By Paul MacDonald
The last year has been a demanding time for Canada’s forest industry, as sawmills across the country have been working at a fever pitch to meet the unprecedented demand for lumber.
But for San Group, which has been finishing the first sawmill to be built on the B.C. coast in 15 years, the time has come with special challenges—though they have been able to successfully meet these challenges head-on.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Langley, B.C.-based company has built a greenfield sawmill/reman operation in Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island. Added to that challenge, the project was hit by a mill fire half-way through construction.
Building a brand new sawmill in normal times is a tough job in itself, but throw a pandemic and a fire in there, and you really have to make some major adjustments, often on a daily basis.
“With the fire, part of the plant that we were building was just suddenly gone,” says San Group CEO Kamal Sanghera. The building hit by the fire included the mill’s new finger jointer operation.
But the hard-charging Sanghera and his team were not about to let something like that get in their way. “We’re not going to sit around and cry about it,” he says. “It happened, we needed to do something, and we continued to move forward to get it rebuilt.”
And move forward, they have.
At the beginning of this June, the new mill was well on its way to operating fully, says Sanghera. “We’re now doing 400,000 board feet a day between the new small log mill and the Coulson mill.”
In 2017, the San Group purchased the long-established Coulson Forest Products sawmill in Port Alberni, with its large log mill, which since then has been complementing the company’s reman operations on the B.C. Mainland, in Langley. The Langley site, which is on the Fraser River, has a large reman operation now, but it started out at a modest size when it was first set up by the San Group.
Unlike most mill operations on the B.C. coast, the new Port Alberni sawmill is specifically set up to handle smaller, second growth timber. The small log HewSaw-equipped mill is designed to produce 120 million board feet a year, from logs as small as three-inches in diameter.
These small diameter logs are now being fully utilized rather than being left in the bush. The reman plant at Port Alberni will handle from 80 to 90 million board feet of that production.
In early-June, the new small log mill was operating on one shift, but there were plans to ramp that up to two shifts, once scanning equipment was installed.
But it has been a tough road to get to this point.
The company has been following the demanding COVID-19 protocols that have been in place for both operations, and construction, crews. The forest industry was declared “essential and critical infrastructure” by the federal government early into COVID, and most Canadian sawmills have been operating at full tilt to meet the huge demand for wood products—and Sanghera has been eager to get things going in Port Alberni.
“The biggest problem we’ve had is bringing in the specialized technicians to do construction and assembly work on the new equipment, both from overseas and the U.S., with the border being closed—we’ve had to work hard to be able to bring the necessary people in to do that work,” says Sanghera.
Added to that, some of their equipment suppliers have been affected by hiccups in their supply chains, notably in technology components. Microchips for everything from automobiles and TVs—not to mention everything else that needs a semiconductor chip, including high tech sawmilling equipment—became scarce towards the end of 2020.
All of this means that if you have a plan to build something, whether it is pick-up trucks or a new sawmill, be prepared to revise the schedule.
“You could have put together a Gantt planning chart on how we wanted the new mill project to go, but you’d have to have an eraser handy to change it because of what has happened,” says Bob Bortolin, vice-president of business development for San Group.
“But we’ve been lucky,” added Sanghera. “Our employees have helped us a lot. Wherever we could, we have utilized our own people. And we’ve found a lot of local talent, and we’ve utilized that. Whatever we have operating, we have been running to the maximum.
“We’re not making a lot of money right now, but we are building momentum for the new sawmill,” says Sanghera.
At times, they had two different people “bubbles”—one bubble of production employees, and the other bubble being construction people.
“We did not let COVID shut us down,” says Sanghera. “We implemented the protocols that were required and made sure that our employees were safe and our contractors were safe—and we continued forward. We never shut down, not even for a bit.”
With protocols now easing a bit, they are better able to complete equipment construction, achieve higher production levels and really hit their stride with the new sawmill.
That production will include a broad range of wood products, from lumber to finger-jointed lumber, laminated panels and engineered veneer.
