Click here to download a PDF of this article

The installation of a new Optimil line at Interfor Pacific’s Port Angeles sawmill is keeping the rest of the mill busy keeping up, with old production records falling by the wayside in the process.

By Diane Mettler

ll mill upgrade projects have their own set of challenges. For the Interfor Pacific Mill in Port Angeles, Washington, it was a grueling process to get their primary line updated, but well worth it. Production records are now outstripping their estimations.                                   

In 2004, Interfor Pacific purchased three of Crown Pacific’s mills, including its stud mill in Port Angeles. The mill, situated on approximately 70 acres, was built in 1998 and a lot of the equipment was original—until now.                                   

Tucked into Washington’s heavily wooded peninsula, the mill has seen gradual changes. The most recent change was the new Optimil primary line. The mill needed high performance equipment to produce its 2x4 and 2x6 studs, in eight- to 12-foot lengths, destined for US markets.                                   

“We ship about 45 per cent of our lumber to Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Northern California, and the rest is shipped throughout the US,” says mill manager, Steve Kroll, who has been with the mill since its 1998 start-up.                                   

Making the transition from the old line to the new Optimil line was a significant financial investment—an $18 million investment to be exact. Besides a substantial financial commitment by Interfor, it also took the patience and endurance of the 105 employees at the mill. The project was not only lengthy (the project was approved in late 2005 and completed in February 2007), but came with a unique set of challenges.                                   

“Displacement was a big issue,” says Kroll. “Our maintenance crews were displaced because their shops were in a basement that wasn’t built yet. And our parts storage areas and lumber yards were displaced as well.”                                   

Part of the project included construction of a 50-foot by 200-foot addition to house the new line. The project was delayed nine months as the mill dealt with changing and stringent building codes—in this case specifically dealing with earthquakes. For example, to conform to the current codes, the mill was required to use over 2,000 yards of concrete to secure the building in place.                                   

Once all the codes were met and construction moved forward, the mill found itself doing its upgrade in the middle of winter—the rainiest season in the Northwest—causing more challenges. The addition for the new line went up in stages. First the concrete and then the framework, and once the equipment was set in place, the building was built around it. For the existing facility, however, the roof had to come off and machinery was lifted in and out with a crane. While the roof was off, the mill was flooded three times. “We also had a huge snowstorm in November, and we lost about three days while everybody shoveled snow off equipment so they could work,” recalls Kroll.                                   

The frustrations and aggravations seem worth it now because the results border on “amazing.” Kroll is happily stunned by the productivity the mill is experiencing. The results are well beyond what the mill had anticipated. “After the new line went in, we saw a significant increase in production,” says Kroll. “We went from 400,000 board feet to 600,000 board feet a day in two, eight-hour shifts. That’s a 50 per cent increase in production.”                                   

Kroll says it’s not just a rise in production; they are seeing a significant increase in recovery and uptime as well. “We surpassed our estimated average daily production of 558,000 board feet in April, two months after start-up, when we averaged 582,000 board feet. We have continued to increase to over 600,000 board feet today.”                                   

“We’re all ecstatic,” he adds. “We had a start-up team made up of operators, saw filers, millwrights and electricians. And they were very instrumental in getting in front of all the operational aspects of the new line including job safety analyses, lock out procedures, tools, layout and training.”                                   

With a project this size, there was a large group of suppliers that made it all happen (see the mill upgrade team sidebar story to the right), Kroll says “We were fortunate to have a fantastic project management team, as well as our start-up team. They were important not only in a smooth transition, but one of the best start-ups any of us have ever seen. “Actually, it’s the best start-up I’ve ever heard of,” says Kroll. “We turned it on and it ran. That’s pretty unusual. The biggest problem we had in the first two weeks was overrunning the rest of the sawmill.”                                   

In preparation for the installation of the high-performing line, several upgrades took place in 2005—an upgrade to the kilns, to be able to dry the increased production, as well as upgrades to the planer mill to assist with throughput.

In preparation for a high-performing line, a couple of upgrades took place in 2005—an upgrade to the kilns in February, to be able to dry the increased production, as well as upgrades to the planer mill to assist with throughput. Even with these upgrades, the line is presently out-producing the rest of the mill.                                   

“It has surpassed our expectations,” says Kroll. “And that’s actually one of our biggest issues right now. We’re learning a lot about flow. It’s become a very important thing in order to keep production where it is. We’ve done some modifications to help at bottlenecks—our edger and stacker. But we keep fine tuning them to get a little bit more.”                                   

The mill is experiencing numerous benefits with the Optimil line—in part because technology has improved significantly since the old line was installed. “One operator said it’s like driving a Ferrari with a governor on it, because he can’t run full out without covering up the rest of the mill,” says Kroll.                                   

There looks to be no shortage of wood to run through the new line. The mill uses 70 per cent hemlock and 30 per cent Douglas fir and it’s plentiful in that area of the Pacific Northwest. “The peninsula is one big tree farm,” says Kroll. “There has been a lot of competition this past year—exports have been a little higher and they’ve been chipping more—but it’s all starting to settle out a little now.”                                   

Kroll says he can’t pick one feature on the Optimil that stands out. He just sees it as a vast improvement over what they had. “This line can run faster—200 feet a minute faster than our prior line. Being a double length infeed, we have more accurate scanning and control of the block while we’re cutting it. Also with the band saws, we’ve been able to reduce our kerfs significantly.”                                   

The configuration is different as well. “We went to band saws in the main breakdown and we went from a single arbor horizontal gang to a double arbor vertical gang,” he adds.                                   

Another valuable advantage is that the new line has allowed them to run larger diameter timber. “The original line had been designed for a smaller diameter log than we were running,” he says. “We’ve increased our maximum diameter from 16 inches to 18 inches and that has opened up a huge amount of timber volume for us.                                   

“The new line has dramatically improved our efficiency and cost structure, allowing us to run in even the toughest market conditions.”

In the mill, Josh Blunk is the relief operator for vacationing John Bennett. He sits in the custom-designed cab—Interfor sought input from the operators in settingup the cab. Blunk, who looks like he is at the controls of the world’s largest video game, says this panel is completely different from what they had before, but easy to use. At any one time he’s monitoring at least six screens with four cameras each, and he would be instantly notified if there was any problem. For the time being, he watches the blinking lights, which represent the logs floating through the line. “It’s all graphic,” he says, “I can see where the blocks are as they are going through. It all looks good.”                                   

Some of the other newer equipment in the mill includes a Coe DTEC grade scanner, a Milltech trimmer and a Newnes sorter and stacker (continuous hoist). But to optimize productivity and take advantage of the new line’s high productivity there were plans to do two further significant upgrades this year. The first project will be to install a new VFM log merchandizer system. Next, the mill will bring in a Gilbert planer and Newnes continuous breakdown hoist. Although the costs weren’t disclosed, they will be significant, and will definitely help with the flow.                                   

After all the improvements are completed, the 2008 Interfor Pacific Mill will be a far cry from its start-up a decade ago. It will, however, be the efficient, high production facility that’s required to handle the turns and tight requirements of the markets.