By Paul MacDonald
After catching its breath after a major upgrade at the front end of the mill several years ago, the Gilbert Smith Forest Products sawmill in Barriere, B.C. launched another upgrade—but this time it’s towards the back of the sawmill.
The upgrade this time at this Western Red Cedar mill in the town of Barriere, about 70 kilometres north of Kamloops, in B.C’s Southern Interior, involves a lumber grading/sorting project that combines the lumber flow from the mill and planer through the same system.
Gilbert Smith FP is one of a small number of mid-sized independent sawmills left in B.C. As such, it doesn’t have access to large amounts of funding for capital expenditures, like a West Fraser or Canfor operation. The mill, its management and employees take great pride in being resourceful. And as with the previous upgrade three years’ back, that resourcefulness was reflected in the careful and strategic purchase and installation of used mill equipment, and marrying it with select new equipment and process systems for this latest upgrade, completed earlier this year.
About 60 per cent of the additional equipment is used, and about 40 per cent is new. Tapping into the latest in technology, all of the controls and optimization equipment is new.
Greg Smith, President of Gilbert Smith FP, and a grandson of the founder of the family-run company, explained that the 2014 upgrade prepared them well for doing this latest project.
“That upgrade really put us on a solid footing, to be confident enough to take on this size of project, which is quite a bit larger,” Smith said. “It also made it clear that one of the things we needed to do was improve the back end of the mill.”
Both projects position the Gilbert Smith FP mill to better get through the inevitable downturns in a cyclical industry.
Smith, who was assisted in managing the upgrade by project manager Chris Newton, said there were a lot of details, and moving parts, to the project. He noted it had different dynamics than the previous upgrade, in that they were assembling the new and new-to-the-mill equipment involved in the middle of the millyard.
“We considered the lumber grading/sorting project to almost be greenfield in the sense that we were able to separate it from the mill operation, and that it did not impact the mill,” said Smith. “The plan was to fit it around the planer building without interrupting any production.”
And the plan was successful in achieving that—but not without a huge number of logistical details coming together.
“We are talking about a whole new building, and a whole new line of equipment,” explained Newton. “But we kept the equipment separate until the very end, when we brought the new equipment over, broke the existing connections, and then routed the wood into the new set-up.”
Smith said that, big picture, the project reflected a complete philosophy change in the mill’s business model.
“What we were looking at is that we’re a one shift sawmill, and we run a two-shift planer. It started with that we have to do an upgrade to our planer, to get things in balance.”
He noted that they have always been a green lumber producer. Though they have a planer, they have no kiln capacity.
“We were basically utilizing the planer as a grading/sorting line,” said Smith.
Two of their markets are rough reman blanks, and a dressed, surfaced four side (S4S) green decking product. That rough reman market has been growing in recent years—the rough cedar product is of great appeal to their reman customers.
“The scenario was that we needed to run all this wood through the planer, and we needed to upgrade the planer because we can’t get enough wood through it. But we were not doing anything to the reman blanks other than trimming, grading and sorting.”
Smith heard of a mill elsewhere that had an optimized trimmer running both green and planed wood at the same time. “It sat at the back of my head, and I wondered, ‘why aren’t we doing that, in one pass’.”
Being in the B.C. Interior, Smith has to do a lot of driving, and it was on one of these drives—“windshield time” as he describes it—that the solution came. It involved new equipment, a new transfer system and a new building. That night, he says, he went to the mill site and started measuring it for the new set-up.
The end result is that 70 per cent of their rough production, which had been going through the planer to get sorted and graded, now bypasses the planer. “We now run the planer more for specialty items, such as decking for the home centres.” But the planed wood, and rough lumber, is still part of the same line. The two lines go through an upper or lower grading station, and then merge to go through the scanner optimizer together.
Smith said he toured sorting operations at a few mills, and he knew they had to come up with something creative. They picked up a used 24 foot, 70-bin sorter, and did some modifications to it. They used BID Construction to remove it from a mill operation in Prince George, B.C. BID acted as both a used equipment supplier, as well as a remover of equipment, for most of the used equipment on the project.
