CLINTON, Michigan —
HMI Hardwoods was a leader in the industry when it began offering services to rip kiln-dried lumber to width for customers. It remains focused on innovations that will enable it to serve its customers while improving efficiencies.
HMI Hardwoods originally was founded by Richard Service with a portable sawmill in 1972. He went on to upgrade to a circle sawmill and eventually numerous other upgrades and improvements over the years, including the addition of dry kilns. He retired and sold the business to Hardwood Distribution Inc. (HDI), a Canadian-based company, in 2014. HMI Hardwoods continues to operate as a division of HDI.
HMI Hardwoods is located in the Michigan Lower Peninsula, just under 60 miles southwest of Detroit. The company’s operations are situated on 14 acres with seven buildings, about 70,000 square feet under roof. HMI Hardwoods, which has annual sales of about $35 million, currently has just under 100 employees. The sawmill cuts 33-35,000 board feet per day.
The company began drying lumber – leasing kilns – in the early 1980s and eventually built its own kilns supplied by Imrie Dry Kilns Co. HMI Hardwoods has seven kilns, each able to hold 80,000 board feet for a combined capacity of more than 500,000 board feet. They are operated by Lignomat control systems. The company also has 2.5 million board feet of pre-dryer capacity that simulates ideal drying conditions and helps in producing fresher, brighter lumber and less drying degrade.
The most recent improvement to the company’s lumber manufacturing operations was a new 3-D scanning carriage control system supplied by Paw-Taw-John Services in 2019. The system features Joe Scan 3-D scanner heads for analyzing the log, an industrial computer for data acquisition, PLC for machine control, Servo Sensors for knee motion control, and Time of Flight (TOF) laser technology for carriage position. The head rig is the only machine center that is optimized in the sawmill.
“It’s working out real well,” reported John Binegar, vice president of HMI Hardwoods. “It was a little slow the first months, but I’m pretty pleased with it right now.”
He chose Idaho-based Paw-Taw-John to supply the system based on what he learned from other customers about its reputation for reliability and the company’s reputation for service. John talked to several other lumber manufacturers with the Paw-Taw-John scanning carriage control system. “Everybody told me about their reliability,” he said. HMI Hardwoods had been experiencing considerable down time with its old system, and it was a problem getting replacement parts.
“We wanted to be able to scan and break down the log as fast as possible,” said John. “It seems to be doing what they said it would do.” The company is sawing 10 percent more logs with the new Paw-Taw-John system, and uptime improved dramatically. In addition, grade yield has improved. “That’s a bonus, too,” said John.
HMI Hardwoods buys standing timber from nonindustrial private landowners within about a 150-mile radius. The timber is harvested by about eight independent logging contractors. Low-grade logs are merchandised to local pallet mills. Grade logs are hauled to the HMI Hardwoods sawmill and are scaled in the yard and the data collected with a voice tally system.
Debarking is done in the yard with an HMC Rosser head debarker system. The headrig includes a Cleereman carriage, CM&E headrig slabber, and McDonough band mill. The slabber chips open each log face, and the band mill cuts a board on that face. The headrig squares the log to an 18-inch cant that is sent to a McDonough linebar resaw. The cants are sawn to remove all the 2AB lumber and then are kicked off to be sold as a random width cant to pallet manufacturers.
All material goes to a Cornell four-blade edger. The lumber is cut to length on an Irvington Moore 16-foot drop-saw trimmer. At the green chain, lumber is graded, and tallied with the voice recognition system, and pulled and stacked by hand. Most of the mill’s material and and lumber handling equipment, decking and green chains were supplied by Mellott Manufacturing.
The drying process begins with an automatic stacker that places stickers between layers of lumber in 8-foot packs for pre-drying and kiln drying. The Lignomat kiln control system was added 20 years ago. The controls are user friendly enough for a new operator, yet the system contains the features and flexibility to satisfy the veteran kiln operator. Multiple aspects in drying, equalizing, conditioning and heat treatment schedules increase the operator’s ability to reduce degrade in even the most delicate lumber. Lignomat’s manual moisture content override feature, in conjunction with weight samples, is used daily to manage the drying rate with moisture content based schedules. The kiln operator rarely needs technical assistance, but Lignomat support is always available and effective if an issue arises.
