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July August 2006 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal




Millar Western’s Whitecourt, Alberta sawmill can expand its production options now with the recent installation of a new Comact DDM6 single pass, small log line.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Bruce West (above), fibre supply manager for Millar Western’s Whitecourt division, beside the new Comact DDM6 small log line.

Privately-held Millar Western Forest Products, with two sawmills and a pulp mill in Alberta, is gaining a reputation for being adept at designing sawmill facilities at just the right point on the technology curve, and adopting proven processes and equipment that are remarkably well suited to the needs of the current business environment.

The company’s recent $7 million investment in a Comact DDM6, single pass, small log line at its Whitecourt, Alberta sawmill—complementing its high performance Optimil large log line installed in 2001—creates a perfectly balanced production combination for today’s business climate.

The installation will allow the company to improve recovery and achieve higher piece counts of commodity lumber from smaller logs. At the same time, the small log line will give Millar Western the flexibility to branch out from commodity lumber and diversify its product mix, resulting from the extra capacity opened up on its large log line.

Other forest companies interested in taking steps to bulletproof their operations against the impacts of unfavorable exchange rates, volatile energy prices and ongoing trade strife, through product diversification may want to seriously investigate the Millar Western two-line model. This production model is also well suited to excel in the current log situation, particularly as companies witness higher volumes of smaller logs coming into their sawmills.

Back in 2001, Millar Western spent $40 million to replace three outdated sawmill lines with a single line that improved fibre recovery by 20 per cent. In addition to its ability to produce high volumes of commodity dimension lumber, the Optimil line, designed by Gerhard Mueller of GME Consulting Ltd, is capable of quick mechanical adjustments to produce, for example, special dimension lumber, if the quantity and price offered for the product makes it worthwhile.

Although the intent was to produce high volumes of narrowwidth commodity lumber, the new Comact line is also capable of producing 4x4 squares.

Bruce West, fibre supply manager for Millar Western’s Whitecourt Wood Products Division, says the Optimil line has worked well. However, the sawmill was limited by operating a single line. The pressure to maintain a consistent volume of valuable commodity lumber from this single line meant that Millar Western wasn’t able to use the full capability of the line to branch out into other wood products as much as it would have liked.

“Installing the small log line has allowed us to move away from total commodity-type products, although the percentage of specialty products we make is still small,” explains West. “We currently have a project underway looking to increase that volume.”

Logs for both the small and large log line are processed by a Nicholson A7 debarker before being processed further.

The new line will now process about 60 per cent of the logs entering the mill, although it will result in only 35 per cent of the volume. That is why speed and piece count are so important on a small log line. With reduced piece counts through the Optimil line, West says the company can now take the time to introduce more recovery solutions for the larger logs processed through that line, aiming to maximize recovery from logs with different diameters. For example, it may mean taking the time to produce extra sideboards. “There were times before when we operated a single line when we couldn’t afford to make those extra band cuts,” says West, “where you have to slow down your cutting speed.”

Installation of the small log line has increased sawmill production from 225 million to 275 million board feet annually. This was the result of processing more private wood, coupled with improved recovery from small logs in the range of about 10 per cent. These are logs 6.3 inches in diameter and smaller. Millar Western is able to manufacture lumber down to a 3.5-inch top. About 70 per cent of sawmill production is spruce, pine and fir (SPF) in 2x4 and 2x6 dimensions, in lengths between eight and 16 feet.

West says the sawmill now has latent log processing capacity, leaving room for any extra fibre that may become available. This may come in handy due to proactive measures taken by the Alberta government to harvest more timber on the Alberta side of the Rocky Mountains to counteract the spread of the mountain pine beetle.


The installation of the small log line has increased sawmill production up to the 275 million board feet level at the Whitecourt mill.

Millar Western was thinking ahead when it constructed its new sawmill in 2001 by leaving room for a second line within the current building. That has turned out to be a very astute decision, considering what has happened to the price of steel over the past two years.

The infeed area has remained largely intact from the 2001 construction project, featuring a Linden feeder system and L & M cutoff saws. About 40 per cent of logs arriving at the mill are cut-to-length, while the remainder are tree-length.

Comact provided two wave feeders to direct appropriately sized logs to the small log line. Logs are debarked using one of three 22-inch Nicholson A7 debarkers.

Since the main focus of the small log line is piece count and throughput, both production lines can still be managed with a single operator. The smaller logs are scanned for optimized cutting with a Comact 3-D scanning system, then positioned on the log turner based on the scanning solution. Logs then proceed through the DDM6, which consists of four canting heads, a single arbor and a three-saw configuration. The sawing unit has curve sawing capability, meaning that logs can be bent and still be sawn for maximum recovery. At present, it is processing logs at 600 feet per minute, but according to Comact, the DDM6 can operate at 700 feet per minute. It can be set to operate in either straight sawing or optimized curve sawing modes, and can remove up to two inches of log natural curvature.

The sawmill now has latent log processing capacity, leaving room for extra fibre that may become available due to proactive measures being taken by the Alberta government to counteract the spread of the mountain pine beetle.

It can also process logs from 2.5 inches to 12 inches in diameter. West says no more than one per cent of the green lumber produced by the DDM6 requires remanufacturing because of its profiling heads, meaning that it is capable of producing smaller pieces on the top and bottom of the cant as it proceeds through the unit.

The green lumber from the small log line outfeed is currently directed to the existing trimmer and sorter line connected to the large log line outfeed.

CWA Engineering provided the detailed engineering on the small log line installation, while New West Industries handled the mechanical installation. Westwood Electric provided the electrical supply and installation. Construction was completed in October, 2005.

The decision to purchase Comact equipment was finalized following a survey of available equipment suppliers at the time that Millar Western decided to modernize its Boyle, Alberta sawmill. It settled on a Comact DDM10 unit for that facility. The decision to install a DDM6 unit in Whitecourt wasn’t difficult because of the positive experience the company had with the DDM10 in Boyle.

By operating two lines at Whitecourt, Millar Western anticipated that it would create a bottleneck on its existing trim and sort line. To address this concern, it is investing another $7 million to re-commission and upgrade a Newnes trimmer scanner system and 36-bin sorter Millar Western still had on site at its old sawmill. With engineering handled by Woodpro Engineering and installation by New West Industries, this new trimmer and sorter line is expected to be operational by October, 2006, and will be dedicated entirely to the small log line.

The Optimil trimmer (right) at Whitecourt is running flat out until Millar Western recommissions a Newnes trimmer and sorter to meet the needs of the new saw line.

Then the focus will be on improving the sawmill’s drying and planing capacity. However, West says that particular capital investment decision will depend on access to more fibre.

Millar Western’s Whitecourt sawmill is one of many Canadian sawmills that have been impacted by the softwood lumber trade dispute with the United States. West says he hopes current efforts to finalize a new trade agreement will ultimately allow for a more stable business environment in which to make capital investment decisions. But he notes that Canadian companies may need—in any case— to look at marketing a greater percentage of their production in other geographic areas.

The sawmill’s equipment supplier, Comact, has been rather successful recently marketing its products in Alberta, with sales in Boyle, Whitecourt, LaCrete, and Slave Lake. Progress on many of these projects took place at a time when the Quebec-based company was undergoing an ownership change. In February 2006, five key Comact managers acquired the assets of Comact Inc. Ten senior staff have also purchased shares in the company, with major financial backing provided by Solidarity Fund QFL and Desjardins- Innovatech SEC. Both have been described as well-established investment scapital companies.




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