By Paul MacDonald
One of the largest sawmill construction projects in North America last year came together without a great deal of fanfare—but a lot of hard work—in southeastern Alabama, and since then, Rex Lumber, Troy LLC has been steadily working its way up to production capacity thanks to a committed workforce, experienced management, and family ownership that stretches back almost 100 years in the forest industry. Key to building the project was Rex Lumber’s Canadian-based equipment and construction partner, The BID Group.
Rex Lumber, based in Graceville, Florida, and owned by the McRae Family, broke ground on the new $120 million (U.S.) greenfield sawmill in the town of Troy, Alabama in July 2018, and within a year was turning out lumber, and had created 120 new jobs.
Rex Lumber has three other sawmills, two on the Florida Panhandle, and one in Mississippi, which produce a total of 575 million board feet of wood annually. The Troy operation sets a new benchmark for the company, though, with production capacity of 360 million board feet, operating on two shifts. Since they have timbers in their production mix, the company expects full production at the Troy operation will be closer to 300 million board feet a year.
“The Troy sawmill really takes us up a notch,” says Rex Lumber Troy general manager Jared Banta, a 15-year veteran of the company. “With the three existing Rex Lumber mills, this will take us up over 875 million board feet of annual capacity across the family of mills.
“It’s really about scale—with the extra Troy mill capacity, it makes us more of a contender in the lumber market, and with customers,” he added.
Banta explained that the McRae Family and company management had been talking about building a new sawmill for several years. But they wanted to make sure they had the right construction partner—in this case, that was the BID Group.
The BID Group has over 30 years of experience in the forest industry, and has built sawmills throughout North America. One of the largest integrated equipment suppliers to the wood processing industry, the company includes BID Construction, Comact, PHL, DelTech, BID Service, McGehee, MoCo, and Miller Manufacturing, under its corporate umbrella. The BID Group provides turnkey solutions that include engineering, project management, installation, startup, and after-sales service—exactly what Rex Lumber was looking for.
“We’ve had a good relationship with the Comact group and BID,” says Banta. “When it comes down to it, there are very few companies out there like the BID Group that can handle building such a large sawmill on a turnkey basis.”
The BID Group has been involved in a number of sawmill projects in the U.S. South, but was very interested in partnering up on a turnkey basis for the new sawmill—and a fast-track construction schedule was developed with Rex Lumber.
Prior to that, however, Rex Lumber started the site selection process, and were looking at different states in the U.S. South, and different regions within those states.
“We chose Troy, Alabama not only because of the wood basket—that would have been required no matter where we built—but also the local workforce and the state government incentives,” explained Banta.
“Alabama has a very strong work training program, and they committed to helping us screen potential employees, and training employees—and that had a lot to do with us selecting Troy, in addition to the region meeting our timber needs for the new mill.”
The sawmill, which sits on a 300-acre site, has a concrete foundation and is clad with steel and has a steel roof. The steel framing for the 148,000 square foot sawmill building was provided by American Buildings.
But prior to a single truckload of concrete being poured for the foundation, though, some extensive site prep was required. Some 80 acres of earthwork and site preparation was completed in a very short 46 days by W.S. Newell & Sons Inc. The company, based in the state capital of Montgomery, moved almost a million cubic yards of dirt.
Alabama-based CDG Engineers & Associates Inc. was responsible for environmental permitting, geotechnical, site work design and transportation engineering for the project.
From the get-go, Rex Lumber was looking to make a variety of Southern Yellow Pine product at the sawmill, and now turns out lumber from 2X4s through to 2X12s, and 4X4, and 4X6 timbers. They target long boards—the average production length in the sawmill is 16 feet.
And as Banta noted, the company was very familiar with the BID Group family of products from their other mills. Their mill in Graceville, Florida is primarily Comact equipment, as is the mill in Bristol, Florida. The Graceville mill planer has had a good deal of work done by Miller. They have a MoCo stacker at the Bristol mill and at the Mississippi mill. They also have some Vibra-Pro equipment at the Graceville operation.
“As the BID Group consolidated and bought these companies, Rex Lumber has almost always been on that customer list—we know them, and we know them well,” says Banta.
