By Paul MacDonald
It’s been somewhat of an erratic last 18 months for the North American forest industry.
Very early in the COVID-19 pandemic, in spring 2020, there were fears that housing construction, and demand for lumber, was possibly going to collapse.
And then the exact opposite happened, with demand spiking, and lumber prices hitting all-time record levels.
That said, sawmills and forest companies have had to re-work operations, and figure out how to meet all the necessary COVID protocols during this period.
And for a few firms that were expanding, such as Tuscaloosa, Alabama-based The Westervelt Company, they faced the challenge of how to go about building a new sawmill at a time of COVID.
In the case of Westervelt, they had started work on a new, state-of-the-art sawmill in southern Alabama.
Not only was the company able to meet that challenge, they actually lost no time during construction—and were able to finish building the Thomasville, Alabama sawmill ahead of schedule, thanks in part to its project partners, such as B.C.-based BID Group, who built the new mill on a turnkey basis.
This past January, they started production from the new facility, meaning that in less than two-years’ time, the mill went from being an idea and strategy to a fully operational facility, with the shipment of the first load of lumber. The Thomasville mill will produce 250 million board feet annually.
The Alabama location takes advantage of the proximity of Westervelt’s timberland and existing customer base. The mill is fully staffed with a workforce of 125, as the second shift started up in the second quarter of this year.
The U.S. Southeast is one of the few regions in North America that is seeing a fair bit of sawmill construction activity. A number of new mills have been built in the area in the last few years, to take advantage of a good supply of timber. Large forestry areas, like British Columbia, whose forest resource is fully committed, are struggling to maintain the mills they currently have—and have, in fact, seen significant mill closures over the last decade. But the U.S. southeast is blessed with abundant, and available, forest resources.
For example, Westervelt’s home state, Alabama, has the third-largest commercial forestland base in the U.S. with nearly 23 million acres, according to the Economic
Development Partnership of Alabama. The state’s timberland area has increased by 1.3 million acres in the past 30 years and timber expansion outpaces removals by 37 percent.
These numbers were all positive for Westervelt when it made the decision to go ahead and build the new Thomasville sawmill, in the southwest part of the state. In addition, the company manages approximately 520,000 acres of forest land in five southeastern states, including Alabama, so it knows the region, and the state, well. The company, now being managed by the fourth generation of family leadership, has deep roots in the state, having set up there in 1927.
The new sawmill complements the company’s existing mill in Moundville, Alabama, some 135 kilometres to the north, which is the second-largest southern yellow pine production facility in the United States. The Moundville mill opened in 1997, and serves customers across the U.S., as will the new Thomasville mill.
In commenting on the new facility, Westervelt Vice President and General Manager of Wood Products Joe Patton said: “This has been a challenging year of construction, dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 virus. We have been very fortunate to work with the BID Group that shared our safety concerns and processes so we could safely complete the mill on time.”
In an interview, mill manager Steve Metz explained that Westervelt fully explored its options when both deciding on the location of the new mill, and the equipment that was going to go in it.
Bryan Martin, engineering manager at the company and leading the Westervelt team, toured a number of sawmill facilities, and the team subsequently worked closely with the BID Group on the design of the new mill.
“Under Bryan and Joe Patton’s leadership, and with the depth of knowledge of the Moundville mill team, they were really able to set us up to be successful with the new mill,” said Metz. In addition to BID Group’s expertise, Westervelt has a tremendous amount of sawmill knowledge and savvy with its Moundville staff, says Metz. “We were able to utilize a lot of internal resources.”
Metz said that the company’s goal with the new mill was straightforward. “Our overall objective was to build a very technologically advanced mill, keep our costs low, and produce what customers expect in terms of quality.” Production sizes at the mill range from 2 by 4s through to 2 by 12s. They are working with Southern Yellow Pine, much of it coming from Westervelt-owned forests, with timber sizes up to a 20-inch butt.
Before any construction started, a fair bit of pre-site work had to be done on the 300-acre site. Some two million cubic yards of dirt was moved, to make the site level. “We had to work the site quite a bit to get the flat site we needed for the mill.”
The equipment starts outside, in the millyard, with a Kone radial single-bite crane. In the mill itself, most of the lumber manufacturing equipment is from BID Group companies, including the reception deck, OLI canter line, and profilers, all of it from Comact. The mill has a Comact TrimExpert system, Comact sorter, MoCo Engineering & Fabrication stacker, and DelTech continuous dry kilns. It also has a Miller planer and a Comact GradExpert system. The mill has three strapping lines, with Signode strappers that are fed from Comact dry stackers.
Metz said the turnkey approach with the BID Group worked well for Westervelt.
