March, 2001





Push Button Mill 

Simpson Timber invests between 50 to 70 million dollars in commencement Bay Operation

By Carmen Edwards 

It’s been called “high-tech,” “world-class,” and “state-of-the- art,” but when U.S.-based Simpson Timber Company broke ground at its new Commencement Bay Operations sawmill in 1999, the mill was simply a way to fill a business need in a changing industry. While many mills were upgrading, Simpson saw an opportunity to apply emerging technology in a way that made a difference, and started from scratch. “It’s the most high-tech sawmill in North America,” says Beverly Holland Tanis, Simpson Timber’s public affairs manager. “We like to call it a push-button mill.” 


“Of course we’re excited about the mill, but this crane is what we’re most excited about,” says yard supervisor Andy Williams. He says Simpson’s crane is different because it’s positioned right in the middle of the mill, unlike others that require you to go 1200 feet or more before reaching the mill. Williams observes that the crane will eliminate all those piles of logs, and people handling logs, for minimal log damage.

Today the mill is nearing completion at a time of falling timber prices and escalating global competition, yet the company is following through with an investment of 50 to 70 million dollars. That’s almost three times the cost of an average new mill. The costs reflect a high technology focus that will computerize most mill operations, from log handling to sawing and cutting. “The facility was planned several years ago when the lumber market was better than it is now,” admits Tanis. “However, housing starts and the lumber market are all cyclical markets, so we anticipate being able to operate at full capacity.” Scheduled to be fully operational in June 2002, the 180,000-square-foot sawmill sits on 73 acres along the waters of Commencement Bay in Tacoma, Wash., next to the company’s 35-year-old Commencement Bay Mill. 

John Hynes, project manager, and soon to be mill manager, says it’s a combination of factors that make the new mill unique. “It’s a state-of-the-art mill, there are available raw materials, good transportation resources and most importantly, a highly motivated and trained work force,” he says. “The mill will have both high recovery and high productivity.” While the existing mill produces primarily Douglas fir and some hemlock studs for home construction, the new mill is targeting expanding its markets with construction grade lumber, sized by demand. Sizes will range from 2”x4” to 2”x12” and from 8 feet to 24 feet in length. The addition of six new lumber-drying kilns (the current mill has none) will enable the mill to expand its markets. 

For instance, Simpson now sells hemlock “green,” without any drying time, to a market limited to hot and humid climates that allow the wood to dry properly during the construction process. The six aluminum, natural gas fueled kilns will heat lumber up to 280 degrees for as long as 30 hours, depending on the species. The ability to dry lumber will open up new market opportunities for Simpson. Computerized machinery will also open up opportunities, as digital scanners position, size and process more logs at higher speeds. Simpson officials like to call the new venture a “push-button mill” because with the touch of a button, operators will oversee and monitor computerized mill operations, from log handling to cutting. Computer technology and tools such as laser scanners will determine the highest-value lumber products that can be made from each log and position the sawing equipment for precision cutting with as little waste as possible. 

Operators may have six or seven screens to monitor the logs’ progress. Says Tanis, “You can easily say it’s the most efficient mill in North America.” The new mill is rumored to be not only the most hightech, but the largest mill in the world, in terms of production. Company spokespeople are hesitant to confirm this, preferring not to speculate on actual output, saying that true production figures will only be available once the mill is fully operational. However, Tanis acknowledges the new mill will have double the truck traffic, at up to four or five loads an hour. 

The existing mill receives 70 percent of its logs by water, and 30 percent by truck or rail, and that is not anticipated to change at the new mill, which is one of the reasons the Commencement Bay site was selected. Simpson officials scouted all over Washington and Oregon before siting the mill in Tacoma because of its unique combination of water, road, and rail access. 

An added plus? Simpson Timber already owned the property. Simpson bought the property in 1986, from Champion International, complete with lumber mills, saw mills, and a paper mill. That purchase, evolved into today’s Commencement Bay Mill Company, which brought another value to selecting the site — an existing workforce, most of whom had been with Simpson for 20 years or more. Tanis observes, “All the workers applied for jobs in the new mill, and are being re-trained to operate larger equipment, and different technology. All our processes [in the new mill] are computer-controlled, as opposed to the old mill, where only some were.” 

Through re-training, most of the 115 current mill employees will be able to seamlessly shift over to their positions at the new mill, which will employ 175 when fully staffed. The workforce will increase by 60 additional jobs, covering all areas of production, including mill workers, electricians, truck drivers and machine operators. As employees move over to the new mill, they’ll start with one shift, then a second shift will be added, six days a week. “It will provide a place of employment that’s highly competitive,” notes project manager Hynes. “That means a more secure future in an industry that’s currently experiencing a great deal of fluctuation.” 

Employees began moving over to the new mill this February, as processes came on line. When the new mill opens for business, Commencement Bay Mill Company will close its doors. In the meantime, it continues to operate as the new mill takes shape around it. Project manager Hynes observes, “Demand for wood products is strong and for those who are willing and able to make the capital investment necessary to stay competitive, the future is bright.”

The new Commencement Bay Operations mill is in the final stages of construction. At a cost of $50 million to $70 million, computers will run most mill operations, from log handling to sawing and cutting. 


It took four large independent cranes to raise the four corners of this gantry crane, an integral part of Simpson Timber’s new 180,000-square-foot sawmill in Washington state. With the crane, log handling at the new mill will be mostly airborne, operated by a mill employee sitting high above the ground in a booth that moves with the log grapples.

Founded in 1890 as a timber company by Saul Simpson, Simpson Timber is privately held, and is a subsidiary of Simpson Investment Company of Seattle,Washington.


This page was last updated on Monday, November 10, 2003