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High Demands

Being a large reman operation, BC's Uneeda Wood Products is able to deliver the high level of service customers demand.

By Paul MacDonald

AAt Uneeda Wood Products, the day-to-day decisions that direct the operation are made every morning at a production meeting in a small conference room, accompanied by big cups of coffee. Management of Chilliwackbased Uneeda, one of British Columbia's largest re-manufacturing operations, meet for about an hour and review the plans for the day's production, look at schedules for machine centres and make sure that the customer orders are on track and their service needs are being met. When you come down to it, service is exactly what re-manufacturing operations like Uneeda are selling. They take their customer's lumber, reman it to specs and ship it back to the customer or ship it off on behalf of their customers. They deal with their customers, but not the end users.

Uneeda Wood Products recently completed a $5.4 million equipment upgrade to produce structurally rated, kiln dried laminated beams for the Japanese housing industry. Although it was purchased by Slocan Forest Products in 1996, and does a large amount of reman work for its parent company, Uneeda also has long-established relationships with about 70 customers, large and small.

"At the meeting, we review our production runs and priorities for the day, but at that point we know pretty much what we're going to be running," says Bill Green, controller of Uneeda. "We may shift things around a bit to accommodate a customer, but by and large we know what's going to be done that day and shipped out the mill gate ."

Their approach involves production being tentatively blocked out a month and a half in advance, fairly securely blocked out weeks in advance, and pretty much cast in stone for the next week. Those production meetings are going to be busier than ever this year with the recent expansion of mill facilities. Some $5.4 million has been invested in equipment to produce structurally rated, kiln dried laminated beams for the Japanese housing industry.

Producing laminated beams, rather than dimensional product, is one way Uneeda's parent company, Slocan Forest Products, intends to meet the changing needs of the still recovering Japanese market. For efficiency's sake and because of Uneeda's sheer size-it is 250,00 square feet and has 100 employees-they have to do their production planning a month ahead. Generally, customers are looking for a 30 day or perhaps a 45day turnaround. All their customers understand the need for advanced planning and while they may have requests from time to time to push production through faster, they fulfill these requests only if it's not going to be at the expense of another customer. "Some of our plan is based on assumptions that product will be coming in and some of it is based on our regular customers who are going to do X number of board feet every month," explains Green. Uneeda still has a rolling production plan, however, to accommodate the changing priorities and schedules of their customers.

Bob Goldsworthy, manager of custom services for Uneeda (left), says some customers are very handson and like to come right on to the mill floor to see their product being remanned. Producing material to demanding customer specs and on time is critical to the operation, he says.

Delivering material to specs and on time remains critical. "You make commitments to people and they rely on you to deliver on those commitments," says Bob Goldsworthy, manager of custom services at Uneeda. "If you start to juggle things around too much, then your service, which is what this business is all about, could suffer ." Uneeda's size means it is geared more to larger volume custom runs. However, they can accommodate smaller runs for regular customers. They are able to handle smaller numbers with their custom drying setup. "That's why we put in small kilns that dry 60,000 or 70,000 board feet at a time. There are people who may have 30,000 board feet of 4x4 hemlock. We can screen off our drying volume into 12 different chambers ."

The company has 12 Salton low pressure steam kilns, some of them computer controlled, fired by wood waste. For efficiency's sake, production runs in the overall operation are scheduled to be complementary, so there is minimum downtime and equipment changes. Mainline production downtime is very planned out, so crews may be shifted over to a chop line or over to another machine centre. "To be competitive in this business, you have to utilize your manpower all the time," says Green. Being competitive also means being flexible. "The key to being a custom re-manner and kiln drier is to make yourself as versatile as you can," adds Green. "In that, we do everything from bedframe parts to specific window sizes for the European and Japanese markets ."

Uneeda works with a customer base of about 70, from smaller operators to the large forest companies. The Uneeda staff are like Swiss bankers, in that all customer information is confidential. "You don't share information with customers about other customers- period," says Goldsworthy. "Confidentiality is part of the package if you are in the custom cutting business. They expect it. Credibility is key in this business ." Both Green and Goldsworthy repeat that success really all comes down to service. They have an ongoing in-house quality control program, with a designated control person. But its expected that the setup guys, the millwrights and the machine operators are all part and parcel of quality control. "It's not just one person's responsibility," says Green. "It's everybody's job to make sure we do things right. We try to make sure that everyone is keeping an eye on things while we are doing a run ."

