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Millar Western Sets New Benchmark

Millar Western’s new $40-million sawmill in Whitecourt, Alberta sets a new benchmark in flexibility among high volume dimension mills.

By Tony Kryzanowski

There are moments when technology is so well designed that it feels like art and from that perspective Millar Western Forest Products Ltd’s new $40-million sawmill in Whitecourt, Alberta could be viewed as a work of art.

The new mill has achieved a 20 per cent improvement in recovery, requiring only 679,000 cubic metres to produce 190 million board feet of lumber. The old sawmill required 816,000 cubic metres to produce the same amount of lumber.

Successful implementation of the full power of automation—along with some of the most advanced and reliable pieces of equipment available today—has created a stunning achievement that has set the template for the next phase of solid wood manufacturing in Canada.

Consultant Gerhard Mueller’s major accomplishment is designing a sawmill with enough flexibility to be able to react more quickly to market demand, even to go so far as to allow Millar Western to consider just-in-time delivery at some future date. For example, it is now possible for this high-volume, single-line, 16-foot dimension sawmill to quickly make the necessary mechanical adjustments to fill a special order of 10,000 pieces of 3x5, with the successful combination of advanced computer electronics with proven, multi-functional, highly efficient high production equipment.

This offers the opportunity of having a high production dimension sawmill that can begin filling smaller, more profitable orders at the flick of a switch. While this is not necessarily good news for small to medium size sawmills that thrive on niche markets, imagine the new marketing possibilities for high production sawmills when traditional markets become uncertain.

Millar Western has constructed this new sawmill with a lot less metal on the floor. The company is now capable of producing the same amount of lumber from one production line, compared with the three production lines at its old sawmill where the technology was 20 years old.

This SPF dimension sawmill will consume 679,000 cubic metres of wood to manufacture 190 million board feet of lumber annually. That is down from 816,000 cubic metres of wood that the old sawmill consumed to manufacture the same amount of lumber—a 20 per cent recovery improvement. Millar Western can now produce lumber using wood resources primarily within its Crown Forest Management Area (FMA), saving the company a lot of money. It will be able to reduce the amount of wood it procures from private sources by some 60 per cent.

Optimil, which supplied mill wide controls as well as equipment from the canter line infeed to the stacker outfeed, was one of four primary equipment vendors on the Whitecourt project.

The new mill is designed to accept logs, averaging between four and 21 inches in diameter, in either tree length or cut-to-length sizes, and can sort logs either by diameter, cutting solution or cutting pattern. Prior to designing the mill, Millar Western conducted an extensive survey of its timber resources to arrive at a log profile. The survey showed that logs would average between four and 21 inches over the short term, but it also had some positive news about the company’s fibre resource over the long term. While its log size is expected to diminish slightly over the next five years, it will then begin to get larger because of the company’s focus on intensive forest management. The resulting incremental growth will start to become evident in about five years.

The number of employees Millar Western needs to operate the mill on three shifts, five days a week has been reduced from 137 to 94. While this could have created considerable labour discontent, Richard Clark, vice-president of solid wood products, says the company held extensive consultations with its staff regarding the future of the old sawmill as part of its collaborative management approach.

“We didn’t have anyone who didn’t think that we had to bring in new technology,” he says. By the same token, he adds that it didn’t take employees long to figure out that the new mill would operate with fewer people. The company offered a voluntary layoff program to its staff, with a strong severance package that allowed many departing employees to pay for post-secondary education and pursue other career paths.

In terms of design consultation, the company shared preliminary plans with employees, who in turn brought forward 225 recommendations, the majority of which were incorporated into the final design, says Clark. “There’s no question our employees made this a better mill.”

From a production efficiency standpoint, about 66 per cent of lumber production from log throughput on the production line is processed entirely with canter-only solutions, resulting in less wear and tear on accompanying equipment, such as the quad bandsaw, and fewer remanufacturing requirements.

