By S.J. Troughton
When cost-effective production improvement technology becomes available, Canadian forest companies like Tolko Industries Ltd inherently know they should find ways to use it.
Darrell Weatherill, who has been at Tolko’s Armstrong, B.C. planer mill for six years and is superintendent of the operation—which is part of Tolko’s Armstrong sawmill—explains that the planer mill underwent an extensive upgrade that began in December 2013 when the first construction phase began. In January 2015, the second phase started and since that time, the investment has been paying dividends with production increasing from 180 lugs/min. to 240 lugs/min.
After extensive research involving comprehensive mill tours, Weatherill and his staff agreed on Gilbert as their equipment supplier, an industry name that has been recognized as a market leader in the design and manufacture of planer mill equipment for over 25 years. The Gilbert high-speed planer series is ranked as among the fastest in the world and has a 95 per cent efficiency rating that has been achieved simply by improving the process of how boards run through the planer.
With a description that is self-explanatory, Tolko’s Gilbert planer uses innovative “pull-through” technology, thereby ensuring a gap exists between every board so that every one is pulled through independently into the planer. Unlike the more conventional approach, this technology prevents overlapping and breakage in the machine, which allows operators to run damaged end boards with less trim loss. Ultimately, downtime is reduced, resulting in increased productivity overall.
Further, the planer upgrade meant the division is able to produce a higher-grade of lumber, given that the Gilbert planer they installed has exactly double the number of knives than a conventional planer.
“Our old planers had 16 knives per head,” explains Weatherill. “The new ones have 32 knives per head. It was a remarkable difference. You could actually see the improvement in quality.”
The Gilbert planer series is known for its ability to produce premium grades and equipment can have as many as 44 knives per head and 16 cutting circle cutterheads. Further, all Gilbert planers are equipped with electric motorization, to ensure steady speed, high-accuracy planing and safe operations. When researching what would be most effective in the mill, Weatherill says he particularly liked the Gilbert’s Automatic Positioning System that allows for control over the cutterheads, and efficient changeovers when they are needed, resulting in less downtime and overall production flexibility.
“It also has a quick release system so downtime is reduced because everything resumes immediately after jam-ups,” says Weatherill.
Previously, Tolko Armstrong was using Stetson-Ross and Newman M990 planers for their entire stud mill needs. From companies known for industry innovation and producing leading edge planing technology that incorporated optimized speed control, roll speed synchronicity and cutterhead positioning capabilities, the two planers were “being pushed to capacity,” explains Weatherill. As well, both operated using a more conventional technology where boards typically overlapped each other due to a number of issues such as “defects that could cause stalls in the whole process.”
While this equipment had steadily delivered over the years, “they were slowly becoming very old machines that needed to be updated,” says Weatherill.
As with any upgrade, the changeover for Tolko’s Armstrong group did not happen until they were convinced they had sourced the equipment they needed. Weatherill explains he and his staff researched a number of different options before deciding Gilbert was the one.
“We did a lot of research and mill tours and eventually decided on Gilbert. We liked the new technology approach to production.”
The same sort of research also went into who Tolko would seek input from once they had a plan in place. Weatherill says Tolko was very impressed with the independent engineering consultant the company hired. Based out of Grande Cache, Alberta, Aaron Davis’ company MD Engineering was chosen to oversee the upgrade project that was implemented over two phases.
“Aaron and I worked closely together—Aaron is a very smart individual, not to mention a very good engineer. He certainly knows his stuff and knows how to set up mills.”
Mill Tech Industries from Salmon Arm, B.C. was selected to provide the lumber handling and stacker line equipment. They supplied the mechanical and controls equipment from the lug loader through to the package outfeed, including one main trimmer and three P.E.T. Trimmers, 180 degree turn, pusher lug sorter conversion complete with bin addition, structural steel and walkways. On the packaging end, they provided a package shuttle transfer from the sorter, high speed electric dual fork stacker with lath placing, an endpress, package turning transfer and the transfers through the paper wrap machine.
“We were very impressed with Mill Tech, as well, and the knowledge they had behind them,” says Weatherill.
In 2013, Tolko Armstrong began the initial installation phase that included a week for dismantling and installation of the Gilbert planer. This project phase was followed by a two-month start-up phase of tweaking the new planer.
“We had to set the machine up and figure out how to make it work for us—find that sweet spot,” says Weatherill. “Every mill is unique in that regard.”
By January 2015, Tolko was ready to undertake the final phase of the upgrade which included gutting the planer site and eliminating many of its different lines that all needed to be monitored separately “so everything was very labour intensive which meant boards were going everywhere and the operation was not able to run as quickly,” explains Weatherill. Now, the Armstrong planer operation wood flows through one line, allowing for greatly improved volume capacity.
“We have gone from 40 thousand board feet per hour to 56 board feet per hour. For a stud mill, that’s a pretty phenomenal number.”
Never content to sit idle with initial production improvements that include the ability to eliminate graveyard shifts, Weatherill says he and his staff are always studying how they can increase capacity and further improve every step of the milling process for the products the Armstrong planer mill produces which includes: J-grade, M-grade, A-grade, #1&btr, #2&btr and stud lumber from fir, SPF, hemlock and lodgepole pine including beetle-killed pine.
Besides their planing upgrade, Tolko Armstrong upgraded the back end of the mill with new technologies such as a DO2 Rapid Wrapper from Quebec-based DO2 that wraps the loads efficiently and automatically without any human intervention. As well, the mill site incorporated a painting robot arm for painting the ends of loads. Often used in car manufacturing, the painting robot arm from Ontario-based Control Systems Innovators Corp. is known to lower operating costs, and improve finished quality through more consistent output, resulting in decreased amounts of wasted material.
“Painting the loads was something we did manually for years and years and now it’s automatic,” says Weatherill.
He is adamant the Armstrong operation will continue to optimize in the future and improve the mill’s processes even further.
“There are still opportunities to go even beyond where we are today. We’re continuing to work on improvements so we can advance even further,” says Weatherill. An example of this would be troubleshooting what might still halt the line’s operation. “We certainly run very fast now. We just need to run steady so we are always looking at what might stop the line and how do we prevent that from happening again.”
A 20-year Tolko veteran, Weatherill adds the key to ensuring upgrades achieve maximum efficiency and are therefore ultimately successful is ensuring all contractors and consultants involved with installing the equipment and designing the layout are working in a co-ordinated fashion and crew members are comfortable with the new technology.
“That certainly happened all along the way for this project,” says Weatherill.
Tolko Industries began in 1956 with a small planer mill in Lavington, in the B.C. Interior, and has a reputation for being innovative. Today, the family-owned company has more than 4,700 employees and operates more than 15 primary manufacturing divisions across Western Canada, which manufacture a wide-range of wood products for customers located in 20 countries around the world. Among those divisions are eight biomass energy facilities that contribute to the on-site production of wood products.
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