The heart of the new operation is HewSaw equipment (see sidebar story on page 10), but there’s plenty of other high-tech production machinery. Wood will be run through a Springer-MiCROTEC Goldeneye 502 scanner, which features next-generation X-ray technology sensors and state-of-the-art cameras and components. The scanner allows the San Group mill to recognize wood defects reliably and accurately in order to automate, streamline and optimize its production. The value optimization software on the Goldeneye 502 considers customer-specific grading, chopping and sorting rules to boost both recovery and resale value, allowing the new mill to optimize lumber production, and produce the highest value products.
Also among the equipment suppliers for the mill is MPM Engineering, which supplied sawmill optimization software. MPM has been San Group’s automation and optimization vendor of choice for multiple projects, including the HewSaw sawline installed in 2020 and the merchandizer in 2021. MPM’s automation supply has included controls programming, electrical panels, operator consoles, and custom FactoryTalk HMI systems. In terms of scanning and optimization, MPM has provided systems that include the latest Hermary scanners, a sawline optimizer that fully models the HewSaw’s capabilities, and a bucking optimizer system that models both moving and fixed saw operation.
Arrow Speed Controls provided Variable Frequency Drives for the project. At the front end, the mill has a custom-built merchandizer that was built by the San Group on site, and a VK Brunette, MK V-17 G debarker. Towards the back, the mill has a Newnes 60 bin sorter that came out of the Tolko operation in Williams Lake, B.C., and an Acme lumber packaging unit. A Scragg saw line was being installed in June, and was scheduled to be operating in the following months.
The remanufacturing operation has six dry kilns, two specialty Porta Kilns from Innovated Control Systems, and four larger kilns from Brunner Hildebrand.
The Brunner Hildebrand dry kilns each have a holding capacity of 100,000 board feet, and are equipped with the state-of-the-art B-Vector control system. The system is capable of controlling up to 32 kiln dryers independently and simultaneously, showing all relevant parameters of the drying process on-screen. Remote control of the kilns by operators may easily be accomplished via computer network. Drive-through operation helps keeping loading and unloading time as short as possible. Stainless steel heating coils, high-grade fan units with heat-resistant motors and high pressure spraying units make for energy-efficient drying and premium lumber grade, says the company.
Among the equipment used to produce veneer product is a Fezer slicer and Omeco veneer dryer. Summit Steel Buildings provided the buildings on the Port Alberni mill site. Bowerman Excavating did site prep of the 25-acre site, and foundations.
Part of the overall approach with the San Group operation is to get as much out of the fibre as possible, which is when having the Paper Excellence pulp mill as a neighbour comes in handy. Residual fibre from the San Group sawmill goes directly to the Catalyst mill, to be used as fuel. So rather than shipping the residual fibre to another location, perhaps even off Vancouver Island, they basically move it next door, to Catalyst.
“Everyone is preaching about reducing CO2 emissions. But we are not preaching— we are doing it,” says Sanghera. “We are achieving carbon savings by not having to transport the residual wood.”
As mentioned in the sidebar story, the San Group will soon be moving ahead with doing its own biomass energy generation, with utility companies BC Hydro and Fortis both involved in this initiative. The company even has a farm property adjacent to their Langley operation, where they spread sawdust.
In addition, a good portion of the lumber produced by San Group in Port Alberni is used on Vancouver Island, reducing transportation, and further reducing CO2 emissions.
There is no doubt the export market is important to the San Group—it sends its wood products to 40-plus countries—but the company has also established its own seven-store wood products retail chain in B.C. and Alberta. “Once we touch a log out in the bush, we can finish it right to the end, and provide a finished product through our retail stores,” says Sanghera.
By the end of this year, the San Group is looking to ramp up operations in Port Alberni, with completion of the HewSaw line, having the reman facility with its seven Weinig moulders operational, the Western Pneumatics fingerjoint line going, the veneer line, the laminating line and the dry kilns all working.
“We have been able to achieve a lot in some pretty difficult times,” says Sanghera. He added that a big reason for their success is that the company has a solid management and employee group. “We’ve got a strong team and we’re very proud of what we’ve been able to do.”
Sanghera is equally proud of the fact that they are taking under-utilized B.C. timber, small logs, and manufacturing it right through to add value—and in the process, creating some new forest industry jobs in Port Alberni, which is a great fit with the San Group motto: “Harvest to Home”.
So just how high tech is the equipment at the new San Group sawmill/reman operation in Port Alberni?
