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Quality vs. Quantity 

Rather than develop into a large operation with big production numbers, Nova Scotia's Elmsdale Lumber is producing for a small group of quality-conscious customers. 
 

By Tony Kryzanowski
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use. 

Nova Scotia's Elsmdale Lumber Company Ltd. (ELCO) has taken a page from the Volvo assembly plant situated near their sawmill. That company has earned a reputation for resisting large assembly lines, preferring to focus on superior quality over quantity. 

However, ELCO has not shied away from modem optimizing equipment, having invested about $7 million since 1990 at their mill, located west of Halifax. It is a family-owned operation, passing from one generation to the next, currently owned by Robin Wilber. While the mill has survived several generations, it was incorporated at its current site in 1950 and currently has a very stable workforce of 55 employees. 

Rather than evolve into a large, dimension sawmill with massive production, ELCO has taken the Volvo approach to sawmilling - preferring to manufacture smaller amounts of high-quality dimension lumber, from as many as eight different wood species, for a smaller list of quality-conscious customers. At any given moment, they could have red spruce, white spruce, pine, fir, hemlock and a variety of hardwood species stockpiled in their yard. 

ELCO general manager Derek Prest says they manufacture about 20 million board feet of lumber annually, using primarily spruce and fir. 

"We do a little bit of everything," says Prest. Their current approach evolved from their experiences as a retail supplier back in the late 1970s. 

"We were doing custom sawing in the retail sector," he says, "but now we tend to do custom sawing in the wholesale sector - bigger lots of specialty items." 

The final piece of the puzzle to their five-year modernization and expansion plan is their planer mill. This spring, they replaced two Newman 500 planers and two Yates resaws, with a combined production capacity of 350 board feet per minute, with one Yates A15 planer consisting of 16 knife heads and capable of 1,000 board feet per minute. Prior to this investment, they only had planing capacity for about 60 per cent of their lumber. Therefore, they were forced to sell some rough kiln-dried lumber primarily to the European market. But now they have the ability to plane all of their lumber, continuing toward their goal of more value-added and better quality. 

While some of their investments have resulted in better wood recovery, that is not their main objective. 

"Mere is a fine line between recovery and giving the customer a quality product," says Prest. "We keep saying that we're a small player here, and quality oriented. With a sawmill of our calibre, recovery means more items like 1X3 and low-end items. Recovery does not necessarily mean more 2X4s. We're really conscious of the quality we give our customers, and we don't want to jeopardize that for a little bit more wood." 

Here is what ELCO means by providing better quality. Prest says they high-grade their wood, have a high percentage of wanefree product, and they have up to four grade checks on their production line to ensure accurate trimming. 

"We're not under the gun, time-wise," he adds. "If it takes an hour to do a betterjob, we would sooner take that hour than lose some wood." 

They also limit their production of fir, produce a high volume of red spruce which is a superior-quality product, and spend more time in the actual handling and storage of lumber. 

"If it takes a few extra hours in the dry kiln to limit some warp and twist, we'll do it," says Prest. They are so accurate in the final product that a customer recently volunteered to take a price increase in exchange for more lumber. ELCO's accuracy was saving him time and money in his secondary manufacturing plant because he did not have to adjust his equipment or slow his production because of off-spec lumber. 

"With our regular-dimension SPF, we gain premiums just based on the quality of the wood," says Prest. "There's always somebody looking for a quality product that's a little bit superior to somebody else, and they are willing to pay a little more money to have that product." 

ELCO's production line consists of two unusual, yet incredibly functional, pieces of equipment. One is their Forano debarker. It consists of two interchangeable debarker rotors - one 18" and one 36". After visually inspecting the logs for size as they enter the mill, the debarker operator selects either the larger or smaller rotor. It takes him about 12 seconds to switch the hydraulically powered rotors. This set-up of a single debarker with two rotors has saved ELCO a lot of space, and only one other one exists in Nova Scotia. 

Logs measuring over a 12" diameter enter ELCO's PHL carriage line, while smaller logs enter the PBL twin. Both lines converge toward another unusual piece of equipment - a Valley combination edger. It is a combination board edger and bull edger. Because the bull edger section uses a guided saw system, the operator can choose to produce 1 ", 2", 3" and 4" boards all at the same time, simply by making a selection on his computer screen. 

"The screen shows the dimension of the cant," says Prest. "The edger delivers a series of laser lights. The edger operator aligns his cants with those lights." The operator can make selections up to 1/16" of an inch variance, and the board edger can adjust widths by 1/32". They can also adjust board thickness by 1/32" at the board edger outfeed. 

Prest says the Valley combination edger delivers flexibility and accuracy. "It's so accurate - our customers just love it," he says. "It's just bang on." This edger is also perfectly suited for the Nova Scotia wood basket, where wood sizes from a single cutblock can vary from sticks to 20" in diameter. Their equipment needs to be versatile. 

The lumber then passes through a PHL outfeed, horizontal saws and double-end trim system, prior to entering the green chain. It is manually piled, then transported to their new American Wood Dryers kiln, where it will be dried for between 24 and 26 hours in summer, and up to 42 hours in winter. Heat is provided to the kiln, sawmill and to ELCO's in-floor planer mill heating system with a new KMW boiler. Then, its over to the planer mill. 

Prest says ELCO uses PHL equipment because they have had a positive and long-term relationship with this Quebec equipment supplier. They build reliable equipment, and are hands-on with their customers. 

ELCO ships its pine primarily to domestic markets, and its spruce to domestic, US and European customers. 

In future, Prest says they may consider more value-added product lines such as panels, V-joints and specialty pine products. 

"Our focus is always to remain flexible in anything we do," he says. "If we can dig up hidden items that customers want, we'll try to focus on that, as long as the volume is sufficient to justify it."   

Elsmdale has a high percentage of wanefree product and up to four grade checks on their production line. 

MORALE IS UP, COSTS DOWN WITH ELMSDALE SAFETY PROGRAM 

Elmsdale Lumber Company Ltd. (ELCO) understands the cost of a poor safety record, and the benefit of a properly implemented safety plan supported by both management and staff. 

Since 1992, they have reduced annual compensation paid to injured staff by 92 per cent. Absenteeism is also down significantly, and morale is greatly improved. 

Their program, coordinated by ELCO office manager Gennie Himelman, has become a model for other Nova Scotia sawmills, and they often present safety seminars to other mills in their region. 

Himelman says the forest industry in Nova Scotia is a fairly close-knit community, and there was concern with individuals becoming injured on the job. In addition, as the industry took greater strides toward mill mechanization, there was the potential for more serious accidents. 

She says ELCO was successful in changing the mindset of its non-unionized employees toward a greater safety consciousness, making it clear that safety is each employee's responsibility, and that the safe way of completing a task at the mill is always the best way. 

For its part, management ensures that all equipment is working properly and well maintained, so that employees can keep up their end of the bargain. 

Himelman adds that ELCO's emphasis on safety has not been, "a great financial burden." In fact, by emphasizing safety, the company has realized "quite a financial gain for its investment." As a privately held company, she says they are always conscious of their bottom line. 

In 1992, ELCO paid out $60,000 for employee compensation due to injury. At that time, the province's Workman's Compensation Board (WCB) enforced a 20 per-cent merit and demerit system on WCB premiums, depending how often each company dipped into the compensation fund. ELCO was in a demerit position. 

In 1996, ELCO paid out only $5,000 in employee compensation and is now in a WCB premium merit position. The WCB has since


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