By Paul MacDonald
Sawmill upgrades are really investments that keep delivering returns.
During hot lumber markets (like this year, with spot lumber prices at one point hitting an extraordinary $1,680 U.S. per thousand board feet), the payback time for mill upgrades can be short, since they can deliver substantial increases in revenue—and profits—quickly.
But even when the high demand for lumber subsides, upgrades help to keep a sawmill operation efficient, sustainable and profitable. And it’s important to remember that while lumber is hot as a pistol right now, prices were pretty mediocre as recently as 2019—and even early 2020.
Forest company the Gorman Group has a history of steadily investing in its operations in the B.C. Interior. Through the years, the company has expanded beyond its high value, high production board operation in West Kelowna, and now includes plywood producer Canoe Forest Products and lumber operation Downie Timber. Over its more than 70-year history, the company, which is still family-owned, has invested significantly in its operations, most recently in Downie Timber.
Revelstoke, B.C.-based Downie Timber is a diverse operation that produce multi- species wood products. The company, which employs approximately 300 at its sawmill and value added wood processing plant, Selkirk Specialty Products, is the major wood manufacturer in the area.
Over the past year, and in the midst of a pandemic, Downie Timber made a decisive move and opted to upgrade its edger line with USNR’s BioVision technology.
At its two-line sawmill, the company processes mostly western red cedar, and also Douglas fir, spruce, and hemlock. Its high-value products demand exacting technology solutions to ensure the utmost in recovery—and Downie was looking to go even further with recovery.
The company’s goal with the edger line investment was to improve grade recovery, edging accuracy, and production throughput. The new USNR equipment starts downstream from the existing unscrambler, with a new backlog table, flitch loader, scanner transfer, tipple drop out, and Model 625 edger positioning infeed. A new scan frame was fitted with 22 BioLuma 2900LVG vision sensors. The new optimization platform uses USNR’s Deep Learning Technology to improve recovery and increase uptime. The edger line utilizes the MillTrak lumber flow management system to maximize material flow to the edger. They also did an upgrade to the planer optimizer.
USNR said Downie Timber’s edger line will add to the over 110 systems installed globally that are applying USNR’s vision-based grade optimization, with many now benefiting with the Deep Learning Technology platform.
Angus Woodman, Manager of Operations at Downie Timber, and Mike Holland, Maintenance Manager, explained that the investments were primarily about extracting higher value products from the timber that is now being processed at the mill.
Being primarily a cedar producer, they are already seeing good prices—and any incremental value they can add to that by going up the value chain can pay off with solid returns to the bottom line.
“It always make sense to get more value out of the wood resource. But the value difference with cedar is high—that means you can make small changes that can have a big impact on value and revenue,” says Woodman. As noted, the payback can be quick, and the improvements made continue to deliver.
The vision scanning has allowed Downie to up its game in terms of achieving higher value. USNR’s BioVision makes value decisions driven by the accurate detection of biological and geometric defects using a combination of laser profile and visual defect scanning, combined with state-of-the-art optimization. The vision detection has been an especially good fit with the cedar that they work with at Downie. Holland notes that while there are many SPF mills that utilize vision detection, there are few that are using it that work with cedar.
UNR applies the term “Deep Learning Technology” to its equipment approach. “Overall though, what you call it might be Deep Learning Technology or Artificial Intelligence,” says Holland. “You train the system by defects and classify them—and you don’t have to necessarily train it with thousands of boards. There is a small range of discrepancies and features that it needs to identify. It helps to identify them, and move products up in value.”
The improvements that have been made in technology in recent years are impressive, he added, especially with cedar and the colour variations it can have. This most recent upgrade helps to automate the critical lumber grading decisions.
In fact, although the upgrade has delivered good results in the current hot lumber markets, Woodman and Holland note the project was considered for a couple of years. Illustrating the Gorman Group’s intent to invest in its operations steadily, the upgrade was planned and approved in 2019—pre-pandemic.
Prior to the project, company staff, like quality control person Patrick Kennedy, did a lot of legwork with USNR at its office in Salmon Arm, down the Trans-Canada Highway from the Downie mill. They talked extensively about the upgrade, and what they wanted to achieve with it, before moving ahead. Downie is very familiar with USNR—most of the optimizing equipment in the mill is from USNR.
