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Fast finger-joint growth

Quebec’s Industries Perron has built a finger-jointed stud mill that—with theintroduction of additional equipment—will turn out an eye-popping 110 million board feet of product this year.

By Heather Ednie

Claude Perron (left) president of Industries Perron, and Rene Rathier, Production Manager. “The business of finger jointing is a war of inches,” Says Perron. “One-eigth of an inch matters, That’s where the profit is.”

Claude Perron has good reason to be smiling these days. After only two years in operation, his finger-joint mill, Industries Perron, has achieved extremely high production rates, exceeding his most optimistic ambitions. Industries Perron produces finger-jointed studs, utilizing innovative technologies to increase production rates and reduce costs.

Perron’s original objective was to have 55 workers producing 55 million board feet per year. “In my wildest dreams, I hoped to eventually achieve 80,000 board feet per shift,” says Perron, president and CEO of Industries Perron Inc. “Presently, we’re operating at 100,000 on the primary line and 30,000 board feet on the secondary line.” Mill construction began in October 1999, with a total cost of $8 million. The mill entered production in February 2000, producing 37 million board feet that year.

Last year, that number jumped to 80 million and, with a recent expansion that included the addition of a second machine, 2002 production is expected to reach 110 million board feet. By 2003, Perron will be producing 120 million board feet per year, which represents an estimated 14 to 15 per cent of the total North American market for finger-joint studs. Currently, Industries Perron employs 65 people, achieving an average production rate of 1.85 million board feet per man-year. “We believe we’re 40 per cent ahead of our closest competitor, in this respect,” Perron says.

Maintaining a very low level of fibre loss is key to Industries Perron’s financial success. There is a constant focus on ways to improve wood use efficiency at the plant.

The secret to Perron’s high productivity rates, he says, is his six-foot recipe theory. The mill uses five- to eight-foot stock, producing studs with joints every six feet, or one joint per stud, on the primary line. A secondary short line produces joints every two to three feet. “By having more feet per joint, we have less material loss, lower costs and a reduction in the required handling,” Perron says. “I took a gamble when building the mill that customers would go for lumber with less joints, if available at competitive prices. Currently, we’re the only mill in North America using longer lumber for finger jointing, but others are starting.” The gamble has paid off.

The possibility that consumers would demand more finger-joints per stud proved to be a non-issue. One joint cuts the occurrence of twist by half, which consumers appear to be satisfied with, as Perron’s studs have found a hungry market. All Perron’s product is sold in the United States, with Georgia and Texas as the biggest markets. “We sell 100 per cent to the US, because building codes there require dry lumber,” Perron says. “Therefore, we don’t have to compete with the green lumber prices, which are 20 per cent lower than dry lumber prices.” Although the mill process is straightforward and simple, some innovations lead to high productivity and low costs.

When starting up, Perron renovated an existing building for his 60,000-square-foot facility. Of this, 25,000 square feet are used for manufacturing, with the remaining being used for warehousing. Perron purchases stud-grade material to produce a stud-grade product. “Some people buy economy lumber, cut it up and remove the defective wood,” he says. “They pay less initially, but waste more and require much more handling which translates to increased time and costs.” About 50 truckloads of feed lumber are brought to the mill each week from across Quebec, northern Ontario and the Maritime provinces.

The bulk of lumber used is black spruce, accounting for about 60 per cent of total production. The remaining feed is 35 per cent jack pine and five per cent balsam fir. The raw material is unloaded directly into the warehouse, eliminating any double handling. It is stored to acclimatize to room temperature to facilitate the gluing process. From the warehouse, the raw material is loaded by bundle onto an unstacker followed by an unscrambler and grading station. A PLC tong loader, operating at 100 pieces per minute, sorts by grade and humidity and any fallout is sent to the secondary line.

Claude Perron (above, assisting on lumber bundling) says an employee bonus scheme is responsible for the high productivity rates at the operation.

The remaining lumber continues to the primary line, a Doucet DJ400 continuous press. The line runs at 100 lugs per minute, but Perron maintains a 60 to 80 per cent fill ratio to keep a constant speed to optimize the performance of the cutterhead. The use of a continuous press is a real step forward in technology for finger-joint studs.

Previously, mills all used cycle presses. The continuous press runs up to 450 feet per minute and can handle longer pieces of feed. The DJ400 was originally built to handle long pieces for I-joist flanges. Perron saw the possibilities of adapting it to finger-joint studs and was one of the first to use it in the process. “This is a value-added mill,” he explains. “We offer the best value product. And the cost advantages to processing the longer lumber are quite obvious. We have one-third the average glue cost and one-third the usual fibre loss from joint cutting. We offer both single- and multiple-joint studs, but the one-joint studs are our main product.”

