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Northland Forest Products Focuses on Technology with $15-Million Rebuild of Fort McMurray Mill

Northland now operates one of the most technologically advanced sawmills in western Canada, and the owners say their employees now work smarter, not harder.

By Tony Kryzanowski
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use.

An Alberta sawmill, Northland Forest Products, has recreated the mythical story of the phoenix over the past year - building a better and more modem sawmill from the ashes of their old sawmill, which burned to the ground December 3, 1996.

According to Egyptian mythology, the phoenix bird consumed itself by fire and rose renewed from the ashes. The same is true at this Fort McMurray sawmill. Fire inspectors have determined that the fire started at Northland's primary power location which feeds the mill. Northland now operates one of the most technologically advanced sawmills in western Canada, and the owners say their employees now work smarter, not harder.

"We now have a new mill that has high utilization and advanced technology. We've ended up with a lot more highertech people," says co-owner Howie Ewashko. "We have fewer labourers, and more millwrights and saw filers. It's a different mindset in this mill compared to our old mill." Right now, they have two nine-hour shifts at the sawmill and planer mill, five days a week, employing 90 people. That is a significant increase, as the old mill only employed 55 workers.

While the fire was a severe blow, the family-owned sawmill set its sights on the future almost immediately. They resolved the day after the fire to rebuild. They already had a vision of what they wanted. Now it was just a matter of putting all the pieces together. Fort McMurray is renowned for its mega tarsands mining operations, and city residents are familiar with planning and building large projects. During the construction phase, the mill owners handled a considerable amount of general contracting themselves, with the assistance of Moe Perry Mill Construction, headquartered in Comox, BC.

"We were building even before we had the old mill completely destroyed," says brother and co-owner, Craig Ewashko. "We started moving dirt at the end of April 1997 and the first log went through at the end of October, so that's five months."

The family's biggest problem during construction was to prove it could be done on their timetable. "Most people thought that it couldn't be done because it was so fast," says Howie. "People just don't have experience with something happening that fast.

"We were getting drawings over the fax machine and putting things together faster than they (the engineers) could draw," says Craig. He adds there was always the danger that the beginning of the production line would not line up correctly with the end, given the pace of planning and construction. But in the end, it all came together well.

"It was a big accomplishment on everyone's part," he says.

The primary focus with the new $15-million mill, as with the old mill during renovations prior to the fire, was better wood utilization. The new building is located on a site that is better suited for co-ordination with their wood supply. Northland's old mill averaged 200,000 to 210,000 board feet per shift. The company was in the process of a major sawmill renovation before the December 1996 fire, with PHL as a major equipment supplier. Their aim was to increase production to between 250,000 and 300,000 board feet per shift. While they were pleased with the performance of PHL equipment, they were unable to purchase the equipment they needed for the new mill on time. So they decided to purchase Optimil equipment instead, and they have no regrets.

"I think we're well capable of doing that kind of production at this mill," says Craig, "and that's our goal, to get up to an average of about 250,000 to 300,000 board feet."

They can produce dimension lumber in lengths from 2X4, to 2Xl2. Their largest volume is 2X6, and their largest piece item is 2X4.

The new mill is designed with three process streams based on log size. A Cat 980 loader transports wood from their log stacks to a drive-on log deck at the mill production entrance. A Prentice 625 then sorts the logs for infeed into the 21" A5 debarker or the 35" Al debarker. Once debarked, the logs are scanned by Perceptron Tricom True Shape Scanners, supplied by Nanoose, prior to reaching the linear cutoff saws. These Gerhardt Mueller cutoff saws buck to length to maximize value, based on the scanned information. For example, one saw will cut a 14' length out of the 10" portion of a log, to ensure maximum utilization during breakdown on their mid-size line. After scanning and the linear cutoff saws, the logs then kick into one of three bins. One leads to their small-log Hewsaw line, one to their medium-sized Optimil canter line, and one to their oversized line where the logs will first encounter a headrig for primary breakdown.

"We're going to do 2X6 patterns in the Hewsaw, so we run about 8" to 10"-diameter logs into that line," says Craig Ewashko. "And then the canter line is capable of 24" diameter logs."

Northland started production with the Optimil line this past November, and started the Hewsaw line in March. Once the Hewsaw line started production, their utilization curve went up dramatically.

"We're pretty sure that taking away the small stems from the canter line is going to improve the capabilities of the mill in general," Craig says.

The Optimil canter line consists of two more true-shape scanners, auto-rotation, double-length infeed, and circular quad sawbox. Once the logs complete their primary cut, sideboards travel into a board edger built by Optimil and Swedish manufacturer, Catech.

"The Catech board edger is only the second in operation in North America," says Craig. "It's a little bit different than the regular North American board edgers because it is built with European philosophy." It is built much lighter, but it is very quick.

"I was a little concerned about it holding up to some of our North American conditions, but so far, it has been very capable," he says. "Some of the controls and photo eyes and valves are a little bit difficult to get, definitely harder than some of the standard equipment. Spare parts are a little bit of a problem, but they (Opnmil) have been pretty good in making sure they have pans, or are able to get hold of them."

Northland Forest Products is pleased with how well the Optimil line has operated so far, particularly its production and flexibility.

"With the mid-sized wood on the Optimil line, we're extremely happy with the utilization," says Craig. "It's friendly in a way that if we want a certain product out of that line, it's capable of doing it and it has been very successful for us so far."

The Optimil line conveys the cants into a 12" double-arbor gang, and the finished product goes to a Newnes trim line, featuring their new software. Ewashko says both Newnes and the mill went through some "trying times" fine-tuning the software so that it performs to its capabilities. But he's confident that in the long run, it will prove to have been a good acquisition.

They currently have a 40-bin sorter, and have the ability to add 20 more in future.

The final equipment installation step is to install the oversized log line. They will install a carriage for breakdown, feed the wood into the double-arbor gang and then into the canter line.

Among the bright spots in the fire aftermath is that Northland's planer mill and kiln were unscathed. While Northiand had plans for a planer renovation, those plans were placed on hold pending full production at the sawmill.

A driving force behind building the mill and starting production as soon as possible was the US softwood lumber quota. At the time of the fire, they were in the first year of a five-year cycle for log harvesting and production. They intend to make up for that lost production time in the remaining three years of that cycle.

"We'll be operating flat out," concludes Howie.

Craig & Howie Ewashko

While the fire at Northland Forest Products was a severe blow, the family owned company (Howie and Craig Ewashko above) set its sights oh the future almost immediatley and resolved to rebuild.

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