Capital improvements at the Gorman Group go through a review process. “We put our ideas forward every year on what we would like to do, and it goes through a ranking system,” explains Woodman. “So much money is allocated to each division, and we slot in our projects.”
The Gorman Group is known for being solid operators, and they look for value in the investments they make—but the company does not shy away from making significant investments.
“They are very forward thinking—added to that, we know what we are good at as a company and with our operations,” says Holland. “If there is anything that we can improve, they are open to employing the latest technology.”
Woodman and Holland were able to make a good case for the edger project. And the company committed to doing the project in the fall of 2019, in pre-COVID times.
“In hindsight, it turned out to be a great decision, in terms of timing,” says Holland, with the subsequent rise in lumber prices. “We’re pretty happy that we were able to get the project approved.”
But like all sawmill operations that have done work lately, there were some extra protocols for crew scheduling and safety related items, such as PPE equipment.
Holland noted that Downie carefully planned the upgrade, factoring in all the extra COVID precautions.
“We really started three months ahead of the main part of the project, and a lot of the work was done ahead of time. We started out early, with a small crew on the electrical side, for example.” Due to the new regulations, work crews were smaller—workers were in some tight quarters.
They budgeted a shutdown of two weeks to do the upgrade—and they were hopeful that would be enough time.
“With COVID, we weren’t really sure how long the upgrade would take because the work crews were somewhat split, and we had reduced manning. It was tough, but in the end it turned out we had a day-and-a half left to do some testing on equipment,” says Woodman.
Helping the schedule out was the fact that there was a weekend included.
And a scheduled shutdown was necessary to do this kind of project, says Woodman. “The equipment installation was taking place right at the heart of the sawmill, so a shutdown was required.” This was one of the trickier parts of the project.
“Equipment-wise, everything had to be craned in or flown in through a hole in the roof. There was about four hours of flying time to get all the heavy pieces into the mill through a very narrow opening in the roof.”
Normally, a mill upgrade project has a lot of moving parts—but this is especially true of projects taken on during COVID. Fortunately, Downie had a solid construction partner with contractor, New West Industries. They knew the people at New West well—and the employees at New West know the Downie mill well.
Holland estimates that of the people New West had on site, 95 per cent of them had done work at the mill previously.
“We have a really good relationship with New West Industries,” says Holland. “We’ve used them before, they know the mill and are very professional—we know they have the ability to get the job done. They came in with all the right tools and staffing, and with all the protocols in place—they did an amazing job for us.”
Downie had daily project meetings with the New West folks, reviewing what would be done each day. It took a bit of time for the project to get some traction, which is hardly surprising considering the COVID situation. “That said, Trevor Newfield and Kris Redekop from New West were on it, and knew the timelines. Things took longer due to COVID, but in the end, it all worked out.”
Each mill upgrade project ideally involves successfully joining the efforts of mill staff, equipment suppliers, and contractors. When you look at the Downie project, there was a lot for each party to chew off, with limited timelines, new equipment and technology—and a pandemic, to boot. “But we all worked together—without that, I don’t think the project would have been as successful,” says Woodman.
Other contractors also contributed to the success of the project, including Canyon Industrial Electrical Services Ltd, Western Integrated Electrical Ltd., and Pel Engineering.
As with any major project, Holland says, there have been some challenges, such as getting different technologies within the mill to talk with each other. But, overall, they are happy with the results. They have expectations in terms of what the project needs to deliver in terms of extracting more value—and it’s doing exactly that. “It’s working out quite well.”
Woodman and Holland had a bit of advice for any mills doing upgrade projects during COVID. They said that adding an extra 15 per cent to the project budget, and some extra days, if you can get them, are smart and realistic actions to take. “Your work crews have to be smaller, and you have to account for that—you can’t have as many people in tight spots, even if they are all masked up,” says Woodman.
With the upgrade project now complete, everyone involved now takes pride in a job well done—at least briefly. Woodman jokingly says they took about 30 seconds to celebrate the achievements. “With these hot lumber markets, it’s been very busy.
