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Family Focus

The founding family of Spray Lake Sawmills has chosen to go the distance and invest $25 million in a mill modernization rather than sell the company

By Tony Kryzanowski

Ten years ago, Spray Lake Sawmills owner Barry Mjolsness was truly at a crossroads-should he invest millions of dollars in new technology for the Cochrane, Alberta business or should he sell the company? Many in this community west of Calgary would have been disappointed-but probably not surprised-if he had sold, given the strength of the environmental groups in the area. Other considerations included the fact that much of the area's private timber was being harvested and transported across the border to BC or Montana and that the average log diameter had diminished significantly in the last 20 years. But because the Mjolsness family had been in the sawmilling business for over 50 years-with the third generation now taking an active role in the company's day-to-day operations-Barry decided that a "For Sale" sign just wasn't in the cards. Instead, the company invested $25 million to completely modernize the mill with some of the most advanced optimizing equipment available. "We made it clear that our vision for the company is to keep it as a family enterprise," says Mjolsness. "It has been in the family for 56 years, and we've told the employees flat out that we have absolutely no intention of building this up and selling out to anybody." His son Cory, and son-in-law's Dean and Jason all participate in the mill's management. The modernization began in 1996, mapped out as a three-phase program.

The first phase involved retooling the mill interior. The second phase was a total redesign and modernization of the bucking and infeed area, and the third phase will be refurbishing and updating the planer mill. For a dimension sawmill, Spray Lake Sawmills has gone much further than optimizing fibre use. "We've worked towards achieving 100 per cent utilization of our product," says Spray Lakes supervisor and Barry's son-in-law, Dean Davis. "We're almost there." That has always been a key ingredient to the sawmill's success, primarily because the average diameter of their timber supply has never been huge-it demanded that they aim for maximum utilization. While the average diameter was about 7.5 inches 20 years ago, it is now down to between 5.5 and 6 inches.

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In fact, diminishing wood diameter was a strong motivating factor behind the mill modernization.
Among the extra value-added products Spray Lake Sawmills produces are treated fence posts and rails, with the sorting and cutoff system for post material built right into their bucking station. Two and three inch tops generated from the cutoff saw lines are sorted automatically into the post production line. The onsite wood treatment plant not only treats posts, but also allows Spray Lake Sawmills to manufacture decking and landscape timber products for local building supply outlets. "We don't have waste conveyors," says Davis. "We have product residual conveyors. We've developed products and markets for all of our residuals. Our burner is only running a few days a month. What we run through the burner now is just log yard waste that accumulates and needs to be disposed of." Given this mentality, it comes as no surprise that the company should invest so heavily in better optimization.


Optimizing Precious Timber
By Tony Kryzanowski

Spray Lake Sawmills has made a huge commitment to greater optimization and utilization of an increasingly precious timber resource, as demonstrated by the design of their refurbished sawmill in Cochrane, Alberta. "You can never sort logs too much," says company president Barry Mjolsness, speaking about the number of sorting bins leading into the sawmill's canter. "You can never have enough." His philosophy is reflected in the micromanagement approach the company employs to maximize use of nearly every piece of wood in the yard. Four years ago, Spray Lake Sawmills hired its own project manager, Ray Johnson of Grandby Ventures, to develop a basic mill design given space limitations, and to oversee the upgrade. He worked on the second phase-a total redesign and modernization of the bucking and infeed area- with the sawmill engineering firm Wood Pro on the fine details.

Phase two of the three-phase upgrade was completed this past fall. The exterior bucking station begins with a stationary Prentice 410E loader feeding tree length stems onto two conveyors, leading to two cutoff saw lines provided by TriTech. Something unique to the industry is the sawmill's decision to begin true log scanning for maximum recovery right at the cutoff saw stage. Many sawmills use a less detailed scan at this point, and are more concerned with accurate length than log recovery this early in the manufacturing process. However, Spray Lake Sawmills has installed enclosed Perceptron true log scanners prior to bucking. Mjolsness says this allows the sawmill to tailor log recovery to market demand. "Our market values are programmed into the computer so that it can arrive at the optimum solution," says Mjolsness. "There are market trends and there are times when you receive a higher price for 2x4s than 2x6s." The scanners optimize and sort with that programmed log solution in mind.

The mill's cutoff saw lines consist of one stationary and one moveable saw so that the bucking operator can cut two to three logs in one stop. The smallest logs slated for post manufacture are kicked out into the post production line. Exco provided the log unscramblers in front of the debarkers, and prior to logs entering the canter. Logs slated for manufacturing lumber are conveyed either through a 27inch, Nicholson A5B debarker or a VKB 17 inch Kodiak debarker. After debarking, logs take up positions in three sorting bins according to diameter. Spray Lake Sawmills has left room in this area for expansion, given Mjolsness's axiom that "you can never sort too much". Having the ability to sort by diameter prior to feeding the canter line represents one of the most immediate and tangible areas where the sawmill has realized increased efficiency in lumber manufacture.

