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Making the Grade

A BC industry association has started a new series of programs designed to sharpen the skills of lumber graders and, in turn, add to a mill's bottom line.

By Jim Stirling

It's proof positive of success when a lumber grader with 30 years of experience comes up after a workshop and says: "Thanks. I learned something today." That has been the routine-and gratifying-response to a new series of programs designed to help lumber graders stay motivated and upgraded within their constantly evolving and demanding working environments. 

The workshops and seminars are the initiative of the Northern Forest Products Association (NFPA). They have a strong emphasis on the practical, real worlds of mill and plant and are tailored site-specifically to augment lumber grading skills and add value to the mill's bottom line. 

The programs are available to the association's 47 member operations located across a broad swathe of interior British Columbia from Strathnaver, 40 kilometres north of Quesnel, up to Fort Nelson and from the Alberta border west to the Hazeltons. The NFPA, based in Prince George, is one of 16 agencies in Canada with grade stamping authority. "We feel we provide more services in lumber grading/training programs than some of the other agencies. We work pretty hard to try and improve them," says Reg Stafford, manager of quality control for the NFPA. 

Products and standards are constantly evolving. The J-grade produced by some NFPA member mills is appearance-enhanced for the Japanese market. "We'd like everyone to go back to grading classes every year. Rules evolve, interpretations change. We have to try and improve providing our members with guidance as part of our constant attempts to upgrade," he says. That is why the grading workshops and seminars that have been developed are so important. Leading the way is program designer John Rossel, quality supervisor with the NFPA. 

Rossel brings rare passion to his pursuit of high performance lumber grading. And he comes by it through the school of experience-he's been in the industry for 28 years. He knows full well what it's like standing for at least eight hours a day by the grading table, turning boards, assessing knots, wane and grain characteristics. And Rossel's good at it. He competed for 12 years and won the BC Interior Lumber Grading Championship in 1992. 

He went on to be the champion of champions the following year. And don't be misguided by the championship's regional title. It's the largest and most comprehensive test of practical and theoretical lumber grading skills in the world and has stimulated the establishment of similar competitions as far away as Japan. 

Rossel says it takes three to four months to train an entry-level individual in the basic fundamentals of lumber grading. A ticket level is awarded reflecting their graded performance. The NFPA has instituted a new industry standard with an AA category ticket renewable every two years. 

But the ticket represents only the first shuffle forward. Rossel says it can take one and a half to two and a half years to reach a comfort zone where an individual feels satisfied in their grading performance abilities to consistently make the right decisions. "The grader's confidence is crucial," he says. 

One of the goals of his in-mill training workshops is to instill that confidence through acquiring knowledge about the finer points of lumber grading, to reduce that typical comfort zone to a six month period. Something else close to the collective hearts of the NFPA's quality control department is to further promote the focus of the mills themselves on their graders. 

Certainly, it's in the mills' best interests to do so. Accurate grading has a huge impact on company profits. Rossel cites an example he makes during his presentations. He displays a spreadsheet comparing dollars and grades produced during a mill's A and B shifts. One shift was making the company $200,000 a month more than the other shift on a continuing basis, courtesy of superior lumber grading performance. "That's where it all counts. 

To get the most value from each piece of lumber," says Rossel. The necessity of achieving that has never been more acute than in the narrow margin context of today's sawmilling industry. The 1960s and 1970s mindset of production has changed, driven by enhanced fibre recovery and higher valued products. "It's left to us to promote grading," says Rossel. "It requires an all-out effort from the companies, the graders and us in the NFPA's quality control." 

Rossel began his pioneering series of seminars and practical workshops in June 2000, following more than three years of preparatory work. The sessions have been universally well accepted. Feedback from participants is used to improve them further. The grading workshops are typically scheduled around a mill's shifts and can last from three to eight hours. Some mills require that their graders attend. 

For others participation is voluntary. Rossel encourages follow-up audits with the mills after the workshops and adopts an holistic approach to the psychology of improving lumber grading skills. It tests the hand/eye co-ordination required, the ability for sustained concentration and focus, the necessity of assessing the whole piece of lumber and assuming the optimum position at the grading table. "We try to create good working habits," adds Rossel. 

His sessions often include graders and their supervisors. He tries to hit on some things for both sides so they understand and appreciate each other's roles better. "The morale of the grader is hugely important." The sessions also include a mix of experiences, from the newly ticketed grader starting out to the veterans of the grading game. "And you can teach old dogs new tricks," he notes with a smile. 

The level of modernization and automation in sawmills and planers has been phenomenal in recent years. It begs the question of the future of visual, manual grading that is still employed by about 90 per cent of the NFPA's member mills. Rossel's programs are reinforcing the fact that the human grader component is capable of continuing improvement, despite the inherent challenges of the work. "Totally accurate grading is what we're after," says Rossel. And don't bet it's not achievable.

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