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The new small log line at Tolko's High Level mill has increased fibre recovery by 20 per cent. 

By Tony Kryzanowski

Over its 25 year existence, the sawmill in High Level, Alberta has faced many challenges. Some of them involved changes in ownership -it has had four different owners. Some have had to do with nature-a short harvesting and haul season. While yet another challenge seemed, at times, to be related to budging the laws of physics- attempting to manufacture dimensional lumber from a log supply with a decreasing diameter. However, with the sawmill's new small log line and new ownership, there is plenty of optimism these days among employees. 

The USNR sawbox (above) on the small log line at Tolko High Level. "Upgrading the technology on our chip and saw lines was critical," says sawmill superintendent Mike Dextrase. "Particularly looking into the future with a smaller wood supply on its way." 

BC-based Tolko Industries purchased the mill from Daishowa-Marubeni International (DMI) in November, 1999, about a year after the small log line began production. Tolko brings considerable lumber manufacturing experience to High Level. Japanese-based DMI sold the sawmill because it wanted to focus on its pulp manufacturing operations further south in Peace River. Sawmill superintendent Mike Dextrase welcomed this change. "Tolko is very proactive," he says. "It is a real plus for employees for the plant to be purchased by a company with such extensive sawmilling experience." 

Dextrase adds that while installation of the small log line wasn't critical to the immediate viability of the sawmill, it was necessary for the long term. The results were almost immediate-there has been a nearly 20 per cent increase in fibre recovery on that line. Dextrase says that optimizing and better utilization continues to be an important objective with the sawmill's new owners. The sawmill manufactures a wide variety of lumber from 1x4 in 8- to 16-foot lengths, and 2x3 up to 2x10 in 8- to 20- foot lengths. With the ability to produce 2x12s, the company also produces a sixfoot board from its planer. 

The sawmill has undergone a number of upgrades over the past 10 years. Phase one of a major three-phase capital program resulted in approximately $9 million being spent to install a small log line prior to Tolko's acquisition of the mill. The mill operates three lines-one for small logs, a medium-size log line, and a large log line. Essentially before the small log line installation, the sawmill operated three common chip and saw production lines.

Sawmill employees (above) now deal with much more complete data for better fibre utilization. 

By the mid-1990s, the writing was on the wall in terms of what the mill could expect regarding log diameter. While the company's log supply now comes primarily from its Forest Management Area, at one time it harvested wood in Wood Buffalo National Park about 160 kilometres to the north. However, in 1992, DMI halted that practice when they purchased the mill. Dextrase says that decision had a significant impact on reducing the mill's average log size. "Upgrading the technology on our chip and saw lines was critical," says Dextrase, "particularly looking into the future with a smaller wood supply on its way, and trying to get better recovery from logs with a lot of sweep. If your log is crooked, the old style chip and saw lines will simply butcher your logs, yielding low recovery." 

The McGeehee six-inch single arbor horizontal gang edger (top) is integral to maximizing recovery on the line. "Trying to get better recovery while going to a smaller log was a whole new concept for us," says Tolko's Mike Dextrase (below). Further capital spending on the remaining two log lines at High Level will depend on future lumber prices and payback.

The small log line began production in November 1998. "Trying to get better recovery while going to a smaller log was a whole new concept for us," says Dextrase. "The impact on mill flow was substantial. Companies like Tolko with small log experience understand the problems that go with that, as well as the importance of having technologically advanced equipment." In addition to production areas, mill management has also set its sights on optimizing the infeed area by installing enhanced scanning capability, resulting in increased block value and better sorting abilities to send the right log to the right machine. 

This also yields better recovery. "Not only do you stand to gain recovery on the shape of the log, but you can also add value by evaluating the log diameter and the different lengths at which you buck your logs," says Dextrase. At the present time, over 50 per cent of their cut decisions are made manually at the cutoff saws. This year, the sawmill intends to upgrade from XY scanners at the infeed location to 3- D scanners. That way, they will have not only the capability of scanning for length and diameter, but also enhanced sweep and kink detection. A constant challenge faced by the sawmill is the tendency of its logs to exhibit significant taper. So installing better optimizing scanners wherever possible for better recovery is an important step. 

