Hitting its stride
Sunpine's LVL plant in Alberta is hitting its stride following a $10-million value-added investment and acquisition by International Paper.
By Tony Kryzanowski
The recent $10-million investment in a header and long span beam line at the Sunpine Forest Products laminated veneer lumber (LVL) plant near Rocky Mountain House, Alberta marks a significant turning point in the facility's short, but storied, history. Introduced as the world's first continuous-flow LVL plant in 1998, the press only achieved full design production capacity of 325 cubic feet of LVL per hour at the end of 2000.
The past two years have also witnessed a number of changes in the ownership structure. Privately-held Sunpine Forest Products was purchased by Weldwood of Canada, which in turn was taken over by integrated forest products giant International Paper (IP) of Stamford, Connecticut when IP purchased Champion International. Weldwood was a division of Champion. Since 1998, competition has also arrived.
Three more continuous-flow LVL plants have started production, with two more on the drawing board. This brings the total number of LVL plants in North America to 22. LVL is an engineered wood product that is marketed as a solid wood and steel replacement-primarily for long span beams, headers, I-joists and columns in residential to light industrial building construction. It also has potential for use in the manufacture of roof trusses. Research and development continues on a number of fronts as to LVL's almost limitless potential as a solid wood substitute.
LVL consists of layers of wood veneer glued together in a particular sequence to achieve a prescribed strength and thickness. Sunpine's facility can manufacture LVL in thicknesses from 3/4 inch to 3.5 inches, comprised primarily of lodgepole pine and spruce veneer. Previously, the company shipped its 48- and 60-foot-long billets to a header and beam manufacturing facility in Edmonton. Each billet measures four feet wide. However, that value-added process is now taking place at Sunpine's new 45,000-square-foot building addition at its Rocky Mountain House LVL plant.
Production superintendent Al Simcoe described the previous situation as an "at risk" relationship, where the company was dependent upon an outside contractor. Initially, Sunpine had intended to integrate a header and beam, as well as an I-joist, manufacturing line into the LVL facility. However, learning to produce quality LVL on a consistent basis using new continuous flow technology took longer than anyone anticipated.
Furthermore, as a smaller independent company, Sunpine had limited financial resources for further expansion. Now that the company has achieved full press ramp up and added a further 10 per cent press production capacity to 360 cubic feet of LVL per hour, management feels it is prepared to take on the additional challenge of handling the header and beam production process in-house.
"We've taken the press up to 360 cubic feet per hour with a bunch of modifications to our microwaves, lay-up drives and motors, as well as gearbox reconfigurations and redesign," says Simcoe. "We are going to continue to push towards 400 cubic feet." Simcoe adds that the overall plant design is solid, with the company only spending money over the past four years on bits and pieces to improve equipment performance. It really achieved productivity gains by implementing a new job performance strategy.
Trent House, the mill's engineered wood products maintenance supervisor, agrees. "I think most of our gains were achieved through downtime tracking, reacting to those problems and working toward team building so that production and maintenance came together to operate the plant as one group," he says.
The plant has also undergone fourexpansion phases since 1993 when it began as a green veneer plant. So, having the past four years to focus on learning to manufacture quality LVL-without the distraction of yet another major capital project-has also benefited the company. Sunpine's recent investment in a header and long span beam line has already yielded significant savings in transportation costs alone.
Previously, billets were shipped two hours north to Edmonton, unloaded, processed to specified header and beam sizes, then shipped back south where 95 per cent of the market exists. "Our new in-house facility also gives us the ability to saw with equipment specially designed to maximize recovery and minimize loss," says Simcoe. "Our reman area will allow us to recapture fall down material for value-added products."
Plant manager Chris Baby says that, in addition to gaining more control over production and achieving better optimization, there are a couple of significant environmental dividends that have resulted from this investment. Better optimization will result in a one per cent improvement in waste recovery. Since the header and beam line is slated to produce between 2.8 and three million cubic feet of product per year, that is a waste reduction of between 28,000 and 30,000 cubic feet annually.
Also, manufactured products are now wrapped and strapped only once before being shipped to customers. Sunpine's LVL plant consists of four main production areas: a green veneer line, a dry veneer line, an LVL manufacturing line, and the new header and long span beam line. The green veneer line operates 24 hours a day, five days a week.
The dry veneer and LVL lines operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with the majority of production being 1 3/4 inch thick billets Durand-Raute supplied the major equipment components on the green veneer line, Coe on the dry veneer line, while CTC supplied the primary production equipment on the LVL line, built around a Dieffenbacher continuous flow press. The main advantage of continuous flow versus batch LVL production is speed. It operates twice as fast as a batch production process.
Sunpine is capable of producing seven different products based on strength characteristics on its LVL line, in a variety of thicknesses. A major advantage to LVL over solid wood is that different species of wood veneer can be mixed in one LVL billet to achieve specific strength specifications.
USNR and Signode supplied equipment for the header and long span beam production line. Billets from the press are delivered to the header and beam line where they encounter an unstacker. Billets proceed down a roller system toward a ripsaw that cuts each billet to specified depths according to customer orders. Then each unit is graded and inspected for defects. Once approved, a wax coating is applied. It is then strapped, stacked and cut to length. Simcoe says between 70 and 80 per cent of production is ripped to depths of 9.5, 11 7/8ths, 14 and 16 inches. "Essentially, we are competing with dimension lumber in 2x10, 2x12, 2x14 and 2x16 sizes," he says.
Because Sunpine can manufacture an LVL header or long span beam up to 3.5 inches thick, it can replace a long span of solid wood, where in most instances a number of 2x10s would be nailed together to achieve a prescribed strength specification. At present, LVL has secured between 50 and 55 per cent of the residential and light industrial market for header, beam and I-joists flooring applications in North America.
International Paper's acquisition and commitment to grow its engineered wood products business as recently as last summer has injected new enthusiasm into Sunpine's operations. Plant manager Chris Baby says the nature of the engineered wood products business requires that companies make a significant commitment to customer support.
"For a private company to do that, it means an investment into a lot of extra people and a lot of expertise that is difficult for a smaller company to attract," he says. "Whereas companies like Weldwood or International Paper are well recognized in the industry and because of this can attract highly skilled, experienced people." International Paper has also integrated its engineered wood products operations under one umbrella, meaning that Sunpine has a close working relationship with another International Paper LVL plant in Thorsby, Alabama.
All sales and marketing of engineered wood products is handled by a single group and both facilities report to one general manager. "That's a healthy thing," says Baby. "We can take advantage of each other's operational best practices-anything from production, to safety, quality, sales and product offerings." Also, each facility can develop products that fit well with its fibre resource and production technology.
For example, the Alabama plant already has an I-joist assembler production line. The addition of a header and long span beam line in Alberta provides IP with a stronger product package. A coordinated effort on the sales front with a more complete product offering has already yielded positive employment results for Sunpine in Rocky Mountain House, with new shifts added. "Marrying our products has been a real boost for us," says Baby.
The addition of the header and long span beam line has created 11 new positions. Each new employee spent about a week in Alabama, training on that plant's I-joist production equipment. It helped them acquire the general production principles needed to operate the Alberta plant's line effectively. Affiliation with a large company like International Paper has also provided Sunpine with a larger pool of capital.
Further production expansion in Alberta is a definite possibility. "An I-joist and finger joint plant here is something that is out there," says production supervisor Al Simcoe. "As opportunities present themselves, we will look at additional press capacity." With the plant's association with its sister facility in Alabama, additional value-added manufacturing would likely be designed around products that complement the company's existing product lines or expand on its existing capacity based on market requirements.
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