 2003. Larger diameters flow through the plant’s venerable chip ‘n saw line. Smaller logs (usually six inches in diameter or less) are handled by the newer Denis Comact canter curve-sawing edger-processor. The line uses a Comact linear optimizer to scan and autorotate logs for maximum yield, while the gang edger cuts up to a three-inch sweep over 16 feet. Boards are sent through a three-headed Sawquip board edger, and sorted by a 40-bay HEMCO unit.

In an effort to make the best use of its wood, the mill produces everything from green, rough-sawn shorts for pallets and furniture to more valuable dressed and kiln-dried dimensional lumber. Small boards include green, rough-sawn 1x3s and 1x4s in random lengths from six to 16 feet, and green 2x4s and 2x6s in four- to seven-foot lengths. Dimensional lumber ranges from 2x3s to 2x10s, in eight- to 16-foot lengths. “We plane and dry all two-inch stock in eight- to 16-foot lengths,” Stevens says. The mill dries lumber in two kilns, a 250,000-board-foot HEMCO dating from 1980, and a 2002, 220,000-board-foot Cathild, both heated by a Konus wood-fired boiler with a Volcano oil-fired boiler for backup. “Given the cost of oil, we use as much sawdust as we can,” Stevens says. “One of the projects on the table is to revamp the old kiln, reskin it and reinsulate it to improve the thermal efficiency. It’s kind of funny to have advanced controls when you’re losing a lot of your heat through the walls.”

Although the planing mill is housed in the original 1965 structure, the planer at the centre of the mill was replaced in 2002 when the old Yates A-20 planer made way for a Newman 712 from Domtar’s Timmins mill. The Newman was rebuilt with 18 knives, up from the 10 featured on the older Yates machine. The next big project will be reworking the large log line, although there is no date set yet. “Recovery is one issue we’ll be working with,” Stevens says. “Our chip ‘n saw does not have the ability to fully utilize the larger logs. That’s where we could make major gains in recovery, but that’s a big project.”

In the meantime, mill staff scout for ways to improve output without incurring major costs and downtime. “Cost control has been a big intention in the past two years, especially with poor markets and the US softwood lumber taxes,” Stevens says. “Almost every year, even when we don’t do the big projects, we’re constantly trying to improve some of the dated equipment or bottleneck areas in the mill. Our biggest bottleneck was the lack of drying capacity and we overcame that with the second kiln. When we look at all the phases of the operation, we’re actually close to being balanced, far more than before.”

Even small improvements—including automated saw filing—have big payoffs. In the saw shop, head filer David Dickerson points to the Vollmer CHC250 and CHF 210 automated filers installed in 2000 and 2001. “Here you’re looking at a blade with 66 teeth, and the machine takes about seven minutes to do one saw blade. I can put the machine on here, walk away, and it can take care of the blade.” Dickerson says the machines allow him to do preventative maintenance and anticipate problems, rather than merely respond to them. “We’re consistently focusing on trying to eliminate the bottlenecks, big or small,” Stevens says. “The problem is, the better you do, the harder it gets to make those improvements, but you never stop.”

The Elk Lake Planing Mill Employees Association, a single-local independent union, represents mill workers. “It’s nice to deal with local issues with local people. There’s a long history to it, but it’s a very positive working relationship,” Stevens says. “Our success depends on our employees, and their future depends on the mill.” Mill staff and employees have worked closely to reduce workplace hazards and accident rates. One simple but effective part of the campaign is an annual calendar featuring safety posters drawn up by the children of the mill workers. “We’ve gone about 550 days or so now without having a lost-time injury, compared to having 11 lost-times back in 1996. Standards have changed drastically.”

Perhaps the most innovative part of Elk Lake’s approach is the shared management structure dating back to the mill’s inception. The original Grant/Wilson ownership (with the Grant family holding a two-thirds share) has since undergone a series of transitions. The Grant shares were eventually sold to E B Eddy, and when Domtar took over Eddy’s operations, it inherited the majority share of Elk Lake. “We benefit because we get the Domtar expertise from the sawmilling perspective, and they get the extra volume they need to keep the operation running year round,” says Liskeard Lumber manager Tony Saint. “We’re sharing a common asset, and otherwise it would be very difficult for each partner alone to have a sawmill that is cost-competitive and viable under today’s conditions,” adds Domtar’s Stewart Marcoux, vice president for Domtar Forest Products’ Ontario sawmills.

The companies operate separate yards for logs and take turns using the sawmill and planing mill. “The majority owner is Domtar, so they provide the bulk of management direction and influence, but there’s an asset to being partly owned by a smaller entrepreneur, it helps you maintain the emphasis on details,” Stevens says. For his part, Stevens says his job is to keep both partners happy and keep the lumber flowing. “I see my own job here as supporting the environment we need for everyone to be successful. We’re fortunate to have a lot of good people with a lot of good skills that mesh together well.”

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