By Joe Rankin
Forests for Maine's Future Writer
Watching the edger-optimizer at Robbins Lumber Co.'s pine mill in Searsmont induces, first, a gee whiz reaction at the sheer, well, efficiency of it, followed by a sort of hypnotic state.
Whoosh . . . a board or boards shoots out of the center, the guides shifting position to accommodate them, while the trimmed edges shoot off to the sides, dropping a level to a conveyor that leads to the chipper.
Whoosh . . . whoosh . . . whoosh. The boards keep coming, and going. On to the trimmer. The edger's rhythm is almost metronomic. Kind of spooky, since the machine seems to be running itself.
Welcome to the sawmill of the 21st century: a high tech uber machine. A virtual organism of efficiency and automation. These days computers, conveyors, scanners, lasers, digital cameras, and bar coding systems do most of the work. The saws are flexible bandsaws. There are employees, but they seem to be here mainly to double check the computers and intervene if there's a problem.
It's a far cry from the primitive sawmills of settlement times, or even the circular sawmills common only a few decades ago.
And all this technology is directed at one end: efficiency, says the Robbins mill's Sawmill Manager Jeffrey D. Caswell, as he leads the way up and down and through the levels of the 130-year-old company's cavernous and sprawling mill, a mill that saws 28 million board feet of pine a year as well as tons and tons of byproducts such as bark, sawdust and shavings.
“It's all about having less sawdust and chips out out the door and more lumber go out the door,” said Caswell.
“These days virtually every task that happens in a sawmill has something of technology about it,” said Lloyd Irland of Wayne, a forest economist and the president of The Irland Group, “and frequently it's pretty high end stuff. It's just amazing computerization, process controls and tracking, quality control, inventory control. And that's not even talking about all the computerization and sophistication that controls the machines themselves.”
Of course, technology has wormed its way into every manufacturing process in almost every corner of the globe, making it faster and cheaper to make almost anything.
But, said Irland, “the lumber business is a special case. If you think about it, the end product is a pretty low tech product – a 2 by 4 or a 2 by 8 16 feet long, say. That's pretty basic. But it just takes a lot of high tech to manufacture it.”
The computers are only one of the sophisticated technologies that make the modern sawmill possible, Irland points out. There are also things like “really capable metals” for planing, saws and chippers; hydraulics to operate machinery and do the heavy lifting, especially the head rig; sensing technologies to run a drying kiln; moisture meters; metal detectors that tell if a log is hiding a blade-ruining nail, horseshoe or twist of barbed wire.
And, if you're taking a tour of a modern sawmill, you might not even see much of this stuff. “Metal detectors. That's something you don't really notice when you tour a sawmill,” said Irland. “It's probably just a big box somewhere. That is probably not really high tech, either, but it's high tech compared to 50 years ago. And it's an additional item of what technology allows you to do.”
At Robbins Lumber, and most other large sawmills, lasers, working in tandem with a computer, scan a debarked log and turn it in the head rig so it's optimally placed to yield the most lumber, as shown in a graphic on a computer screen. Then the log, dogged in the carriage, zips back and forth through a double-edge broad-blade bandsaw, boards falling to the side to be carried away down the line. The log is flipped up, down and around in the rig until it's squared up, then sent on its way to a re-saw station, where more saws turn the rest of it into boards.
“It's like a big video game,” said Caswell of the head-rig operator. “The guy running it has two joysticks, each with five or six thumb buttons, each with a grip trigger, and two foot pedals. Now, when I'm looking for someone to run it, you get a good video gamer, they'll master that in a week.”
For sawmills, the technological revolution has been accelerating for more than three decades, said Jason Brochu, vice president and owner of Pleasant River Lumber Co. in Dover-Foxcroft, which produces tens of millions of board feet of pine boards and framing lumber at its three sites.
“It started with major mechanical improvements that created efficiencies by eliminating positions and replacing them with equipment,” Brochu said.
Now “it's more focused on information technology and using it to improve yields. The amount of production per person has improved dramatically throughout the years as this technology has been implemented. Some of the ideas had been around for years. But only in the last 10 years or so have the computers become fast enough to handle the ideas.”
Sometimes, no matter how familiar you are with a modern sawmill, it's hard not to be impressed.
Irland remembers touring a mill in British Columbia a few years ago.
