Making the GradeJ D Irvings Grand Lake Timber operation is using waste wood to produce construction grade lumber.
By Harold Hatheway
One quarter of the main floor of the planer mill building at J D Irving's Grand Lake Timber operation in New Brunswick stands as a shining example of a continuing trend in the forest industry: making the best use out of what has been considered in the past to be waste wood. In Grand Lake Timber's case, it involves taking planing mill rejects that were previously fit for little but pulp mill chips and using them to produce finger jointed material. Manufacturing millwork and moulding material from finger jointed stock is nothing new, but in 1996 Irving took a hard look at finger jointing construction grade framing lumber from this waste. Irving has a reputation for both bold expansions and a shrewd analysis of risk, but no one in the company, from president J K "Jim" Irving down, had any experience with finger jointing. On the one hand this new process gave every indication of producing a marketable product from a low quality byproduct of the main mill; on the other was the risk inherent in being involved in something completely new to J D Irving operations, either in Canada or the US. As Grand Lake's preventive maintenance supervisor Norm Grantley puts it: "No one knew what we needed, or needed to know." A"pro" factor which helped in the decision to move forward was the provincial government's announcement of a policy that links the industry's future access to Crown land to increasing the level of value-added processing. While J D Irving does have extensive private holdings, existing Crown leases are essential to current and future timber supply.
The first phase of the program was the purchase and installation of equipment, including an edger and two chop saws in the main planer mill line, and the finger jointing unit itself. Installation of the jointer was relatively simple as the equipment came on two pallets, prewired, and the 85,000-square-foot planer mill building was designed for this kind of expansion. The work was essentially done by Irving's experienced mechanical and electrical staff and some local contractors. While the actual finger jointing equipment was not particularly sophisticated or complicated, the combination of a new process-particularly working for the first time with a system that is glue-dependent- and the very demanding standards, added up to a major challenge. "On a mill line, loose bearings on a trim saw aren't important. On this line, that could be a disaster," explains shift supervisor Lenny Boyd, who is largely responsible for the installation, startup and upgrades of the line. "We had to learn about all sorts of little problems, how to identify them, and how to fix them. "On the basis of our sawmill and planer experience, we thought we'd have a learning curve of maybe a few months. But the experienced people from Plum Creek, Montana who told us there was a two-year learning curve were dead right. We started slow, 6,000 to 7,000 board feet a shift, and are now up to between 55,000 and 60,000 board feet, and I believe we are ahead of some operations that were running before we started." Finger jointed construction material comes in different grades requiring different standards and currently the Grand Lake Timber operation is only certified for vertical use. However, the Irving product is constantly tested in the onsite lab for both horizontal stress and delamination. The demonstrated ability of a stud to withstand major horizontal stress suggests that the product could well meet the tougher certification standards if and when the company wants to. It became apparent that control of moisture content, overall humidity and temperature was vital, something that was made easier by the all-under-cover planer mill operation. In addition, finger jointing means a higher level of precision operation and material quality control than most sawmills are accustomed to. There is absolutely no tolerance of wood flaws in the actual joint, and very little in the body of each section. This means continual inspection, but rejects are routed to chop saws, with the acceptable sections being rerouted back into the main line. The very small percentage remaining ends up going to the chippers for the Irving pulp mill in Saint John. As the crews mastered the new techniques, additional challenges arose. The finger jointer had an output capability far above the original manual system for sorting and stacking on pallets at the end of the line. And too much of the output failed the dimension and gluing accuracy standards. This was due in part to the use of planer blocks from other Irving mills, as even the slightest variation in thickness or width could cause an unacceptable mismatch in the gluing surfaces. To speed up the supply of blocks, the main line was upgraded to five manual chop saws, with several sorting and inspection turntables, whose output (minimum 6" to maximum of 24") is stacked on pallets and forklifted directly to the three large bins which feed the finger jointing line. Further automation may take place in the future. However, the major development was the installation of a scanner ahead of the finger jointing line, and a planer at the end, followed by automated stacking and wrapping. This may be upgraded with the addition of a board turner, to lessen the rate of RSI (repetitive strain injuries) resulting from the need to manually turn every unit to check all sides.
The upgraded line now starts with the
Woodeye scanner, the first such installation in Canada. This unit has four computers: two
controlling four colour cameras, another controlling four black and white cameras, and a
third which combines and analyzes the data to produce an instant picture of every defect
in each stick. It automatically sets the two Paul Saws Model 11 Crosscut Saw Boxes making
up the optimized chop saw line. Unlike earlier systems, the Woodeye Scanner can
differentiate between non problems like marker ink or dirt and an actual knot, all at a
speed of approximately 400 feet per minute. Only six to seven per cent of the material
passed by the scanner is rejected as waste, and 75 per cent of the wood coming from the
planermill is utilized. Clearly this unit is a key to the efficiency of the operation. The
programming and operations of this and other inhouse computers is all done by electrical
supervisor Michael Barton and staff. From the saws, the blocks are moved by a walking
floor to the infeed belt of the Industrial Woodworking Machine 3870 finger jointer, where
the blocks are jointed and glued. Cutters on the finger jointer have to be changed at
least once a shift. If they are not sufficiently sharp, it could cause burning and a glaze
on the wood, which downgrades the gluing surfaces. After a manual inspection, sticks pass
to the assembly where side and top rollers-moving at a slightly different speed-apply both
top, side and end-to-end pressure. Pieces are cut to rough length by a flying saw, and
then get a final top and side squeeze to set the glue joints. Studs are then routed to the
Model 6- 10-A1 Stetson Ross planer, which sits in an enclosure to minimize noise and
flying debris. They are then cut to the final length and moved to the Ram Tech lumber
stacker and parcel wrapping area, from which they are removed by front end loader
Product is largely 2x4, with some 2x3- there is little demand for 2x6-but lengths are very often special orders, ranging from 92 5 /8 " to a maximum of 120", which can be met with little delay. Product moves out as soon as it can be turned out, and there is no sign of a letup from the largely southern US demand. The finger jointing operation runs either two, nine-hour or three, eight-hour shifts, depending mainly on the availability of wood and workers, with 22 line employees per shift for a total of 60 to 70, depending on the number of shifts. Grand Lake Timber has some 300 full time employees, plus about 30 supervisory and administrative personnel. A variety of positions at the mill are held by women. As well, a number of students work there during the holidays, sometimes resulting in a crunch when they return to school. While Irving employment standards are high, preventive maintenance supervisor Norm Grantley says "right now we have more work than workers", and he agrees that anyone able and willing to do the work would be welcomed.
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