SawmillsWhat will sawmills of the future look like?

Will the sawmills of the future be run entirely from an I-Phone or I-Pad? Logging and Sawmilling Journal looks at what might be in store for future sawmills with UBC wood science assistant professor Julie Cool.

By Paul MacDonald

It really is stunning to look at sawmills today, and compare them with sawmills— and the way lumber was produced—30 or 40 years ago.

The amount of technology that is now employed in areas such as scanning and optimization is nothing short of staggering.

That can also be said of the technology we employ in our everyday lives. For example, it might be a stretch, but there is probably more computing power in a single SmartPhone today than there was in a sawmill back in the 1970s.

It raises the question about what lies in the future for Canada’s sawmills: will a sawmill be run someday from a Smartphone? And will we continue to see mills become even more technologically sophisticated, at the cost of jobs in the industry?

SawmillsFrom her office looking over the forests at the University of B.C. in Vancouver, Julie Cool, Assistant Professor in Wood Machining in the Department of Wood Science at the Faculty of Forestry, pondered for Logging and Sawmilling Journal what mills might look like in five, 10 years—and longer out.

Cool has an interesting perspective; in addition to her position at UBC, she has also worked at industry research organization FPInnovations, and for a consulting firm—and is a mechanical engineer. She received her Masters and PhD in wood science from Université Laval.

Cool’s focus is on wood machining and quality control, in primary and secondary forest products manufacturing. If it involves wood-knife interactions at the sawmill, it’s right up her street.

At its core, Cool explained, the sawmilling side is all about wood machining and equipment. “And of course having the right equipment and tools to cut into that piece of wood is important, to produce the right product, and do it efficiently.”

She noted that sawmills work with a variable raw natural material, with no two logs being the same. That variability needs to be accounted for so mills can manufacture a consistent sized product, in the form of 2 x 6s or 2 x 4s, which is the challenge.

Cool’s work at FPInnovations involved working directly with individual sawmills in areas such as quality control and optimization—and it was, she says, a refreshing change from the academic work she had done at the university. Essentially, she was working with sawmills, mostly in eastern Canada, on how they should direct that most valuable of resources: capital for mill upgrades. Forest companies, of course, whether they are big or small, want to get the most bang for their capital expenditure dollars.

Julie CoolThere has been a lot of technology developed for sawmills over the last 10 or 20 years—but UBC’s Julie Cool believes there is still more to come. “I think there are still opportunities for improvements,” she says.

And where that capital should go depends, of course, on the make-up of the individual sawmill operation.

With the economic, and industry, downturn in 2008, Cool said that in some cases, the companies that survived were either large companies, or they were integrated, to some degree. For example, they might have had an associated flooring, siding or added value operation. “These companies are able to add value right away,” she explained. “It’s enabled them to survive, and better adjust and adapt to the changing markets.”

There is more of that going on in eastern Canada, than in the West, she added. And the general sawmill approach is different, too, because of the size of the logs. Ontario and Quebec, and east coast sawmillers, are working with smaller size logs than their western cousins.

“The resource here in B.C. is larger—that is especially true on the coast where processing speeds may be slower and kerf a bit thicker because lumber recovery from large logs is great and lumber value high. In sawmills dealing with smaller trees, feed speeds are much faster, and it is crucial to maximize what you get out of each log.”

Cool said that for some time there has been a shift of technology from east to west, with many B.C. Interior and Alberta sawmills using technology that has been first implemented in Quebec sawmills, for example, as their logs have become smaller. “They are all trying to utilize the resource as best they can.”

Perhaps more than ever in the industry, sawmills are being extremely targeted in their mill improvement investments. Specifically—though it really depends on the mill—the target could be on better optimization, scanning, or log rotation.

But one thing remains steady, says Cool. “The most important cut in the sawmill is the first one. Once you’ve made that first cut, the next processing steps are often set.” So there is a strong focus on investing in the right primary breakdown equipment.

SawmillsIn terms of “Big Data”, data could be taken all the way back to the woods. A forest company could have a system where it knows, from the moment a log is harvested, exactly which primary log breakdown system at which sawmill would best be able to process that log.

She said another trend that is continuing, often due to a shortage of trained graders, is computerized grading equipment. “You want the right people grading,” she says. Sawmills don’t want graders sending lower grades into the higher grades bin, and vice-versa. However, it can be difficult to get the right, detail-oriented people for grading because mills are competing with other industries, such as mining, in rural areas of Canada, she says.

The response has been more technology, in the form of high-tech grading equipment. It can, and does, pay off, but Cool cautions that it’s not “plug and play”.

“There are great grading products out there, but they need calibration. The software needs to be tailored to the type of wood that the mill is dealing with, the individual mill operations, its equipment, and line speeds. The return on investment does not happen right away, regardless of the type of automated grading equipment you put in a mill.”

Cool uses the comparison of a SmartPhone. “When you get a new phone, you still need to transfer all your data and download apps before the phone works for your specific needs—it’s not automatic.

“It’s the same, but on a different scale, in a sawmill.”

And the devil can be in the details in getting equipment to work properly in a mill, she says.

“It’s not like it isn’t working,” she added. “The boards will all be moving through, but the best decision needs to be made—and it can take some time to get there.”

In the end, mills are able to do the necessary adjustments, but it may be a bit of an effort to get there.