“We came up with a pretty ingenious way of cutting the 24-foot sorter apart, and making it a 16 foot sorter. We welded it together in a jig, and then hauled six overlapped bins at a time down on the tracks.”
Smith and Newton said they knew they needed to come up with a solution for handling the dressed cedar. “I had seen tray sorters and soft-drop sorters,” said Smith. “Tray sorters are the ultimate, but they take up a lot of space.” They also wanted to have side by side sorter systems. They ended up picking up a sling sorter out of Alberta. They added a couple of bins to the end, and now have a 41 bin sling sorter.
“So with the new system, we now have a combined 111 sorts, a big increase over the previous 30-bin system we had,” explained Smith.
“That means that all the rough lumber production direct from the sawmill can be trimmed and sorted to length, in multiple grades, all in one pass. And that gives us enough capacity so that when we have planer runs, we can handle the sorts for that with the bins in the sling sorter.”
The planer dressed product going in the sling sorter is from eight to 20 feet, and the regular sorter handles six to 16 foot product.
Among the new equipment making the new set-up possible is a wrap-around from Mill Tech Industries, and a star wheel system and transfers from Machinage Piché Inc. The used Mill Tech unscrambler they had was stretched a bit by Salem Contracting, which also added a few more features. In addition to this, Salem was the main contractor for civil and mechanical work on the project.
Additional equipment included a Comact stacker sourced out of Mackenzie, B.C., a secondary hoist they got out of a Canfor operation in Quesnel and a backlog deck out of Prince George. The new equipment for the upgrade came principally from Machinage Piché Inc. and Mill Tech Industries.
The mill acted as prime contractor, with assistance, as noted, from Salem Contracting. Metal Structure Concepts (MSC) of Kelowna did the new building. Smith noted that extensive excavation was involved, and a lot of old sawmill debris was removed. Some 1700 loads of gravel went into the foundation of the new building.
Handling the electrical was Spark Industries, of Kamloops. A group of local fabricators, who really stepped up to the plate, said Smith, were also involved.
Helping to make all this equipment work, and the whole set-up come together, was consultant Bruce Grunert, of Techfor Services Ltd.
“Bruce was taking what were essentially our rough drawings and moving them to a very detailed level,” says Smith. “He was working on doing the finer details, as we went along. Bruce was great at slotting in all the used equipment, and making sure it would work together.
“The big building blocks in the upgrade were fine—it was really the integration that was challenging,” added Smith. “It’s where you hand off wood that you can get glitches.” The glitches were minimal, says Smith. “Overall, it has now given us the flow we needed.”
The line is designed with a top speed of 105 lugs a minute, and they are now operating at about 70 lugs a minute. “So we have good upside,” says Smith.
Key to the entire project were the controls and optimization, which came from Raptor Integration Inc., of Canoe, B.C.
“We spent a lot of time discussing and reviewing what we wanted to do in optimization,” said Smith. “We’re a Western Red Cedar operation, and we’re high value. There is still not a bulletprooof vision scanning system for cedar—it’s not quite there yet.
“We did a review of what the graders were actually grading out and we ended up with a grade mark reader in front, and we’ve certainly been happy with that,” says Smith. “We cut a lot of small wood, that is really our bread and butter, and wane is usually the defect, so the geometric scanner works flawlessly with that.”
When it came time to pulling the whole new system together, they eased into it.
There was a belt that pivoted up and down that could direct flow into the new line or the old system. “We started using that, to see if things worked,” said Smith.
“It was a bit of a challenge before we completely cut the cord, and moved to the new system.” They started at around 50 per cent, and moved up from there.
Troubleshooting was tough during construction, since last winter was so severe in the B.C. Interior. “Sometimes we did not know if the problem was just related to the cold,” says Smith.
