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Record Breaking

A modernization—including a new small log line—at Tolko’s Manitoba sawmill operation has production records dropping on a regular basis.

By Avery Ascher

There were numerous equipment upgrades to the sawmill at The Pas, from the log decks right through to the planer.

A recent $72-million modernization of its sawmill operation at The Pas has allowed Tolko’s Manitoba Solid Wood Division to boost recovery by an impressive 35 per cent and has given the mill the opportunity to make the most of its supply of generally smaller wood. The modernization means the mill can now maximize returns from the four- to seven-inch diameter wood that makes up 95 per cent of its spruce-pine-fir fibre basket in Manitoba.

Average diameter on a normal operating day is around 5.5 inches. “We’re having to use four-inch through six-inch wood extremely efficiently,” says Eric Scheffers, project manager for the mill upgrade. Not only is most of the wood small, it exhibits a high degree of crook, posing a correspondingly high degree of challenge to the sawmill. “With the previous mill system, lumber recovery factors were far too low to hope to operate in today’s market,” Scheffers says.

The company hired Bramcon Project Consultants Ltd to assist in devising the project management structure to be implemented with the mill upgrade. CWA Engineers Inc and Woodpro Engineering handled conceptual and process development drawings and plans. Comact was chosen as major supplier for the log sorting and canters involved in the modernization and CAE was selected as the main supplier for the sawing and lumber handling equipment.

The Comact DDM6 small log curve sawing cater line delivers improved efficiencies

While improved efficiencies from a new Comact DDM6 small log curve sawing canter line (replacing an existing small log line) and DLI true-shape scanning curve sawing canter line account for most of the 35 per cent increase in recovery, the modernization also included a host of other upgrades, working from the outside in. Four new scanning units—one for each of the existing VK450 debarkers—together with S Huot Inc slashing equipment were installed on the outside log decks.

Replacing two existing slashers, the new high-speed slasher can process over 30 pieces a minute transversely. “The log deck work was to make scanning after debarking more effective,” says Scheffers. “Prior to the modernization, slashing was done before debarking, so we were slashing wood that didn’t need to be slashed, causing inefficiencies in debarking operations.”

The new system removes a bottleneck and the company can now better sort its logs based on their characteristics. Some modifications to the infeed deck to the debarkers have also opened up additional product opportunities. Of the four debarkers, two were limited to eight-foot lengths only. Now all four debarkers handle random lengths, improving flow capacity and market opportunities.

As a result of the upgrades, capacity at The Pas is now 220 million board feet annually- double its previous output.

Tolko kept its existing Brunette large log line. The new DDM6 line typically processes 5.5 inch and smaller diameter wood. It replaces a small log line and allows more flexibility by running either random or eight-foot lengths. While not a true-shape scan system, it does scan for autorotation; the optimizer then decides on the best position for logs to enter the machine, typically ‘horns up.’ “We picked the DDM because we felt it had a higher potential for recovery over its competitors,” says Scheffers. “The DDM has the ability to maintain 2x4 decisions with smaller logs more frequently.”

Following a 7.5-day shutdown to take out the old small log line and install the new one—the only lost time during the entire modernization process—the DDM system started up. Stepped-up recovery is also why Tolko chose the DLI curve sawing canter line. Supplying two-sided cants to the curve saw, the DLI line generally processes five-inch diameter and larger logs, averaging six inches during a typical day.

The DLI has the potential to process up to a 17-inch log. Its true-shape scanning picks up all irregularities on a log, from cat face to pistol grips. “With the scanning power and positioning control we have with this line, it’s our highest recovery machine,” says Scheffers. The CAE six-inch horizontal arbour curve saw handles cants processed by the DLI and dispatches cants at a rate of about 16 per minute.

The curve sawing gang doesn’t just make the best of a log’s characteristics, says Scheffers. “It actually improves the structural characteristics because you’re cutting with the grain. The impact on recovery is huge.” Curve sawing alone accounts for a full quarter of the 35 per cent upsurge in recovery Tolko has logged since the mill underwent modernization. “Both the DDM and DLI were turnkey purchase orders from Comact,” says Scheffers. “We were very pleased with how those two machines started up.” Further enhancement of recovery has been achieved with the new CAE Roboguide edger, which replaced three existing edgers.

