By Tony Kryzanowski
When parting ways with friends, there is a huge difference between saying ‘good bye’ and ‘see you later’. In the case of Tolko’s decision to mothball its oriented strand board (OSB) plant in High Prairie, Alberta in 2008, it’s clear that the company had every intention of returning.
That has now occurred, and with more than $50 million in capital investment, the OSB plant can now produce 40 per cent more OSB with about the same number of employees as when it closed more than 10 years ago.
The plant is providing 175 jobs and as many as three times more contracting and service support jobs to this northern Alberta community. Also, given the number of First Nations and Métis communities surrounding High Prairie, Tolko has put a strong emphasis on maintaining good relations and finding business opportunities for many in these communities. There are a number of First Nations and Métis working in the mill, in log yard management, and in logging activities, involving several communities in the surrounding area.
The Thorlakson family owns Vernon, B.C.-based Tolko Industries, and has a strong emotional attachment to the High Prairie OSB plant, originally built in 1995. It was the first greenfield facility that Tolko constructed and was their first OSB plant. Since then, the company has built another OSB plant east of High Prairie near Slave Lake and in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan.
OSB is used primarily for sheathing in home construction, with most Canadian production exported to the United States. When the once-in-a-generation housing collapse occurred 10 years ago in the U.S., it sent ripples across the entire Canadian forest sector and sent OSB prices spiralling downward. That forced Tolko to close its High Prairie plant.
After that, the company continued to invest between $2 million and $3 million annually to maintain its infrastructure, according to Bob Fleet, Tolko Vice-President of Environment and Forestry, speaking to local community leaders during an information session in 2017. During its closure, Northern Lakes College used the facility to deliver an innovative trades development program. Also during that time, the mill remained intact and none of the OSB manufacturing equipment was removed.
The plant closure was a huge blow to the local economy; so when the housing revival in the U.S. finally arrived, there was significant provincial and local support for re-opening the OSB plant as quickly as possible.
A number of events and initiatives helped to make that happen. First, the Alberta government provided a five-year extension to the existing Tolko High Prairie Forest Management Area (FMA) agreement where the plant sources its wood fibre, which the company says was critical to helping them make a decision on the plant’s re-opening. Also, the local municipality, Big Lake County, agreed to a four-year phase-in taxation agreement. Finally, Tolko qualified for a $4 million tax break as part of the province’s Capital Investment Tax Credit program that reimburses 10 per cent of the cost of new machinery, equipment and buildings, once in use.
The re-commissioning announcement occurred in 2017, and refurbishment and upgrading was the first priority.
The re-opened plant produced its first OSB panel in November 2017, ramping up to 24/7 operations in January 2018. It is already achieving the same amount of production achieved prior to the plant closing. The goal now is to ramp that up to its new production potential.
Plant manager Andrei Dolgirev says that the beneficial economic impact on High Prairie and the surrounding area is obvious, reflected in local real estate prices and availability of rental properties. There are many instances where husbands and wives are both employed at the plant, and some cases, it even extends to older children and relatives.
In keeping with the company’s current goals, Dolgirev says that the OSB plant is definitely diversifying its product mix so that it isn’t entirely dependent on one product sent to one market.
“We started with one product, but now we are capable of producing probably six or seven products,” he says, although their 7/16” sheathing panel is still their highest volume product. Switching production from one product to another depends on stock and market demand. Making the switch is not time consuming, taking at most about 20 minutes. OSB produced at the plant is marketed primarily in Canada, the United States, and Asia.
The $50 million capital investment by Tolko into the High Prairie OSB plant has not only brought its technology up to 2019 standards, but will also allow production to improve from 500 million square feet annually to 700 million square feet annually on a 7/16” basis.
Improvements have been made in a number of areas that have delivered significant efficiency dividends, leading to the production increase.
On the front end, Tolko continues to consume a diet of aspen and black poplar exclusively, but now receives cut-to-length logs measuring 16’ long. This is compared to the tree length logs they received previously that were then bucked to 8’ lengths on the front-end slasher deck. That deck has now been completely removed, and 16’ logs are fed directly into two new conditioning ponds.
“This simplifies the process—you can be more efficient and it is also less maintenance intensive,” says Dolgirev.
After conditioning, logs climb two existing Comact step feeders and jack ladders and are debarked through one of two Nicholson ring debarkers, depending on their diameter.
After debarking, logs are processed through two new Kadant Carmanah Design pocket batch feeders and stranders. Kadant Carmanah Design is based in Surrey, B.C. and supplies technology and equipment used in the manufacture of strands for OSB production and other engineered wood products.
The strands are dried using three conveyor-style Proctor dryers, leading to two dry storage bins. The strands are then fed into two rotary blenders, as needed, where they are blended with either a methylene diphenyl diiocyanate (MDI) binding agent or phenol formaldehyde-based binding agent.
