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      December 1996 January 1997 Past Issue

Sticking in a Tough Market

At Fort Nelson, the world's largest chopstick plant produces eight million units a day for demanding Japanese buyers.

By Tony Kryzanowski
Copyright 1996. Contact publisher for permission to use.

Back in 1989, the naysayers scoffed. Give it a year max, they said, and it will fold its tent and go away. They all do. But the Canadian Chopstick Manufacturing Co. Ltd. hasn't folded. Its plant at Fort Nelson in northeastern British Columbia is the largest of its kind in the world. By far. The company has had its setbacks, and it continues to face challenges. But the Canadian Chopstick Manufacturing Co.'s unique value-added plant has bucked the odds, thanks to a patient and understanding ownership and a committed workforce.

The labour-intensive operation uses aspen to produce a climbing average of eight million high-quality chopsticks a day for the demanding Japanese market. That word 'quality', incidentally, is often heard around the CCMC in tandem with production.

"This plant is a success. It's supplied a large number of people with a reasonable income they hadn't had before by utilizing a non-utilized resource in BC,' points out Tom Gilgan, CCMC's manager - human relations. "But we're in an extremely competitive market. We're seeing more chopsticks coming into the Orient from the states that comprised the USSR.' Chopsticks are the disposable knives and forks of the Orient and represent a massive market of perhaps 90 million per day. To increase market share, you need a superior quality product or produce it at a lower cost,' notes Gilgan.

The chopsticks are accepted into the market only if they are made from clear, knot-free, stain-free aspen with no checks or blemishes. And therein lies the source of one of CCMC's enduring problems. When the company was granted its aspen harvesting licence, the forest inventory indicated seven of 10 stems were chopstick-grade material. Experience has shown only two or three make the grade. It's extremely tough to tell from the outside of aspen the quality of fibre inside. It has to be cut first then assessed. The result is a large proportion of residue aspen that can't make the quality standards for chopstick manufacture. But it is fibre that comes with the same harvesting and transportation costs as chopstick grade. The other factor compounding the situation and beyond CCMC's control was that a pulp mill planned for Fort Nelson with an appetite for residue aspen never materialized.

There's no compelling demand for high-priced residue aspen,' notes Gilgan wryly. But the company has been successful in marketing some into the BC interior. And CCMC is working with Slocan's OSB plant in Fort Nelson to reach an agreement for supply of residue aspen to its Polar Board plant. We've looked at pelletizing and products like sushi boxes, and even kitty litter,' reports Gilgan, although feline reaction to the latter product was underwhelming. Developing furniture components is also being investigated as a viable product from the residue aspen.

"We've come a long way in the last nine months in terms of our chopstick production,'continues Gilgan. The target is to produce 1,800 boxes a day. There's 5,000 chopsticks to a box, which translates to nine million sticks daily. "We've achieved a record production of 1,784 boxes so far,' says Gilgan.

CCMC's plant operates one eight-hour shift daily, employing 120 hourly people and 33 staff. "We have some very good people,' says Gilgan. He adds more automation designed into the plant will help relieve repetitive strains and improve workplace ergonomics. "Automation yes, but we can closely maintain the number of people by changing the roles more into quality-control specialists. The person-machine interface is a vital component of automation. It's a long-term initiative.'

OSB Chopstick-grade logs entering the mill are in maximum lengths of 7.3 metres, says Gilgan. A wheeled Barko 275 A grapple loader feeds the infeed decks. Logs are fed singly through a 183-cm cut-off saw which essentially bucks for defects. A 76.2-cm Nicholson handles the debarking chores. PLC systems are from Square D. Logs are reduced to short bolts on a slasher deck and because the aspen is frequently frozen delivered into one of two hot ponds for thawing and conditioning. Frozen wood in the plant can crack veneer coils, gives a less smooth finish and creates lost volume. It's also tough on lathe knives. A gas-fired submersible burner maintains the temperature in the 75� to 84� range. "We're experimenting with that,' says Gilgan. Too high a temperature, for instance, can discolor the aspen. The bolts are kept on the move in the ponds for about a day and a half. A jack ladder recovers the thawed bolts and feeds them to a deck where they are directed to either the south or north end of the mill.

