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Small Timber Challenges Revamped BC Stud Mill

Building on its success over the past five years, once-troubled Excel Forest Products plans a further $7-million expansion. 

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

Driving through the northern Ontario village of Opasatika, it's striking how all the homes look newly renovated, with many new vehicles in the driveways. Travelling a little further west toward Hearst, it's obvious why. Forestry company Excel Forest Products has provided the area with 200 steady jobs. 

The mill, located between Hearst and Kapuskasking. has come a long way in five years. In fact, it was on very shaky ground back in the early 1990s due to the recession. But new ownership has pumped new life into the dimension sawmill. and provided it with a bright future. 

Right now, they plan to invest about $7 million to improve recovery by at least 15 per cent. The major portion of that construction project is a new infeed system, installing a small log processor and upgrading equipment at their finishing plant in Hearst. 

November images Mill Manager Ronald Nadeau says this upgrade represents phase three of a four-phase project. The first phase was to incorporate a reserve system into the single log line to eliminate down time. Phase two was the purchase of a mechanized sorter. Phase three involves a major upgrade to their infeed system. During phase four, they will invest in advanced computer scan ning, technology to optimize wood recovery. 

"Every piece of wood is going to be scanned," says Nadeau. 

Right now, the sawmill runs 24 hours a day, five days a week, using three shifts. Once the phase-three construction project is complete later this year, they will only need two eight-hour shifts to achieve the same production. Staff from the third shift will move to new jobs created at the infeed area. Plus, the extra time remaining each day will be used for regular maintenance. 

"Right now. we're changing saw blades during regular production, and that's not the best," says Nadeau. 

Operating under the name of Isabelle Bros., the sawmill opened as a green dimension lumber mill back in 1976, selling exclusively into the Ontario market. It was owned by the Isabelle family, consisting of seven brothers and their father. They operated the sawmill for over 15 years, and made a few modifications along the way. But in the early 1990s, they lost their chip market and that put a severe strain on the company. 

A group of investors joined the flagging company, and by 1993, had bought out all but one brother. Today, owners are Ronald Nadeau, Roland Martin and Gaston Isabelle.  "At that time, we started to implement our ideas about how to produce, and what should be done as far as investments," says Nadeau, a veteran with over 20 years of experience in forestry. "It required investment because the company had been pretty well run down." 

His first objective was to remove bottlenecks in this single-saw line, and to create reserves, should a problem occur. Nadeau said prior to his modifications, a single problem would completely shut down production. 

By installing by-pass and reserve systems, they now can maintain production while the problem is rectified. 

His line modifications have more than doubled production. Under previous management, the line achieved about 30 MBF annually or less. Now, they produce about 75 MBF, with 2X4s representing about 65 per cent of the production. They can produce a wide range of dimension lumber in lengths from 4' to 16', including timbers. 

At about the same time as the new owners took over Excel Forest Products, the Levesque Lumber mill in Hearst went into receivership. This company is not associated with Levesque Plywood, which was recently bought by Columbia Forest Products. Working with a group of employees, and another group of local investors, Excel Forest Products purchased the Levesque facility and equipment, immediately evolving from a green lumber mill to a mill capable of producing finished product. They acquired Levesque's dryers and dressing mill, and formed a company called Tri-Cept, which incorporates all three groups of investors. They currently manufacture a rough-sawn product near Opasatika, and transport it for finishing to Hearst. 

"By purchasing the Levesque facilities, it gave us the opportunity to expand and to go into the US," says Nadeau. "The timing was perfect, actually." The Hearst facility has a drying capacity of 90 MBF. 

About 40 per cent of production is sent to the US, while 60 per cent is sold in Ontario. They sell their lumber through a broker located in Hearst. 

Their wood supply arrives tree-length, averaging about 9" at the butt. About 90 per cent is spruce, and the rest is jackpine and balsam fir. 

At present, they use a Prentice log loader to feed two decks. Line one takes logs up to IS" through a debarker, and line two dcbarks logs up to 30". Prior to debarking, the logs are slashed to 16'. This is one area where Nadeau has built a reserve beneath the infeed, should the loading system break down. It's this area where Excel will spend about $4.5 million this year. 

"We're lacking capacity in our debarking and slashing," says Nadeau. They also want to improve recovery, so, they are constructing an infeed system that will include two 18" rotor debarkers, and a 30" rotor debarker. Plus they will install a drum debarker for small ends and tops. 

"We're going to sort by the size of the logs in order to feed our machines on a more recovery basis," says Nadeau. Their main focus now is on much improved recovery. 

At present, the entire infeed area operates manually. Once the logs havested, slashed and debarked, they are fed through a chipper/canter. It produces two cants from the side, and a IX4 on the bottom. Then the cants encounter a bull edger. Oversized logs will pass through a carriage saw at the far end of the mill first, capable of producing three 10" cants. Then employees transport them back to the bull edger. 

Following the bull edger, the green lumber falls into another Nadeau- installed reserve, and eventually it is trimmed and sorted. 

They have already invested in a mechanized sorter, and have more capital spending plans for this part of the mill. 

"We're actually in the process now of looking at a trimmer optimizer," says Nadeau. The green lumber is then stacked, and shipped by truck to Hearst. 

As part of their plan to achieve better recovery, Excel Forest Products will install a Denis-Comact DDM6 small-log processor. This machine will manufacture lumber from logs between 4" to 6". Nadeau says it is a one-process system that does not require edging. 

"Our reasons for installing this system is to achieve better yield," says Nadeau, "and it is also going to give us the opportunity to do a bit of curved sawing, which we are not doing now." 

The remainder of the $7 million investment will be spent on new trimmers and a new sorter for the planing mill at the Hearst plant. 

While their aim has been for better recovery, Excel Forest Products has already achieved nearly 100 per cent utilization. Their wood chips and bark are sent to the Spruce Falls pulp plant in Kapuskasing, sawdust is sold to Domtarin Red Rock, and shavings go to Levesque Plywood in Hearst. 

As an independent company, they are as more susceptible to the whims of government forestry policy. But Nadeau says he does not expect any noticeable impact on Excel Forest Products from the Ontario government's plan to re-design its wood resource allocation system. He says the government has committed itself to providing mills like Excel with a wood resource, and he expects them to honour that commitment, regardless of how the new system is designed. 

He adds that a major advantage to having hands-on ownership involvement at the mill is their detailed knowledge of how the mill operates, and what its immediate needs are. 

"I don't have to share my time among several companies," Nadeau says. 

He agrees that Excel employees now have a much more secure future given the direction he and his partners have taken the company over the past six years. 

That likely explains the willingness of their many employees living in Opasatika to risk major expenses, like home renovations and vehicle purchases. 

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