By Paul MacDonald
For British Columbia’s Porcupine Wood Products, the latest sawmill upgrade—and previous improvements—have been all about achieving gains in recovery, and flexibility in production.
The operation was built as a white wood stud mill in the 1980s, but over the years, it was converted to specialize in Western Red Cedar, after changes were implemented to the sawmill.
In recent years, the family-owned mill, under general manager Craig Upper, has been working with second growth cedar, with its tight grain and knots, to produce decking, fencing, boards and siding. The mill, which is located in southeastern B.C., in the West Kootenays region, turns out about 25 million board feet a year, on a single shift basis.
Upper talked about the latest upgrade, which wrapped up early in 2021. “The motivation to proceed with this upgrade was the next step in slowly retooling our mill so we can become more diversified in our product lines and species.
“We’ve primarily been running Western Red Cedar over the last few years, and those logs are becoming more difficult to source consistently throughout the year,” he added. “Actually, logs in general are getting tougher to acquire and I can see that it is only going to tighten up more, moving forward.”
One of the main reasons for that tightening is B.C. government policy and regulations around Crown land logging. “I don’t want to get started on that, but there is a long list of existing constraints that is impeding the ability to get logs out of the woods from Crown land,” he says.
Another factor in the log supply situation is that private land is a big source of logs in this region of B.C., and there is less wood coming off those lands, as well.
“All of these factors will contribute to future log supply limitations, which impacted our decision to be able to run other species in the near future. We could not be competitive running most other species with the make-up of the mill as it was, before this upgrade.”
In 2020, Porcupine Wood Products ran only cedar—but that is predicted to change.
“If we had our way, we’d run nothing but cedar forever on two shifts—but change is a reality, so that is unlikely to happen,” says Upper. “We are looking at running species that would have the least amount of impact to our alliance partners, that we trade logs with.
“Although we did not process other species in 2020, we have been involved in other wood markets in the last few years, albeit in a limited way,” Upper explained. “We have had a taste for those markets, and know there are alternatives out there, but there are no finite production plans for other species at this point.”
The important part is they now have the ability to produce a broader product line, when it is required.
“When we need to run the other species, that is when cut program decisions will be determined—it will depend on the markets and what niches exist for specialty products,” says Upper. “We consider ourselves as a true value added manufacturer. Any moves into those markets will be careful and calculated, and will not be in big volumes.
“We are not going into markets thinking we are going to compete with the large sawmills cutting dimension lumber—that’s not our intention. Instead, we will focus on specialty markets.”
The recent equipment improvements have been careful and calculated.
“We’ve been buying equipment that is going to help maximize value and diversify our products,” Upper says. And that approach is going to be on an individual stem basis. “The old way was to batch run logs, and we want to take more of an individual stem approach to handling logs at the mill. And with the new VSA gang, we can have different solutions and different products with each stem.”
The new Vertical Single Arbor (VSA) gang from Optimil Machinery has been a good fit for a number of mill applications in B.C., including Porcupine Wood Products. The VSA gangs are designed for maximum throughput and maximum sawing accuracy. On a practical basis, the VSA also features what Optimil says is a unique swing out door design that enables quick and easy saw changes. Thin kerf climb cutting saws yield efficient sawing and improved throughput on the VSA, and superior cant control is achieved through a design incorporating large roll diameters and close roll centers, says Optimil.
Upper says they have been successful in incorporating the Optimil VSA into the existing Porcupine equipment set-up. They’ve had lots of experience incorporating equipment over the years, he says. The mill now bears little resemblance, equipment-wise, to what it looked like 20 years ago.
There have been some significant milestones over the years, equipment-wise, from 2014 to 2018. They put in a used lumber sorter, with controls done by Raptor integration, and a new Moco Engineering stacker was installed in 2014. In 2016, they put in a new Kadant chipper and Edem vibratory conveyor, a new BM&M chip screen, and did a general re-configuration of waste systems in the mill. A new electric trimmer from Mill Tech Industries was installed in 2018, with an all new infeed to the trim system, with Raptor providing the optimization system.
“The trimmer upgrade harnessed onto the existing sorter and stacker line that we had installed,” explained Upper.
And most recently, of course, was the Optimil VSA. Mill Tech did a lot of the lumber handling delivery of cants up to the Optimil infeed, and Western Integrated Systems did the variable frequency drive work, with Optmil doing the controls with this project. Raptor was used for the cant scanning and optimization system.
In the logyard, Porcupine runs John Deere for wheel loader and track loaders. B.C. Deere dealer Brandt Group have been very supportive over the last decade., says Upper. They also use a Wagner, which they wouldn’t be able to live without, he added. In the lumber yard, they use Kalmar forklifts for loading trucks and kiln, as well as for transferring wood. Other forklifts used are Load Lifters for their various production lines, and Toyotas for small/tight space requirements. All forklifts are supported by Masonlift.
A more established log supply is driving all the equipment changes on the wood production side.
In 2015, forest company Canfor acquired the Meadow Creek Cedar forest license in the region, with an annual allowable cut of 96,513 cubic metres. Canfor, in turn, sold approximately 60 per cent of the tenure volume to Porcupine, and retained the remaining 40 per cent for their own use.
That timber volume, says Upper, was key to the company moving ahead, and making further equipment changes. “It would be very difficult for us to survive going forward without that license volume now—the majority of the big capital investments started after that, and it was because we now had a significant volume of guaranteed log supply, along with a strong workforce with a team first approach.”
These projects, and others, are all part of a larger approach to making ongoing improvements at Porcupine Wood Products.
“All of these changes are driving recovery or maximizing value, or both.” Upper explains. “The secondary part to that is reducing costs, but reducing costs is a tough one—we have seen some cost reductions over the years, but that was not the main driver.”