They started limited production in November 2016, but were still sorting out some issues—and it was tough to do with extended periods of -20 degree weather.
“Normally, we have a couple of days of cold weather, and then it moderates,” said Smith. “But it didn’t do that this past winter. The cold weather just stayed.”
Not that they had any control in this regard, but perhaps ramping things up in the cold weather wasn’t altogether a bad thing, says Smith.
“There was the pain of starting up in the cold weather, and we kind of had to take it on the chin for the start-up. But we now have a clear idea of our cold weather problems. If we started up in the summer, we’d still have to find out how the line works in cold weather.”
He added that they now have a program of what they need to do, to address some of the cold weather issues. “We’re in a better position now, so in some ways the cold weather was helpful.”
Construction proceeded alongside regular operations. For the better part of a year, the mill was in full production while the new project came together.
“During the transition, we had the old sorter running, so we could put wood over to the new line, and still use the old sorter. We just gradually kept shifting more and more volume over to the new line.
“On the last construction weekend, we pretty much completely cut the cord on the sawmill side, and all the flow started coming over, and we started with the new set-up on the Monday.”
The project itself took about a year, from March 2016 to March 2017.
Key to it all was the scheduling and co-ordinating that was being done, keeping the project on track, despite the weather. “It was very challenging to keep everything lined up, but we managed to keep to a very tight timeline,” said Smith.
Another big achievement of the project, he added, is that it was done safely, with no lost time accidents.
“We managed the flow of everything that came into the yard—the fact that the project was separate, and that we weren’t right inside the mill, made it easier. But everyone, from our people to the many contractors on site, did a very good job.”
With the additional equipment now in place, the mill is now working on increasing the capacity of its maintenance group.
“We are also making sure we are connected for online maintenance troubleshooting for the new equipment,” says Smith. “We have great access to bring Raptor online, so they can see exactly what is happening with our controls and optimization, and we can get the support we need.”
They are now getting to where they want to be, and the before and after descriptions from Smith underscore just how big of a change there has been to the mill operation.
“Really what we were following before was the industry SPF standard: doing a rough product sort in the sawmill, piling it into a rough inventory yard, then putting it through green into the planer.
“But we were using that approach even though we don’t have dry kilns, and are a green cedar mill. So we had working capital tied up in inventory, and there could be some degradation due to weather, both in summer and winter. The model was to eliminate that, and produce lumber in one pass.
“Now, if we need to dress wood, we’ll take it and stack it under cover—and when we’re ready, we’ll do that run through the planer. So we’re only dressing the wood we need for those orders.”
The fall down grades don’t go through the planer. “The remanners we work with like that better, it gives them more wood to work with.”
The end result, says Smith, is they are giving customers exactly what they want, and are doing it more efficiently.
“What we are producing now is a finished product in one pass, graded, packaged and ready to go to the customer.” Added to that are the benefits of optimization, and getting the maximum lumber value out of their high cost cedar logs.
And it also creates business opportunities, since the planer is no longer a bottleneck.
“We can take more product and use it to do more specialty programs, which did not fit in before. Now, we can look at doing 20,000 feet of this or that product, and we won’t interrupt the flow.”
Being flexible and creative with production will help position the mill well for the next downturn, when it inevitably comes, says Smith. The mill wants to produce a reasonably high volume of product, but also a variety of products. They do not want to paint themselves in a corner of being a high volume, limited product option mill.
“Volume does not help you so much in a downturn as being able to produce what people want—and we want to be flexible enough to do that.”
On the Cover:
The Princeton, B.C. sawmill of Weyerhaeuser Canada has seen some major equipment upgrades in the last few years—but there is more to come, as the sawmill continues its efforts to make operations more efficient, and reduce costs. The two-line sawmill in the B.C. Interior turns out upwards of 300 million board feet of SPF lumber annually, and is undergoing a multi-year upgrade (Cover photo by Paul MacDonald).
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Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre, Alberta Innovates and Alberta Agriculture.