Optimization in Action: State- of-the-Art Sawmill and Plantation Benefit from Leading Technology and Science

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Green Operations: Oregon sawmill focuses on sustainability and innovation by processing new hybrid, fast-growing trees while reducing environmental impact.



Boardman, OREGON – Whether the focus is on the sustainable hybrid poplar trees that grow to 110 feet in just 12 years, or on the leading edge optimization technology that delivers maximum recovery of this fresh new material, state-of-the-art is a term that was certainly top of mind for me with respect to Collins Upper Columbia Mill and the surrounding Boardman Tree Farm, located three hours east of Portland in Morrow county, Oregon. The unique properties of the hybrid poplar material required special attention to equipment selection, including the choice of dry kilns.

The story of the Upper Columbia Mill began several years ago, when Lee Jimerson of Collins was asked if he would be interested in overseeing the marketing of a new product – those fast growing hybrid poplars that populate the Boardman property. Lee jumped at the opportunity to build an entire marketing campaign for a fresh product in the mature forest products industry, starting with the creation of a new name – Pacific Albus. “It’s been a fun ride,” he said, now the Pacific Albus product manager for Collins. The material is a great fit for many industries, including a number of pallet applications.

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Jimerson, who currently also serves as president of the Western Hardwood Association, plays a very active role in the industry, as well as in many community initiatives. Immediately after my interview with Jimerson, for example, he was headed downtown to volunteer at a large fundraiser for Salmon Safe, a non-profit organization he has chaired in the past.

Key to the operation is the 24,000 acre Boardman plantation, which processes those hybrid poplars bred to excel in important respects such as rapid growth, economy of water requirements and ability to withstand that strong wind from the East. At Boardman, the entire cycle is designed to be sustainable, based on a process of harvesting roughly 2,000 acres per year on a 12-year rotation. GreenWood Resources, which manages the plantation, partners with Collins in the operation. Collins was contracted by GreenWood Tree Farm Fund to build the state-of-the-art Upper Columbia Mill, run it, and market its products.

Following the principles of The Natural Step, care was taken to make the plantation and mill as sustainable as possible, with an eye toward optimization of recovery, as well as a steady supply of plantation timber. The sawmill is located on the farm, which dramatically reduces inbound logistics. On the outbound side, the planer mill is located nine miles away, at the Port of Morrow, giving it immediate options for barging containers to the Port of Portland and highway shipping options. There is also a Union Pacific siding at the planer mill for rail shipment.

Innovation is ongoing in terms of hybrid plant varieties utilized and planting techniques. For example, the plantation previously planted 12-inch “sticks.” A few years ago, plantation managers came up with a better idea. By leaving stumps after harvest, new shoots would grow quickly from them, enabling the planting of 18-foot cuttings, which in turn shaves two years off of the growth cycle.

Initially a pulpwood play, earlier investors such as Potlach and Boise Cascade (Potlach owned one parcel and Boise Cascade, the other) sold their Boardman properties in the face of an unattractive pulpwood outlook. The parcels were purchased by the GreenWood Tree Farm Fund in 2007, which turned its attention to timber opportunities for the plantation. The $35 million sawmill was opened in September 2008, and a veneer mill was added in 2013. The mill currently runs with approximately 90 employees, averaging 70 hours per week production. Total output is around 60 million board feet per year, with plans to increase that number to 80 million in the next few years.

Upper Columbia Mill only needs a limited log yard, because the flow of incoming Pacific Albus logs is synchronized with milling requirements. Chip logs are then sent through a whole log chipper. At the mill, sawlogs are initially fed through a Nicholson debarker, then analyzed by the optimization system, including a linear scan, one on each side, from two JoeScan scan heads.

One particular challenge to this type of material, the Pacific Albus trees have sinuosity, which is a slight bend in the log every 10-12 feet. This is because the trees grow 10-12 feet per year and the new year’s growth comes from a new leader. To make the best of this characteristic, the company installed a Westcoast Industrial log merchandiser which maximizes fiber recovery based on the geometry of the logs. The optimization system calculates the optimal crosscuts in lengths of 8, 10, 12 or 13 feet to get the best yield.

The optimization system at Upper Columbia Mill was designed by Nelson Bros Engineering (www.millsmart.com), and includes a single integrated system that oversees merchandising, gang, board edge and trimmer operations. When the mill was built, Collins was looking for a system that would be easy to use and maintain by the plant maintenance staff. They decided on Nelson Bros, which delivers an effective approach deploying the same solution across all four production centers involving JoeScan scan heads and a uniform interface.

