Improvements Help Hardwood Producer: Wheeland Lumber Keeps Investing, Automating for Greater Efficiencies

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Wheeland Lumber Keeps Investing, Automating for Greater Efficiencies


LIBERTY, Pennsylvania – Reining in costs, improving efficiency, and strong marketing efforts have helped Wheeland Lumber Co. to continue to prosper in tough economic times.

The hardwood lumber producer has continued to make steady improvements to its facilities with an eye to improving efficiency and controlling labor.

Wheeland Lumber is located in north-central Pennsylvania, about 30 miles north of Williamsport,home of the Little League World Series, a region rich in hardwood forest resources. The northern region of Pennsylvania is known as the “cherry capital of the world,” said company president Derek Wheeland, because of abundant and quality resources in cherry trees.

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The business was started by Derek’s great-grandfather and grandfather in 1940. They were farmers who started a sawmill to supplement their income by supplying lumber to other farmers.

Derek’s father, Ray, and Ray’s brothers continued the business and grew it. The company was incorporated in 1970, and Ray began adding dry kilns to the company’s operations. In the 1980s Ray began developing export markets for the company’s lumber, and the business continued to grow and prosper. Derek’s uncles are now out of the business, having sold their interests about 15 years ago.

The next generation is carrying it forward. Ray, 60, turned over the duties of president to Derek, 35, in January. Ray remains CEO and continues to work every day, handling relations with customers in international markets as well as some day-to-day operations. Derek has siblings that are also involved in the family business. Damen handles veneer and saw log sales as well as all byproduct sales. Marlana Wheeland-Purcell, who has a role in the business from her home in Washington, D.C., handles some marketing/adverting duties.

The company’s operations are situated on 40 acres. It has a state-of-the-art sawmill  – equipped with scanning and optimization at every machine center, starting at the head rig – that cuts about 50,000 board feet per day. Wheeland Lumber employs 75 people, and it also supports about 25 people who work for logging and trucking contractors.

Wheeland Lumber produces mainly 4/4 through 12/4 rough-sawn random width and random length lumber; this represents about 80 percent of its production. The company also has a dimension mill to provide value-added services, including S2S, ripping two edges, cross-cutting, moulding, and gluing.

Historically cherry has been the mill’s leading species at about 40% of production. However, the emerald ash borer has done considerable damage to ash timber in the region, and that is being harvested to salvage the wood. “Everybody’s cutting their ash,” said Derek. The company has been cutting a lot of ash the past two years; it cuts about 40-50% ash while cherry now makes up about 15 percent of its production. Other species include red oak and white oak, hard maple and soft maple, and poplar.

The company buys standing timber and contracts for harvesting; about 90 percent of its logs are supplied this way. It also buys “gate wood” from other logging contractors.

On the log yard, logs are scaled and sorted. Some logs are set aside for sale as saw logs or veneer logs. An HMC rosserhead debarker cleans the logs before processing.

The head rig, a McDonough 62-inch double-cut band mill with Cleereman three-head block linear positioning log carriage, is equipped with USNR canning/optimization. The double-cut blades saw in both directions so the carriage does not have to return to its original position to make the next cut.

After squaring up the log on the head rig, the cants are cut with a McDonough 60-inch horizontal bandsaw with MAXX infeed-outfeed system, and flitches go to a TMT two-saw edger equipped with Automation & Electronic (A&E USA) scanning.

At the automated trim line with TS Manufacturing material handling equipment, a lumber grader grades and marks each board with the trim decision. The board goes past a Cypress Technologies grade mark reader and then is trimmed by an HMC 10-saw drop-saw trimmer.

The mill also has a Pinheiro vertical band resaw for sawing low-grade material.

A Precision 58-inch chipper processes slabs and edgings into chips for the paper or pellet industry. The company has good markets for its chips in the wood fuel pellet industry, which currently is buying most of the company’s chips.

Most of the company’s sawdust is used in-house to fuel two wood-fired boilers to provide steam for the dry kilns and heat for the company’s buildings. Surplus sawdust is sold to the pellet industry and supplied to local farmers.

Wheeland Lumber, which buys an additional 2 million board feet of green lumber annually, dries all its lumber. It has 2 million board feet of air drying capacity under shed roof to protect the lumber from the weather and has 12 dry kilns with capacity of 600,000 board feet. (It added two SII kilns at the beginning of the year with combined capacity of 100,000 board feet.)

An HMC stackdown line or tilt hoist disassembles packs of lumber after drying. One operator controls the inflow of lumber and grades it before it goes to an automated HMC 9-saw drop-saw trimmer. The finished lumber is sorted by customer specification for width, length, and color and manually stacked, then prepared for export.

