By Paul MacDonald
The excitement is building for the return of the Timber Processing and Energy Expo (TP&EE), one of the premiere wood products machinery events in the North American forest industry, to be held this September in Portland, Oregon.
That excitement is coming as a result of a few factors, including the lack of a TP&EE show in 2020 due to the pandemic, the at-times pistol-hot lumber markets the industry has seen at points in the last several years, and the need for sawmills to continually upgrade their equipment.
Though lumber markets have come down to earth from the lofty heights of 2021—when they reached levels in excess of $1,600 per thousand board feet—forest companies are continuing to do well, and are steadily turning out as much lumber as they can to meet market demands.
TP&EE will be held September 28 to 30 at the Exposition Center in Portland, and over 150 equipment and technology companies have signed on so far to exhibit, and available booth space is going fast, according to show organizers.
“We’re looking at probably our biggest TP&EE—in terms of exhibitor square footage—that we’ve ever had,” says Rich Donnell, show director and editor-in-chief of Timber Processing, which serves as the host of the event, produced by Hatton Brown Expositions, LLC.
The last TP&EE show, held in 2018, attracted nearly 3,000 exhibitor and producer personnel from 38 U.S. states, six Canadian provinces and 17 countries.
Donnell noted that Hatton-Brown held the Panel & Engineered Lumber International Conference & Expo in Atlanta at the end of March earlier this year, geared to the panel industries, and it was very well received, and well attended.
“People were really happy to get out and attend the Atlanta show, and we think that will happen, too, with the Timber Processing show in Portland,” said Donnell. He added that there was also a lot of excitement about the upcoming TP&EE show at the Western Wood Products Association annual meeting, held in May in Washington.
“We’re ready to go with the Timber Processing show—I think it’s on everyone’s radar in the industry,” said Donnell.
The forest industry, notably on the lumber side, has seen extraordinary prices at times over the last two years. Though prices have come down a fair bit from the lofty heights seen in 2021, they are still at healthy levels. All this means that forest companies, and sawmills, are continuing to do well.
At the previous Timber Processing shows, in 2016 and 2018, there were a number of sawmills that were talking about doing upgrades, and purchasing equipment—and some companies building brand new facilities. Those that executed on that, Donnell says, have done extremely well.
“They hit it at just the right time, and had their new equipment operating at the time of the big market upswing of the last couple of years.”
Donnell notes that forest companies, anxious to produce as much lumber as possible during good lumber markets, have been running their mills hard. With the softening in markets, now would seem an opportune time to upgrade/add sawmill equipment.
“We do a capital expenditures survey, and it shows that there are a lot of projects in the works,” he said.
Any mills that upgrade now, during a softer lumber market, would be very well positioned should the market race ahead again, and prices shoot up.
“My thinking is there is now a lot of money to be spent on capital expenditures at mills, and now is a good time to do it,” says Donnell.
“I think we are going to see a lot of machinery order conversations at the Timber Processing show in September—I think the timing is pretty good for that,” he said.
Added to that, there is a pent-up demand for going to shows in the industry. That has been evident at industry shows in the U.S., and was clear to see at the Council of Forest Industries (COFI) conference and Interior Logging Association (ILA) show held in B.C. earlier this year. Plain and simple, people want to attend industry shows.
The Timber Processing show is a premiere event for sawmillers.
“With TP&EE, we’ve always tried to emphasize to the mills that they should bring their production and their line guys, in addition to the management, and just to come with a lot of people from their organization,” says Donnell. “I think we’re going to see a lot of that this time around. The companies have done well financially the last couple of years, and may choose to invest some of that money in having their people at a key equipment show like the Portland show—both for ordering equipment, and information purposes, as well as a break from the sawmill.”
Major industry shows like TP&EE also offer an ideal opportunity for the mill equipment companies to introduce new models and features.
“A lot of these equipment companies have seen order backlogs, but they are catching up to that. They have been very busy just meeting equipment orders, and getting equipment orders out the door.” The equipment companies are also better handling any supply chain issues that might have cropped up during COVID, though there are still supply chain snags in just about every industry.
Now would be a good time for these companies to shift more resources to technology development, Donnell believes.
“Shows like TP&EE are a good place to do some early introduction of new machinery and technologies—I think the timing is good for that,” says Donnell. If companies have been working on new features, the show represents an opportunity to release new equipment or talk about upcoming improvements.
“We’re seeing a lot of automated robotics that seems to be coming on pretty strong at sawmills, and we’ll likely see second generation or enhanced versions of that at the show.
“Data intelligence systems at the sawmills could be another focus,” with a growing need to install mill-wide data communications, data input and data intelligence systems. Many companies have been working away incrementally at such systems in their mills, and may choose to ramp them up now.
“It may not be as exciting as installing a new band mill, but I think we will see new generations of that, and new generations of software and operating systems,” says Donnell.
Data intelligence could be seen as a part of the much-talked-about area of analytics, which can deliver a number of benefits to a business, everything from streamlining production operations to improving customer service.
“Equipment suppliers can now supply the software and operating systems to whatever a sawmill needs, and they can use it however they want to enhance their operations throughout the mill.