New customers will sometimes be very hands-on, coming right on to the mill floor and standing there with Goldsworthy while their product is re-manned. Uneeda management always makes sure they have clear direction from the client on what they want and then communicates those expectations to line employees. Having the customer present does not represent a lack of confidence in the work, however. Even long term customers, although they are very satisfied with the work Uneeda has done for them in the past, just plain like to be on the production floor.

Both Green and Goldsworthy say there were some questions from customers when the operation was purchased by Slocan, one of BC's largest lumber producers, in 1996. Understandably, some customers might have wondered if Slocan, being owner, would now have clout and be able to jump the queue at will. "They've seen that there's been no change in how we operate," says Green. "We've continued to do business in much the same way.

A lot of the business relationships we have were established long before Slocan took the operation over. And those customers have come along with us since the change in ownership. "It doesn't matter where the business is coming from, whether it's coming 'in-house' from Slocan or from our existing customer base, or a new customer, they'll be treated separately, but the same. There is no special treatment ." Slocan purchased the operation for two distinct reasons. First, it saw that re-manufacturing can be a good business to be in, and wanted to be part of it. Second, it was felt that Uneeda could help Slocan's value-added program.

The focus of the program is to take lumber produced at the company's 12 sawmills and upgrade it so it goes into the US outside of the quota of the Softwood Lumber Agreement. The pressure to go into the US became even more acute, even for Interior producers such as Slocan, with the collapse of the Japanese market.

The expansion to produce laminated beams for the Japanese markets is just one way the company is addressing changing international markets, says Uneeda general manager Scott Hall. The reman work done for Slocan at Uneeda involves all of Slocan's sawmills in BC, says Hall, but they do more work with some mills because they turn out larger wood, such as 2x10s and 2x12s, versus the 2x4s that other operations produce. "We have greater opportunities with some operations because their wood baskets have larger wood ."

The intention of all this added-value work is to turn out more product that is outside of the quota, or in the case of the Japanese beams, make the quota irrelevant. But that doesn't necessarily mean large amounts of money or equipment. Staff at the mill work to identify niche markets and fabricate or modify equipment, in-house sometimes, to turn out new products. There is talk about doing a general upgrade at Uneeda-the last major one was 1995 when a molder line was added.

A planer, sourced out of Slocan's mill in Quesnel, was added to the "B" mill last year to increase production. It was part of an internal restructuring which saw the molder moved back into the "A" mill and set up to run at a slower speed. "The planer line was put in as a result of the increased Slocan business we are doing and some of the cutting programs we are running for them," explains Green. "We were processing more volume and we did not have the machine time or machine speed to do it ." The company has various size molders capable of handling wood from five to 12 inches, a 42" Turner twin band fine kerf resaw, an inline horizontal resaw, two precision chop lines and a finger joint line. It has two sorting chains, a nine-tray sorter and extensive covered storage area.

The recent multimillion dollar expansion into producing laminated beams includes a new Western Pneumatics twin-chain finger jointer coupled to Coe/Mann Russell assembly, curing, proof loading and stacking equipment. Material produced on the finger joint line is then processed through the beam line, which includes further equipment from Coe/Mann Russell. The heart of this line is a six-metre radio frequency beam press. The equipment is designed to produce medium-sized, glue laminated timbers for the Japanese market in lengths up to 12 metres. In addition, the ability to expand the capacity to produce 18metre product has been built in and may be utilized by the company in the future.

With its large site in a mostly rural area, there is certainly still room for further expansion for Uneeda. Although it is located in Chilliwack in the Fraser Valley, the company started out in Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver. It moved to Chilliwack in the mid1970s, a gutsy move considering it was a sleepy farming community at the time. Bob Goldsworthy, manager of custom services, says they continue to look at the services they offer and how they can be improved. More and more customers are looking for one-stop service, and that might include sorting the lumber for grade and species, re-manning it and drying it. "We'll be looking at all kinds of things down the road to see what other services we can provide to be that one-stop service provider ."

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This page last modified on Tuesday, February 17, 2004