Timber Processing USNR and Porter Engineering provided much of the technology at Simpson Timber's new sawmill. March 2002 Issue
Lumber - Pallets - Chips - Engineered Products March 2002
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Cadillac Sawmill


They all say the same thing, reports Simpson Timber Co. Commencement Bay Operations Superintendent Jim Barnett, who mentions that 002mar Simpson 01the mill's many visitors have included top executives from major competitors: "They say it's state-of-the-art, one of the nicest mills in North America, and they all realize the potential, that once we get the crews to where they need to be this is going to be a real Cadillac of a sawmill."

Most observers would say the Cadillac has already arrived: The new sawmill is 180,000 sq. ft., on a 73 acre site adjacent Commencement Bay in Tacoma. The new facility replaced--and then some--the company's 35-year-old Commencement Bay stud mill, which was purchased from Champion International in 1986.

In fact, with its annual production capacity in excess of 250MMBF, Simpson Timber's new mill is by far the largest greenfield sawmill project in the U.S. in the past decade, costing somewhere between $50-$70 million. According to Simpson officials, the mill's output makes it the largest single line production sawmill in existence. The mill produces lumber in five widths, from 2x4-12, and in nine lengths, from 8-24 ft.


Looking to retire old manufacturing capacity and reaffirm the company's position as a major low-cost lumber supplier, Simpson Timber Co. executives began actively planning the project back in 1997, when a group of Simpson officials began looking at other mills, getting ideas and crunching numbers.

"I was fortunate to be included in the group at the start of the project," says Barnett, who joined Simpson in '93 and was named plant superintendent at the Tacoma stud mill in '96. The group traveled extensively, looking at mill designs and log and lumber handling systems. They spent much of their time in Canada, home to many high-production, low-cost lumber manufacturing facilities.

In '99 the group was granted approval for the project's capital expenditure, and site work began 002mar Simpson 02late that year. One of the biggest hurdles for the project to clear was an extensive environmental permitting process made even more burdensome because the mill site is actually on land "created" in the early 20th century when large parts of Commencement Bay were dredged and landfilled for industrial development. To make matters worse, the mill is also in an earthquake zone, mandating even more stringent building requirements. (For example, the mill's foundation includes almost 2,000 auger-cast pilings.)

Overall, Barnett says, the environmental permitting process alone took almost a year.

U.S. Natural Resources (USNR) won the job to supply the new mill's canter line for a variety of reasons. Simpson had experienced good results after installing a USNR extended length infeed line at one of its sawmills in Shelton, Wash. Also, USNR's head office at Woodland, Wash. is barely 90 miles from the mill, so service support is practically local.

Working closely with Simpson's engineers, Stolberg Engineering in Vancouver, BC designed the mill. Mill Manager John Hynes was project 002mar Simpson 03manager during design and construction.


While running the existing on-site stud mill right up to startup, managers decided to start up the new mill's planer mill first, using boards from the stud mill. Beginning two months prior to sawmill startup, running the planer and finishing equipment "helped us troubleshoot a lot of things downstream, including even packaging and wrapping," says Colin Edwards, finishing end superintendent. "Once the sawmill started up the planer mill was pretty much ready to go. We still had some ups and downs with the transition to random length lumber, but even that was fairly smooth."

Most of the stud mill's employees came to work at the new mill--and with 70-80 new people hired in the past year they make up almost half 002mar Simpson 04its total work force of 175. As a result, mill managers and supervisors have been faced with the dual learning curves of bringing experienced employees up to speed on new and unfamiliar technology while having to bring some new employees into the sawmill environment for the first time.

Prior to startup, experienced operators were brought from the older mill and trained on the new equipment. "Except for the skills people, most of our new employees had only limited sawmill experience, so we had to bring them in and educate them, and there have been some learning curves that hindered startup a bit," Barnett says. "But overall most of the employees have done very well.

"I'm pleased with the startup," Barnett continues. "We have high expectations, and I think we've done as well as anybody, especially considering we were starting a whole mill up and not just one or two pieces of machinery."

Barnett notes that the stud mill on site was full of 1960s-era equipment, with an optimized gang edger in 1995 its only new technology. "And in addition to the new technology, we also had the switch from studs to random length lumber," he says. "Even so, I think the employees have done very well, a good job of stepping up to the plate--and they're still learning." (See sidebar below.)

As for any equipment, system or process that proved particularly "challenging" during startup, Barnett says the mill had its share. However, led by Jerry Enslow, project maintenance manager, some of the employees came up with an innovative way to troubleshoot the problems.

"We had some interface problems between optimization systems and PLCs that were like trying to find a needle in a haystack," Barnett says, adding that a 90 lumber transfer 002mar Simpson 05from sawmill trimmer to sorter also caused problems, and the gang was making occasional mis-sets and sometimes curve-sawing when it wasn't supposed to.