SawmillsIn the sawmill of the future, machine centres could communicate with each other. If a piece of equipment goes down, for example, the mill system would know and immediately send wood towards another machine centre, so production is continuous.

Added to that, the mill needs the right support structure to maintain all that high-tech equipment. “The right people are needed, for example, to manage and maintain that grading equipment.”

There has been a lot of technology that has been developed for sawmills over the last 10 or 20 years—but Cool believes there is still more to come. “I think there are still opportunities for improvements.”

What those improvements are depend on the mill, and where they might be on the technology curve. As with any industry, there are the early adapters, and the ones who wait, to see if new technology actually works as well as claimed. Essentially, a lot of mills are interested in being cutting edge, and less so in being bleeding edge, as the saying goes.

“There may be a period of time when new technology may not perform as it should, that it may take time to work out,” says Cool. “And companies might not want to be the first to try something out. I think there is a lot of that in the forest industry, which is ok, but it can slow the technological development process down.”

Depending on the mill, the technology improvements can be incremental—or sometimes huge. The uptake, says Cool, can sometimes happen in a big way if a sawmill has been watching equipment developments, and then decides to move forward with major mill improvements that would solve specific bottlenecks or problem areas in their mill.

The forest industry, being cyclical, sees periods where there is little or almost no upgrades being done, due to a downturn. In these times, such as the 2008 downturn, mills move into survival mode, and only do what is absolutely necessary.

“Arguably, that may be the best time to invest,” says Cool. “Well chosen improvements could make you more competitive than other mills and give you an edge, allowing you to get the most from investments made in equipment.

“But realistically, the money is not often there during those times,” Cool added.

With future upgrades, what lies ahead for Canada’s sawmills? Will there be fewer people working at mills five or 10 years down the road?

SawmillsThat will likely continue, says Cool. But a certainty is that many of the people working at sawmills in 2020 or 2025 will be doing different work, she added.

The number of people working at mills overall will probably be less, but that does not mean there will not be opportunities—quite the opposite, she says. There will be other positions available, linked with managing and maintaining all that high-tech mill equipment, as noted. “People who have different training or knowledge will be needed,” she says.

“The sawmilling industry is now high tech, and will see more and more of that, with faster processing speeds, more knowledge required, and more data being generated.”

Will it be harder to recruit such tech people to work in smaller centres, like Williams Lake, B.C. or La Sarre, Quebec?

Perhaps, says Cool. But those that do make the choice to work in such centres are likely to see their careers grow at a pretty good clip. “They will see their responsibilities grow faster. And the quality of life can be better, if that is what you are looking for.” Despite the growth in Vancouver or Toronto, not everyone, says Cool, wants to live there.

With all this equipment generating data, it begs the question how does the vague concept of Big Data work in the forest industry. Can mills effectively use all the data that is being generated by all this high tech equipment?

“There are different ways of approaching it,” says Cool. “Having a lot of data can be overwhelming, and all of the data is not necessarily important or helpful.

“But you can imagine connecting any piece of lumber coming out of your planer with the tree it was cut from, and knowing how it was processed.

“You need to ask the right questions,” she added. “Is the data for quality control purposes? Is it to better manage the flow of lumber in the mill? Is it to measure the cutting tools you have in the sawmill, and how they are wearing? Is it to sell your product better.”

If it’s the latter, Cool says mills could become more flexible and operate on the basis of current lumber markets and market demand, which could enable them to better connect with their clients. The potential for this could be huge with customers such as Home Depot, for example, that have extremely sophisticated supply chain systems.

In the mill of the future, machine centres could also communicate with each other. If a piece of equipment goes down, for example, the mill system would know and immediately send wood towards another machine centre, so production is continuous.

Such a system could also be used for preventative maintenance. In the case where a bearing starts getting worn, or is overheating, that information would be sent to the computerized mill management system—and would be dealt with, ideally, before a breakdown occurs. “It would be the bearing that would be telling the computer—not a person,” says Cool.

Or the data could be exchanged between equipment on an operating basis.

“So when you make a cant, slabs or sideboards, the next piece of equipment knows exactly what has been cut, and is ready to deal with it,” says Cool.

“You could imagine having one extremely accurate x-ray scan done at the front end of the mill, that would account for all the pieces of lumber that will be produced and by which equipment—and all the equipment knowing what to expect.

“Big Data can be overwhelming,” Cool says. “But the possibilities, if you embrace them, are limitless. You have to get beyond the overwhelming, and think about what you can do with all that information.”

Taking that data all the way back to the woods, a mill could have a system where it knows, from the moment a log is harvested, exactly which primary log breakdown system at which sawmill would best be able to process that log.

That considered, where should mills be making their investments now?

Cool says the smart mills would be looking at investing in better optics with their scanning equipment, so they can generate more, and better, data.

On a final note, she added that the robots are not going to be taking over sawmills anytime soon. But where further automation could be focused in a very helpful way, says Cool, is in areas where mills are finding it difficult to get people now—such as in grading, and sawfiling.

“If you can’t find someone to do that job, more machines may come.”

In the end, perhaps all that data will be used to manage a sawmill from the equivalent of a SmartPhone in the future. But, says Cool, regardless of the advances in technology, there will still be a need for sawmillers who know their equipment, and mills, inside out.

“People are a great resource,” she says. “And we really do have an amazing capacity to adapt.”

Logging and Sawmilling Journal
February 2018

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