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Attention to detail

Ainsworth’s OSB plant in BC continues to achieve impressive production numbers, thanks to a team approach and attention to detail.

By Jim Stirling

The words don’t ring of hype or bragging when Jim Miller says achieving an annual production of 450 million square feet is not impossible with the technological changes to equipment within Ainsworth Lumber’s engineered oriented strand board plant in 100 Mile House, British Columbia. They emanate instead from a clinical assessment of potential, based on what’s been accomplished by combining the talents of the people working at the plant. The accomplishments are very impressive gauged by any yardstick, and speak eloquently of Ainsworth’s success. They also raise the bar in the panel product industry.

The 640,000 cubic metres of wood a year required to run the 100 Mile House plant is made up of 60 per cent aspen, 35 per cent lodgepole pine and five per cent birch.

The $110-million plant was built in 1993. It had an annual design capacity of 330 million square feet of product on a 3/8ths inch basis, says Miller, site manager for Ainsworth’s OSB Division in 100 Mile. The first successful pressload was in August 1994. Seven years and 10 months later—on the summer solstice of 2002—the operation recorded its one millionth pressload.

OSB plants typically take 10 years to reach that milestone. The plant hit its gross footage design capacity of 330 million square feet in the second full year of production. Miller is predicting a 420-million-square-foot production for 2002, up from 417 million in 2001. The plant runs 24/7 except for 10 hours each Wednesday for routine maintenance. Press efficiency was running in excess of 94 per cent in the second full year of production and has subsequently inched up to more than 97 per cent for the last three years.

On-grade percentage is averaging 99.7 per cent. Added to that is the mill’s flexibility to produce up to an astonishing 1,400 different combinations of dimensions, grades and thicknesses of product in nine- and eight-foot widths. “It’s amazing how few process problems we have and that’s what makes those numbers even more extraordinary,” says Miller. But how and why has this been achieved? What kind of industrial alchemy is in play here? That’s harder to put a finger on in a definitive manner, but there exists a range of factors and features contributing to Ainsworth’s chemistry of success at 100 Mile.

Clearly, it’s a well-designed plant with good equipment. Fundamental, however, is the team that’s been assembled and the culture created, says Miller. “We’ve got a great mixture of people. We have very low turnover, the majority were here for the first pressload.” The mill has 30 salaried employees, 126 hourly employees and seven in woodlands. The team was drawn from different companies and different types of OSB plants. The range of experience provided a useful troubleshooting tool from the earliest days: someone in the group always recognized what was going on and knew what to do about any hiccup in the production process.

Product quality is of paramount importance, especially with the operation’s demanding Japanese customers.

The experience factor was instrumental in the plant’s remarkable start-up curve. It takes the average OSB mill three to four years to meet target design production. Ainsworth 100 Mile reached that level within two years. “We are constantly focussing on quality,” says Miller. The commitment begins with the 640,000 cubic metres of fibre a year needed to run the plant, a mix of 60 per cent aspen, 35 per cent small diameter lodgepole pine and five per cent birch. The square footage of OSB produced is growing each year, but from the same wood supply. A new primary fines recovery system was instrumental in increasing wood recovery and provided a return on investment in the first year.

Close monitoring and attention to the minutiae is evident throughout the preparation and orientation of strands into the formation and creation of mats tailored to the range of sizes required by customers in Asia and North America. An example of the mill’s elaborate quality control is an MSR capability that can assess up to 35,000 panels a day, creating real time data to help dictate changes. More persuasive still is the success that the Ainsworth 100 Mile plant has earned in Japan.

The plant was built with that market in mind (nine foot wide mats) and now has captured 68 per cent of the Japanese OSB market, with four other companies sharing the remaining 32 per cent, says Tony Costa, process and technical manager. Quality is king in the Japanese market and buyers are very detail oriented. It takes hard work and constant attention to meet and grow a Canadian wood style construction market in Japan, which Ainsworth has succeeded in doing. The 100 Mile OSB plant is the only one selling to Japan with ISO 9001 certification. Its engineered wood products also have the APA’s Real Time Quality Assurance Certification.

A Canadian leader in OSB production, Ainsworth also operates a plant in Grande Prairie and is a partner in Footner Forest Products in High Level, Alberta. The Ainsworth 100 Mile culture has created an open door working environment where no one expects the norm. It has discovered even manufacturer’s manuals can be wrong. “Everyone from the floor comes into the office and that’s good,” says Costa. Many good ideas have originated that way, been implemented and contributed to the plant’s performance. It’s the same with regular meetings, says Costa: communication, communication, communication. “We try to do things with support from all departments.

If there’s a problem somewhere, we all come up with an action plan and a follow up procedure,” says Costa. The plant adopts a revealing philosophy when it comes to maintenance scheduling. “We look at making lots of little stitches in time to save the nine.” It means paying attention to the little things—not letting the plant get old and tired—and budgeting for what needs to be done. Squeezing the last one per cent of juice from the orange is the most difficult without major changes in the process.

But Miller and Costa feel major equipment failure in the plant is not imminent. They believe the process of analyzing, searching for ideas and accommodating the constancy of change has become second nature to the Ainsworth team. That unique approach will likely continue to keep the plant over-achieving by conventional standards. And that is why it seems imprudent to doubt that the 450-million-square-foot production target that Jim Miller talks about is attainable.


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