“They can install that equipment on the green end, on the dry end, wherever they need it. It’s not entirely new—it’s becoming more enhanced and easier to do by the programs that some equipment suppliers can provide to the mills.”
In addition to the equipment show itself, TP&EE will also feature two mini-conferences. The Sawmill Productivity & Efficiency Conference will feature two main subjects: Sawmill of the Future, and Project Planning and Implementation, with several speakers addressing each.
The Sawmill of the Future segment will address where mills and technology suppliers are going in terms of robotics and data intelligence and input and output systems, and also with regard to mill flow, says Donnell.
The Project Planning segment will provide details on how best to handle an equipment upgrade, or the installation of new mill equipment and even used equipment.
There will also be a Mass Timber and Engineered Wood Products conference, which will bring attendees up to date what is going on in that sector, the market growth, and how that market is evolving.
Overall, whether on the conference side or the equipment show floor, a focus for the Timber Processing show is on how companies can better operate their sawmills, whether it be through new iron or new mill management software.
“The show hits both those areas,” says Donnell. “A mill might need upgraded software—or they might have been running the heck out of their gang saw for the last five years, and be looking to put a new gang in.”
He believes that many sawmills are hitting the time when they are going to be talking about making some big capital improvements, and will be looking at production equipment to do that—and some mills will no doubt be pulling the trigger, and ordering equipment at TP&EE.
As mentioned, there will be a strong focus on technology. For some time, the industry has been moving towards more automation—scanning the log as it’s brought into the mill, and setting up all the equipment downstream, as much as possible, on how to best handle that log based on the scanning data.
Further mill automation makes sense on a number of fronts, especially with the shortage of labour in both the U.S. and Canada these days. Many forest companies set up booths at trade shows to attract possible new employees, especially in the trades.
“It continues to be part of the move to sawmill automation—you do it not just to increase lumber recovery, but to reduce costs. The more automation you get at a mill, the fewer people you need—or you can redeploy the people you have elsewhere.”
Automated grading systems in sawmills are a prime example of how mills have become more efficient, Donnell said.
“Companies are really having to look at employing more technology because of the labour situation—but you can only take things so far. You still need people to do things at a sawmill.”
Longer term, too, the industry will of course still need people, and it has to be on top of its game to make sure it can attract good people to staff sawmills, Donnell says.
As its name states, energy is part of the TP&EE show, with the focus on energy consumed at the mill, such as biomass-generated energy used in dry kilns or an associated cogeneration plant. With the increase in natural gas prices, mills are no doubt looking to reduce their gas use, and optimizing the use of biomass to generate heat and energy.
But upstream, on the log production end, logging contractors who supply the mills have been hit incredibly hard by rising diesel fuel prices. Contractors have been looking for fuel surcharges from the sawmills to help manage these higher prices.
The mills, receiving sky high lumber prices, have been in a position to provide surcharges. But with lumber prices more down to earth, the mills are going to be looking more carefully at all their costs.
Essentially, the mills have been doing well profit-wise for the last couple of years and have been ok with dealing with higher input costs. But in addition to extra fuel costs on the log hauling end, they have had to face higher shipping and equipment costs. “It has not hit them too hard because of the high lumber prices, but with markets coming down, the higher costs will stand out more, and people will be talking about that at the mills,” says Donnell. And no doubt they will be talking about that at the show.
Higher costs have been somewhat hidden with the high industry profits.
Another feature of the show is the presentation of the Timber Processing Person of the Year award. Eric Schooler, longtime president & CEO of Collins and former vice-president of manufacturing at Hampton Lumber, will receive the award, at a reception held on the show floor during the second afternoon.
Since forest companies were allowed to continue to operate their sawmills—under strict internal COVID protocols—and ship product both across the Canadian border and all around North America, complemented by big box stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s being designated as essential, the remodeling and renovation side of lumber demand took off. Housing construction also increased, right across North America.
There were some virtual conferences held during COVID, and forest companies and mills certainly did many more virtual meetings.
“The mills and equipment companies probably learned a lot by doing things virtually, and may be able to continue to use it a little more,” says Donnell.
“But for the Timber Processing show, it’s all about people getting together,” said Donnell, noting that some folks have not have been able to see industry colleagues for upwards of two years. “It’s people meeting face to face, and you’re able to get a feel for what equipment is available, and you can come away from the show knowing where things are at in the industry, equipment-wise.”
With healthy lumber markets, mills ready to do upgrades, and people wanting to get out and get together, there are a lot of positives playing into the TP&EE show, says Donnell.
“I’m as optimistic about the Timber Processing show as any show we’ve ever done,” he says.
The support the show is getting backs that up—by June, the floor plan was 95 per cent sold out.
“Everyone is ready to go—and get back to it,” says Donnell.
He added that attendance is free if done online before the show, at www.timberprocessingandenergyexpo.com
On the Cover:
Veteran British Columbia sawmiller James Dodich is parlaying his experience working with a variety of wood product combinations into producing high value wood products, with his company Cats Eye Logging and Sawmilling. Having experimented with various combinations with his Wood-Mizer LT40 band sawmill , Dodich feels that he has found the right formula for his operation. Read all about some of the lessons Dodich has learned beginning on page 36 of this issue. (Cover photo by Tony Kryzanowski).
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