The sawmill can manufacture lumber in dimensions from 1x3 to 2x10, with the capability of producing machine stress rated (MSR) lumber and J-grade for the Japanese market. At present, about 15 per cent of production is MSR lumber and 5 per cent J-grade. About 72 per cent is number 2 or premium grade lumber, up from 66 per cent in the old mill; 2x4 production has increased from 45 to 50 per cent; and 2x10 production has increased from 10 per cent to 16.8 per cent. The mill produces 13 per cent fewer chips.

Millar Western used four primary equipment vendors in its sawmill design:  Optimil, which supplied mill-wide controls as well as equipment from the canter line infeed to the stacker outfeed; Nicholson, which supplied equipment for the front end of the mill; Rockwell/Westburne, which supplied electrical equipment; and Perceptron, which supplied the mill-wide scanning equipment. The company expected significant “buy-in” by these suppliers regarding the concept that it had in mind.

Gerhard Mueller of GME Consulting Ltd designed the mill in collaboration with the Millar Western project team. He also served as project manager. Morris Perry Construction (MPC) oversaw the mechanical construction, while K J Technical Power performed the electrical contractor duties. Construction began in May 2000 and was completed on time and on budget. The first shift started at the end of April 2001 and the mill is expected to achieve full production by the end of this year.

Tree length logs are conveyed from a quadrant feeder system past a cutoff saw, where “trouble logs” are weeded out before entering the mill. These are generally oversize logs that are sold or exchanged with other mills. The logs are run through a 22-inch Nicholson A7 debarker before being scanned using a Perceptron true shape scanner to arrive at a bucking solution. After scanning, the logs are bucked using Nicholson GME Super Saws, landing onto a sequencing deck where they are scanned again for diameter, cutting solution or cutting diameter prior to being placed in sorting bins.

Cut-to-length logs are fed into production through one of two additional 22-inch Nicholson A7 debarkers before continuing down a sequence conveyor, where they are scanned and conveyed to sorting bins. Trouble logs identified as having compound sweep or bow, or metal fragments, are weeded out from both lines at this time. Nicholson also supplied a 75-inch whole log chipper, a 53-inch chipper and chip screens.

GME roto-loaders then feed sorted logs onto a belt leading to crescent decks. Logs on the crescent decks feed into the Optimil canter line. Before encountering the log turner, the logs are scanned for auto-rotation and then proceed down the double length infeed where the logs are scanned again for breakdown solution. They are then processed through the canter, which can operate at a maximum throughput of 600 feet per minute. The canter is equipped with drum heads and has the ability to slew, skew and tilt. Prior to processing, Millar Western can also scan the logs so that they enter top-end-first, which Optimil says results in better recovery.

Cants then proceed through an Optimil quad band saw and 10-inch vertical double arbor gang edger. Sideboards are redirected to the optimizing edger.

As the boards exit the gang edger, they travel down a conveyor through a lineal scanner where each board is either sent to the sorter or diverted for remanufacturing through a Swedish-built, linear Catech edger with a top head. Sideboards are also fed into this location.

The edger-bound boards encounter an unscrambler, a laser that detects wane up or wane down, and then an auto flipper. As the board heads into the edger, it is also scanned for solution. The edger has moving linear sawheads, fingers on the outfeed that discard the edgings and a maximum production speed of 40 pieces per minute. These boards then merge into the

Optimil GME sorting line where all boards are scanned and trimmed for length.

Finally, they are conveyed below the production line to a Swedish-built Renholmen stacker, featuring an automatic stick placer. It is the first of its kind in North America.

The mill’s dust extraction system was provided by Allied Blower, with dust leading into a bag house. The mill is a zero emission facility. Compressors are fully automated with compressed air refrigerated dryers.

With the mill’s design and tight focus, Richard Clark says the company will have to pay much closer attention to quality control in harvesting operations. Furthermore, because it is only a single saw line, Millar Western has begun implementing a predictive maintenance program—in addition to its regular maintenance plan—to keep potential downtime to a minimum.



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