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Homes to go

BC lumber producer Winton Global has an interesting side business—producing ready-to-assemble house packages using primarily its own lumber—and has recently ramped up that operation with an upgrade that will increase production.

By Jim Stirling  

Winton Global is a neat company in a couple of specific respects. It has a lineage dating back to 1889. For decades, it operated in Canada as The Pas Lumber Company. But Winton Global has also developed an unusual lateral integration. There can’t be many forest industry companies in North America that encompass divisions or contract units which plant trees, harvest and mill them and use primarily their own lumber to build houses and produce customized engineered housing components.                                   

In these times of poor US lumber markets, the mountain pine beetle epidemic implications and a Loonie above its American counterpart, that extended ability to generate revenue offers help when it’s needed most. Winton Global Homes Division has been around for about 35 years. But a recent $1.7 million upgrade to its facilities in Prince George, British Columbia, has significantly enhanced its production capacity for precision designed quality products and created a safer and more efficient working environment for its people.                                   

Winton Global’s Homes Division in Prince George offers three broad lines, points out Greg Stewart, general manager for the division. One is a series of lumber products, including those marketed under the NorPine label, distributed exclusively through Home Depot outlets, primarily in BC and Alberta. Stewart says the relationship with the massive retailer continues to be “a phenomenal success.”                                   

The second principal product line is the manufacture of ready-to-assemble house and cottage packages. These include elaborate floor designs that can be customized by Winton Global’s in-house design team. Stewart says the packages are shipped around the northwestern United States and Canada. Some have ended up in more exotic locales including Hawaii, Chile, China and Indonesia, where Winton Global structures were part of the post-tsunami relief program.                                   

The booming oil patch in BC’s northeast is a significant driver of housing and construction demand, says Greg Stewart (right), general manager of Winton Global’s Homes Division. “We felt it was the right time for us to increase our capacity with a more automated system.”

The manufacture of engineered wood products is the third main component of the Prince George plants’ activities. It includes design and manufacture of engineered roofing and flooring systems and panelized walls to meet the demands and specifications of regional building contractors.                                   

The lion’s share of the raw material required for all these applications is manufactured at Winton Global Lumber Ltd’s dimension sawmill, just a short drift down the Nechako River from the homes division’s manufacturing plant. Winton Global also operates its Hart Sawmill Division at Bear Lake, about 72 kilometres north of Prince George. Servicing the homes division doesn’t generally require any extraordinary procedures by either the company’s logging contractors in the bush or production staff on the mill floor. Some specialized products, like precision end trimmed studs, are supplied locally through sister company Lakeland Mills Ltd, while preserved wood products are similarly outsourced when needed.                                   

The company is now able to optimize its homes division, thanks to the recent changes. “Prior to the upgrade, we were very heavy into manual operations,” recalls Stewart. Physically moving the sometimes large components around accelerates the risk of injuries and slows the production process. “Also, the labour market is very tough,” he adds.                                   

But the demand for housing components locally and regionally has been heavy. The booming oil patch in BC’s northeast is a significant driver of housing and construction demand. “We felt it was the right time for us to increase our capacity with a more automated system,” says Stewart.                                   

The number of employees remains the same at about 50—but the plant’s production capacity has skyrocketed on the same basic physical footprint. For example, in 2006, the division manufactured 125 house packages. It now has the capacity to produce 500. “We did about 500 different truss jobs last year. Now I’m confident we can do 1,800 to 2,000 different truss jobs in a year,” continues Stewart.                                                     

Some of the ready-to-assemble house packages that are put together in Prince George have ended up in exotic locales including Hawaii, Chile, China and Indonesia, where Winton Global structures were part of the post-tsunami relief program.

The main reason for the potential dramatic increase in production reflects another level of Winton Global integration. Customer specifications, be they for a panellized wall or a truss system, are computer-controlled from the design team to all the machine centres on the manufacturing plant floor. The result, apart from the quantum leap from manual assembly and the physical movement of components, is to a much faster, safer and more efficient automated process where precision cutting adds a new dimension to quality control.                                   

The Omni Miser lineal saw with its automatic feed system provides one example of how the new-look plant performs. Obedient to the computer program, the machine cuts lumber to the precise specifications required for truss components, for instance—at a speed of up to 300 pieces per hour, explains Stewart.                                   

The new sawing system replaces three saws from the earlier set-up, which essentially pulled one piece of lumber at a time through the saw for cutting. The new machine has the additional advantage of maximizing fibre use. Waste wood production at the machine centre has been slashed from 10 per cent to three per cent, says Stewart.                                   

The general manager extends kudos to the division’s people for embracing the new automated technology and cooperating to get the most from it.                                   

Winton Global’s timing for its improvements to the homes division is right on in a further respect. In the fall of 2007, the $170 million first phase of the new container port in Prince Rupert started operating. Prince George has been designated an intermodal freight centre for filling empty containers travelling west on CN lines to Prince Rupert. Winton Global is well positioned to develop new Asian markets for its products using the new transportation infrastructure at its doorstep.