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--  Computers  --


The forest industry is well prepared to enter the new millennium, thanks to its methodical approach to achieving Y2K compliancy.

By Dave Lammers

computers.jpg (35037 bytes)
Electrical technologist Dave Willson uses a laptop to program PLCs at Buchanan Forest Products’ Northern Wood sawmill in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Most forest companies such as Buchanan are well-prepared and have made the necessary changes to ensure their computer systems are free of the "Millennium Bug".

Even though there are still a few months to go until we hit the year 2000, at this point the so-called Y2K bug is virtually a thing of the past for most forest companies. Most companies have made the necessary changes to their systems and even pushed their electronic clocks ahead to the Year 2000 to ensure no "Millennium Bug" is present in their computerized information and manufacturing systems.

Experts who are working on Y2K issues are warning that the virtual reality—moving systems ahead to represent the year 2000—created while testing computer equipment isn’t quite the same as the real thing, however.

The forest industry has been quite methodical in its approach to Y2K, addressing the issue in two ways: contacting equipment manufacturers and, if necessary, obtaining the proper software upgrades; or seeing the Year 2000 issue as a perfect and logical reason to replace computer-run systems both in offices and mills. Companies have invested thousands of hours and spent millions of dollars to ensure everything runs smoothly on January 1, 2000.

Buchanan Forest Products Ltd. of Thunder Bay, Ontario wrapped up its Year 2000 preparations early this summer. Chris Bodner, director of technical services at Central Computer Services—the company contracted to meet all of Buchanan’s computer needs—explains that Y2K is a date problem whereby manufacturers used two digits instead of four to save space in computer memory. The year 1999 appears as 99, and 2000 there-fore appears as 00, and could be mistaken as the year 1900. A failure to properly roll over dates could result in incorrect calculations and reporting. Manufacturers, therefore, must rewrite soft-ware so computer equipment recognizes a four-digit year.

"It’s not that computers would shut down," says Bodner. "They would just give erroneous data. The dates would be confused, so when you’re talking about production figures going to our sales department and the sales department trying to coordinate lumber sales, it would become a huge mess."

That’s not likely to happen though. Bodner has checked out office computers and is finishing inspections of PLC systems at Buchanan’s sawmills, most of which are Allen Bradley systems that have had the proper upgrades and are Y2K-compliant.

"The new Allen Bradley equipment, the PLC 5s, tend to be compliant," says Bodner. "The PLC 2 systems aren’t really compliant, but those are on less critical systems. With those, you can eliminate the date dependency so it doesn’t really affect them." Buchanan’s Great West Timber sawmill in Thunder Bay has new DDM 6 integrated manufacturing systems made by Denis Comact, with PLCs inside to run the saws. "The DDM 6 machines use the Omron PLC systems and those appear to be compliant as well."

In the case of Great West Timber, the laptop used for programming systems also had to be upgraded. "The PLCs checked out okay, but the computer that actually does the programming on them has to be compliant as well," says Bodner. "It was just a matter of upgrading the software on the machine, and that’s taken care of."

Along with each upgrade, Buchanan mills are treated to an early Millennium New Year’s Eve party to make sure all systems perform properly. "You simulate the rollover into the Year 2000 at midnight December 31 and you just see what hap-pens," explains Bodner. "And then you actually shut the system down and restart it to see what happens because sometimes it will roll over okay, but as soon as you lose power it comes back on at a different date altogether. The other thing you have to look out for is leap years. Sometimes it will roll over okay, but the year 2000 is a leap year and sometimes the software doesn’t recognize that either."

The scanners and optimizers in Buchanan sawmills have escaped the Y2K bug altogether, says Bodner. "The major-ity of them are laser-based and they tie into PCs that do the data collection. As long as the PCs are compliant, that does-n’t really present us with a problem."

All Buchanan mills were on track to be Y2K-ready by June, including testing. "That gives us a little bit of a buffer," says Bodner. "It’s pretty straightforward. It’s just time-consuming, that’s all." Bodner has already spent hundreds of hours at different mills on Y2K. "By the time we’re done, it will be in the thousands of hours," he says.