The Roboguide “takes a bad board and makes it good,” says trimmer operator Mark White. Before the modernization, White says, the company would lose the grade on a 2x6, for example, because of wane defect in the middle of the board. Now the Roboguide edger produces a 2x4 of higher value out of such boards. When it came to equipment selection for the modernization, Scheffers says some decisions were mostly straightforward. But in other areas, Tolko initially wasn’t quite certain what to purchase.

“One was the trimmer system. We went out and viewed the required components because at the time no one was running complete single vendor systems at the speed we needed. We looked at a number of CAE products and Comact products.” Then, as part of the decision-making process, the company brought sawmill staff on board—including maintenance, electrical and production people—to view and “test drive” some options. Costs and ease of construction played roles in the choice of equipment.

So did other basic factors, says White. “For example, it’s got to be built strong. And for the maintenance people, they’ve got to be able to get at it.” Scheffers says the inclusive approach taken to equipment selection has fostered employee buy-in into the modernization. Speaking of Mark White, he says: “For me, there was a lot of personal satisfaction just a few weeks ago in watching him up there running the trimmer that two years before he had helped make decisions on. “And Mark refers to it as his machine, he operates it like it’s his own and I could see a level of pride involved in operating it.”

The new CAE 16-foot trimmer system scans every inch-and-a-half of every board. “Because of the form of the wood in northern Manitoba, the defect enters the lumber and leaves it very quickly. With the high scan density we’re using both on the curve saw and on the trimmer, it improves our recovery and grade to our downstream equipment,” says Scheffers.

The company’s existing 26-bin J-bar sorter was relocated and a new CAE 50-bin J-bar sorter was installed. The new trimmer-sorter runs at 140 lugs a minute. Tolko also incorporated moisture-sorting capability at this stage with a Northern Milltech Inc moisture sorter. This has resulted in improved manageability of kiln drying times, as well as less degrade on drying.

The purchase of a second USNR Lundeen stacker has allowed Tolko to double its stacking capacity without increasing its labour costs. Two employees were needed to operate the original stacker; now there are two separate lines with each employee operating his own. In response to the additional volumes going through the sawmill—capacity is now 220 million board feet annually, double the previous yearly output—the company has boosted its drying capacity by adding a 104-foot double-track Salton dry kiln with automated controls.

Tolko has also substantially upgraded its planer operations, adding a Newman Whitney planer capable of 2,400 lineal feet per minute, as well as Westech and Milltech tilt hoists. The planer has removable heads, permitting faster, more efficient knife changes. In addition, Arrowspeed frequency drives yield more flexibility, better flow control and higher throughput on the planer. Altogether, improvements to the planer operation have increased grade recovery by nine per cent. CAE supplied downstream equipment including trimmer, grade stamping equipment, 100-bin sorter, stacker, strapping system and paper wrap station.

The planer upgrade was done under full production, says White. “The mill was up and running. There was no downtime involved.” Freeing up employees for training on the new equipment was tough. “One of the hardest things to do in a no-shutdown environment is get people available for training,” says Scheffers. Through ongoing discussions with the union over the 14-month construction period, the company was able to negotiate flexibility in terms of days and hours worked and in training labourers to run existing machines so operators could train on the new ones. “A lot of late nights,” White sums up. “A lot of early mornings, too.”

Tolko’s Manitoba Kraft Papers Division has also benefited from the sawmill modernization. Chips from the sawmill are now more uniform, yielding efficiencies and quality improvements during the pulping process. Overall, the sawmill modernization has invigorated operations like a surge of adrenaline and the numbers are there to prove it. “We took 21 old records off the shelf,” says plant manager Hank Randrup.

Records for best individual shift ever, best production day, most volume ever produced in a month, best-ever planer production and others fell like dominoes this past April. And with records continuing to fall, momentum continues to build. “I think people are truly excited about being sawmillers in a new state-of-the-art facility,” says Randrup. “All the indicators, for all intents and purposes, are trending positively.” And Randrup notes that the recent successes can’t be attributed solely to the capital invested. “It’s the people working together to secure a future for themselves and the community of The Pas. Without the people, the machinery would simply sit idle. It’s their mill and they make the difference.”

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