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The Rustad Way

Canfor's Rustad Operations in Prince George have managed to achieve recent increases in lumber recovery by relying on its people, rather than capital investments.

By Jim Stirling

Mill operations, and how they could be improved, were tackled by employee task groups at Rustad.

When a sawmill complex achieves an increase in lumber recovery and boosts production, it's usually due to the installation of technically advanced machinery. When substantial improvements in both categories are achieved without a major capital investment, the accomplishment is anything but usual. 

Canfor's Rustad Operations in Prince George, British Columbia have managed to do just that. There's been a culture change within the sawmill, planer and dry kiln complex. The key has been unlocking employee potential. Rustad has moved away from a top-down driven organization to one of team building. 

Every hourly employee is actively encouraged to initiate and implement changes and improvements. If that sounds a mite warm and fuzzy to the cynical, consider the facts. Rustad has improved its lumber production from around 1.060 million board feet a day to 1.3 million. It's been able to reduce target sizes and improve the operation's LRF by about five per cent. 

All that has been achieved in the two years Rustad and its 270 hourly employees changed direction and philosophy. Making rafts of little employee-generated changes and ideas an every day commitment have together created a more seaworthy operation. There's a renewed focus on quality and it's definitely a people thing, says Pat Donnelly, Rustad's plant manager. 

From the file room to the mill floor, Rustad employees have made many suggestions for change.  About 3,000 issues have been generated by employees, with 80 percent of them leading to action being taken.

"Every employee on the floor who sees a machine running off spec has the mandate to shut down the machine," he adds. "And it's an ongoing process. "As a management group, we're committed to letting our people do what's necessary to make the operation more efficient. We're not going to stop getting better." Rustad has had a presence in Prince George since 1946 and there's a sense of pride and continuity that comes with that. 

With many employees having worked for the company for 40 years, it's only common sense to try and tap that valuable and available pool of knowledge and experience. Naturally, not everyone is enamoured with the new approach. "We have lots of employees. Some love it, some want nothing to do with it," says Donnelly. The Rustad sawmilling operation is a mix of older, new and upgraded machinery. A circular head rig breaks down logs averaging 14 inches in diameter. 

Two chip 'n saws, one dating back to 1977, have an average log diet of nine inches and a new small log USNR canter line installed in 1999 is meeting its objectives of processing 1,000 six-inch-average logs an hour. It was 1999 when Canfor bought the Rustad operation from Northwood. Rumours circulated that at least one sawmill in the Prince George area would be closed because of the Northwood acquisition. 

The Rustad operation was frequently fingered. Right about then, some of that aforementioned pride kicked in. Everyone wants to protect jobs. The new attitude became further apparent when interest was shown by employees in becoming more involved in rebuilding the mill's safety program, recalls Colin Parsons, production superintendent. "That had the added benefit that the same process could be used when it comes to quality and production performances," he says. 

Task groups were formed throughout the operation with rotating leaders to work on improving operations by incorporating employee ideas. The cultural change gathered momentum. Competitive Edge Management was hired to coach supervisors on how to facilitate the task groups and make their meetings productive. Miller Software Consulting Inc worked with Rustad to create improvement measurement and real time data systems. 

That allowed employees to have a clearer idea of what was going on at each machine centre and how piece count improvements or other performance measurements could be implemented. Parsons says about 3,000 issues have been generated by employees and about 80 per cent of them have led to action being taken. 

During the last two years, there's also been a switch from market chasing to delivering customers the products they want on their shelves in the right specifications and wrapping presentations. "It's a focus on quality," says Parsons. Task groups looked at the mill's older slant bin sorter to identify problems and come up with solutions. Some of the improvements were minor. Ensuring the J-bars were at the same heights, for example. 

Log sizes have been dropping-fewer 2x10s for instance-but by the end of the day the same sorter that was handling 40,000 pieces a shift three years ago was achieving average production rates in excess of 55,000 pieces. PLCs were added in new areas to facilitate product flow. Laser alignments are routine every quarter to ensure tolerance standards and help keep machinery running like new. By the end of 2001, all predictive and preventative maintenance systems were on computer for all machine centres. 

Reducing target sizes has allowed adding a tier in the dry kilns, thereby addressing a recognized capacity problem. A 20 per cent increase in capacity is anticipated without affecting grade. Rustad's people have worked with those from Frank Controls to install frequency drives in all five kilns, maintaining high temperature and humidity. In 2000, costs and jobs had to be cut. 

The fork lift drivers came up with a plan to cut the equivalent of two jobs instead of the one earmarked, while maintaining yard function efficiency. And later that same year, plant manager Donnelly had to tell the troops the mill was looking at 40 days of downtime because of quota problems under the old softwood lumber agreement with the US. 

Crews responded by setting consecutive production records. Maintenance superintendent Rick Ross notes one of the biggest changes in the last couple of years is that supervisors are no longer trying to do everything. "The hourly guys are making out work orders, parts requisition, laser alignments and doing their own daily and weekly preventative maintenance," he says. "They've got a work ethic second to none. 

They get to the right answers with energy and knowledge. They're planning a week ahead, there's lots of energy around that." When shift time lengths were examined, a team was struck to talk about what was wanted and what was workable. They opted to increase man-hours and keep everyone on the same type of rotating shifts. Not all millwrights were in favour of a daily walk around before machine start-ups, continues Ross. 

During his first walk around, one of the unconvinced discovered two problems-including a missing chain link-which would have halted production. An instant convert. Ross says the filing room workers recommended changing guide design and lubrication and offered suggestions about plate thicknesses and kerfs that they said would work. They did. Electricians joined supervisors to help in hiring new department personnel. 

A new oiling pump system has been designed and installed and oilers have graduated into apprenticeship millwrights. All these moves give Rustad's people more credit, support and power, strengthening the whole company in the process. "We can demonstrate that we can operate at a fairly high level with the concept of let's do it right so it's the best," says Donnelly. "We try to instill that sense of excellence in all aspects of the operation."

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