“We base our products around the philosophy that simple is smart, meaning that we supply a system that has the fewest number of parts, it is easy to interface with, and easy to maintain,” explained Jeff Nelson, President of Nelson Bro. Their approach is to include ‘everything that’s necessary and nothing that is unnecessary.’ Simply put, the Nelson optimization system consists of 2 desktop computers which communicate over a local area network (LAN) to a number of JoeScan scan heads and the PLC. The system eliminates the need for any custom communications interface.

“We really like to emphasize simplicity,” Jeff stated in regards to their approach to optimization, “but not at the sacrifice of performance. We are at the top of the game with regard to scanning accuracy, optimization speed and recovery.”

As for scan heads, Jeff noted that Nelson Bros uses JoeScan exclusively because of their their track record of reliability and their ease of use, in conjunction with their affordable price. Initially, he commented, JoeScan was the only scan head supplier with an ethernet interface. “Nobody has ever asked us to use another head, and we probably wouldn’t if they did,” Jeff continued. “Older (non-JoeScan) systems would use a custom proprietary interface. Ethernet allows you to use readily available cable and network switches.”

“We opted to use the JoeScan heads because we had good success with them in our other mills,” Jimerson added. “We are so are familiar with them, and they are a good value!”

With the sawlogs now debarked and bucked, they are processed through a Comact primary breakdown machine. Utilizing three sets of scanners, the twin band saws are positioned to cut the side boards and center cant.

From there, the cants are fed into a Timber Machine Technologies curve gang, which further maximizes yield from cants that have side sweep. The TMT curve gang has the added benefit of reducing slope-of-grain in the finished lumber. At this point in the line, jacket boards are dispatched to the Optimil three-saw edger.

Prior to passing through the gang saw, which runs at up to 500 feet per minute, two JoeScan scan heads, located on each side of the cant, provide the basis for an optimal cutting solution.

At the edger, boards are profiled from the side by two additional scan heads, creating a profile of the entire length. The system then directs the edger where to cut to make the board. Running at 1,250 lineal feet per minute, scan head speed and reliability are imperative.

Moving to the trimming operation, several scan heads profile the complete boards transversely – from three different angles. The system determines the optimal tradeoff between board quality and length. The same information is used in the sorting process, which then directs boards to one of 15 bins.

With initial milling completed, product is then moved to the kilns and planer facility, located nine miles from the sawmill at the Port of Morrow. This operation makes use of pre-existing steam from the PGE Coyote Springs Electrical Co-Gen facility, thereby eliminating the necessity of installing a boiler. In particular, Jimerson is very happy with their nine SII dry kilns. Lumber that goes into the kilns weighing 5 lbs. per board foot comes out at just 1.9.

The Collins project team decided to go with SII kilns after careful evaluation. “Populus species are prone to wet pockets during kiln-drying,” Jimerson explained. “That is why we selected SII’s side loading kilns with 72-inch fans located in a “center fan wall” design.” This design creates the most uniform airflow available which reduces the potential for wet pockets after drying. The 8’ wide units, and only two units side-by-side allows the loading of 16 feet of lumber on each side of the fan wall. Developing a kiln cycle with ample conditioning and equalization periods is also important.

Pacific Albus is aimed at a number of key markets ranging from furniture to even snowboards, with about 40% of production exported. Key export markets include China, Vietnam and Mexico. One important application is pallet stock.

The company offers S2S 15/16-inch thick deck boards in nominal 4 and 6-inch widths. Jimerson explained that pallet companies have had best success in using this material in proprietary pallets, where performance is comparable to a 5/8-inch thick alder. Because Pacific Albus is a light material, it affords the opportunity for pallet users to increase the payload of a shipment – to the tune of 500 lbs. extra freight per load.

Jimerson reported that Pacific Albus has been accepted by one major retailer as material to produce a proprietary pallet, meeting a requirement that it be durable enough to last eight trips. Another “must-have” factor for the retailer was that Pacific Albus is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified. Jimerson noted that this is not yet a big push from the pallet market, however, where it is required, Pacific Albus can fit that need.

Upper Columbia Mill also sells pallet stringer cut stock, and has recently purchased a Holtec unit saw to increase its productivity in this area. Other materials that may be available soon include random width 4/4, 5/4 and 6/4 red alder. After a successful initial trial of 300,000 bf of red alder brought in from west of the Cascades, Collins is looking to run up to an additional 1.5 million bf per month of that material. Pacific maple is also being looked at as a candidate.

While the forest industry may indeed be mature, Collins is an example of how the industry continues to invent the future in terms of new products, sustainable practices and resource optimization. As Jimerson recounted, it has been a fun ride.