“I think BID Group really changed the mindset of what is possible in mill construction,” he added. “Instead of dealing with multiple vendors and multiple engineering groups and multiple consultants, all trying to piecemeal something together over two to three years, BID is able to provide a greenfield solution in 12 months by internalizing and handling all those companies themselves.”
Banta said that although Rex Lumber Troy was a turnkey operation, once it was built, it was not quite as simple as turning the key on your pick-up truck and driving away.
“I wish it was that easy,” he says. “There is still all the training and shaking out you get with a new mill, but you can start that process in 12 months vs. two to three years out.
“And you have one vendor—BID Group—who is responsible for everything. You don’t have different vendors, pointing fingers when something is not going right. It’s really just us and them, working to overcome the start-up challenges of a new operation.”
The new equipment starts in the millyard, with a 32-ton Konecranes RPC-226 rotating single-bite portal crane. Timber is fed on to a Comact stem deck and Comact wave feeder system. The Troy operation has a 30-inch electric Comact debarker, which Banta believes is the only 30-inch machine out in the market right now.
Logs are fed to a Comact five-saw log merchandizer. The merchandizer feeds on to three sort decks: small medium and large sorts. From there, wood goes into the Comact Optimized Sharp Chain (OSC), which is equipped with Lindex chip heads, and dual Lindex profilers.
The sideboards and fletches (and when the mill is fully up to production capacity, the squares) go to a Comact five-saw edger. The cant from the OSC goes to a Comact TBL3 shape sawing gang system.
The profile boards and the edger drop on to a trimmer accumulation deck, where a double unscrambler feeds into a Comact Lug loader and a Comact TrimExpert system, which generates a grading solution, which is carried out at the Comact trimmer. Completing the mill set-up is a 65-bay Comact drop bin sorter, and a Comact stacker.
At the planer mill, they have a Comact dual pack tilt hoist. Lumber goes into a deep pile after the tilt hoist and to the double unscrambler ahead of the planer infeed. It then goes into the Miller pineapple bridge to the infeed for the Miller planer. It comes out to an accumulation deck, a double unscrambler, and to a Comact lug loader.
Lumber then goes to the Comact GradExpert 2.0, and then into a 65-bay Comact sorter. Under the sorter, wood counterflows back to a roll case, and two Comact package makers and planer stackers. The wood then outflows to three independent Signode BPX lines—stacker #2 feeds into strapper #3, and stacker #1 feeds into strapper #2, and strapper #1 catches any material from either stacker. Wood then travels out to three independent outfeeds to the finish heads.
“The back end of the planer mill is built to handle cut-in-two and half-packs, that’s why we have two stackers and three independent strapping lines. Our plan is to cut in two, 95 to 100 per cent of the 18 and 20 foot pieces coming from the sawmill,” says Banta.
Outside the mill, back in the millyard, they have a Barko 595 knuckleboom crane for backing up the Konecrane, and for quality control in sorting loads. There is a Hyundai HL980 wheel loader for crane support, spreading loads and general clean-up. “The Hyundai is a good utility wheel loader—it’s just a good piece of equipment to have around the yard,” says Banta.
At the back end, they have Hyundai 180D fork lifts for the big kiln loads, and an all-electric Carer A80-900X forklift fleet. The mill has three continuous lumber drying kilns.
Banta said there are significant challenges to designing and building a sawmill from the ground up—but there are benefits too, vs. doing an upgrade on an existing mill, where you have to work around equipment that is already in place. And, you can plan for the future.
“With Troy, when we sat down and worked through the design of the mill, we left room for growth—we have room and space for an entire additional log line and canter line,” Banta explained.
“So our next stage of growth is already there, Since Troy is a new mill, we were able to design it from scratch and it gave us a lot more flexibility and freedom to future-proof ourselves, at least as much as we can.”
Utility Power South built a 20 MW substation to meet Troy’s present and future needs; it currently uses about 4.5 MW of that.
“One thing we know is that to be competitive in the market today, you have to be efficient,” says Banta. “And the more efficient you can be in the future, the longer you can be a viable operation. I think we have given ourselves a great advantage in the decades to come in the way we have designed the mill and the room we have left for this mill to grow.”