At the present time, logs destined for the small log line are debarked using a 17-inch Nicholson debarker. Once debarked, a rather unique wave step feeder lifts the logs to the production conveyor. Dextrase says that while the wave step feeder has had its mechanical problems, the mill avoids considerable downtime because of its design. It is practically impossible for logs to become jammed and crossed up at the step feeder. Once on the conveyor belt, each log is then double scanned as it passes through two sets of Porter Engineering laser scanners. 

A constant challenge faced by the sawmill is the tendency of its logs to exhibit significant taper.

The first set of scanners evaluates how the log should be oriented prior to entering the side heads so that maximum recovery is achieved. "It basically controls our auto log rotation," says Dextrase. Because there is usually some degree of error when the log is rotated, it is scanned a second time so that the log enters the sawing heads at the proper angle from the double length infeed. The double length infeed, side heads and bandsaws were provided by USNR. 

"The log can be positioned-by the double length infeed-to enter the heads at different locations," says Dextrase. "For the skew, we can actually turn the double length infeed on a bit of an angle as we drive the log into the heads. As the log transfers through the heads, the whole infeed moves to compensate for the skew to maximize recovery." Once the log exits the primary breakdown unit and is flipped onto its side, it enters the Newnes portion of the line. From this point until boards merge with production from the other two lines, Newnes has supplied the controls, scanner, and McGeehee shape sawing edger, which provides the mill with curve sawing capability. It is a six-inch single arbor horizontal gang edger. Four years ago, the mill refurbished its back end, replacing and relocating a manual trim 20-bin sorter with a 40-bin J-bar sorting system beside an existing 60-bin sorter. They also installed optimization and a multi-saw trimmer at that time.

The mill consumes about one million cubic metres of wood annually, consisting of more than 90 per cent spruce with the mill's small end wood diameter at the machine centre averaging 6.5 inches. Over the past two years, its volume of pine has increased from three per cent to about 7.5 per cent. Because the pine is older growth, more crooked, and with more catface, Dextrase says utilizing the pine "has been a bit of a challenge". "As we get into smaller wood, we are exploring the opportunities of utilizing more pine and black spruce." The area's short logging season presents its own special challenges as well. 

Because the mill receives its wood over an 80-day haul season, some wood can spend up to nine months drying in the yard. Tolko plans to take remedial action to reduce the drying effect because of the amount of breakage they experience during mill production later in the year. Although the mill has experienced a number of challenges in the past, the company feels prepared for the future. Dextrase says in addition to the infeed area, mill management has serious intentions to proceed to phase two of the mill modernization, which is to replace the sawmill's Mark II medium-size log line. 

"When we were planning the small log line, we could see that there was potentially a little more recovery that could be gained on the medium-size log line as well," says Dextrase. "But we made a strategic decision to change out the small log line first due to the declining log size issue that would be there forever, giving us time to re-evaluate the rest of the mill at that point." In terms of the large log line, which consists of a canting section close-coupled to a quad bandsaw section, Dextrase says it will likely remain intact except for a few design changes such as a double length infeed and optimization to improve log orientation prior to entering the chipping heads. 

"We talk about parts and equipment standardization often as it is almost key to employee training and the value of our parts inventory," says Dextrase. "Obviously, being so remote from the major centres, our parts inventory is high here, yet we are trying to maintain cost control with some unique tools, such as a vendor partnership agreement we've recently entered into with Raeside Equipment Ltd." Capital spending on the remaining two log lines will depend on future lumber prices and payback.

Dextrase concludes that installation of the small log line was a very positive experience. The success of the mill lies clearly in that old saying about imitation being the most sincere form of flattery -a number of other companies have toured the sawmill and copied High Level's small log line configuration for their own sawmills.

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