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Cariboo Tradition Continues

By Jim Stirling
Copyright 1996. Contact publisher for permission to use.

Summary: Quesnel breathes a sigh of relief as Weldwood commits $115 million to replace an aging sawmill and upgrade its plywood plant in the Cariboo community.

The tradition continues between Weldwood of Canada Limited and the city of Quesnel in central British Columbia. A $115-million investment dedicated to the manufacture of high-value wood products means the company and community have ventured into a new phase of their 45-year relationship. The capital investment program is well under way and is split into two major components.

Construction has begun on a $90-million sawmill and planer complex to specialize in producing kiln-dried dimension lumber for Japan and the Pacific Rim, as well as for European and North American markets. It will replace an aged mill that caters strictly to North American markets. Weldwood’s existing softwood plywood plant in Quesnel will also be re-configured and updated at a cost of $25 million. The result will be the first plant in North America to produce 3'X6' quality panel products for the Japanese and Pacific Rim home-building markets.

The plant will retain the flexibility to produce domestic-sized 4'X8' panels as required. Both facilities will became fully operational in 1997. The official announcement of Weldwood’s intentions was good news for Quesnel and ended many months of speculation. Western Plywood, Weldwood’s pre-decessor company, expanded into the Cariboo and Quesnel in 1951, and began converting small-diameter logs into plywood. It’s been doing so successfully ever since. But the rumour mill had, at one point, either one or both plants closing their doors for good with massive job loss and serious community impact.

Weldwood has 625 direct employees in its Quesnel operations, a figure that includes its logging and hauling contractors. The re-alignment of company operations will mean 52 fewer positions. Company officials expect most of these losses to be handled through attrition and layoff of the most junior employees. The IWA - Canada Local 1-424 has been working with plant committees and the company to minimize the impacts on Personnel. Retirement assistance, re-education and severance packages are pursued under an Industrial Adjustment Strategy.

The Quesnel union-management team is benefitting from the experience from a couple of years ago at Weldwood’s lumber mill in Williams Lake, BC, which was forced to close because of fibre shortage. A total of 110 jobs were lost in the sawmill but a co-operative and understanding ap p ro a ch helped make the best of a tough situation. Weldwood’s investment decision was not an easy one. The company’s circumstances in Quesnel had to be placed in the context of global market and product fluctutaions. General manager Wade Zammit puts it succinctly: “Both of our facilities are uncompetitive to the markets.”

The sawmill and planer situated alongside the Fraser River are primarily 1960s vintage. The second Chip ‘N Saw off the production line continues yeoman service in a mill untouched by optimization. A completely new sawmill with state-of-the art equipment producing a wider and high-valued product range for primarily offshore markets was the chosen option. Restriction on softwood lumber entering the US from Canadian provinces affects long-term marketing strategy and encourages diversification.

Drawing “With plywood, we had to decide whether to stay in the business with the onslaught of OSB plants. We knew we couldn’t compete head to head with OSB plants because they have half the costs we do,” summarizes Zammit. OSB capacity is expanding rapidly with new plants coming on stream, affecting conventional sheathing panelboard markets. Weldwood decided to stay in the plywood business with its bold new focus on Japan and the 3 X 6 housing market.

“We have to use a new marketing strategy to insulate us from OSB,” he explains. (The firs t phase of a $14-million upgrade to Weldwood’s Williams lake plywood plant is also underway ). What made the two plant decisions feasible is the company’s SPF fibre resource in the Quesnel area. “We have an excellent resource. Between our TFL and forest licence we have about 600,000 cubic metres annually,” points out Zammit. It is anticipated the re-configured plywood plant and modernized sawmill will consume about 100,000 m 3 of wood less per year than the present facilities. People power came into play in a signif-icant manner once Weldwood had charted the overall direction for its Quesnel operations.

Sixteen teams in each of the sawmill and plywood plants were established. They included the hourly operational people who do the jobs to keep the plants running. The idea was to get them actively involved in the design, selection and specifying the equipment needed in the new plants. It’s a refresh-ing method of training investment that ben-efits all parties. “We’re much encouraged by it,” says Zammit. The initiative was taken in response to employee wishes to become more involved, matched by a corporate commitment to give them the opportunity.

“We three managers totally believed in that,” endorses Zammit, referring to himself, Pat Donnelly, lumber project manager, and Herb Barden, operations manager. “The bottom line is we believe we can make better selections and modifications by having the team process. We believe we’re getting better decisions,” says Barden. It does slow the equipment selection process down, he concedes, and it is costly.

