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Fine Tuning At Squamish

By L. Ward Johnson
Copyright 1996. Contact publisher for permission to use.

Summary Purchased from Weldwood last year, Interfor's newly optimized large log mill at Squamish will see more wood come its way as the company restructures on the Coast.

International Forest Products (Interfor) has just completed a $1.25-million upgrade on the main edger at its Squamish, B.C. sawmill to convert it from a manual edger to an optimized processing centre. The upgrade, which was done by Newnes Machine Ltd. of Salmon Arm, BC, will improve both recovery and value of the product mix. Return on investment is estimated to be about eight months.

Built in 1962, the Squamish mill was operated by Weldwood of Canada until March 1, 1995, when it was purchased by Interfor. During its heyday, the plant produced hemlock S4S-dimension lumber for the North American market, and heavy 6x12 and 12x12 timbers for Australia, Japan and China. In fact, this plant was one of the largest producers of fir and hemlock timbers in the world. The last major upgrade on the plant was done in 1991, when Weldwood spent $5.7 million on improvements.

The industry was facing another downturn in the economic cycle at that time and the market for timbers was declining. With nearly a million and a half housing starts annually in Japan , Weldwood decided to retool the mill for the Japanese housing market. New breakdown equipment was installed, including a twin-band horizontal resaw and a seven-saw shifting edger, which enabled the plant to began producing hirakaku beams and baby squares, along with some CLS sizes from sideboard material.

As an Interfor plant, the mill will direct about 80 per cent of its production to the Japanese market. At present, it is the largest producer of hirakaku beams in Canada. The main log diet is mature coastal Douglas fir, along with some sitka spruce. Mill equipment has the capacity to handle logs that range in diameter from 13" to 50". Average diameter is 22". The Squamish mill can produce dimensions in 30mm, 45mm, 90mm, 105mm, and 120mm widths. Pre fe rred widths are 105mm x 150mm and 120mm x 360mm. Lengths range from 4.0 meters, the most common length, to 2.8 metres and up to 6.0 metres long.

The mill’s main secondary p roduct, baby squares, are 105mm x 105mm and 120mm x 120mm. While 80 per cent of the mill’s production since its last major modernization has been in Douglas fir, Interfor is attempting to gene rate markets for hemlock as well . Production is 93 million board feet per year and the plant has been running two shifts per day.

There are 160 employees at the plant. Principal breakdown equi pment at Squamish includes two ring debarkers — a 50" and a 30" — which feed into a double-7cut headrig. A 12" bulledger makes the first edging cuts, followed by the horizontal twin band resaw. A 6" seven-saw shifting edger, followed by a 5" pony edger, completes the breakdown. Lumber is sorted to a 46-bin sorter. Once through the sawmill, the lumber is sent to a 16-knife Coastal planer and, after passing through a multi-saw trimming sta-tion, the finished product is sorted into a 42-bin sorter. A packaging station completes the process, and packaged bundles are stacked onto a barge for shipment to Seaboard in Vancouver, where they are loaded aboard ships and sent to Japan.

The just-completed upgrade on the edger includes everything from the infeed back. The scanning system is new, the feed and delivery system into the edger is new, and of course the software and computing power to run everything is completely new. Because of the volume this plant puts out, and because of its wide size and product range, the optimizing system had to be tailor made for the specific application.

Most optimizers are designed to handle 2" material, but with products such hirakaku and baby squares, the system is required to process material that is 4" and 5" thick by 30" or more wide. This takes hefty computing power and complex software programming. The upgrade also features a smart laser system for processing to visual grading. The operator identifies the clear part of the flitch, then manually adjusts two ruby laser lines to enclose it.

Once the set button is pressed, the system remembers the instructions and processes the flitch according to the grade input zone. The result is a higher outturn of clears and better grades. If there is no clear output available in the flitch, the operator lets the equipment process normally. Approximately 90 per cent of the cant volume processed at the edger is easy to assess. The remaining 10 per cent of cant, made up mostly of sidecut material including 45mm x 90mm and 45mm x 105mm, requires significant computing power.

The difficulty comes in developing a system that maximizes hirakaku and baby square out-put, while minimizing sidecut material. At press time, the system was up and running, although the software program was still being tweaked. The Squamish lumber division is under the direction of Tony Ker, who has been at the operation for 10 years. Ker says the Squamish plant presently consumes about 400,000 m 3 of logs per year, but once Interfor has completed its planned restructuring, including closure of its Bay Lumber operation, that volume will increase by another 200,000 m 3.

“Once Bay Lumber is down, we will be processing more wood here,” Ker says. “In fact, we will be adding a third shift here soon, so this plant will be changing from an 80-hour-per-week operation to a 120-hour-per-week operation.” Ker says many of the old BC coast sawmills have converted to produce for the Japanese market and the main reason is economics.

“All the costs are going up in this business. Logging costs are increas-ing all the time and so is the cost of equipment. With the rapid changes in technology, you can’t avoid frequent upgrading and it seems the least little change costs millions.” With the big dollars invested in today’s plants, you have to produce a high-value product to stay alive, says Ker. “For operations like ours, that means the Japanese market. They demand a very specific high-quality product and they are willing to pay for it. That’s very attractive, especially to older coastal mills, who can convert to producing Japanese products relatively easily.

Last year, Japan had over 1.4 million housing starts, so that market is almost as large as the US market,” he says. “Interfor’s restructuring of the coastal operations has meant some job losses,” states Ker, “however, this is essential as the cutbacks in quota have made it impossible to keep all Interfor mills at capacity. The objective of the restructuring is to process Interfor’s fibre through the most efficient, profitable operations. This is good for the corpo-ration and good for long-term employment.

In this new form, Interfor is one of the largest exporters of lumber to Japan. Mill employees and the community of Squamish will benefit from these changes. There’s one constant in this business and that’s change, and you either go with it or get out of the business,” he says.

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