Value added on Vancouver Island for Western Forest

by | Jun 28, 2024 | 2024, Logging & Sawmilling Journal, May/June 2024, Sawmill, Value Added

B.C. forest company Western Forest Products (WFP) has a strong focus these days—it’s straightforward, and can be summed in two words: value added.

The latest initiative in that move to value added came earlier this year with the completion of construction of the first continuous dry kiln on the coast of B.C., at the company’s Saltair sawmill in Ladysmith, B.C., on Vancouver Island.

WFP also plans to continue accelerating its transition to higher value products with approximately $35 million of investments for two additional continuous dry kilns.

“Our investments to modernize our mills on the B.C. coast underscore the strategic shift we are making to increase our production of value-added products with our facilities on Vancouver Island,” says Steven Hofer, President and CEO, of WFP.

The new kilns will deliver efficiency and productivity gains that further position the company’s mills to meet the needs of customers for high-value, specialty products over the long term, said Hofer.

“We’re working to move up the value chain,” added WFP’s general manager of manufacturing, Derek Haupt. “That’s one of our clear priorities. It supports our growing integration of engineered wood products and MSR lumber.”

The newly installed $12 million Wellons continuous dry kiln at the Saltair sawmill adds to the mill’s drying capacity, producing high quality dried lumber while maximizing environmental benefits by reducing energy consumption.

“It’s still a learning process, but if you look at other results achieved in the industry, there is generally a 15 to 20 per cent energy savings from continuous kilns,” says Haupt.

“Studies done by FPInnovations show volume increases of up to 28 per cent from continuous kilns.

“We’re also able to achieve better drying with the lumber coming out of the new kiln,” added Haupt. “That will help us downstream, with our planers.”

A further bonus is WFP is eligible for a $1.5 million rebate from Fortis BC for installing more energy efficient equipment.

The Saltair sawmill has a capacity of 240 million board feet and produces hemlock and Douglas fir products. The mill focuses on medium diameter logs, with a smallest processing capability of 6” diameter logs. The sawmill produces wood products for the Japanese traditional home segment, wide dimensional structural lumber, and products for the treating segment.

Saltair is the largest single-line sawmill on the coast of B.C. following a multi-phase strategic capital investment of over $45 million to modernize the sawmill since 2013 (please see the sidebar story for mill upgrade details).

The new Wellons kiln adds to the three existing kilns on site for drying lumber.

In addition to the new continuous dry kiln at the Saltair sawmill, Western Forest Products plans to continue accelerating its transition to higher value products with approximately $35 million of investments for two additional continuous dry kilns.

Following the successful completion of its first continuous dry kiln, WFP is pushing ahead with two additional continuous dry kiln projects. One of the kilns will be constructed at the company’s Duke Point sawmill in Nanaimo, and the other at its Value-Added Division in Chemainus. Each of the new kilns will have an annual capacity of approximately 70 million board feet. The additional capacity will support increased volumes of kiln dried products, including lumber used to produce glued laminated timber for mass timber applications.

The two additional continuous dry kilns are slated to be completed over 2024 and 2025.

WFP has made significant investments in its B.C. coastal manufacturing operations to modernize its primary manufacturing facilities, increase kiln drying and planing capacity and expand its engineered wood products and remanufacturing capacity.

The company announced a $35 million investment in 2023, which includes the new continuous dry kilns. Part of that investment went towards MSR equipment at its Duke Point sawmill, and the installation of Wellons TruMark in-kiln moisture meters in their existing kilns.

The installation of an Ecoustic machine stress rated lumber grader at its Duke Point sawmill supports increased production of higher value lumber destined for mass timber applications. The MSR machine provides strict lumber grade quality control with known values for strength and stiffness for lumber utilized in engineered products, including roof trusses, glulam and mass timber.

With the increasing use of wood in multi-storey construction as a low carbon solution, WFP sees this as a strong market opportunity. Adding equipment that allows it to manufacture product lines used in glulam and mass timber building represents a growing market opportunity.

And it’s a good corporate fit. In terms of mass timber, two years ago WFP acquired Calvert Company, Inc., one of the oldest glulam manufacturers in the U.S., which produces glulam beams in multiple species, including Douglas fir, southern yellow pine and yellow cedar, for industrial, commercial and residential projects. Calvert has manufacturing facilities in Washougal, Washington and Vancouver, Washington with a combined annual glulam capacity of approximately 35 million board feet on a two-shift basis.

