Small Production Mill Goes High Tech with INOVEC

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Superior Michigan Hardwoods Optimizes Head Rig with INOVEC’s YieldMaster StereoScan

NIAGARA, Wisconsin — Strategies for operating successful businesses come in all kinds of configurations with no one-size-fits-all guide to keeping things profitable.
Yet, the basics are the same when it comes to deciding how to spend money in order to make money: capital expenditures must show a return on investment.
When Shawn Staples, owner of Superior Michigan Hardwoods, realized increased yield by putting a light-curtain scanner on his head rig carriage, he was pleased. It did not take him long to conclude he might do even better with another investment in state-of-the-art technology. Shawn figured he could further increase yield with three-dimensional scanning.
In the span of a single year, Shawn paired INOVEC® YieldMasterTM Eas­AlignTM light-curtain scanning with his head rig carriage and then upgraded to the INOVEC StereoScanTM 3-D log scanning system. Once he experienced the improvements with the light-curtain scanning, Shawn was confident he would increase recovery even more with INOVEC’s 3-D system.
“We produce two and one-half million board feet per year,” said Shawn. “The focus is quality, not quantity. We’re 100 percent Northern hardwood.” Superior Michigan Hardwoods sells its lumber production rough green.
The goal in optimizing the head rig was primarily to increase yield, and the goal was easily met. “Our production hasn’t changed,” said Shawn. “We just produce more with less.”
Shawn established Superior Michigan Hardwoods in 1980 with his father, Richard who died in 1989. Father and son shared a love of wood products, and when Shawn graduated from high school in 1979, he and Richard decided to launch Superior Michigan Hardwoods. “My dad worked for Weyerhaeuser for 20 years, and then he went to work for Cleveland-Cliffs,” said Shawn. Richard worked mostly in sales and management and also did work on the side as a lumber grader.
Superior Michigan Hardwoods has four employees, including one who works half-time in the mill and half-time as a saw filer. The sawmill, which sits on a 10-acre site, is heated in winter by an in-floor thermal system.
Superior Michigan Hardwoods owns 3,200 acres of timberland that is managed on a 15-year cycle. Prior to 1993, the company bought timber from other landowners. On company-owned land, Superior Michigan Hardwoods performs select cuts. Trees are felled by hand with Husqvarna chain saws, limbed and bucked, and a Timberjack forwarder moves the logs out of the woods. All trucking is contracted.
Superior Michigan Hardwoods lost most of its equipment in a fire in 2001. An HMC debarker and a Dahl wood-fed boiler survived, and both are still in use.
Maple, oak, ash, basswood and other hardwood logs are debarked and then stored indoors until they are sawn. Rebuilding after the 2001 fire, Shawn constructed an enclosed area big enough to contain the entire green chain.
When he rebuilt the mill, Shawn bought a new Cleereman carriage. It was paired with the INOVEC YieldMaster optimization system and EasAlign scanning in 2003. A year later, he upgraded his light-curtain to INOVEC’s StereoScan 3-D log scanning system.
(Now, nearly all INOVEC YieldMaster optimization systems come standard with INOVEC StereoScan. INOVEC has installed more than 170 StereoScan systems to date.)
As the log travels toward the saw, the high-speed 3-D lasers of StereoScan provide a sawyer a good look at the log. As a result, the carriage does not have to stop for as much as an instant as the scanning system measures the contours and taper of the log, adjusting the knees on the fly.
A forklift is used to load the logs on the carriage, and they are sawn on a McDonough 6-foot bandmill. The sawyer also operates the Cedar Creek Enterprises vertical edger, which is equipped with laser guides.
The arrangement of the head rig and edger required some give and take. The INOVEC scanning and optimization system was installed “back a little bit” to accommodate the edger, Shawn explained. The layout gives the sawyer an unobstructed view of both the head rig and edger, which was purchased from Cleereman Industries.
The machinery layout illustrates the kind of approach Shawn takes to the mill. “One of our big ideas is to keep everything as simple as possible,” he said. The philosophy extends to every facet of the mill, including restricting the number of ancillary products.
The company sells low-grade material out of the heart of the log. It cuts cants, 1×6 and other material that is sold to another company that remanufactures it into pallet deck boards and stringers.
Scrap wood is used to fuel the Dahl boiler, and other material is chipped and sold to paper mills. Bark and sawdust are sold for hog fuel.
Most Superior Michigan Hardwoods customers are in the Great Lakes region. The lumber is sold to furniture makers and other businesses. “Everything is sold random width and random length,” said Shawn.
The company works with logs ranging from 8-16 feet long and at least 10 inches in diameter. It processes logs graded No. 1-3 and higher. About 20% of the logs the mill requires come from the company’s timberlands and the remainder is supplied by logging contractors.
Shawn focuses on procurement. Rob Haibig runs the sawmill. In addition to the four employees in the mill, Shawn’s sister, Tami Sexton, staffs the office.
