Alberta’s Spray Lake Sawmills (SLS) has recently improved its bread and butter medium size log processing line by investing capital to purchase a new 10” Optimil vertical double arbor edger (VDAE) and a new Autolog trimmer optimizer.
The investment delivers multiple benefits, including expansion of the company’s already highly diversified, value added product line. This expansion will also allow the company to help fill customer orders in-house without having to rely on outside vendors for certain products.
Overall, SLS understands that any company not focused on constant improvement soon gets left behind. It helps that the company isn’t playing in the same sandbox as other Canadian commodity-focused softwood lumber producers.
Despite producing about 115 million board feet of lumber annually, SLS ships no softwood lumber directly to the United States from its location in Cochrane, just west of Calgary, although some of its products do eventually show up in American and overseas markets through its customers. Its marketing focus is primarily to customers and distributors in Western Canada. So unlike other softwood lumber producers, it’s not paying a 22 per cent tariff to ship softwood lumber south of the border.
The secret sauce at SLS is its complete focus on producing value added products while maximizing recovery from its spruce and pine logs. They produce high quality dimensional lumber and timber products for both white and treated markets. They also market wood chips, peeled and treated fence posts, cattle bedding, and apply bark mulches and soil blends using its fleet of blower truckers operated by a company subsidiary called Top Spray.
Every year, SLS aims to spend some capital to improve operations or to diversify its product mix. This year, the company took aim at its primary log processing line. The sawmill has three processing lines for small, medium and large diameter logs. However, about 90 per cent of production occurs on the medium diameter log line, which can process logs up to 17” in diameter and features the new Optimil VDAE and Autolog trimmer optimizer. So money spent on this line has the potential to deliver significant benefits—and it has.
The company’s small log line features a HewSaw 200 breakdown unit for smaller logs and their large log line is equipped with a Forano headrig for oversize logs. All told, SLS can produce lumber and timber dimensions anywhere from 1” X 4” to 6” X 6” up to 16’ in length. They process logs down to an 11 cm top.
The new VDAE replaces an existing unit with technology from the late 1990s. It was equipped with a single shifting arbor. It was also hydraulically-driven. Over the last few years, SLS was starting to experience issues with control consistency and product limitations, so it was time for an upgrade.
Among the biggest improvements is that the new VDAE is electrically-driven, which provides SLS with a much higher level of control. It is equipped with additional pairs of infeed and outfeed feed rolls for better holdback control in the winter months. Being focused on value added products, log processing control is critical.
“Because we went to a double shifting arbor with a six-inch pocket, that gives us more flexibility around our timber program and value added products that we can produce on this machine vs. what we were able to do before,” says Arnold Fiselier, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at SLS. He adds that they can now produce additional value added products for their wood treated facilities and respond immediately to market demands.
“We’re really trying to add value to every piece of lumber or timber that goes through the process,” says Fiselier.
What’s quite unique about the SLS production process is that this line has the ability to produce a combination of both timbers and dimension lumber from the same log. Not all logs will produce a timber. It depends how the Perceptron log scanner solution at the front end of the processing line has optimized the breakdown of individual logs, but the potential is there.
Fiselier says that they don’t operate at the same speed and high volume throughput as other typical commodity-driven sawmills because that’s not the objective at SLS. This was a bit of an adjustment even for him, since he brought years of experience working at a high throughput dimension sawmill when he joined SLS.
He describes the current wood product market as competitive, and although SLS does not ship softwood lumber to the U.S. directly, the 22 per cent tariff that other companies shipping softwood lumber to the U.S. must pay—in combination with fewer housing starts south of the border because of weather and other dynamics—is having a ripple effect on Canadian lumber markets served by SLS.
Despite over two billion board feet of softwood lumber being taken out of production in North America over the past year, led largely by sawmill closures and curtailments in the British Columbia Interior, there still seems to be a considerable amount of lumber available. So, given current conditions, SLS is looking for every opportunity to improve its competitiveness. Constant improvement and being highly diversified helps.
Four years ago, the focus was on a significant upgrade to the company’s planer mill, which featured installation of a new Comact GradExpert, computer-based, lumber grading system and launch of its new line of sienna-colored, treated wood products. Two years ago, they made significant canter upgrades to beef up their Perceptron scanner’s hardware, software and controls. They also upgraded their Key Knife chipping heads on the canter line. These improvements were initiated somewhat to set-up additional upgrades like installation of the new Optimil VDAE.
Fiselier says that the new VDAE delivers higher recovery, increased valued product mix as well as improved uptime and productivity.
With the new Autolog trimmer optimizer, SLS replaced 20-year-old technology where the hardware and software were no longer supported. So it was time for a replacement.
The company shopped around and determined that the Autolog product was the best fit for their operation. It represents current technology that provides more optimizing solutions more quickly. The optimizer classifies more defects, which allows SLS to reduce trim loss, reduce the volume of low-grade lumber produced by the optimizer, and decreases the volume of pieces redirected to the board edger. Also, as a new install, it is more reliable.
“We went from a six-inch scan density to a quarter-inch scan density with this install, ensuring that we are directing the right stick of lumber to the right location,” says Fiselier.
A major concern for all sawmills currently is minimizing the generation of airborne dust and waste material because of the danger they represent. Fiselier says given the advance of the mountain pine beetle eastward from British Columbia— particularly through the mountain park passes and from northern Alberta where it is already prevalent—it is only a question of time when the sawmill will start to process higher volumes of beetle-infected logs. These logs are generally drier, which leads to the production of finer and dryer dust particles. All new capital projects are looked at closer for added health and safety benefits at the engineering stage.
Staff at SLS worked with two contractors on their current project. B.C.-based Wrangler Engineering Ltd. (part of the Corbilt Group of Companies) was their mechanical contractor and Calgary-based Static Energy, was their electrical contractor.
SLS chose the Optimil VDAE model that features better dust containment. The trade-off is that it is a bit harder to observe and reach components for maintenance, but given the higher level of dust control it offers, the company believes making this investment is worthwhile. Wrangler Engineering designed and installed the enclosed infeed and outfeed conveyors for the Optimil VDAE. Within these enclosed conveyors, they installed devices to minimize the amount of sawdust thrown during log processing, directing it to a collection waste conveyor system below. Not only is the floor around this area of the primary breakdown line a lot cleaner, thus improving overall safety at the sawmill, but Fiselier says that the system also saves the company about four to six hours of clean up time per week.
Overall, SLS is poised to remain a leader in sawing technology and is very excited about the future ahead.
“We’ve got some of the very best people in the industry working here and now we have some of the best technology to help them do a better job,” says Fiselier.
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