"Some of the guys started brainstorming, and we finally went out and bought high-speed digital video recorders, placed them in strategic locations and then we'd go back and slow the video down to frame-by-frame to see what was causing us problems, because most of this stuff happens so fast you can't see it," Barnett says.

At one point, when troubleshooting the sorter, the crew had a camera on the PLC recording the light indicators going off, and another camera on the sorter tipple arms to verify they were in sequence.

In the case of an improper set at the gang, "You'd go check on it, and it was obvious (the mis-set) occurred, but when, how and why it happened you wouldn't know," he says. Using the video equipment has been a big benefit, Barnett adds, "Because now we have hard evidence we can show people when the equipment isn't running up to our expectations."

Barnett emphasizes the hard work and dedication of the maintenance crews when working with electrical and mechanical systems during startup. "They were tenacious about staying with it, even when there was a high frustration level, and they've done a great job for us," he adds.

Mill Flow

Currently, the mill is receiving most of its logs by truck and roughly 20% by water, but the facility has received up to 60-70% of its raw materials via log raft. And when purchasing logs from the Port Angeles or Everett areas, for example, shipping by water is less expensive than trucking.

As much as possible, log handling is accomplished by a massive 35 ton P&H overhead crane that's 850 ft. long with a 330 ft. span, capable 002mar Simpson 06of stacking decks up to 50 ft. The crane has handled up to 130 loads a day. Log rafts are broken down, then brought out of the water one bundle at a time with a side lift. A Wagner log stacker off-loads water logs, then places them in de-watering bunks. The Wagner and Caterpillar wheel loaders also aid in unloading trucks and rolling out logs for scaling.

The mill is making four sorts: a 5-7 in. diameter small log and 8 in. and above large log sort in both Douglas fir and hemlock. Average log diameter (small end) is 8.5-9 in.

The crane feeds logs to the bucking line's initial landing deck, where a Linden quad feeder singulates stems to a 27 in. Nicholson debarker. After debarking, logs flow to a Porter Engineering scanning system and bucking optimizer (Opcon 300 light shadow x-y scan heads) that makes log merchandising decisions and triggers log stops on a dual-line circle saw bucking system designed by Stolberg Engineering.

002mar Simpson 07
Jim Barnett

"The operator here is more of a flow facilitator, making occasional system overrides," says Barnett, noting that even the saw itself is triggered automatically.

After bucking, logs flow to two canter line infeed decks and are sorted based on projected center cant size, with logs holding 4, 6 and 8 in. center cants kicked to one deck and those with 10-12 in. center cants to the other.

The canter line operator regulates mill flow from each deck and ultimately controls all mill flow. Making his job much easier is a bank of video monitors that allows him to see center cants going to the gang, jacket boards going from the bands to the edger and also boards heading toward the trimmer.

By being able to actually see what's going on at each machine center, "The operator can make more informed decisions about mill flow," Barnett says. "For example, if things are getting backed up he can run smaller logs to cut down on the jacket boards and let things smooth out."

From the infeed decks, logs encounter USNR's extended length infeed canter line, where they are first scanned for proper log orientation by a Porter Engineering scanner, then rotated from 5 -350 along a rotation conveyor before being clamped with hold-down rolls, then scanned again to confirm their final positioning before cutting solutions are developed.

(The mill's four Porter Engineering scanning and optimization systems are running the same software, 002mar Simpson 08Porter's RT3 system, and to keep operations and data consistent, each is operating with the same parameters, values, etc.)

Leaving the extended length infeed, logs encounter a set of USNR chipping heads that are mounted on roundways at a 30 angle instead of horizontal. Barnett notes that on the traditional systems with chipping heads moving back and forth horizontally, the occasional large log would ride over the tops of the heads. "The heads are still vertical, but they move uphill at a 30 angle, so even our biggest logs will never go over the tops of the chipping heads."

Leaving the heads, logs pass through a set of three vertical rolls that provide a positive hold as the logs move fully onto a sharp chain and through the USNR 6 ft. high-strain bandmill. Line speed ranges from 250 FPM on large logs to 550 FPM on small logs with chipping-only solutions. According to Barnett, average operating speed is just under 350 FPM.

Cants flow straight to the gang, while sideboards fall and flow to the mill's primary edger, a USNR three-saw unit with USNR scanning and optimization. Barnett says he's always been impressed with USNR's edgers. "They've got an excellent unscrambling system, and I've watched 002mar Simpson 09our edger run 50-60 boards by itself while the operator had to tend to something else for a minute."

The gang processes 4-12 in. two-sided cants up to 20 in. wide. Cants flow under a Porter Engineering scanner/optimizer (Hermary LPS laser scanners), which develops cutting solutions for the mill's 12 in. double arbor Hi-Tech/Comact curve-sawing gang. The 10-saw gang operates with 800 HP on each arbor and 400 HP on each chipping head.

