|Simpson Timber Co. invests
in its own future with the company's gleaming new sawmill on
Puget Sound's Commencement Bay.
|| By Dan Shell|
They all say
the same thing, reports Simpson Timber Co. Commencement Bay
Operations Superintendent Jim Barnett, who mentions that the 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
In '99 the group was granted approval for the
project's capital expenditure, and site work began late 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 manager during design and
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
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 its 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
"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
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 from 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.
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 of 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.
"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, Porter's RT3 system, and to keep operations and
data consistent, each is operating with the same parameters, values,
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 our edger run 50-60 boards by itself
while the operator had to tend to something else for a
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
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
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
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
Though kiln operators have been 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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