“There was a big log sorter, a long narrow conveyor. An automatic detector told the chop saw where to cut and then the pieces were different lengths. What amazed me about this damn machine was, I went over there to look at it, and there was nobody watching it. It was totally automated. There was a guy in a blue technician's smock who wasn't paying any attention to it. His head was buried in a big box of wires. It's a wonderful image.”
That technology, which marries high speed digital cameras, computers and saws to saw, trim, sort, and grade boards is today in use at Robbins Lumber, Pleasant River Lumber and most other big Maine mills. And it is impressive in action.
Brochu said he still finds it fascinating. He said the so-called “vision optimization” technology in use at Pleasant River can scan boards at a rate of one a second. “We have had this technology since 2008 and it has resulted in a number of efficiencies for our company.”
However, some of the advances in productivity have come from simply repurposing technologies in use in other industries. Bar coding, for instance. Caswell said Robbins sticks bar code labels on stacks of rough lumber headed into the drying kiln and relabels stacks after the lumber is planed. The codes spell out the contents of each stack. “We know what lumber is in the process of drying, what lumber is finished drying, and what has been sold,” he said. “Just this year we started bar coding loads of logs so we can keep better track of inventory.”
Of course, all this technology doesn't come cheap. Maine mills, as well as their counterparts all across the U.S. and Canada, have spent big bucks on new equipment and the buildings to house it over the past couple of decades.
Robbins Lumber's latest big project, in 2005, was an $8 million addition to its mill building and the new trimming, sorting and stacking machinery to fill it, said Caswell.
Pleasant River has invested $14 million since 2004, said Brochu.
The company's ongoing projects include installation of a high-tech optimized slashing system that cuts trees into log length, and a large fixed mount crane. That $3 million project will improve accuracy and efficiency in the log yard and mill, he said. Pleasant River is also installing optimization equipment at a pine mill the company bought just this year, as well as a new high efficiency dry kiln and a sawdust fired boiler.
The results of all this investment: mills that can get more lumber from each log, use smaller logs, produce lumber faster with far fewer employee injuries. And fewer employees period.
Yes, modern sawmills employ fewer people. A lot fewer than they did not so long ago.
The Maine Future Forest Economy Project's 2005 report on Current Conditions and Factors Influencing the Future of Maine's Forest Products Industry noted that Maine sawmill employment fell from 2,369 in 1997 to 1,786 five years later. But, and this is a big but . . . “Maine mills have become noticeably more productive per employee,” boosting annual output per worker by 13 percent in the five years preceding 2002, the report said. It added that “This . . . is likely the net effect of capital investments made during the late 1990s.”
Experts say that technological investment by Maine sawmills has led to a far safer workplace, and jobs that pay better.
“You don't have the injuries and deaths in logging and the sawmills that you did. Because so much equipment is doing that work now,” said Irland.
“Communities have fewer jobs but they're better paying jobs,” he added. “The way to look at it in these kinds of industries, where the competition, both globally and domestically is just cutthroat, is that the choice is not between a hundred jobs and 80 jobs, the choice is between 80 jobs and zero. If we didn't get more productive and trim back to 80 we'd go out of business entirely.”
Researchers on the Maine Future Forest Economy Project put it this way six years ago: “While capital investment may lead to loss of some jobs, it is a key component of the future success of Maine's sawmill sector,” leading to increased output, more efficiency, or even new products.
“Maine has comparatively high electricity and labor costs, and one way that mills can control these costs is through the use of technology,” the report's authors noted. “In order for Maine mills to be competitive in the global marketplace, mills will need to use technology to control costs and be as efficient and productive as possible.”
Or, as Caswell bluntly puts it: “The sawmills that don't embrace the technology aren't going to be around in 10 years.”
Which begs the question: isn't there are technology plateau looming not so far off, where the costs will outweigh the gains in efficiency?
“Not a chance,” said Pleasant River's Brochu.
“Our industry has had an incredible history of using technology to create efficiencies. Even in today's global economy the work is continuing. As the economy improves it will accelerate. A very short time ago image optimization was a dream. Now it is not only commonplace, it is becoming more economical and mills can start expanding its use into other aspects of their operation.
“The same thing will happen with something like x-ray technology. There is a tremendous advantage to being able to see inside a log before opening it up. This advantage is great enough for equipment companies to spend a lot of R&D money to figure it out. I expect a lot of progress to be made in this area as the economy improves and R&D budgets increase.”
Forests for Maine's Future writer Joe Rankin lives, farms and works his woodlot in New Sharon, where his modest dreams of owning a high tech sawmill feature a used Woodmizer.