“We’ve taken our employees to Quebec, Texas, Florida and around northern BC to see com-parable pieces of equipment in other plants,” he notes. The three managers emphasize the team approach is no lip-service gesture. It was the front-line people who challenged the eight-tray sorting system envisaged for the planer mill. The team’s arguments were convincing and a 35-bin sorter was instead put on the shopping list.

“There were significant changes and major savings to the core com-posers in the plywood mill and in the scope of the steam plant because of participation of the teams,” offers Barden. The re-configuration of the plywood plant allows some equipment to be retained. Upgrades along with new installations and infrastructure spending are necessary to accommodate the 3 X 6 panels. “ The log conditioning method will change from steam to a hot-water recycling system that will bring environmental and efficiency improvements,” explains Barden. The lathe and main breakdown line will be re-configured and updated by Coe and Durand-Rauté to handle the 6' panels. Two dry veneer stacking systems, each with eight bins for automatic grading and stacking, will be added to the plant, along with three core composers. An automatic re-config-ured lay-up line will deliver the 3 X 6 panels to the existing press. The plant will have a completely new finishing end, continues Barden. Conveyors will take the product from the press to a Durand/Progressive saw line and a Durand-Rauté grading line with Kimwood sander. The plant building is being expanded and a warehouse is being added. The steam plant will be rebuilt and existing beehive burners will be phased out. Barden notes the number of panels produced will increase, despite a decrease in the volume of fibre consumed.

Stolberg Engineering is plywood plant con-sulting engineer and forecasts the plant should remain operational during re-config-uration for a spring 1997 start-up. Weldwood already has a presence in Japanese plywood and maintains an office in Tokyo. But Barden concedes the company faces a huge marketing challenge by immers-ing itself in the 3 X 6 traditional home con-struction method for floors, roofs and walls.

The new sawmill is being built on a site between Cariboo Pulp and Paper Company’s plant and the Quesnel River. Weldwood is an equal partner in Cariboo Pulp with Daishowa - Marubeni International Ltd. A three-line log merchandising system will separate material for both the upgraded plywood plant and the new sawmill/planer. “The three loader-fed merchandising decks will be optimized and they are going to be asked to make grade selection for peelers, CLS and export sizes,” outlines project man-ager Donnelly. The mill will handle from 2" tops to 25" butts. Grade bins will handle six diameter classes plus the two line feeds to the mill and reject bin. Peelers will be trans-ported to the plywood plant. The merchandising decks are designed by Anthony-Seaman working in consultation with the in-house merchandising team. Decisions on the optimizing system, as with other mill equip-ment, have not been completed.

“We first want to get the physical footprint of the mill established. The optimization will follow,” says Donnelly. A 9 X 40 drum debarking facility capable of whole log chipping will handle pulp logs and material like t ops and butts. Two Nicholson A5 debarkers, one 17" and the other 27", will have centering infeeds to reduce stem breakage and machine wear and tear, continues Donnelly. A 28" Optimil canter quad with double-length infeed and scanning/ optimization before and after auto-rota-tion will break down a wide variety of log diameters. At press time, the optimizing system had not been chosen. Downstream will be an 8" McGeehee vertical double-arbor edger with shifting saw capabilities and a McGeeHee 12" horizontal double arbor machine for larger cants. No decisions had been made on the board edger line, the 48" re-saw capability, the trimmer optimizer and the 100 bin sorter. The planer will be a close neighbor to the sawmill building and will feature a 20-knife Newman Whitney machine. Also included will be a grading line and a 35-bin sorter. The stacking and packing end will include a tilt hoist capable of handling 5' X 14' packages.

Trim blocks will be recovered and sold for finger-jointing. The sawmill and planer buildings will be supplied by Behlen Industries of Calgary, and five dry kiln units are anticipated. Donnelly says at least 50 per cent of pro-duction in a wide variety of widths will be directed into housing components in Japan and other Pacific Rim markets. The balance in North Anerican CLS sizes will go to high-valued products like laminating grades.

He adds Weldwood is committed to creating a safe and clean working environment. Scheduled start-up dates are April/May 1997 for the merchandising decks, July for the sawmill and August for the planer. In addition to merchandising deck design, Anthony-Seaman is also engineering consultant for the sawmill, as well as primary elec-trical and sawmill electrical. Woodpro Engineering in Kamloops, BC is responsible for planer mill engineering with Westwood Electric Ltd. of Vernon, BC providing elec-trical engineering in the planer mill.


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