Some of their additions years ago were used equipment, which proved to be a successful approach at the time.
A case in point was an upgrade in 2003 that saw them purchase a used log merchandizing system for their large log line, followed by a dual ring Nicholson 22-inch debarker. They purchased two new pieces of equipment at the time: a step feeder from Linden Fabricating and a Gator fencing breakdown line. The large log line also saw the installation of a CAE bandsaw and carriage, followed by a Ukiah gang, feeding into a Valley trim line.
But there is less of that now. “We haven’t done any auction used equipment purchases in the last few years—the primary reason for that is the cost of labour to take equipment out, and install it, has really started to surpass the reasonable mark.”
And then there are the technology challenges that can occur with used equipment. “Technology of course is wonderful when it works, and when it doesn’t work, the problems begin,” says Upper.
Used equipment, while it can sometimes be bought for a fraction of new, can bring its own set of issues, and clunky start-ups. In the end, any savings can disappear into thin air when you factor into extra costs—such as lost production.
“We find that with getting new engineered equipment, although it may cost more than auction-purchased equipment, it has been designed and engineered for our desired function, which has a service life, and you are starting up the equipment without any hiccups, for the most part,” says Upper.
New equipment, while it may not be completely plug and play, is certainly more straightforward. And you have the equipment supplier on your side, committed to helping make the equipment work efficiently, and work well. As well, controls providers are more efficient in working with newer technology equipment.
In terms of the most recent upgrade, Upper shared his “single stem” approach and goal with Optimil, who were quick to get on board. “I think it was something they had not done before—at least in terms of the detail I wanted it to be—but they have a great industry background, and felt comfortable doing it.”
While there has been a small production gain from the latest upgrade, that, again, was not the main goal, emphasized Upper.
“Due to the finite, sustainable, annual log supply that we have in this region, I’m not looking to put equipment in that is going to make us need to cut more logs every day—that is the last thing I want to do.
“I want to get equipment that is going to allow me to get more value out of the logs that we are cutting.
“There are really two things this line
has done for us,” adds Upper. “It is now essentially a single pass system out of the sawmill, whereas before a lot of the value products turned out at the sawmill would have been taken to our reman operation, to further break down and extract value that way. We did not have that single pass mechanism set up before, so we’ve reduced our costs from the reman side.
“But more importantly, we’re getting the value out of each stem now. We’re using optimization to scan and set based on cant defects, and extracting the value based on those defects.”
The new set-up came together reasonably well, performing upwards of 75 to 80 percent on installation. By this past January, they were up to around 95 per cent, says Upper, with training taking place on the controls and optimization end of things. “When you do these kind of projects, there is always work and training to be done—it takes time for people to get familiar with new equipment.”
And COVID-19 did not have much of an impact on the construction schedule. “We were in an area of the mill where there was space between people. And the way we went about the upgrade is we built it offline, which really helped in terms of scheduling the trades. So there really were no issues.”
Optimil and Mill Tech facilities were used to do as much pre-installation work as possible. The VSA gang was built at Optimil’s manufacturing facility in Delta, B.C., and Mill Tech did its work at its production facility in Salmon Arm, B.C.
“We had a lot of changes to make within the sawmill to be able to put this line in,” Upper noted. That started, he explained, with Timber Line Mill Construction, of nearby Nelson, B.C., working weekends, starting in April 2020, to make those changes.
“The equipment started to arrive in September, and in October, we were ready to place the equipment within the mill.” They were up and running, Upper proudly notes, Nov. 2.
“We kept running the mill and there were some hiccups, but it was manageable—we did not want to see any constraints on production for our customers.” Especially in this current hot wood market. He noted that operations at the mill would generally be slower from October through to January—but there has been a huge uptick in renovation and new construction, creating an overall demand for wood products. “We’ve never seen demand like it is right now.”
In terms of COVID, they have worked hard to get their 40-person sawmill production workforce to consistently practice social distancing on site. This was a challenge because this area of B.C., unlike say Vancouver, has been little impacted by COVID, since it is quite rural. The nearest community is Salmo, which has a population of 1,100. The nearest major centre, Kelowna, is 350 kilometres away. “Social distancing was probably the biggest thing, but we worked to develop ways to deal with that,” says Upper.
“We spent a lot of money on cleaning and sanitation equipment, but that’s the easy part. It really required all of us to have a shift in thinking, that you have to social distance at work, and when you are not at work—even though there are no COVID issues where we are, in this part of B.C.
“Just because there no COVID issues now, that does not mean there will not be issues tomorrow.”
So, where to from here, for Porcupine Wood Products? More changes are to come, says Upper.
“There are still things that need to be done at the sawmill, on the log merchandising end, to push value extraction further,” he said. “There needs to be an improvement in our merchandising and bucking of logs, and optimization—the scanning technology and being able to see defects in a log before bucking is very intriguing, especially when you are running a high cost log like cedar.
“On our small log line, I want to be able to improve our orientation of the log prior to canting.” Kiln drying capacity will also be on the list, he says.
So, suffice to say, the improvements will continue at Porcupine Wood Products.
On the Cover:
The Spruce Products sawmill in Swan River, Manitoba is proving that it pays to invest in targeted efficiency and optimization. Most recently, the sawmill has increased its log throughput at the front end of its main breakdown line by 20 per cent with a $3 million investment. They can now process about 4,000 logs per 10-hour shift, as compared to about 3,300 logs per shift previously, with a new log sorting system supplied by mill equipment manufacturer, Carbotech. Read all about the improvements beginning on page 8. (Cover photo courtesy of Spruce Products)
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