At Domtar, an estimated $36 million has been spent preparing the company’s mills for the Year 2000, replacing in some cases 15-year-old equipment. "It’s not strictly Y2K," says Michel Milot, director of Information Technology for Domtar Inc. "What we’ve done over three years is enhance our investment in information technology. You’ve got embedded systems as well as manufacturing applications. These are part of the big enhancements."

Most of Domtar’s 16 sawmills have integrated systems manufactured by Multimeg. "Multimeg are solution providers," says Francois Arbique, director of Information Technology for Domtar. "They will assemble all the equipment and provide you with a global solution for log sorting or optimizers and scanning. We’ve contracted them to go sawmill by sawmill and review their own equipment, then certify and do the Year 2000 test for us.

"Most of the equipment in the sawmills, scanners, sorters and similar equipment, mainly needed a software upgrade or a few PLC changes," says Arbique. "Some of the equipment required a bit more attention to their operating system, the computer that controls the equipment. But there was no major investment required in order to do that."

Domtar has also pushed the clocks ahead as part of its testing and is on schedule to be Year 2000 ready this summer. Still, the company is developing an elaborate back-up or contingency plan at all mills for Y2K. "We have to provide not only for our own equipment but for others’ equipment," says Arbique. "We have to assess the risk and establish if we require a contingency plan. For instance, should we have a generator in some critical area in case there is a glitch and a power failure? Even if Ontario Hydro and Quebec Hydro offer guarantees, they won’t guarantee totally.

"If the scanning device at a sawmill goes belly up for whatever reason the supplier couldn’t detect, and we could not detect it in our extensive testing, how do we get around that?" asks Arbique. "If we can’t scan, especially in some sawmills where we do scan and set, and set the sawing equipment accordingly, how do you get around this? Do you go with a fixed pat-tern? Do you shut down that line? We will evaluate different scenarios for each major piece of equipment."

Winnipeg-based Prendiville Industries also sees the turn of the century as an opportunity to upgrade its sawmill. After purchasing and restarting the Kenora mill in 1994, with virtually no computerized systems, Kenora Forest Products spent $5 million last year on computerized systems.

"That’s continuing to upgrade into 1999 technology," says mill manager Rod McKay. "We were in some ways fortunate. We didn’t have a system at all. When we purchased the equipment, we specified that we wanted Y2K compatible. We actually changed the date, pretending that it was January 1, 2000 in the computer, and ran tests and everything worked fine.

"I see a bigger concern in some of the smaller processors that people don’t think about," says McKay. "Kiln controllers are all time-based, and any programmable thermostats, that kind of thing."

Weyerhaeuser has spent a total of $71 million on Year 2000 readiness in its 27 sawmills, paper and pulp mills and pack-aging plants. "It covers embedded chips, it covers business information systems, it covers facilities," says Year 2000 communications manager Charlie Gadzik. "We’ve upgraded, we’ve replaced. In some cases we’ve just retired the equipment. To give reliable service to our customers, we need to operate with 100 per cent reliability. We need to operate as normal."

Finally, forestry and logging equipment manufacturers are facing questions from customers whether the Year 2000 problem will affect their harvesting equipment. Equipment dealer Ontrac in Thunder Bay has assured customers that all electronic monitors, microprocessors, sensors and controllers on past and present John Deere machines are compliant with the Year 2000.

Another supplier, Quadco Equipment, has updated its computerized cut-to-length equipment and harvester heads, which are equipped with computers to measure log lengths.

"All the cut-to-length heads and harvester heads we sell would have some-thing within the computer system to allow the change-over to the New Year," explains marketing director Alain Perron. "All we do is change a line in the program and we download it into the PLC, either by modem or just a memory card."

At Domtar, Francois Arbique is quick to caution people that the Millennium Bug goes far beyond equipment in mills or out in the bush, and potentially affects every facet of a business, if not addressed.

That said, there will likely be a few small bugs that will hit the windshield on the road to the year 2000, but the fo-est industry appears to have the situation well in hand.

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