Once exiting the continuous press, pieces are cut by a Doucet flying cutoff saw with a precision of +/- 1/2 inch. A Doucet multiple precision end trim (PET) saw then cuts the wood to specified size. The PET saw cuts three pieces of equal length from feed lengths between 24 and 30 feet. Perron boasts a process that allows for considerable flexibility of product. The company produces one joint per piece, or many joints per piece, and can handle both 2x4s and 2x6s in stud lengths, ranging from 91.5 inch to 120 inch.

The fallout from the grading station is cut into three and fed into the secondary line, a Doucet DX75 cycle press. This is a typical finger-joint cycle press, producing stud grade product by eliminating the defective wood. “We will produce 25,000 joints per shift on the primary line, and 30,000 joints per shift on the secondary,” said Perron. There are three eight-hour shifts per day, 17 shifts per week, which includes two student shifts, one on Friday night and one during the day on Saturday.

After processing, the product is stored in the warehouse. In total, the warehouse can accommodate up to three million board feet of raw material, accounting for seven days of production, and two million board feet of finished product. Once glued, the wood needs to dry for 24 hours, followed by performance testing which takes another 24 hours. At the end of the process, 20 rail cars are loaded weekly to ship studs to the United States.

The mill is conveniently located beside the loading facility, so that easy access to the rails eliminates additional transportation costs. “It is very important to have direct access to the rail line, and for us, it’s right outside the door,” he says. The saws used in the mill are very high precision, resulting in little material loss and helping to maintain low production costs. “The business of finger jointing is a war of inches,” says Perron. “One-eighth of an inch matters. That’s where the profit is. We pull about three per cent of the feed lumber off the line due to grade, before finger jointing even begins, and sell it as economy grade. Our fibre loss is around four per cent. We’re consciously working to maintain that low level all the time.”

This past spring, a Pacific Trail bundle saw, which does not require an operator, was added to the mill to allow flexibility in the raw material used. “There is only so much availability of short studs on the market,” says Perron. “We want to start buying number three grade, aiming to have it account for about 10 per cent of our feed.” Virtually all the equipment in the mill, with the exception of the PLC tong loader and the new Pacific Trail bundle saw, was supplied by Doucet. Based in Daveluyville, Quebec, Doucet’s main office is only 30 minutes from Industries Perron.

This has led to a close working relationship with the supplier, Perron says, and a high level of ongoing support. Maintaining a very low level of fibre loss is key to Perron’s financial success, so there is a constant focus on ways to improve wood use efficiency. He actively encourages business practices targeted at reducing wood loss. “For example, I do not have a wood chipper,” he says. “I give my leftovers away, so as to not throw away too much. If you sell your waste after putting it through a chipper, it increases the temptation to allow a larger fibre loss rate.”

Perron’s family legacy is in the lumber and sawmilling business. His father, Michel Perron, owned the Normick Perron sawmill, which was sold to Noranda Inc in 1990. “Perhaps that explains how I got into this business,” Perron says. “We, my family, were always in the sawmilling business. First with the Normick Perron sawmill, and then we were involved in other sawmill ventures, with Uniforet. I left Uniforet, but needed to be inventive as there is no more available forest in Quebec. The forest is all spoken for.

So if you want to be in the sawmilling business, you have to look at secondary transformation, or value-added products. One of the first steps on the value-added ladder is probably finger jointing.” Perron attributes his high productivity and low costs to a number of factors, including a very dedicated and involved workforce. “We enjoy a simplicity and quality of machines, combined with a unique labour arrangement, which leads to high productivity,” he says.

 Employees are paid a base rate of $9.80/hour, with an attractive bonus scheme. The bonuses represent about 70 to 80 per cent of the workers’ base salaries, and are based on the rate of production. “I really believe the bonus scheme is responsible for the high productivity rates we’re able to achieve,” says Perron. “I’d estimate the last 30 per cent of productivity is the result of this bonus, or profit sharing, plan.” For Perron, the future looks bright.

Growth of the industry is not limited by the market, but by the availability of raw material. He predicts that the finger-joint stud market will continue its growth. “I think it will grow about 10 to 15 per cent per year for the next four years,” he said. “We can hardly keep up with the demand.”

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