“These markets are certainly welcome and it’s great to have them, and we’re enjoying the ride for sure. But we know that there is going to be a downturn, at some point. The rainy days, market-wise, are going to come.”
When that does happen, he notes, the improvements they have made at Downie Timber will continue to deliver—and they will continue to get more value out
of the wood resource.
Revelstoke, in southeastern British Columbia between the Selkirk and Monashee Mountain Ranges, has a climate that is said to be perfect for the growth of Western Red Cedar and Douglas Fir, and is well known for its high-quality fibre.
And Revelstoke-based Downie Timber wants to get more value out of that wood. Essentially, Downie, like all forward thinking forest companies, wants to make better use of the forest resource that it harvests through the tenures it has in the region.
B.C. has seen big cuts in harvesting volumes in recent years due to the impacts of forest fires, and the lingering impact of the mountain pine beetle.
It makes sense to focus improvements on value, rather than volume, says Angus Woodman, Manager of Operations at Downie Timber. “It would be hard to move ahead with a project that is based on increased production because the increased wood supply is simply not there,” he says. “We know that any mill upgrade has to be proven on a recovery or value basis, with an eye also on reducing costs.”
Downie Timber operates two Forest Licenses north of Revelstoke, which supplies roughly 30 per cent of the volume being sent to the mill. Additional timber is secured from other forest companies such as Canoe Forest Products, Louisiana Pacific-Malakwa/Golden, Tolko Industries and the BC Timber Sales Program. In addition Downie has a minority ownership in the Revelstoke Community Forest Corp which is also a supplier of logs to the facility.
As noted in the main story, the Gorman Group has always taken a strong focus on efficiency and recovery in its operations, including Downie Timber.
Past projects at Downie have included an upgrade to its unscrambler and infeed system, for its Optimil gang saw. The Optimil DLI small log line also saw an addition, with a step feeder and increased storage capacity on the infeed to keep up with the mill’s log consumption.
The stacker also saw its infeed, unscrambler and fork system replaced/upgraded resulting in a lighter touch to the lumber with the unscrambler; overall the changes have minimized the stacker as a constraint and contributed to new production highs. Mill-Tech and Iron Code Engineering worked on the stacker.
In terms of kiln capacity, Downie Timber currently has nine kilns. They have eight Custom Dry kilns–side loaders and one Aerodyne. The controls for the Aerodyne kiln have been upgraded, with Wellons Canada.
On the Cover:
New Brunswick logger Marco Caron knows that business success in harvest contracting depends on basics: a well-motivated team, keen business skills and good equipment. In that last area, Caron’s harvesting equipment includes two Ponsse Scorpions. In fact, Caron was so impressed with his 2017 Scorpion harvester that he added a second 2018 Scorpion model to his operation. (Cover photo by George Fullerton).
Big things are happening at GreenFirst Forest Products—the company has bought six sawmills in Ontario and Quebec from Rayonier. We get the scoop on what’s going on at the company, with an interview with its new CEO—and lumber industry veteran—Rick Doman.
New sawmill investments by Resolute Forest Products
A look at recent sawmill investments by Resolute Forest Products, as it works hard to generate more production in super-hot lumber markets.
Innovative logger meets innovative iron
VanNatta Brothers Logging is seeing solid success with the first Quadco 4400 (QB4400) feller head in North America, which is now manufactured in B.C.
New Hampshire mill gets new Canadian technology
The upgrade of the Milan Lumber sawmill involved a fair bit of Canadian mill equipment, including i-DNA species identification technology from Autolog.
Delivering gains at Downie Timber
Downie Timber of Revelstoke, B.C., is investing to upgrade its edger line with USNR’s BioVision technology, to deliver the utmost in recovery, with New West Mill Installations as the contractor assigned to deliver the finished product during challenging COVID times.
Successful logging formula
New Brunswick logger Marco Caron’s formula for business success includes family involvement, solid equipment operators, and logging iron that delivers day-in, day-out in the bush.
Tech Update: Dry Kiln Suppliers
We take a look at the new features and technology among Dry Kiln Suppliers in this issue.
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
In spite of the COVID-19 virus, the forest industry is buckling down and—as it always has—is getting the job done, says Jim Stirling.