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An upgrade at Ainsworth's Savona, BC plywood mill is proving to be a winner on a number of counts and includes some first-of-its-kind technology.

By Helen Johnson

n $8.8 million upgrade at Ainsworth Lumber's specialty overlay plywood plant in Savona, BC is proving to be a winner. And the resulting boost to capacity, recovery and employment is producing a win win win result. Located about 40 kilometres west of Kamloops in British Columbia's southern interior, the Savona operation is one of the largest plywood plants in the world specializing in overlay products. 

The plant manufactures two primary products: medium density overlay (MDO) and high density overlay (HDO). This year the plant is targeting to produce 150 million square feet of three-eighths inch overlay plywood, predominantly for concrete forming. The MDO is mostly sold in Canada, with some sales to Europe, the UK, the Pacific Rim and South America. The operation supplies about 70 per cent of the Canadian market requirement for this panel, says site manager Ken Herritt, adding they have one major competitor in North America located in the US. 

The plant's products have been used in some high profile projects, including the construction of PEI's Confederation Bridge, the Montreal Forum and the Toronto Skydome. The HDO is predominantly sold into the US and has more of an engineered end use, says Herritt, going into forming systems that in turn would be either sold or rented. "It's a high quality product. Our whole production process here is geared to quality and at the same time we have to produce and make a profit," he says. 

Two years ago, Ainsworth made the commitment to rebuild several company operations including the sawmill in Chasm, BC, the veneer plant in Lillooet, BC as well as the Savona plant. "When we had that commitment, we had to go out and make a determination of what equipment and new process technology was available that would improve our recovery, improve our production and at the same time maintain the quality that we need in our product to be successful," says Herritt. 

The Ainsworth overlay plywood operation in Savona has been able to increase production significantly in recent years. Not too long ago, it was at the 80 million square foot production level. It reached the 120 million square foot level in 1999 and hopes to hit the 150 million square foot mark this year, following an $8.8 million upgrade.

The upgrade took place in four stages, starting with the engineering work being completed by LNS Services Ltd of North Vancouver, followed by the purchase of a Raute Wood dryer line that includes the four zone Raute dryer itself-which is about 120 feet in length-and a 10bin dry veneer stacker. In between the two, sits a Mecano video defect analyzer (VDA) from Finland. "This is brand new technology, the first of its kind in North America," says Gordon White, production superintendent. "It's all state of the art and all basically PLC or computer controlled." The old dryer required five people to operate it and could produce about 12,000 square feet of three-eighths an hour. 

The new dryer line, with the automatic grade scanner and 10bin stacker, produces 17,000 square feet of three-eighths an hour with only two people. The second phase included a Raute veneer scarf line, which takes veneer in anywhere from four to eight foot lengths, cuts it and glues it back together again to make veneer in anywhere from eight to ten foot lengths, allowing for production of panels of the same lengths. The third phase involved the installation of a second Raute veneer composer, which takes random width veneer, clips defects out and edge glues it back together to get four foot or five foot width veneer. "So that's expanded our ability to make multiple width veneer and multiple length veneer," says White. The fourth part of the project was the panel saw line upgrade. 

"The saw line we had could only handle eight foot length panels. We rebuilt the saw line so we could do anywhere from six to 10 foot in length and anywhere from one to four foot in width. It gives us a lot of versatility and allows us to diversify," White says. "We're probably the only plywood plant in Canada at this point in time that can make plywood that is eight foot six, nine foot or 10foot in length." 

Following an equipment selection process that started in the summer of 1997, the whole project took less than eight months from inception to ramp up. "The scarf line, the composer and saw line have given us the opportunity to expand our product base. Prior to the installation, we had two dryers that we had to run three shifts a day, five days a week just to maintain enough veneer for our current production level. And we also had to do the odd weekend overtime drying," White says. 

"The new dryer installation gave us the opportunity to dry on two shifts what we would normally consume on three. It's basically given us a shift free of drying capacity." It has also enabled them to take advantage of the custom dry veneer market, which has experienced a shortage of capacity at other mills. "In doing that, it also improves the net return of our veneer produced at Lillooet. We consume probably about 70 to 80 per cent of what they produce. The balance we would have to sell green which has a much lower value than dry. So it's helped us in that respect," says Herritt. 

"As well, it's reduced our costs here by reducing the shifting required to dry the veneer for our products. It's also helped with recovering the top value of the fibre-going right back to the log-by drying it versus selling it green," he adds. As part of the nearly $9 million capital expense, the plant's MDO press was rebuilt in January, 2000. "We've increased the press from a 24 to a 30 opening, so we've basically improved it by 25 per cent and with no additional labour costs either. So that's going to increase our productivity and lower our costs. We also have the latest technology in process control in pressing. And that was a $1.7 million improvement," Herritt says. 

The company now has an active work force of about 225 employees, a substantial increase from about 165 two years ago. "We've improved our process and we've actually increased our productivity. We've also added on shifting. So even though we are spending money to improve our process by using less labour, we've actually increased the size of our workforce because we can do more. We have more capacity," says White. "A few years ago we were at an 80 million square foot level of production. Then in 1999 we were at 120. Now this year hopefully we'll get to about the 150 million square foot level so we're looking at really ramping up our productivity at this mill," he says. "Back in 1986 when I first started here, we were making 45 million three eighths a year. It's gone from that little 45 million three eighths to 150 plus in that 12 to 15 years." 

Important gains in worker safety-an issue that has been made a top priority at all of Ainsworth's plants in the past year- have also been realized. "When you consider the new equipment we've put in here and all the new people, our safety results have been phenomenal. And it's not only here but in most of the divisions of the company," says Herritt. The Savona plant has gone from seven lost time accidents a year to two. "When you consider the extra people we've employed- all new-and all the new equipment, it's a pretty remarkable achievement," he says. Improvements have been ongoing at the plant since Ainsworth bought out the division in 1987. 

"Every year since then we have been doing one or two projects to improve and upgrade. Ainsworth saw the value of what we had and invested in that value... and continue to do that," says White. The B mill, the old mill building originally built in the 1950s, had a 14opening Swedish Fjelman press and an old six tier dryer, a green chain veneer area and a trim saw and that was it. The plant now has 54 openings. An important reason for the upgrades, at both Savona and Lillooet, was to allow them to consume their annual allowable cuts (AAC) of timber. "We've been in undercut situations now for some time. Of course, when you're in a continuous undercut situation, eventually you could lose the undercut portion," says Herritt. "Also, Lillooet used to have a sawmill and that consumed part of that AAC. 

For economic reasons we shut that sawmill down in 1997, which resulted in a reduction of the timber being harvested." As a way to assist further technological advances, the company will be working with a research team from Raute to improve dryer efficiencies and veneer quality during the drying process. "We're also hoping to put a team together with them for some research and development to come up with a-I won't say a no clip composer-but a new concept in composing. Right now, every piece of veneer that goes through the composer gets clipped twice. So you loose veneer on each edge of that clip when you don't really need to," Herritt says. 

"We're willing to work with them and have offered them the use of our equipment for R and D in an effort to improve recovery." And the plant is constantly looking at things like that, says Herritt "We do the same thing with our resin supplier and overlay supplier. We're always working together, trying to improve their products as well." For management, keeping ahead of the game is a continuing process. 

"We're always trying to keep on top of any new technology that comes in. There are always things that we're looking for. We never actually stop modernizing. You can't," says Herritt. "You always have to be looking ahead and you want to be the first on the block, as far as new technology goes." "But," adds White, "you don't want to be the guinea pig either ."

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