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Investing In Change

With a realistic view about rapidly changing technology, Canfor has invested $22 million to optimize its Grande Prairie sawmill

By Tony Kryzanowski

The typical reaction after making a major capital investment in a sawmill upgrade is to sit back and enjoy the benefits for a while before having to worry about making the next investment in change. But with technology changing so rapidly, there is hardly time to sit back and enjoy the moment. Canadian Forest Products (Canfor), with 11 sawmills in British Columbia and two in Alberta, recently completed a $22million upgrade of its Grande Prairie, Alberta sawmill. Although there have been minor capital projects over the past decade, this represents the largest expenditure at the sawmill since it opened and has resulted in a 14 per cent increase in recovery without any need for additional fibre. Employment levels have also remained constant at the mill. 


Porter Engineering supplied all three scanners leading to the small and large log lines at Canfor's Grande Prairie operation.  "This project highlighted for me how rapidly technology does change," says Chris Andersen, general manager of the company's Alberta region.  The $22 million was invested in the Grande Prairie Mill primarily to improve log sorting, scanning and optimizing.


The Grande Prairie upgrade works into the bigger picture of change at the company. "The modernization of our Grande Prairie sawmill is part of Canfor's strategy to invest in high return strategic capital projects at our mills," says Canfor president and CEO David Emerson. "This capital investment will allow us to increase lumber production and improve our operating results by $4.5 million annually." 

However, one sobering after thought to this massive investment is the realization that the sawmill was state of the art a mere 11 years ago. 

But 11 years represents a lifetime in an era of fast moving technology. Chris Andersen, general manager for Canfor's Alberta region, notes that a mill is virtually obsolete in a decade. "This project highlighted for me how rapidly technology does change." He points specifically to optimizing equipment and says its life span is quite limited. "In a lot of instances, 10 years is probably stretching it." 

The dimensional lumber mill operates a small and a large log line and has an annual production now of 200 million board feet per year. That figure takes into account the additional 25 million board feet recovered as a result of the upgrade. 

They consume about 700,000 cubic metres of spruce and pine annually, with the average size on the large log line being 9.5 inches, and just over 5 inches on the small log line. 

The $22 million was invested primarily to improve log sorting, scanning, and optimizing, which includes installation of curve sawing equipment. The small log line was replaced entirely. Some of the major components on the large log line such as the canter remained largely intact, but were rebuilt. The additional log sorts and optimizing stations leading to both lines required a 170 foot building expansion. 

Other major improvements included as part of this modernization program were a 104 foot dry kiln, as well as a chip handling and screening system, which is intended to help the operation produce more high quality chips. 

Maintenance superintendent Allan Rowe says no one area can account for the majority of lumber recovery. Canfor has bought into many of the advantages attributed to curve sawing by adding a McGeehee curve sawing unit. While employees were very familiar with computer automated lumber manufacturing, curve sawing was a new concept. 

"The curve sawing was totally new to us and employees have really taken to it," says Rowe. "I mean, they're really good with it." He says significant recovery gain occurs with logs that have a small amount of sweep as opposed to those with a lot. 

"When you are straight sawing logs that could have a quarter inch sweep, you'll lose a board," says Rowe. "With a curve saw system, you just follow that quarter inch and you gain a board. That's where curve sawing makes the biggest difference." 

Rowe says that technological advances over the past decade are very evident in today's computer technology compared to what existed 10 years ago. He says the start up curve on the new sawmill has been remarkable considering that employees have not been through a major upgrade in over a decade.

As computers increased their speed and capabilities, optimization decisions have also increased," says Rowe. "While operators are more or less involved in the same processes, our lines are 170 feet longer. We had computers before, and now there are just a few more of them. There are more eyes, more scanning, and a lot more maintenance items." Rowe says Grande Prairie employees, to their credit, have not shied away from change. In fact, they welcome it. As issues have arisen as part of the startup, he says employees have been eager to trouble shoot and resolve problems. 

As logs enter the mill, they are directed either to the large or small log line depending on size. The break point is about 7.5 inches on small wood. They proceed through a 17inch debarker on the small line, and a 27inch debarker on the large line. They then encounter a sorting scan that was part of the recent modernization. The first of three scans, it measures the log length and diameter, sending each log to one of four sorting bins. While general parameters are set for the sorting bins, the sorting scanner is flexible so that it can be adjusted according to the mill's wood diet. 

The company wanted steadier wood flow through the debarkers, and better sorting capabilities. "We have virtually doubled our sorting capacity," says Rowe. "The more you sort, the better optimization you have." All three scanners leading to the small and large log lines were provided by Porter Engineering. In addition to removing and replacing the two existing sorting bins that fed each canter line, the mill has also removed an unscrambling system, replacing it with Linden double acting step feeders. Each Linden step feeder feeds logs on to a scan belt that directs them through a rotation scanner. Most of the new equipment from this point forward was provided by USNR. 

"We've had a good relationship with USNR over the years," says Rowe. "That's one of the reasons we've gone with this line. We did a USNR board edger installation in 1998 and it turned out to be very, very successful." The autorotation information from the rotation scanner is transmitted to the log turner so that each log is positioned for optimized fibre recovery. Rollers come down on each log to hold it in position as it proceeds down the conveyor. It is then scanned a third time, with the information transmitted to the canter depending on whether the log is proceeding down the small or large log line. 

Logs on the small log line proceed through conical chipping heads and then pass through a quad saw box where sideboards are cut if the log is large enough. The cant then proceeds to a cant turner after leaving the two sided canter. It is then scanned using a CAE Newnes scanner. That optimizing information is used as a sawing solution as it proceeds through a six inch McGeehee curve saw. After the lumber on the small log line has been sawn for optimal fibre recovery, the boards drop down on to a transfer table and proceed to the trimmer. The USNR log breakdown system on the large log line has remained virtually intact. Two band saws cut sideboards from the cant, which proceeds to the new McGeehee 10 inch vertical arbor gang edger. 

The company has also installed a board tailer for removing top boards that are diverted to a board edger prior to heading to the trimmer line. Both lines have a built in capability to send side boards to a reman station prior to entering the trimmer line. This reman board edger was supplied by USNR in 1998. In addition to fibre recovery, Canfor's Grande Prairie operation also has a strategy aimed at grade recovery. To that end, Andersen says their next capital expenditure will likely involve moisture sorting. "It's really a question of when we do it as opposed to if we do it," he says. "It's a quality issue where we get our lumber dried consistently to the level that our customers expect." He believes the mill would be able to improve its grade recovery if they could sort for moisture before the lumber goes into the kilns, and therefore have a more uniform product. 

Canfor has also demonstrated that it is prepared to invest in a wide variety of projects that maximize fibre recovery. For example, they continue to operate a finger jointing line in Grande Prairie. As far as further investment in projects aimed at value-added lumber are concerned, Andersen says to a large degree it will depend on the upcoming Softwood Lumber Agreement talks with the US. If they are faced with a quota situation, he thinks the best bet might be to do as much value-added in Canada and ship as little volume into the US as possible. 

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