New Florida Pine Mill Surpasses Goals

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Comact Equipment Lines Integral to Success that Revamped Rex Lumber Has Achieved 

GRACEVILLE, Florida — Some companies ignore their histories. Other companies learn from where they’ve been. But Rex Lumber LLC, located in Graceville, Florida, embraces its history.
“Under its present name, Rex Lumber LLC only came about when we built this mill a couple of years ago,” said Arthur Wilson, general manager. “We got the sawmill operational in March (of 2003), and May was one year that we’ve been entirely operational.”
The Rex Lumber story is much older than that. Rex Lumber owned the existing site in the past through three generations of the McRae family. However, the mill was sold in 1980, and Finley McRae went to Bristol, Fla. and built North Florida Lumber Co.
“We were looking to buy another mill,” said Arthur, “but when we heard that US Forest Industries was filing for bankruptcy at the old Rex Lumber site, we decided to look into it. It was a good business decision for us to come back to it, so we bought the mill back. So it came all the way back around, and the McRae family owns it again.”
The equipment was not suitable for today’s lumber industry, however. “What was here was old and outdated, so we tore it down and built a new mill,” Arthur said. “We built the sawmill first and then built the planer mill. The lumber industry was in a real slump at that time, and a lot of people thought we were crazy to build another mill when things were so bad. However, we felt that it was a smart decision because the manufacturers of equipment were also going through a tough time, so they were making some pretty good deals, and we were able to build the mill a lot cheaper than we could today. ”
Today, Rex Lumber’s sawmill processes Southern yellow pine into dimension lumber: 1×4, 2×4, 2×6, 5/4×6 decking, 4×4 timbers and 6×6 timbers. Most of the mill’s output is 2×4 and 2×6.
Rex Lumber’s operations occupy about 40 acres. One large building — 64,000 square feet — houses the sawmill with the log deck, log handling equipment and debarker located outside. The planer mill is in a separate 42,000-square-foot-building.
The company has its own procurement division, North Florida Woodlands, and buys standing timber in north Florida and occasionally Georgia and Alabama. “Our foresters go out and look for tracts to buy,” Arthur said. The company buys timber from private landowners and wood dealers and hires contract loggers to cut the trees and deliver the logs to the mill.
The mill employs about 73 people, including office staff, and runs one shift, 10 hours per day. Rex Lumber produces about 80 million board feet of lumber a year. The company could produce more if it added dry kiln capacity, said Arthur. “I think the mill has more potential,” he said. “Right now we only have two dry kilns, and we can’t miss a beat to dry what we produce.”
The company is in the process of installing a new dry kiln from USNR that was scheduled to be operational in late August. The additional kiln capacity should allow the company to increase annual production to about 100 million board feet, according to Arthur.
Rex Lumber sells primarily to wood treating businesses. Its second most important group of customers is truss plants. “And, of course, wholesalers are in there,” said Arthur, “and you don’t know where it’s going to end up when a wholesaler buys it. We also sell to other people, to ‘mom and pop’ companies, but our biggest customers are treaters and truss plants.”
Rex Lumber’s market is quite large geographically. Although the majority of its lumber is sold to customers in central and south Florida, it also sells to customers as far away as the Northeast and the upper Midwest. The lumber treaters ship their finished products to the big home improvement chains, Home Depot and Lowe’s.
When log trucks arrive at Rex Lumber, they are weighed and then proceed to the unloading area. A 170-foot radius PSI crane unloads the logs and stacks them in a circle around the crane or on a deck to go directly into the mill.
Infeed conveyors supplied by Maxi-Tour, a division of Comact, move logs to the debarker. The conveyors are simple transfer decks with chain runners that move the logs transversely to a wave feeder, a singulating conveyor that feeds into a lineal conveyor that takes the logs the rest of the way to the debarker.
“Our debarker is one of the fastest models out there,” Arthur said. “It’s a Nicholson A-8 debarker, which has a maximum speed of 550 feet a minute.”
From the debarker, logs go onto another Maxi-Tour conveyor and then move to a 130-foot V-Flight scan conveyor, which is also made by Comact.
“That enables us to have a 60-foot log on either side of the optimizer, so we’re not influenced by a conveyor on either end of it,” Arthur said. “Then each log goes through one of Comact’s C-1 lineal scanners and proceeds to a belt conveyor with paddle-type kickers that kicks the log onto a sequence deck.”
Once the log reaches the sequence deck, it moves to the cut-up system. The logs drop to a bottom stage, where a pusher moves the log to an even end, as determined by the scanner, and from there into a PSI trimmer.
“The trimmer works a lot like a board trimmer like you’d see in a sawmill, but instead of small saws, these saws have a 6-foot diameter,” Arthur said. “The saws trim the zero end and cut the log however the optimizer told the trimmer to cut the log. Even if you have a 60-foot log, once it gets onto the PSI system, it positions the log and the saws come down and cut that whole log at the same time.”
The log segments move to the PSI outfeed belts, and from there to another Maxi-Tour conveyer system and through a metal detector. If the metal detector finds any metal contaminants, the log is kicked out of line.
