New Packaging System Aids Weyerhaeuser Mill

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Samuel Strapping Systems Retrofit Converts Mill to Plastic Strapping Technology for Bundling Lumber

ABERDEEN, Wash. — In a highly competitive business climate with even the most successful companies struggling with thin margins, sawmills must be operated at maximum efficiency in order to be profitable. Small aspects of day-to-day operations can make a significant difference in overall financial performance.

Lumber packaging is one small aspect of mill operations that can have a significant impact on the overall plant. At Weyerhaeuser’s lumber mill near Aberdeen, Wash., the lumber strapping operations package about 300 bundles of mixed hemlock-fir lumber per shift. The high-production facility runs three shifts year-round.

The single packaging line must keep pace with the production of the entire mill, noted Doug Westlund, planer team leader. The reliability of the strapping machinery is essential if the mill is to maintain full production without back-ups or downtime.

Mill management recently decided to upgrade its vintage 1979 strapping equipment. To ensure reliability in the lumber packaging operations, the company chose a Samuel Strapping Systems VK-30 system and also decided to bundle lumber with polyester straps instead of steel bands. (There are more than 2,500 VK-30 heads in service at mills throughout the world.) The changeover has been all the management had hoped for, according to Doug.

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The Weyerhaeuser mill is located in the center of the most productive lumber region in the world, the great fir and hemlock forests of the Pacific Northwest. The mill produces lumber for both domestic and overseas markets.

Over the course of a year, the mill will prepare some 330,000 bundles of lumber for shipment. On bundles up to 12 feet long, two straps are applied. Packages between 12 and 16 feet get three straps, and bundles over 16 feet are banded in four places. Accurate, consistent strapping and properly packaged bundles are critical as lumber is shipped from the plant via rail, truck, barge and ocean-going ships.

Doug has been employed by Weyerhaeuser for 31 years, and steel strapping had been used throughout his entire tenure at the Aberdeen mill. The decision to convert to polyester strapping was made about two years ago. “We were looking at updating our 1979 strapping machine and decided to go with polyester strapping based on cost savings and safety,” said Doug, who has been particularly pleased with the impact of the new technology on safety. “We get fewer cuts and abrasions with plastic, and the plastic strapping is a lot easier to handle due to its lighter weight,” he explained. Safety is an important issue for any mill, of course. At Weyerhaeuser, there are on-going efforts to ensure and enhance workplace safety.

The cost of steel strapping has become a significant factor for sawmills recently, according to Dave Gagnon, Pacific Northwest sales manager for Samuel Strapping Systems. The U.S. imposed tariffs on steel imports earlier this year, he noted.

“The major steel strapping producers have recently passed on increases to their customers,” said Dave. “More increases are expected soon. Faced with these rising costs, many lumber finishing operations have been making the switch to polyester strapping as a viable and cost effective alternative to steel.”

The price of steel is not the only compelling issue when comparing polyester and steel strapping, Dave noted. “Plastic provides a number of other benefits, such as enhanced safety, its non-staining and rusting properties, reduced wear on equipment, and less damage to forklift tires. Jumbo coils of polyester strapping also reduce changeovers and are easier to use. All these benefits add up to reduced costs and greater productivity in a mill.”

Plastic strapping provides many other subtle cost savings that may not be readily apparent, Dave observed. For example, many mills initially were told that they needed grooved dunnage on bundles strapped with polyester. Strapping systems incorporating plastic bands can reduce dunnage costs and the associated costs of special handling and equipment. Shipping weight is also reduced, and mills achieve an incremental reduction in the amount of strapping required per package. While each of these individual savings may be small, especially for one bundle of lumber, they accumulate rather impressively at a mill that ships some 330,000 bundles a year.

The savings generated by converting to polyester strapping can amount to well over 35% on the strapping alone, according to Dave — not counting other tangible yet difficult to measure savings generated by such benefits as reduced shipping weight or reduced lost time from injuries.

When Weyerhaeuser decided to switch from steel to plastic strapping, the company elected to retrofit a machine with a new head rather invest in completely new equipment. Retrofitting is common when companies switch to plastic strapping, according to Dave.

“We can do conversions on almost any existing system regardless of the original manufacturer,” said Dave. “This reduces the costs of a conversion significantly. The retrofit of an old machine can generally be done in two days. In most areas of North America, Samuel Strapping Systems’ service is readily available as are our experienced, well prepared retrofit teams. We make every effort to make the conversion trouble free for the customer.”

Some mills have had a poor experience with plastic strapping in the past, Dave noted, because of the size of the strapping material. “Many mills that have tried 5/8-inch polyester strapping in the past and failed are now successfully running it with the high tension VK-30 and high strength Samuel polyester,” he said. “Because of the cost and safety advantages, this is a great time to revisit the polyester strapping program if you tried 5/8-inch strapping in the past without success. The nice thing about this particular strapping head is that it can run either 5/8, or for more demanding applications, such as Weyerhaeuser Aberdeen, the head can be easily adjusted to run ¾-inch polyester.”

Weyerhaeuser’s experience with at its Aberdeen mill demonstrates the success and benefits that a company can reap by converting from steel to polyester strapping. “We are extremely pleased with the performance of the Samuel VK-30 strapping head,” said Doug. “The head has proven to be over 99 percent reliable.”

In addition to proving reliable, the Samuel Strapping Systems equipment has provided other benefits, Doug added. “We use the larger jumbo coils, which are real nice to have due to the minimal change time with them. Plastic also feeds much better than steel, and we have less waste with the plastic strapping than we had with steel. The plastic strapping also is easier to dispose of both here and for our customers.”

The sluggish economy and tough competition in recent years have led modern sawmills to look for ways to make incremental improvements in production and reducing costs. Changes in material pricing, technological advances made by companies like Samuel Strapping Systems, and the need for safety have combined to create a considerable opportunity for mill managers. As demonstrated at Weyerhaeuser in Aberdeen and many other mills worldwide, shifting from steel strapping to plastic has the potential to enhance productivity, reduce costs, and improve service to customers.