New Hampshire-based HMC Corp. offers equipment to lumber manufacturers to improve quality, yield, and efficiency. The company’s products include debarkers, carriages and carriage drives, band mills, trimmers, and a wide range of lumber and material handling machinery and equipment, such as waste conveyors, infeed and outfeed to band resaws, chain turners, tilt hoists, and more. HMC Corp. also provides complete engineering services for layout, design, and installation.

The dimension mill is equipped with various lumber remanufacturing machines, including a Newman-Whitney two-sided planer, three Mereen-Johnson rip saws, two Weinig moulders, and a Wadkins moulder. Two of the rip saws are optimized with scanning technology. The mill also can provide edge-glued and face-glued products and end matching.

About 60% of the company’s production is sold to domestic markets – makers of flooring, cabinets, and moulding, for example. The other 40 percent is exported, mainly to Asia and the Middle East, sold to distributors or the furniture industry.

Low-grade material, cants and low-grade 4/4 lumber, which accounts for about 20% of overall production, is sold to the pallet industry.

Wheeland Lumber was able to weather the worst of the recession of recent years without downsizing. “We did not lay anybody off,” said Derek.

“It was definitely a tough time for us,” he added. “We tightened up our reins on certain things, cut back expenses. We worked really hard at marketing our product, trying to gain new market share at that point.”

Surviving in the economic downturn required a “lot of hard work,” he said. The company remained profitable in the worst of those times, although margins were down.

It was a tough period for the company’s customers, too, he noted, and some took significant down time.

The business has continued to see ups and downs, he noted. The company now is battling a slump of a different type. “Lumber’s moving,” said Derek. “It’s just at depressed prices.” Falling prices squeeze margins even further. “You have to be more creative in marketing your product,” he said.

Having remanufacturing capability definitely helped the company weather the recession, he said. The dimension facility, which employs about 15 workers, enabled the company to add value to its lumber and produce other products. “I think the competitive edge for us was having that.”

The company began adding lumber remanufacturing in the mid-1990s on a small scale and by early 2000 began to grow that part of the business and it has grown since. Some of the growth came from customers who were changing, moving away from buying random width boards to a dimensional product. “We kind of grew with our customers,” said Derek.

Wheeland Lumber is located within the region of the Marcellus shale formation, which has led to a boom in natural gas production and associated jobs in that industry. For that reason, finding skilled labor has been a challenge. With improvements to the sawmill in recent years, the company has been able to improve efficiency and reduce labor through automation. The investments in the McDonough horizontal resaw and TS Manufacturing trim line improved efficiency, increasing throughput and capacity.

With the McDonough horizontal resaw with MAXX infeed and tipple outfeed system, for example, the company was looking to reduce labor as well as the amount of downtime or hang-ups.

Similarly, it was able to reduce labor by automating and improving the flow of material associated with the trim line. The existing HMC drop-saw trimmer was moved downstream another 50 feet and raised over 10 feet, allowing extra room for equipment to feed material to a lug loader. The boards go into the sloped grading station and are graded, and the marks are read by the grade mark reader. An automatic fence positioning system positions the boards according to the grader’s marks. The system is controlled by technology supplied by Automation & Electronic, which also upgraded the edger scanning a few years earlier.

Besides adding two kilns at the start of the year, the company added another 80,000 board feet of dry kiln capacity the previous year.

A project that the company plans to take on next year is putting in a 33-bay bin sorter purchased at an auction. Wheeland Lumber will be installed with a new stacker line and incoming green lumber grading line from outside vendors. Currently, all lumber is pulled by hand from the green chain and sorted. Stacks of lumber are taken to an automatic stacker that separates the boards with sticks in preparation for drying.

Wheeland Lumber offers a pay incentive to entry-level workers. If they show up every day on time, all week, they receive $2 per hour incentive pay. “It’s definitely helped out with turnover,” said Derek, and curtailing absenteeism. The company’s benefits include group health and dental insurance, a 401(k) retirement plan and profit sharing.

Wheeland Lumber is a member of a number of trade associations, and Ray and Derek have active roles in at least one with Ray serving on the governing board of the National Hardwood Lumber Association.

Derek serves on the board of directors of the Pennsylvania Forest Products Association and the millennial board of the Hardwood Manufacturers Association. The millennial board is made up of younger members millennials who do their own projects for the association. “It’s been a really great deal,” said Derek. “It gets you involved in the association and brings in new input and ideas.” The millennial board is working on a promotional video for the hardwood lumber industry.

Wheeland Lumber also is a member of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, the American Hardwood Export Council, the Rainforest Alliance, the Wood Products Manufacturers Association, and the Penn-York Lumbermen’s Association.