After moving through the conveyor system, a log pusher grabs groups of logs and brings them up to a flat Comact deck that transfers the logs transversely to another Comact wave feeder.
“This wave feeder is very good because it has a gap control and is capable of speeding up and slowing down,” Arthur said. “It can tell when the last log was loaded and when the next one needs to be loaded, so you can keep the same kind of gap between them, which is important if you’re going to get to optimum speed.”
A belt conveyor then takes the logs to another optimizer for auto-rotation. The auto-rotator is part of a system called the Double Length Infeed, or DLI. The DLI takes information from another C-1 scanner and then rotates and positions the log for optimum yield. “This is one of our favorite things in the mill,” Arthur said.
Once the log goes through the auto-rotator, it is ‘read’ by another C-1 scanner in order to set the canter chipper heads and twin band saws on the Comact chip-and-saw. “It can be a chip head only solution, which just chips a face on either side,” Arthur said, “or it can have one or two sideboards on it.”
Sideboards go directly to a Hi-Tech (another Comact company) edger. At the same time, the cant is transversely kicked off by sweep chains onto a sequence deck. Hooks keep the cants separated from each other, and the cants proceed down the deck toward a curve gang saw.
A transverse scanner guides each log onto a centerline chain that goes through a Hi-Tech lineal scanner. “That scanner positions the curve gang to cut either 7/4 or 5/4 boards out of the cant,” Arthur said. “The saw actually moves and cuts with the curve of the cant to get the optimum recovery.”
As the boards move off the gang, an operator separates them according to whether they need to go back to the edger first or on to the trimmer. The lumber is trimmed and then sorted. “The only thing we kept from the old mill was a trimmer and a sorter line and a stacker that they put in six months or so before they went bankrupt,” Arthur said. “So the boards go through another Hi-Tech optimizer and into a St. Rock paddle fence, and from there into the USNR trimmer and the USNR sling-type sorter.”
As the bays are filled, an operator drops them to the haul-out chains, and the lumber goes to the USNR stacker, which has an automatic stick-laying system. The lumber comes out of the stacker, an employee puts a ticket on it, and a forklift driver picks it up and moves it to a dry kiln.
After the lumber is kiln-dried, it is moved to the Hi-Tech planer mill. The rough dry lumber goes through a tilt hoist and is transferred to one of several groups of transfer chains that are independently controlled by a variable-speed drive. They feed into a Coastal planer system that runs about 1,900 to 2,000 linear feet per minute.
Lumber exiting the planer goes to a new Auto Log grader that came on line in July. Boards are sorted and graded, trimmed again if necessary, stacked and wrapped, and then moved to a storage shed to be shipped.
Why the heavy reliance on Comact brands of equipment?
First, Arthur and Finley already were familiar with Hi-Tech and liked the brand. At the same time, PSI was selling its log trimmers through Hi-Tech.
“So we already had a relationship with Hi-Tech and knew them,” Arthur said. “And we liked what we saw at Hi-Tech/Comact. We thought we could get a better deal if we negotiated to have the entire mill built by them. So part of our decision was that we liked the equipment, although we didn’t know how good the DLI with the auto-rotation was until we got it.”
Rex Lumber has been happy with all the equipment in the mill although it has ‘tweaked’ some of it a little to suit exactly what they are doing.
“We’ve made some of their equipment look better than they thought it could look,” said Arthur, “but for the most part we haven’t had to do anything. It all works very well.”
One thing Arthur takes great pride in is the efficiency with which the mill recycles all its residuals. For example, bark goes into a top-loading bin and onto a truck; it is sold to a company that processes it into mulch and potting soil. “The chips go to a paper mill,” Arthur said. “And the sawdust goes to paper mills and other companies that use it for fuel.”
The biggest challenge that Arthur sees ahead for Rex Lumber is keeping raw material costs down and productivity up.
“Lumber prices have come down considerably through the years, and I don’t expect to see real high prices again,” said Arthur. “Sure, we may have a little shot here and there on certain products, but since there are so many sawmills that have gotten better at what they do, the only way for us to be successful is to get the best raw materials cost we can and to have our productivity high. That’s why we built this mill to be a high-production mill. It’s a way for us to survive in a competitive market.”
One key to that, Arthur said, is keeping the equipment well maintained and in good working order. “Maintenance costs can be high, so it’s important to have a good preventive maintenance program,” he said. “We need to do those things right, keep our wood moved, and sell our wood at the best price possible.”
In the near term, Arthur hopes to increase production. With the efficiency of the equipment and addition of the new dry kiln, he expects production to increase soon. “With the new dry kiln, we should push production up to around 1.8 million board feet a week,” said Arthur.
Rex Lumber is doing other things to prepare for the future, said Arthur. “We’ve done so much so fast,” Arthur said. “We’ve just put an autograder in our planer mill, which was part of our five-year plan, and we’ve already done it because the timing seemed to be right.”
In fact, the company is doing so well that it has already achieved — or at least started on — most of the goals in its five year plan, leaving only some grounds improvement and fine-tuning yet to be done.
“The only other thing would be to attain our production goals in less time,” said Arthur.