“Well,” explains Kamal Sanghera, San Group’s CEO, “I can change what we are cutting in Port Alberni here on my cell phone, when I am in Langley,” he says, holding up his Smart-Phone.
San Group’s responsiveness to changing what they are cutting, and being nimble, is a huge advantage. They are plugged into the lumber market, what is selling, and can make cutting changes at the drop of a 2 by 4.
Sanghera notes they have a very flat decision making process at the company—with production decisions on what to cut often made in brief coffee meetings held every morning.
“We’ll chat about what changes we need to make—and then make them. We can pivot and be very flexible.”
Their unofficial motto? “Let’s get it done,” says Sanghera. “With hard work, everything is possible.”
The fact that the San Group operation is integrated, with a significant added-value component, both in Port Alberni and at their main location in Langley, means that they can meet the needs of more customers vs. a standard sawmill operation. Another addition to that came last year, when San purchased Chalwood Forest Products in Port Alberni, to add further to their reman capabilities.
And while the San Group, like all of the forest industry, benefited from high lumber prices—with lumber prices this spring hitting record levels—Sanghera has been in the business long enough to have seen quite a few price cycles. “Prices can go up and down like a yo-yo,” he notes.
He emphasizes that the San Group will still be steadily serving customers whether prices are high or low.
“We’re here for the long run, not just when lumber prices are high. And we’re looking to add further value to our products, for our customers, going forward.”
At the centre of the new San Group small log operation in the Vancouver Island community of Port Alberni is a refurbished and upgraded HewSaw R200 compact single pass sawing line, which features a variety of the latest sawmill technology offerings from HewSaw.
“You can say it’s a refurbished HewSaw, but it was really pretty much a brand new piece of equipment, with all the improvements made to it by the people from HewSaw,” explains Kamal Sanghera, San Group’s CEO. “It features today’s technology.”
Their investment in the HewSaw equipment was significant, but they wanted the right equipment to utilize small logs, says Sanghera.
HewSaw’s well developed sawing methods are said to ensure the best possible yield from each and every log, while many of the company’s latest upgrades provide added benefits, such as improved recovery and a substantial increase in throughput compared to traditional sawmilling techniques.
The single pass process of the HewSaw R200 machine is familiar to sawmill operators around the world. Flexible production capacity and low operating costs have made the R200 profitable in a wide range of processing situations, says the company. The smooth timber finish and top-quality chips produced by the HewSaw provide excellent raw materials for further value adding processes and needs—such as the added value program that the San Group is developing in Port Alberni. The HewSaw R200 also features curve sawing, which follows the centre line of the log accurately, and edging of the top and bottom boards to remove unwanted wane, while maximizing recovery and profits. The compact and integrated R200 is
a proven machine for sawing small logs.
On the Cover:
For the San Group, which has been finishing the first sawmill to be built on the B.C. Coast in 15 years, the last year has come with special challenges. But they have been able to successfully meet these challenges head-on. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Langley, B.C.-based company has built a greenfield sawmill/reman operation in Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island. Read all about this new cutting edge sawmill beginning on page 8 of this issue (Cover photo courtesy of The San Group).
A great ride in B.C.’s forest industry
B.C. Interior logger Bill Litke has ridden the rollercoaster that is the ups and downs of the forest industry over many decades—and it’s been an adventurous ride.
B.C. gets a new sawmill, on Vancouver Island
The San Group is wrapping up work on a major new small log sawmill in Port Alberni, B.C.—and there are more investments to come for the B.C.-based company owned by the Sanghera Family.
Focus on fir—and timbers
A focus on Douglas fir and timbers have proven to be the keys to success at Alberta’s HC Forest Products—so much so that they have purchased another sawmill, in B.C.
Family roots run deep in forestry
Father and son loggers Basil and Chris Isbill have a rich family history in New Brunswick logging that includes setting up equipment manufacturing company Forax—and Basil still heading out to the woods every day at the tender age of 78.
LSJ takes a look at the new developments and technologies in Small/Portable Sawmilling.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre (CWFC) and FPInnovations.
The Last Word
Tony Kryzanowski talks about how the success of an Ontario wood products business cluster shows the value of much-needed outreach in the forest industry.