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Technology Costs Challenge Smaller Maritime Sawmills

Have Maritime operators invested adequately in technology to compete in changing markets? Recent study results are encouraging, but smaller mills face severe pressures.

By Harold Hatheway
Copyright 1997. Contact publisher for permission to use.

Is the wood processing industry in the Maritimes technologically lagging? Delegates to the recent 58th annual convention of the Maritime Lumber Bureau were pleasantly surprised to find that the industry has moved along faster and farther than was generally assumed.

That's the bottom line in a recent industry study done by Dr. David Cohen, assistant professor of forest products marketing at the University of British Columbia. The level of interest in what Dr. Cohen found out was high, to say the least. Technology, as any mill operator is well aware, can bring big benefits, including maximizing recovery and producing a better product. But, as they are also well aware, those benefits carry a price and poor decisions on expensive machines can have disastrous consequences.

Assisted by graduate student Marco Durepos, Dr. Cohen did the study as part of an in-depth look at the current status of the Canadian sawmill industry, covering areas that include ownership, equipment, raw materials, products, markets, application of new technology, quality control, training levels, the rate of advancement, and the ability to compete.

In the Maritimes, the study was limited to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, where the bulk of production is located. Survey responses were received from 48 mills (35 small, seven medium and five large) out of a total of 115 (90 small, 10 medium and five large). The relatively high percentage of small mills in the region is pertinent, given the cost involved in technological upgrading. That, combined with competition for wood and government's requirement for increased value-added capacity, adds up to severe pressure on the smaller operator. Yvon Poitras, who represents the New Brunswick Sub-Licensee Forestry Alliance - comprising small sawmills who draw much of their raw material from the five major Crown Land licensees - said recently that up to half of the small independent sawmills in that province were in serious danger of having to shut down in the foreseeable future.

The Cohen study gives an interesting look at the sawmilling scene in the Maritimes. Without going into its exhaustive detail, here's what he discovered:

Species utilized - primarily SPF (93 per cent), with red and white pine, hemlock and other species making up the balance;

Products - dimension lumber accounts for 51 per cent, studs 35 per cent, and boards 11 per cent;

Markets - 30 per cent of all production is sold to retailers, wholesalers 26 per cent, agents 24 per cent and industrial 17 per cent. Shipments to the US account for 65 per cent, Canada 27 per cent and the UK eight per cent.

Upgrading - 85 per cent of the responding mills reported a recent investment to improve recovery, 72 per cent to improve productivity, 70 per cent to lower production costs, and 55 per cent to improve product quality. Investment in personnel or to develop new products was well below 50 per cent;

Primary breakdown - circular saw 52 per cent, chipping canter 38 per cent, multi-band 20 per cent, single band 17 per cent, and scrag saw 16 per cent;

Edging - optional edger 13 per cent, no option 62 per cent, horizontal gang 57 per cent, vertical gang and single band 26 per cent, circular resaw 11 per cent, and multiband 2 per cent.

Drying - compared to a minimal capacity few years ago, the results here were very encouraging: conventional Kilns 43 per cent, green drying 25 per cent, air drying 24 per cent, dehumidifying kilns 12 per cent, and low temperature kilns 4 per cent.

Sorting - by species only 47 per cent, moisture content and species 27 per cent, no sort 18 per cent, and moisture content only 8 per cent. Much of this capacity is recently added;

Scanning - the study targets scanning as the area with probably the greatest need for technological upgrading. Scanners are utilized by 20 per cent of the responding mills for primary breakdown and drying, by 15 per cent in edging and trimming, and 2 per cent in bucking. Manual control is predominant.

Quality control - to monitor dimension uniformity 75 per cent, volume recovery 60 per cent, value recovery 47 per cent, productivity 30 per cent, costs 27 per cent, and surfaces 26 per cent. The mills' view of the importance of quality control in specific areas was reported as: edging 68 per cent, primary breakdown and planing 55 per cent, trimming 50 per cent, drying 27 per cent, and bucking 18 per cent. Measuring equipment used for quality control: tape 54 per cent, mechanical calipers 24 per cent, calipers 15 per cent, and sensors seven per cent. Interestingly, the study indicates that quality control sessions with mill workers are usually held to address specific problems, and not on a scheduled basis.

Training -rating the relative importance of training, the mills responded: lumber grading 50 per cent, quality control 47 per cent, machine maintenance, 40 per cent, value/volume recovery 20 per cent, machine operation 17 per cent, and machine calibration 15 per cent. Newsletters were regarded as the most effective training delivery system for both technology and marketing, followed by trade missions, short courses and computer data bases.

The full report provides a mass of detail and, while confidentiality prevents reference to specific mills it is clearly an invaluable assessment of the state-of-the-industry in the Maritimes.

Of note as well out of the conference was a special seminar on the components of the Canada-US Agreements on softwood exports originating in Canada - with a special emphasis on shipments originating in the Atlantic provinces.

Attention was drawn to the distinction between the export permits issued by the federal authority (in the case of Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and BC) and the certificates of origin issued by the MLB, acting as agents of the Crown, for Atlantic provinces products. While the former simply show the "province of manufacture", the MLB certificates show the "province of origin" of the actual log, and provide follow-through to up to three sales.

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