By Tony Kryzanowski
The recent completion of a $150 million (U.S.) greenfield sawmill by Georgia-Pacific Lumber near Albany, Georgia—provided on a turnkey basis by equipment and service provider, the BID Group—demonstrates unequivocally that today’s lumber mills can now more appropriately be called lumber factories.
While the BID Group has its base in Canada, it now has 15 locations situated to serve its global customer base with its high-tech services and automated equipment.
And the future is “now” when it comes to the use of greater automation and artificial intelligence with the ability to process, convey, sort and stack dimensional lumber automatically.
The technology also has the ability to learn and adapt. Overall, this allows companies like Georgia-Pacific Lumber to address their cost structure, which was the objective with all three projects that the BID Group supplied for the company in the southeastern U.S. over the past five years. G-P Lumber understood that it needed to upgrade some of its aging sawmills.
“One of the biggest differences that I have seen is that working in the sawmill used to be very labour-intensive and required a lot of manpower to move the lumber or transition from one machine centre to another,” says Johnnie Temples, who was Plant Manager in Albany at the time of construction and was recently promoted to Regional Manager, overseeing operations at all three sawmills where the BID Group’s technology was installed.
“The technology and equipment today can automatically do all that through automation,” he adds. “There is instrumentation and software installed so that technically, we wouldn’t have to touch the product. It will automatically convey, grade, sort, and stack by itself with very little interaction with the employee.”
Today, the job of the production line worker is to monitor and manage the process, rather than physically operate the equipment. Production at the Albany sawmill hasn’t quite reached that point, but Temples says that they are the majority of the way there.
In the past, individual sawmills typically produced between 120 to 150 million board feet of dimensional lumber annually with 200 to 300 employees. Sawmills today are much larger, with the Albany sawmill aiming to produce 300 million board feet per year with under 150 employees.
“I would be comfortable saying that we are probably producing more volume with fewer resources than what we have done in the past,” Temples says.
Rick Kimble, G-P Lumber Government and Public Affairs Manager, says that today’s sawmills—as reflected in the greenfield project recently completed in Albany, as well as the two recently completed brownfield projects featuring similar technology from the BID Group in Warrenton, Georgia and Talladega, Alabama—are able to produce about twice the volume of lumber with the same number of workers.
The company hopes that by having the opportunity to work with automation, it will attract more workers while helping them to feel more fulfilled in their jobs.
One of the biggest takeaways they took from the first two projects was the importance of having the right management team in place to fully realize the full potential of what this cutting edge technology can deliver, as it relates to achieving the company’s cost structure goal.
Staff from the Albany plant spent considerable time shadowing operations at the first two plants so that workers were well-prepared once production began in Albany in spring 2020.
G-P Lumber appreciates its partnership with the BID Group, especially the work G-P Lumber’s Steve Hendrick and the BID Group’s Simon Potvin carried out on collaborating to create an efficient design of the Albany sawmill. Temples says because it was a greenfield project, it was possible to work with the BID Group to ensure that the best design—from the log merchandizer to lumber loading—was developed to fit the footprint of the 320,000 square foot facility located just outside of Albany in Dougherty County. One added benefit is that everything is under one roof.
“This layout is extremely efficient,” says Temples. “There is not a lot of wasted effort transferring product from one department to another and that was noticed by other industry people visiting the site.”
In terms of outcomes and efficiency, that is probably best represented with how efficiently product is loaded and delivered from the Albany plant.
The sawmill is designed with an inbound and an outbound scale as well as load cells on forklifts. Truck drivers check in using a remote kiosk and that information is transmitted directly to the forklift and load supervision employees so that they know in advance what product the driver is there to pick up. They can have it staged in advance and ready to be loaded, in addition to having information about the truck’s inbound empty weight so that the correct number of bundles are loaded. Once loaded, the truck proceeds to the outbound scale and departs.
“We’ve got that down to right around a 20-minute turnaround time from the time a flatbed arrives to the time they leave,” says Temples.
Another example of the cutting edge artificial intelligence technology employed at the sawmill is the lumber grading module.
“The program module that we currently have actually learns as we continue to operate,” says Temples.
Initially, the goal was to identify blonde knots and internal stress fractures which are challenging to identify.
“With that AI module, we can actually pick up a lot of that automatically and grade out and give our consumers what they desire,” says Temples. “What we are seeing is tighter windows with the AI module.”
G-P Lumber was obviously satisfied that the wood basket existed within a reasonable driving distance from Albany to support the sawmill. The Southern Yellow Pine (SYP) logs arrive cut-to-length or tree length up to 60’ and are bucked to required lengths on the front end merchandizer. The tops range from 5” to 8”, with logs scanned and bucked to specific lengths to maximize lumber production.
The Albany sawmill is essentially designed to maximize production of dimensional lumber from 2 X 4 to 2 X 8, although it has the capability to adjust production parameters to respond to market demand.
Construction began in July 2019 and production began in May 2020. The entire production line from the merchandizer to lumber stacking was supplied by the BID Group on a turnkey basis through its various divisions.
Two DeShazo cranes feed logs into the sawmill. The logs are bucked, debarked, and processed through primary and secondary log processors supplied by Comact, featuring the Comact Optimized Length Infeed (OLI) unit leading to a TBL shape sawing gang unit. The lumber proceeds through a Comact trim line and then a GradExpert lumber scanner with Artificial Intelligence, leading to a Comact 75-bin sorter. The lumber is stacked in advance of kiln drying using a MoCo stacker. The lumber is dried in one of three natural gas-fired, continuous dry kilns supplied by Del-Tech. The unstacker leading to the planer was an in-house design from the BID Group. The lumber is processed through a Miller Manufacturing planer and infeed bridge, leading to a Comact GradExpert computerized lumber grader with Artificial Intelligence, and then a 65-bay sorter.
Comact supplied the lumber packaging system leading to three Signode strappers.
The BID Group managed the installation of the entire project working with the G-P Lumber engineering department.
Temples says that working with a turnkey operator, “lessened the complexity of the whole transaction.”
Luckily, the project was designed and constructed just before and only at the start of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The biggest impact was during the plant commissioning when it became necessary to improvise communication with BID Group and Comact personnel situated in Canada to provide remote commissioning assistance. Being the third of three projects using the BID Group technology, Albany sawmill staff have also benefited from the mentoring and troubleshooting support available from more experienced staff working in Warrenton and Talladega.
“We’ve got quicker turnaround times for the log trucks and quicker turnaround times for the flatbeds hauling the materials out,” says Kimble. “Everyone is happier in an environment like this where things are more efficient and run a little bit smoother. They make more money because they can make more loads.”
In October, G-P Lumber announced that it has hired the BID Group to deliver a new sawmill in Pineland, Texas on a turnkey basis. On site work will begin in early 2022 with startup scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2022. The sawmill is the largest business in Sabine County where Pineland is situated.
As with Albany, the site will feature BID Group’s wood processing technologies including equipment, software, automation systems, and AI-enabled optimization.
G-P Lumber will spend $120 million (U.S.) to replace the existing stud mill that was built in the 1960’s. Production capacity will increase from 380 million board feet annually to 450 million board feet. As in the case of Albany, the company expects a significant improvement in product flow in and out of the plant on a daily basis.
Over the past five years, G-P Lumber has invested about $700 million (U.S.) to grow and improve its lumber business.
On the Cover:
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