When Shawn was considering optimizing the head rig, he sought advice and suggestions from two people. One was Fran Cleereman, a principal at Cleereman Industries, which is nearby in Newald, Wis. “He’s been around (the industry) forever,” said Shawn.
Fran was confident of optimizing his company’s carriage with the INOVEC controls, and his input was important to Shawn. In addition, INOVEC’s regionally based sales engineer provided everything Shawn required to make a decision based on his mill’s particular needs.
“INOVEC tells me I’m perhaps the smallest mill” with this technology, said Shawn. “But with the price of timber today, you can’t afford to make it into sawdust.”
Installation of both the INOVEC EasAlign and the subsequent upgrade to the StereoScan 3-D scanner went smoothly, according to Shawn. Superior Michigan Hardwoods did all its own mechanical and electrical work and metal fabrication to prepare for the first INOVEC system. Installation of the light-curtain system took about a day and a half. “It was a pretty simple operation to make the switchover” to StereoScan, said Shawn. The increase in yield was immediate. “We gained another three percent in yield over the light curtain with the StereoScan,” said Shawn. The light-curtain system had provided about a 6% increase in yield. “So we’ve recouped about nine percent.”
INOVEC’s technical staff has been responsive to Superior Michigan Hardwoods, which has been important for the company. The mill employees work four 10-hour days, reserving Friday for maintenance, so most employees usually have a three-day weekend. Calls to INOVEC may be made at odd hours, but they are always answered, said Shawn. “We call them 24/7. There’s always someone there to help us.” He described the service from INOVEC as “excellent.”
The INOVEC StereoScan 3-D system for head rig carriages uses laser scanners from LMI DynaVision. The StereoScan’s L4A lasers from DynaVision quickly assess the contour of the log, providing Yield­Master with a 3-D model of the log, which, along with the sawyer’s input, it uses to find the optimal opening face.
With a well-defined and compact operation, Shawn would only consider optimization if it definitely would enhance production and yield and bolster his bottom line. “We’re going on the KISS system ­— ‘keep it small and simple” here, he explained. The YieldMaster StereoScan system has fit right in. “It’s been easier for me,” said Shawn. “I don’t have to buy as many logs.”
The layout of the mill’s head rig and edger is somewhat unique. It contributes to the high recovery and high quality that the modest-size mill was able to achieve even before fully optimizing the head rig.
Prior to adding StereoScan, Superior Michigan Hardwoods already manufactured high quality lumber, and the improved lumber quality resulting from its addition generally was not noticed by customers. However, Shawn and his employees immediately noticed an improvement in their lumber’s appearance.
In choosing an opening face, the sawyer can consider the next board to be sawn or select by face length and width for a particular grade, and so on, maximizing the value of each log.
Recovery already was very high at Superior Michigan Hardwoods, largely because of the emphasis on quality. Still, the addition of the INOVEC technology enabled the company to increase yield by nearly 10%. High production sawmills sometimes report increases of as much 15% or more in yield and grade recovery with the YieldMaster StereoScan system, according to INOVEC.
Superior Michigan Hardwoods buys saw blades from Moraski Saw Works in Powers, Mich. “We run one to two saws per day,” said Shawn.
To ease the work load for the saw filer, Superior Michigan Hardwoods recently invested in new filing equipment. “We bought a hatchet grinder from Moraski,” said Shawn. “We just put in a Simonds AutoBench.”
When Shawn spoke with TimberLine in June, the Simonds AutoBench had been in use for one week. The filer reported that it was meeting expectations and proving to be everything that was needed at the mill, according to Shawn.
Niagara, Wisconsin is located on the Menominee River, which divides the northeastern part of the Badger State from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Home to 1,880 people, Niagara is part of Marinette County. The town is 90 miles north of Green Bay.
The name Superior Michigan Hardwoods conveys a couple of meanings. It stands for a superb product. It also heralds the location of the Niagara, Wis. home to the company, which is nestled in the Lake States land area that falls between Lake Superior to the north and Lake Michigan to the south and east.
In his free time, Shawn enjoys making furniture as a hobby and he uses his father-in-law’s wood-working equipment and shop to do that.
“I’ve been married for 21 years,” said Shawn. “I’ve got a boy and a girl, and I do as much with my family as I can.” His son just graduated to high school and will soon be in college studying forestry. His daughter is a junior in high school.
As for recreational interests, that’s simple to answer, explained Shawn: “Anything that has to do with hunting and fishing,” he said.
Superior Michigan Hardwoods belongs to the Lake States Lumber Association and to the Timber Producers Association. Shawn is committed to wood products, and he is certain he wanted to be in the industry for as long as he can recall. When his father was doing grading on a freelance basis, Shawn helped him.
There’s no question what Shawn enjoys most about his profession. “Definitely, being in the woods,” he said. “In the early years, we logged.” Although Shawn likes logging, managing a successful business means he gets no real opportunity to do cutting these days.