A rudimentary shadow scan at this stage allows the debarker operator to feed the largest logs to the headrig line, while smaller logs head for the canter. Prior to entering the canter, logs are scanned for auto rotation, and a second scan in the Optimil double length infeed represents the actual log solution. "That is where the computer decides what it is going to do with the log after it is turned and stable," says mill supervisor Dean Davis. "At that moment, it has a true picture of what it is actually going to cut. As the log flows through the line, the whole line adjusts according to what it needs to do." Optimil provided the sawmill's primary breakdown equipment. The equipment lineup includes a four-sided canter. Sideboards are diverted to a horizontal arbor edger, while the centre cant proceeds through a shifting vertical double arbor edger. The bottom board off the cant can be either a 4x4, 4x6 or 6x6, depending on the optimizing solution.

This is an important part of the sawmill's production process, as three to four percent of the mill's production is timbers. The vast majority of manufactured product is 2x4s and2x6s, however. Their average wood diameter limits them to a maximum board size of 2x10. While Spray Lake Sawmills shopped their business around, they felt that the Optimil double length infeed would give them much better recovery. "Overall, it was a much better, more versatile machine because we could take the log down to a four inch top, while we could also go right up to an 18 inch log all through one line." They were also able to increase the canter speed from 400 to 500 feet per minute with excellent results. Sideboards and any top and bottom boards needing remanufacture are sent through a Swedish built Catech edger, which was also supplied by Optimil. "It's a phenomenal piece of equipment," says Davis. "It can run up to 1,000 lineal feet per minute." Boards manufactured on the larger log line using an older double cut Forano bandsaw pass through a USNR 10inch horizontal arbor edger.

All boards eventually make their way to the CAE Newnes trimmer, a 48bin Jbar setup to sort the lumber, and finally to the stacker. This is where CAE Newnes makes its significant contribution to the manufacturing process. "The trimmer is really CAE Newnes' shining star," says Davis. "They are just the guys to go to for trimmers." After stacking, the lumber is stockpiled in the yard before it is dried in one of Spray Lake Sawmills' two kilns. One is an older 100foot Moore International kiln, while the other is a new Salton kiln that has been expanded from 50 to 100 feet. Their planer is an older Yates A21. Davis says the planer mill will be their next modernization project so that planning can keep up with the additional mill production. They have not yet determined when they will proceed with phase three, however, having just concluded what represents a major investment in the business.


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We realized that if we were going to survive and compete in this business, we had to get good at sawing small wood," says company president Barry Mjolsness (above, top). Optimil provided the primary breakdown equipment in the sawmill upgrade.

Management at Spray Lake Sawmills realized that their headrig and scragg were probably state-of-the-art in the early 1970s, but the equipment was well past its prime. The investment in new equipment has really paid off in delivering better utilization and higher production. Their targeted production is 80 million board feet this year, derived from about 80 per cent lodgepole pine and 20 per cent white spruce. All told, they will consume 350,000 cubic metres of wood annually, with the majority coming from quota they hold on Crown land. "We feel that we've had at least a 15 per cent increase in recovery," says Mjolsness. "We're still in the tweaking stage. We expect that we will be as high as 20 per cent, and maybe a little higher than that." That's only part of the story. Massive improvements resulting in more efficient fibre management in such areas as the bucking station and infeed are expected to contribute towards more than a 15 per cent increase in production. In order to achieve production targets, Spray Lake Sawmills operates three shifts. 

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Something unique to the industry is the sawmill's decision to begin true log scanning for maximum recovery right at the cutoff saw stage.

Once management and staff have fully grasped the capabilities of the new sawmill line, their plan is to eventually reduce the operation to two shifts, working five days a week. From an employment perspective, Davis says there were some concerns that mechanization would result in job loss. However, the reverse has been true. Eventually, there will be 150 mill workers, with another 50 contracting jobs. Greater automation, however, has presented a formidable challenge for employees from a learning perspective. "Most of the employees were doing their jobs manually, and now they have to rely on optimizers," says Davis. "They have to get more comfortable with the optimizing equipment running automatically. We all have to learn, and our millwrights have to learn how to troubleshoot problems on new equipment. There is a lot of growth that has to happen. There is radical change to some jobs. But our employees have risen to the challenge and are getting the hang of it. We're getting over the crest of the learning curve."

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