“It has been, and continues to be, a very positive experience,” he said. “Very early on, Westervelt and BID Group formed one team to oversee this project. And BID has since done an outstanding job, right through to start-up. It doesn’t matter what piece of equipment, we have one BID contact to work through issues with, and it has been very successful.”
In addition to the equipment built into the mill, BID Group also worked with local contractors and suppliers on the project. “They reached out to local contractors to be able to manufacture some parts to make the mill even better,” says Metz.
On the analytics side, Westervelt is also putting its mill data to work with the BID Group’s OPER8 IIot Solution. Applying the combined power of PTC and Rockwell, OPER8 is a cloud-based IIoT operating solution that seamlessly connects products, plants, systems, and machines to enable companies to harness the wealth of data that is generated. OPER8 transforms this data into productive business results, using powerful industrial applications with advanced analytics.
Metz talked about the benefits of building a greenfield mill, and having a blank slate to work with—design-wise—rather than having to work around an existing operation, as with an upgrade. “We did not have to work around anything, like you would with an existing sawmill.”
That said, COVID had a major impact on construction of the project, he added, in several different ways.
“One of the reasons the company selected BID Group for the project was that our values around safety and people are very closely aligned,” said Metz. “There is nothing more important than making sure everyone can work safely, and be healthy, on site.
“BID project manager Rick Weiler jumped on the situation very early on, with precautions that matched up with the way we felt about taking care of people,” said Metz.
And Westervelt and BID committed to not allowing COVID transmission happen on the site. The construction site was divided into 10 different zones, each with different facilities. And each contractor worked on their own with, for example, different start times, and different lunch times, from other contractors.
“That way nobody was outside of their group, they were not interacting, and worst case, we would have lost a small piece of the construction site, but not lost the whole construction site, if we had a COVID case. But because of that forethought and planning at the beginning, we did not have a single case of COVID transmitted at the site.
“We take great pride in that,” added Metz.
In terms of overseeing construction, the members of the combined Westervelt/BID Group team met frequently before COVID. Much of the communication and subsequent meetings were done virtually, by computer.
“We had to do things differently, but it all worked, in terms of understanding how things were coming together on the project,” said Metz.
As the project moved along, and moved towards completion, the original plan called for the new Thomasville staff to receive training at the Moundville mill. But when that was no longer possible, due to COVID, a six-week training program was put together, with the help of the city of Thomasville.
“We were able to get our first shift of almost 70 people on board, in terms of training them in a COVID-safe way, using training materials our supervisors and superintendents put together on sawmilling, and importantly, all the safety processes. For six weeks, we were full time teachers.”
The new employees were then brought to the site for start-up, which happened to coincide with the height of COVID transmission—but it was still a successful start-up, says Metz. “We’re really proud of every single person at the site for the tenacity it took to do the right things, and the successful start- up we had. You couldn’t have asked for a more challenging situation, but we started on schedule, and are producing lumber ahead of plan.”
With greenfield mills, there is always the period of time when you are transitioning from construction to operations mode, which can be challenging even in non-COVID times. “We had finished construction of the sawmill, and we were doing trial runs but the kilns and planer were still under construction,” explained Metz. “We had to be very intentional about how to cordon things off, with one side in operation, and the other still in construction.”
But, he added, there is that satisfying time when you take a deep breath, and the whole operation starts up. “We came out of the gate pretty good, with all the support we had from Westervelt Moundville and the BID Group.”
Metz credited his colleagues from the Moundville sawmill, a 90-minute drive up state highway 25 from Thomasville, for their help with the project.
“The experience and knowledge from the Moundville people has been very helpful—they had had a big impact on the design of the mill and procurement of wood—and I still call Tommy Clemmons, the mill manager in Moundville, just to talk over things.”
There is absolutely no doubt that a company has to have the right high-tech equipment in place to have a productive, and successful sawmill.
But Metz says it is also important to have the right people in place—management and staff.
“The challenge is building the right team for a new mill. You can easily buy the equipment to build a new mill, but the magic ingredient is having the right people, the culture, and the teamwork, and having the smarts to operate in a way that maximizes safety, productivity and the quality of the equipment that goes into that mill.”
And Metz is confident that ingredient is there—and now at work—every day, at Westervelt Thomasville.
On the Cover:
The last 18 months have been challenging times, with sawmills looking to meet record-high lumber demand. And for a few firms that were expanding, such as The Westervelt Company, they faced the challenge of how to go about building a new sawmill at a time of COVID. But the company was able to meet that challenge, and in fact were able to finish building their new sawmill ahead of schedule, thanks in part to its project partners, such as B.C.-based BID Group, who built the new mill on a turnkey basis. Read all about the project beginning on page 14 of this issue (Cover photo courtesy of The Westervelt Company).
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