With an existing operation, you are still able to see ahead and make plans—but you have existing infrastructure that you have to work around, and there may be more costs involved because you have to move infrastructure or design around it. “With Troy, we’re able to save ourselves money in the future by spending a little of extra time and money now on the design,” says Banta.
In terms of the timber going into the mill, Rex Lumber Troy’s procurement team has started with three spec sizes with the timber owning and dealing industry in this area of Alabama, with the understanding that they are going to re-visit those specs.
Banta noted that they started with specs that were well established, specs that a lot of competitors for the same wood basket were already pulling. “There is a greenwood basket in this area, and a pretty well developed production infrastructure of loggers and timber dealers. We wanted to make it easy for them to sell to us.
“We started with a 10 and six, no-butt seven and a 14 and eight, with the understanding that we are really going to learn what this mill likes to eat, and what its diet wants to be.”
They cut their first board this past June, so they are still in their first year of operation, he noted.
One change they have made is they started with a minimum 25-foot length, standard spec for the area. “But with targeting longer lengths, we’ve found that a 33-foot spec makes a lot more sense.”
Banta says that the biggest challenge with the Troy project has been in hiring workers, and training them.
“With the unprecedented building frenzy in sawmills in this area—which is probably a once in a generation building explosion—that has happened over the last two to three years, the labour pool for experienced sawmill workers is very small.
“Most people who are good at working in a sawmill, and want to work at a sawmill, are already working at a mill,” he says.
“When we started the operation, we started with 120 employees and we had a total of only five employees with previous sawmill experience.”
But they have a good sized pool of general labour in the region, and the State of Alabama has been helpful in helping to screen potential employees—and BID has been helpful in training employees. Some of the new employees were transported to the Graceville, Florida mill for training.
“At this point, our people have nine months of experience, and the sawmill is running well. We have some work to do to achieve consistency with the planer operation,” says Banta.
Even people with experience in other manufacturing operations have found working in a sawmill to be a challenge, he says. “Compared to other manufacturing environments, the forest products industry is unique in that you are dealing with a natural product, wood, that is not the same all the time.” In other industries, like auto manufacturing, you are working with the same part, with the same size, hour after hour, day after day, he says.
“With the forest industry, you can be in it for 40 years, and you can see something new.”
With the Troy sawmill equipped with the best technology in the business, the operation is clearly ready to get some more traction on their production. “We have the latest technology, the latest advances in the industry,” notes Banta. “We have a lot of potential now—we just
need to get the maximum out of that potential.”
With Rex Lumber being owned by the McRae Family, there is a strong emphasis on people. The family has been involved in the lumber business dating back to the early 1900s, and Rex Lumber itself was founded in the 1920s by W.D. McRae. One of W.D.’s grandsons, Finlay McRae, is still involved in the business, as are three of Finlay’s children, Charles McRae and sisters, Carolina Dauzat and Roby Bethke.
And though it’s been said so many times before, the family believes it’s the people in the mill that matter, says Rex Lumber Troy general manager Jared Banta. “As technology in industry increases, and things become more and more automated, it can become easy to think that people are not as important.
“But what we’ve seen and learned first-hand with training people in our industry, is that no matter how much automation, and how much ‘hands-free’ equipment may be, having well-trained people turning out good product is the key.
“You need to train people on how to operate the equipment, and make everything flow. Essentially you are teaching people what to do—but you also need to train them on why they are doing it. In addition to seeing a log in front of them or a piece of lumber in front of them, it’s recognizing what to look for in that log or piece of lumber, and whether something may look out of place.”
The 120 people they have hired at the Troy operation are motivated to do exactly that, with a strong focus on quality control. They want the company and the mill to do well—and they want to personally do well, Banda says. “We have a workforce with great heart—we just need some more training and time to go along with their desire and initiative.”
On the Cover:
One of the largest sawmill construction projects in North America last year came together without a great deal of fanfare—but a lot of hard work—in southeastern Alabama. Since then, Rex Lumber, Troy LLC has been steadily working its way up to production capacity thanks to a committed workforce, experienced management, and family ownership that stretches back almost 100 years in the forest industry. Key to building the project was Rex Lumber’s Canadian-based equipment and construction partner, The BID Group. (Cover photo courtesy of Utility Power South).
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