Back on Vancouver Island, there were also some upgrades to the Duke Point planer to improve efficiencies and achieve better throughput. This builds on previous upgrades. The sawmill and planer underwent a previous multi-phase strategic capital investment of $54 million to modernize the facility.

In term of its capital investments, Haupt says “we look for projects that fit with our strategic plan and offer the best payback”.

There is a strong appreciation for utilizing modern mill equipment from the company’s CEO, Steven Hofer—he is the former executive vice-president of major mill equipment supplier, the BID Group. The company has some aged assets that could use further investment, and Hofer sees that and is certainly interested in looking at other upgrades that increase wood utilization, and deliver financial paybacks, says Haupt.

Haupt, as general manager of manufacturing for WFP, brings his own forest industry perspective to the operations, having had a 35-year career in the industry, beginning on the green chain at MacMillan Bloedel’s White Pine division in Vancouver, followed by mill management roles, and sales and marketing positions.

“I love being in the sawmills—that’s where I came from,” he says.

In that time, there have been huge advances in sawmill technology, he noted. In addition to helping produce lumber faster, “we also make sure we are utilizing every bit of fibre we possibly can, and increasing our recovery from the logs”, he says.

There is more to come, says Haupt, including Artificial Intelligence. “I think that’s going to be a big part of our future in the forest industry—we’re already seeing that,” he noted. “We’re already doing some work at our mills, such as AI-enabled cameras to help control equipment. I think technology is going to continue to expand more rapidly.

“I think the B.C. coastal forest industry needs to step up its technology to catch up with other areas, like the B.C. Interior or the southeast U.S.,” he added.

The technology going into the new sawmills in the U.S. is pretty impressive, he says. “Historically, there has not been as much technology on the large log side of the business here on the west coast, with not as much focus from suppliers—but there is no reason we can’t utilize some of the technology that we see elsewhere in the industry on the small  log side.”

Western partners with First Nations on Tree Farm Licence

Western Forest Products has lumber production capacity in excess of 1.0 billion board feet from seven sawmills, as well as operating four remanufacturing facilities and two glulam manufacturing facilities, in B.C and Washington State.

It sources timber from its private lands, long-term licenses, market purchases, and First Nations arrangements.

In fact, the company has been involved with a number of ventures with First Nations groups.

The most recent came last fall, when it was announced that four First Nations groups will acquire a 34 per cent interest from Western in a newly formed Limited Partnership. The partnership consists of certain assets and liabilities of Western’s Mid Island Forest Operation, including the newly-established Tree Farm Licence 64.

The operations of the new partnership cover approximately 157,000 hectares of forest land in the traditional territories of the Nations near the communities of Campbell River and Sayward, on eastern Vancouver Island. The partnership will manage an allowable annual cut of 904,540 cubic metres of timber and it includes a long-term fibre agreement to support Western’s British Columbia coastal manufacturing operations.

Western‘s Saltair sawmill has solid equipment foundation

In the past, the management of B.C.-based Western Forest Products has tapped into the technological expertise the sawmill equipment industry has to offer with its mill facilities, including its Saltair sawmill, in Ladysmith, B.C.

A decade ago, a $38 million upgrade—that included the sawmill’s edgers, stacker and sorter—increased production by 15 per cent and helped decrease the per-unit cost of production, at the Saltair operation.

Since then, Saltair has been able to achieve significant efficiencies.

As reported in Logging and Sawmilling Journal at the time, the Saltair sawmill implemented upgrades involving a number of industry suppliers, such as USNR, the BID Group, Lucidyne Technologies, Mill-Tech Industries and Samuel Strapping. And true to the company’s support of B.C.-based suppliers, the project also involved a number of smaller companies, such as Warnaar Steel Tech, Duncan Iron Works, MicroWest, Advanced Millwright Services, and KJ Contracting.

WFP’s overall strategy for these capital investments then was to expand its ability to provide a wide variety of products to a diverse customer base, helping it withstand the typically cyclical nature of the wood products industry.

The Saltair operation has, as they say, an excellent equipment foundation on which the company is building further, with the recent
addition of the new continuous dry kiln earlier this year.

Paul MacDonald

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