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Upping Flexibility

A recent upgrade has meant increased flexibility and production for Ontario sawmill R Fryer Forest Products.

By Ray Ford

Mark Fryer

At R Fryer Forest Products Ltd of Monetville, Ontario, they have a business approach that is a mix of the old and the new. Old-fashioned business smarts accompanied by a modern drive for flexibility and innovation are seen as the ingredients for success. "We're a family business and dad wants to keep it that way. So we're looking to the future," says Mark Fryer, operations manager of the mill and the third generation of Fryers to work in the lumber trade. Mark's grandfather began a steampowered sawmill in the 1930s. 

In 1972, his father, Roger, founded the existing mill in the town, which is about 50 kilometres southeast of Sudbury. The Fryers' lumbering heritage has taught them the value of treating customers and employees with respect and maintaining links with their home community. The family history has also underscored the need to ensure a healthy supply of timber and to continuously improve their milling operation. To help with the first goal, the Fryers have planted white and red pines on the mill's 600- acre site and last year they harvested red pines thinned from the plantation and processed the timber in their mill. 

To meet the second aim, the Fryers recently completed a $932,000 expansion and upgrade-a move that increased both speed and capacity without the loss of a single day of production. "We put the new building right over top of the old one," Mark says, gesturing to the 13,200-square foot, slate-blue steel structure that houses the sawmill-nearly double the size of the old one. "We kept on working in the old site, put the new building right over top, and we didn't lose any production time at all. Any place where we had to work over the employees, we did that on weekends or between shifts." 

To improve the mill's flexibility, the Fryers added a new small log line, featuring an 18-inch Cambio ring debarker and a Powell 48-inch twin circular saw, and installed a McDonough resaw. The new line works in tandem with the large log line featuring a Morbark debarker that can handle logs up to 72 inches, and a 56-inch circular carriage saw. "We wanted to do a better job utilizing small-diameter wood, and get a little smoother flow through the mill," says Roger Fryer. "Our goal is to produce 50,000 feet a shift and at that we should be a reasonably low-cost producer." "To saw a four-inch log on the main saw, it would just take forever to get through the mill. We could saw all day and get 8,000 feet," Mark adds. "At the same time we didn't want to lose out on being able to saw logs for grade, which we can do on the main saw." 

The additional capacity allows the mill to produce about 14 million board feet a year, up from less than 10 million before the expansion and upgrade. The extra production translates into more jobs in the community, with 108 people working for the Fryers (many of them from families in which two or three generations have worked at the mill), compared to 82 before the upgrade began in 1998. Large logs are sawed down to six-inch cants, with the boards fed along a conveyor line supplied by Cardinal Equipment, and through a Comact double arbour bull edger. 

Small slabs are directed down a sideline into a chipper, while larger slabs flow up to the resaw, where they're cut into boards. Logs going through the Cambio debarker can go to either log line. If they stay on the small log line, they go through the twin 48-inch circular saw. Cants from the twin stay on the lower conveyor to go through the bull edger, while slabs are kicked up to the resaw and the pony edger before passing over the TS Manufacturing two-man trimmer and through the sorting line, where the lumber is piled on both sides of the boardway.  

The wood is lifted out of the mill by two Shaw box cranes and carried through insulating clear vinyl curtains at the end of the boardway. Skilled workers are a valuable commodity at R Fryer, and without a scanner, the company relies on the know-how of the staff to get the most out of a log. To improve the work environment, the mill is fully enclosed, insulated to R20, and heated to about 30 degrees F above the outside temperature. "We're one of the few mills that have tried to keep the mill enclosed so the workers are inside," Mark says. "We figured the employees would be on the job more and it would be more pleasant to work in a heated environment." The Fryers economize by using good second-hand equipment when they can find it. 

The carriage saw, for example, was purchased from the Ontario government's Burwash Prison Farm when it closed in 1970 while the twin saw was bought from Sudbury's Portelance Lumber in 1997. Most of the lumber leaving R Fryer is white pine, spruce and red pine cut in dimensional lumber and squares and shipped to wholesale and distribution yards in southern Ontario. "This past year white pine has been our largest item, but spruce, red pine, and aspen is close," Mark says. "We do some jack pine, too, whenever we can get some that's good. We rarely get enough cedar or hemlock, so sometimes we store it for a year before it's sawn." 

Smaller amounts of hard and soft maple, yellow birch and ash also go through the mill. White pine boards too short for commercial sale are donated to budding woodworkers at high schools in North Bay and Sudbury-on the condition that students also receive training in workplace safety and the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System. "Wherever they go, they'll need to know that," Mark says. Lumber is planed on a Stetson-Ross 612 A planer the Fryers bought as a replacement after a disastrous planing mill fire in 1985, when a dusty lightbulb ignited a blaze inside the mill, destroying a newly refurbished Yates planer. 

Hardwood is graded and shipped to wholesalers green, while the softwoods can be planed and graded after being air dried or kiln dried in Fryer's two Uraken and one Dryline kilns. Since 1984 the mill has been producing Wolmanized pressure-treated lumber, using a single cylinder 6x50 foot treatment installed by North Bay's Donson Engineering, and a second 6x80 foot unit installed by Hickson Corp (now Arch Chemicals.) "We do about a million feet a year right now. About 20 per cent is government jobs, including guard rail posts and bridge timbers for provincial roads, and the rest is custom treated," Mark says. Flexibility is a watchword for the company. 

If a customer wants something, the Fryers are quick to comply. "We have cut up to 24 feet long. We can do 8x8s, 12x12s, and 1x3s. We try to get everything we can out of the log," Mark says. "We're sawing white pine now. Next week we're switching to spruce. We have a customer who needs 5/4" decking, which we make here, so we'll switch over for him. That's one thing about being small, you can be pretty flexible. "We try to produce what people are willing to buy. We're talking to them all everyday and we saw to their specifics. If there's something that gives us a little bit more value or is easier to sell, we'll try to produce that for them." 

Most of the lumber produced at R Fryer is white pine, spruce and red pine cut in dimensional lumber and squares, shipped to wholesale and distribution yards in southern Ontario.

Although the local timber supply remains healthy, the firm is still stinging from the loss of the Temagami pine forest in the early 1990s. A decade ago the mill was a major producer of pressure-treated wood, at one point producing all the guard-rail posts used on provincial roads. 

The Fryers had also bought up three regional mills relying on the flow of timber from the Temagami pine forest. But the situation soured when environmental opposition and legal action surrounding a First Nations land claim choked off the supply of Temagami lumber, forcing the Fryers to shut down Field Lumber in Field, L Brun north of Field, and William Milne & Sons in Temagami during 1990/91. 

"We're still paying for that," Mark says, adding the loss of Temagami timber hampered the company's ability to bid for the large pressure-treating contracts. "If the pine forest in Temagami is ever up for allocation again, we're supposed to have first right of refusal on it. I have children who want to work here when they get out of school, so who knows?" The long-term goal is to keep R Fryer Forest Products alive as a successful, family- run business. "You have to stay honest with the workers and customers," Mark says, summing up the Fryers' philosophy, "And produce the product the market wants to buy. "I suppose I could sell my timber rights and put some cash in my jeans, but I owe my workers. I'd have nothing without my employees," says Roger, the mill's founder. "We want to keep our operation in our own community to benefit our people and their children."

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