After the lumber has been kiln-dried, a tilt hoist disassembles each pack, removing the stickers, and automated lumber handling equipment carries the material to a Newman S382 planer to surface two sides of the board. Each board passes through a Wagner in-line moisture meter to ensure proper moisture content.
Species include ash, cherry, hickory, hard maple and soft maple, poplar, northern red oak, and white oak. Kiln-dried random width lumber typically is 4/4 or 5/4 thickness.
HMI Hardwoods began offering ripping in the early 1990s, establishing itself as a leader in supplying material ripped to specific widths for customers. The produce is marketed under the REDI-RIPS trademark.
The company upgraded its ripping operations last fall with a new scanning system from AikenControls, which supplied the original scanner. Most ripping operations measure the results of what they ripped; HMI wanted the ability to simulate runs and determine the best outcomes considering all possible combinations of products and grades. The new system features a high resolution color sensor with coded light profiler. The sensor detects 3-D shape (length, width, and depth) with a full color image. This allows the system to detect wane or bark, cracks and splits, holes, and knots. Two scanning heads capture images on both faces of the board, and they are sent to the rip optimizer to calculate the best solution. Ripping is performed by two Mereen-Johnson saws. Once a board is scanned, it is conveyed automatically to one of the saws and ripped. The new system has improved yields and made runs more predictable.
The system helps the company get the highest yield from every board. “We can cut for more than one customer from the same board,” noted John.
REDI-RIPS are supplied primarily to secondary manufacturers, notably manufacturers of flooring and cabinets. HMI has customers for the product as far away as Texas and Colorado. “They’re getting a usable product,” noted John. “There’s no waste on the truck.” Until a few years ago the biggest REDI-RIPS customer was an export market.
About 40-45 percent of the company’s finished production is REDI-RIPS. Production has been down slightly in the recent past. “Our goal is to move as much as possible,” said John. “We add value that way. The random lumber market is tough.” Although the company has been a leader in ripping, other lumber manufacturers have since entered the market, he noted.
Being fully integrated enables HMI to tailor operations in the sawmill to produce specific rips for customers. The company also can produce lumber for wide plank flooring, rustic flooring, and cut special thicknesses for customers.
A horizontal-fed waste wood chipper processes edgings and trimmings. Eighty percent of the company’s green wood waste is used to fuel the boiler system for heating the kilns. The company also has a small cogeneration system to produce some electricity that helps offset the cost of power. Sawdust, bark, shavings, and excess green wood waste are sold to a local business that processes some into mulch and playground surface material and supplies some to fuel pellet mills.
Being fully integrated helped the company to weather the Great Recession with the economy turned down in 2009-10, noted John. “Stand-alone sawmills and lumber companies struggled…Being fully integrated allowed us to weather the storm better than others.”
In the past the company typically has operated two shifts for kiln-dried production operations. However, it cut back to one shift in 2019. The trade clash with China impacted export sales, which have been as high as 15-20 percent of revenues in the past but currently are running about 5 percent.
John is optimistic. Business has picked up in recent months, although the company still is not sawing at peak levels. Sawmill employees work three days in the mill, then the other days in the kiln-dried operations.
“There are still some uncertainties,” said John. “We feel things are getting better,” but the company is not quite ready to hire more employees.
“We certainly feel optimistic,” said John. Phase one of the new trade deal with China has spawned more conversations with potential customers. “Conversations eventually lead to more business. When you’re not talking, nothing’s happening.” The trade deal hasn’t led to a spike in new orders yet, and the coronavirus has dampened the recent uptick.
HMI offers an extensive package of benefits for employees that includes paid holidays and vacation, a 401(k) retirement savings plan, health insurance and dental insurance. The company also will reimburse employees for some secondary training.
The company is a member of the Michigan Association of Timbermen (John has served as chairman in the past), the Michigan Forest Association, and the Indiana Hardwood Lumbermen’s Association.
“We try to use 100 percent of the raw material in some avenue,” said John. “We try to be good stewards of our forest products industry and to use our renewable resource wisely.”