The situation for lumber markets when the COVID epidemic started in 2020 was uncertain, to say the least. Many industry observers thought demand for lumber was likely to fall, due to a drop in the housing market. But after a short period, the exact opposite happened.
As lumber markets began to recover and strengthen later in 2020 and continuing in 2021, sawmills across North America were scrambling to increase production.
During this period, forest products company Georgia-Pacific (GP) was in the enviable position of having recently started three state–of-the-art sawmills in the U.S. South. These additions were crucial in helping GP meet the demand of its lumber customers.
And Canadian forest industry equipment supplier, BID Group, was the turnkey supplier and builder of all three of the new facilities.
Among the new operations was a replacement sawmill in Warrenton, Georgia, about 110 miles southeast of GP’s Atlanta home office. Another mill, built at a former GP plywood site in Talladega, Alabama, started production in November 2018, and the third facility in Albany, Georgia, began operation in first-quarter 2020.
GP’s upgrades at Warrenton replaced an aging mill built in the 1970’s with a new, state of the art 340,000-square foot facility. This $135 million (U.S.) investment began ramp-up of its production in 2019, and is now able to produce more than three times what the mill it replaced was turning out. Target annual production for the mill is 350 million board feet.
“We have a great team at Warrenton and building a new state-of-the-art facility on this site will make it competitive for years to come,” said Fritz Mason, President, Georgia-Pacific Lumber, at the mill’s opening.
Steve Thorpe, the Warrenton mill manager, explained that there was little from the old mill operation that was carried over to the new mill.
“All of the sawmill and the planer are new—really, the only things we are using from the old mill are the mill yard and the kilns.”
He added that the Warrenton mill is very similar to the Talladega sawmill that GP had completed a bit before. He noted that although it was a BID Group turnkey project, GP engineers and other support groups were also involved, making for a joint mill-building effort.
The objectives for the new Warrenton mill included providing a safe work environment for employees, and employing the latest mill technology to achieve optimum value and production of the southern yellow pine that is the feedstock for the mill.
And this strong focus on safety and production are translating to results. “We are now pretty close to hitting nearly all of our production goal,” said Thorpe. He described this as an “amazing accomplishment” considering the challenges of the mill ramping up, and COVID.
“We were there to deliver to our customers, and will continue to be there for them,” he said.
Thorpe said there were a number of clear advantages to keeping the mill in the city of Warrenton.
“We have a very good relationship with the local community, we had the wood procurement structure in place there and it was a very attractive site,” he said.
“We had the real estate here to go ahead and build the new mill adjacent to the existing mill, so the old mill continued to operate, as the new mill was being built.”
So they were essentially able to build a new, greenfield mill, while continuing to produce lumber for customers from the older facility.
They had a solid pool of existing, experienced employees from the old mill who transferred over to the new mill, so the company was not faced with the challenge of staffing up a mill in a new location. Those employees, too, are now working in a modern mill facility where the focus is on technology, rather than on manual labour, as is the case with some older sawmill facilities.
The new facility added more than 80 workers to the existing workforce, and Warrenton now has a total of 179 full-time employees.
As noted, the new mill has upped its lumber production significantly, and now has more timber coming in the yard. Cat 988 wheel loaders move timber around the yard, and a DeShazo crane feeds logs into the sawmill.
The millyard set-up has been designed to minimize turnaround times for logging trucks. “That was well-thought out, because we are now using more timber,” said Thorpe. “Our procurement people have done a great job, and we have not had any hiccups in term of log supply.”
The Warrenton mill is fortunate in that they can source the timber they need from the adjacent region, and logging truck drivers don’t face long hauls to the mill. “We are well situated for wood,” says Thorpe.
It should be noted that the state of Georgia has ample supplies of timber, with 22 million acres of commercially available, private timberland, more than any other state. Its timber harvest is also the highest among all U.S. states.
The entire production line from the merchandizer to lumber stacking was supplied by BID Group on a turnkey basis, through BID’s various divisions.
The logs are bucked, debarked, and processed through Comact branded primary and secondary log processors supplied by BID, featuring an Optimized Length Infeed (OLI) unit leading to a TBL shape sawing gang unit. The lumber proceeds through a Comact trim line and then a TrimExpert lumber scanner powered by Artificial Intelligence, leading to a Comact 70-bin sorter. The lumber is stacked in advance of kiln drying using BID’s MoCo stacker.
The lumber is dried in three fairly new (one natural gas-fired, two heated by burners using green shavings) continuous dry kilns supplied by DelTech, another BID brand, from the old mill.
The lumber is processed through BID’s Miller planer and infeed bridge, leading to a Comact GradExpert computerized lumber grader powered by Artificial Intelligence, a Samuel grade stamp printer with integrated vision system and zero downtime back-up, and then it’s on to a 65-bay sorter.
BID supplied the Comact lumber packaging system leading to Signode strappers and a Samuel fully automated package tag labeling system with staple application.
The British Columbia-based BID Group has been very successful with its turnkey approach to building sawmills, especially in the U.S. South.
Thorpe said there are definite advantages to the turnkey approach and having almost all the equipment suppliers under the umbrella of BID. “Basically, you’ve got a contract with one group, BID, and all the brands are under that company.”
BID was also helpful after the mill was completed, in terms of assisting GP with employee training.
Getting employees is a challenge for all industries these days, post-COVID. Thorpe believes GP has an advantage in that regard, with its Principles Based Management, which focuses on employees, and developing their careers in the forest industry—and providing modern workplaces, like Warrenton.
“It’s not your grandfather’s sawmill at Warrenton—it’s not even your father’s sawmill. There is a lot of innovation and technology—and there is pride in being associated with a modern facility.”
Even though the Warrenton mill is now completed, the operation still works with BID Group, in terms of training. “We continue to work with them—it’s an ongoing process to keep our people trained and keep their skills sharp at this state-of-the-art operation.”
While BID Group has its base in Canada, it now has 18 locations situated to serve its global customer base with its high-tech services and automated equipment. Last year, BID launched its Global Learning Center in South Carolina, Georgia’s neighboring state.
Employing the latest technology, and making the workplace as pleasant as possible, helps in attracting and retaining employees for GP, says Thorpe, which is a real asset when all industries are looking to hire new employees.
“It definitely helps in attracting employees—the market has changed in terms of people available for work now. It’s that much tougher to get employees for all businesses, and the new mill puts us in a better position.”
Overall, he added, Georgia-Pacific wants to be considered an employer of choice, with a philosophy built around helping employees reach their full potential and develop skills. Having new facilities such as Warrenton, and its sister mills at Talladega and Albany, is one part of that approach.
And there are more modern sawmill facilities to come for GP.
GP has hired BID Group to deliver a new sawmill in Pineland, Texas on a turnkey basis.
As with Warrenton, the site will feature BID Group’s wood processing technologies including equipment, software, automation systems, and AI-enabled optimization.
GP is spending $120 million (U.S.) to replace the existing stud mill that was built in the 1960s. Production capacity at Pineland will increase from 380 million board feet annually to 450 million board feet. As in the case of the three other newer facilities, the company expects a significant improvement in product flow in and out of the plant on a daily basis.
Over the past five years, GP Lumber has invested about $700 million (U.S.) to grow and improve its lumber business.
As for Warrenton, Thorpe says management continues to review operations at the mill, and “firm up” operations. “For example, we added another stacker at the dry end that eliminated a bottleneck.
“Even though Warrenton is a new sawmill, there is no way we are standing still,” he emphasized. “We are constantly looking to improve operations to better our competitive position in the industry.”