Lumber from the gang flows to a long landing deck that leads to the trimmer. An operator in front of the trimmer singulates pieces and drops out all the obvious reman and defect boards. Remaining lumber flows to a Newnes rotary lug loader, then under a USNR scanner and trimmer optimizer and on to a USNR trimmer.

Leaving the trimmer, lumber flows to a USNR 90 transfer and on to a 52 bin Hi-Tech sorter. Asked about the 90 turn in mill flow, Barnett replies that the requirement to run the existing stud mill as long as possible while building the new mill dictated the design. The stacker, purchased through Hi-Tech, is a Gillingham Best unit that produces 8 ft. wide solid lumber packs.

Lumber that needs drying is moved via 40,000 lb. Hyster forklift to the dry kilns. Drying is done with six double-track USNR units: two each at 120 ft., 108 ft. and 80 ft. kilns, all using a USNR hot-oil heat transfer system that works off direct-fired natural gas burners.

"There were a couple of reasons for that," Barnett says of going with the hot oil system. "First, we're in downtown Tacoma, in an environmentally sensitive area on the water, and we felt that gas burned cleaner than wood-fired boilers. Also, because the hot oil system is high-volume (5,000-6,000 gallons per minute) and low pressure, there are no boiler training or licensed boiler operator requirements."

Though kiln operators have been002mar Simpson 10 able to reduce drying costs by developing their own schedules, recent price spikes in natural gas costs have made it even more important to keep a close eye on drying efficiency.

Kiln capacity is 1.3-1.5MMBF, depending on product. Computerized kiln controls are from USNR. Barnett notes that the different kiln sizes were specified after looking at projected log and product mix. The shorter kilns are used for products that turn over slower, so there's less time required for such products to add up to an efficient kiln charge.

After drying, lumber is transported to the planer mill, where it encounters a Convey Keystone continuous hoist breakdown system at planer infeed. Boards are processed at up to 2,000 lineal FPM by a USNR all-electric planer, which outfeeds to two 20 ft. slowdown belts.

The belts drop lumber on a landing table, which outputs to a three person grading table. Graders are looking primarily for visual and aesthetic defects, while the USNR trimmer scanner and optimizer handle length, width and wane trim decisions. Grade marks are deciphered by a Lucidyne grade mark reader.

Leaving the trimmer (which is also fed with a Newnes rotary lug loader), lumber is grade-stamped, and green products are routed to a TDS Technologies anti-stain spray booth. Boards flow on to a 42 bin Hi-Tech sorter, which feeds a Hi-Tech stacker that has produced as many as 400 lumber units in a 10-hour shift, Barnett says.

After stacking, lumber units go to a Signode plastic strapping bander, then on to a Gemofor automatic paper wrapping machine. Prior to the bander, units cross over an in-line weight scale that's used to keep from overloading rail cars or trucks and also to develop historical data on the weight of green or dry products, or those produced from water-borne wood.

Shipping is primarily by rail--90% when Barnett was contacted for an update in early February. Biggest market is California, especially for green products, but the mill also ships a significant amount of product back East, with Chicago a major market and distribution point.

The mill employs three filers per shift, plus a knife changer, under the direction of head filer Steve Newby. Filing room equipment includes Armstrong Vari-Sharp CNC grinders, Armstrong circle and band saw levellers and Wright face/top grinders. Tipping is done with two Jacobsen Machine high-frequency induction plasma welders.

Band saws are provided by Simonds; circle saws are from Pacific/Hoe. Band kerfs are .150, running both variable pitch and depth designs; round saws are running .140 kerfs. All saws run Stellite tips, and saw runs are five hours each for both circles and band saws. The mill uses the Microridge L-Size lumber sizing system to aid in quality control.

Iggesund Tools supplies and refurbishes parts inventory for the mill's knives, holders and clamps at the canter line and gang chip heads and for the mill's 84 in. slant disc Acrowood residual chipper. Hog fuel is produced with a Valon Kone/CBI Grizzly hog.


Contacted in early February, Simpson Timber Co. Commencement Bay Operations Superintendent Jim Barnett says management expects the mill to produce somewhere between 240-280MMBF this year--contingent on continual improvement.

Operating a full shift and a swing shift in the final stages of ramping up to full employment, it's tough to develop consistent high performance, he says. "We're running six days a week, and employees work four of the six, then have two days off while another employee moves in and takes their job."

Constantly adding new employees means a continuous training loop of bringing new people in at the bottom and moving others into new jobs or positions with more responsibility, Barnett says. "Once we get to the full 120 hours of operation a week with two shifts and stable crews, we'll see a lot more consistency and improvement."

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