One of the main production changes at the plant is switching to an MDI-based resin for the OSB core, while continuing to use phenol formaldehyde-based resin on the top and bottom layers. Dolgirev says that MDI-based resin is not being used on the top and bottom layers because it sticks to the press platens.
He adds that in addition to developing the ability to strand 16’ logs, this switch to MDI resin in the core is also a major contributor to the plant increasing production by 40 per cent, as there is less retention time required in the press to create OSB panels, resulting in significant production gains.
“The cycle time is reduced on the press,” Dolgirev says. “The gain is basically the difference between 500 million square feet and 700 million square feet in annual production.”
It has not been an issue using two different types of binding resins, with each having their own separate tanks, mixers and supply lines.
“It cost some time to invest capital into two chemicals, modifying tanks and pump systems, but in general, it’s normal operations,” Dolgirev says.
The top, bottom and core strands are laid up on four Dieffenbacher formers which have been equipped with new platens, leading to a 12 insert Dieffenbacher press. The purpose of the forming lines is to ensure that the strands are evenly distributed and properly oriented on each layer prior to the hot press, as this provides the OSB panel with its strength attributes.
After pressing, the newly formed OSB is cut into 4’ X 8’ panels along a series of Convey-Keystone conveyance systems on either side of a Giben book saw. It can cut 10 to 15 panels to size at one time, depending on the width of the panel. The panels then cure, and are prepared for shipment to customers.
One other major investment as part of the re-commissioning was the installation of GreCon explosion and fire prevention devices along the conveyance system to the bag house, where combustible dust and fines are collected. The GreCon system detects sparks and embers in the material process flow in dryers, hammer mills, screens, etc., using infrared sensors to trigger countermeasures that extinguish or divert the hazards. Preventing fires and explosions is a more cost effective strategy than just suppression.
There was some capital spent on log yard design and roads, but the existing overhead crane is not being used as part of current operations. Tolko did not have to make an investment in yard equipment as following its model established and proven at its Meadow Lake OSB plant, that responsibility has been contracted out. The purchase of yard equipment and yard management has been taken on by a corporation operated by the Driftpile Cree Nation.
Tolko also purchases its dunnage from an enterprise located on the Sucker Creek First Nation.
The OSB plant depends on burning its hog fuel to provide heat for its buildings and for its drying and press processes, to the point where Dolgirev says that their natural gas consumption is almost zero.
There is a strong emphasis on building resilience into OSB plant operations, he added. There is a focus on reducing operational costs compared to how the plant was operating prior to the shutdown, while also ramping up production. At the same time, there is also an emphasis on building a winning team and good employee communication, to maintain a good working environment where people feel engaged.
“If a private company invests $50 million, that alone should indicate just how serious they are about succeeding because of how long it takes to earn back that investment,” Dolgirev says. “If the housing market doesn’t collapse, we definitely have a bright future and can be one of the best performing plants in North America.”
On the Cover:
Tom Fisher Logging conducts selective harvesting in a forest that consists of several high-value wood species, which provides him with the opportunity to tap into a variety of markets for his wood products. Fisher very ably maintains good relations with inquisitive local cottage owners about the sound of logging equipment and resource road traffic as they enjoy their lake properties. (Cover shot of a Tigercat 822C feller buncher with a 22” hotsaw head by Tony Kryzanowski)
A win-win forest management plan
The First Nations-owned Agoke Development Corporation is working on a forest management plan that could revolutionize the economic structure of forest management in northwestern Ontario—and deliver benefits to First Nations communities and the forest industry.
Managing all the moving parts
Veteran Ontario logger Tom Fisher has plenty of experience at managing the many moving parts—including keeping local cottage owners in the know—that are involved in harvesting high value hardwood forests.
Bright future for fiberboard operation
With a steady source of residual wood supply from mill operations in the region, the MDF plant in Pembroke, Ontario is looking forward to a positive future under its new ownership, Roseburg Forest Products.
Taking their logging to a whole new level
Ontario’s Henry Petkau had modest goals when he started Henry’s Trucking—but with his son, Bob, joining the operation, they have now expanded, and added new Southstar processing equipment that has taken timber production to a whole new level.
Getting higher OSB production at High Prairie
With a $50 million capital investment, forest company Tolko Industries has re-opened and boosted the production capacity at its re-commissioned High Prairie oriented strand board plant in Alberta by 40 per cent.
Sorting it all out—log-wise
The Shoal Island logging sort in B.C. truly lives up to its name, doing upwards of up to 180 log sorts, but doing it all with the environment in mind.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from Alberta Innovates, Canadian Wood Fibre Centre (CWFC) and FPInnovations.
The Last Word
Tony Kryzanowski says the Forest Machinery Connectivity project is a good investment in “What If” science.