The plant has nine automated lathe lines. Photo cells examine each bolt, determine its diameter and automatically position and centre it in the lathe chucks. The bolts are spun through the lathe knives to produce veneer. The material comes off in coils and short lengths which are separated and fed into choppers. The coil and short choppers are the same machine set up differently with photo cells to determine defective ends and eject core material to a waste conveyor.

OSB Quality-control checks and analysis for improperly formed or defective chopsticks kick in with avengeance once the lathes produce veneer. For example, quality is monitored at regular intervals by operators on the choppers and defective material is culled.

The dryer is a key component of the production process. "It's a hybrid based on an original veneer dryer concept put together by Salton, but it has a number of modifications and it's specific to us,' explains Gilgan. It's gas-fired with a series of eight cells and a constantly moving deck with the chopsticks piled to about .6 metre depth. The goal is to reduce moisture content from about 40 per cent to 9 per cent. The chopsticks stay in the dryer for up to 1.5 hours at a temperature of about 240� F. "We constantly monitor the moisture content and the speed and temperature is sensitive,' he continues. "There's an art to it. If it's too quick the sticks can warp, if too slow they can split. And if they're not dry enough they can develop stain after shipment. The proper operation of that dryer is vital.' Gilgan says CCMC continues to look at how to optimize the dryer's capabilities.

"We're basically researching our options and the consequences of each of them.'An associated area of research is developing more surge and storage capacity, both ahead and behind the dryer.

Chopsticks exit the dryer for one of six packing lines. Any imperfect sticks remaining are removed. Chopsticks are piled and boxed manually, sealed and marked. A forklift delivers them to one of two sized shipment containers capable of holding about 830 and 960 boxes of chopsticks respectively.

The containers are shipped by BC Rail to Vancouver and by sea to China. In two locations there the chopsticks receive a further sorting and grading with the final product packaged and delivered to the customer in Japan.

December 1996 / January 1997 Table of Contents

Evans cited as first code victim
Soaring stumpage fees and Forest Code-inflated logging costs forced Evans Forest Products to its knees. Other mills could be facing the same fate.

Timber Sales Fund Innovative Harvesting Training Program
Eighteen people are learning new harvesting techniques.

Riding the OSB boom
Hedging against a downturn, Weyerhaeuser invests $16 million to improve recovery at its OSB plant at Slave Lake, Alberta.

Cost conscious cut-to-length
Setting up a new CTL show in remote northern Manitoba, Art Riemer wanted dependable equipment - but not at a price that would turn his accountant surly.

Sticking in a Tough Market
At Fort Nelson, the world's largest chopstick plant produces eight million units a day for demanding Japanese buyers.

CCMC Furthering Aspen as a Commercial Species in BC
CCMC is a pioneering company making exclusive use of high-quality aspen.

Tech Update: Cable Yarding Systems
A review of the different cable yarding systems that are available on the marketplace

Helicopter Logging Capability Guide
Heli-logging remains a practical harvesting alternative in many of British Columbia's mountainous regions.

The Eagle Flies
At the site of an abandoned chip mill in Miramichi, Eagle Forest Products turns the key on a new $100 million OSB plant.

New Centre Targets Value-Aded Training
With an estimated 30,000 skilled workers needed in the value-added sector in BC by 2001, the industry has moved to address a potentially serious training shortfall.

Haliburton: A Multi-Use Model
Ontario's Haliburton Forest, a popular recreation site, also hosts extensive forestry research and education programs - and a unique 'one stem at a time' selective logging program.

Yard Handling and Storage Critical to Aspen Quality
Few mill yards contain a fridge for wood, a fibre source to keep a manufacturing plant in business when green production is curtailed.

Northern Mills Address Need for Added Kiln Proficiency
The added market value of kiln-dried lumber is driving a push for new technology and added training for operators.

Supplier Newsline
Trade magazine ads pay off.


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