EUFAULA, Alabama — M.C. Dixon Lumber Company has weathered some storms that assailed the forest products industry. Now its sawmill and planer mill have been revamped to put it on a firm footing going into the future.
In recent years the company has completed two major projects to retool both mills. Nearly all of the company’s major machine centers are new, including two key systems supplied by Canadian manufacturer SmartMill, which is based in the U.S. SmartMill supplied a lug loader for the sawmill and a fence system for the planer mill.
Dixon Lumber is located in Eufaula in southeast Alabama, about 45-50 miles south of Columbus, Georgia. Eufaula borders the Chattahoochee River, which separates the two states.
The company produces 75 million board feet of lumber annually. Eighty percent of the company’s production is 4×4, 4×6, and 6×6 timbers; the remaining 20 percent is 2×4 and 2×6 dimension lumber. All production is Southern yellow pine. The company also sells 1×4 rough green lumber, but 94 percent of its production consists of the timbers and 2x dimension lumber, kiln-dried and surfaced four sides. Besides the sawmill and planer mill, the company has a number of sheds to store finished lumber and three dry kilns. Its operations employ 75 people.
“We try to stay away from what everyone else is making,” said Jeff Whitfield, general manager. “We’re small. We can’t compete with the big guys. Our niche is small.”
Dixon Lumber supplies timbers to companies that treat them with preservatives and sell them to big box home improvement stores and lumber yards like Home Depot, Lowe’s, 84 Lumber, and even smaller lumber yards. About 60 percent of the company’s production is supplied to lumber treating companies within trucking distance, under 200 miles. Dixon Lumber also ships 8-10 railroad cars of material per week to markets in the Northeast — mostly to New York and Massachusetts.
Dixon Lumber Company was founded in 1928 by the late Mack Dixon, grandfather of the current owner, Robert Dixon Jr., 59. He moved the business from Clayton to Eufaula in 1936, and it operated a concentration yard and planer mill. The company installed its first stationary sawmill on its property in the early 1950s.
Mack’s two sons began working in the business in the 1950s and 1960s. When their father died, Robert Dixon Sr. and his younger brother took over the business and operated it for the next 34 years, concentrating on manufacturing wide dimension lumber for the housing market.
Robert Dixon Jr. (Bob) began working in the business with his father and uncle in 1988. Over the next 10 years he focused on production, technology, plant maintenance, and products. Dixon Lumber expanded into production of 5/4 decking and high grade boards to complement its other lumber products. Bob also began leading the family timber and land business, which he grew with organic logging crews and also purchasing ‘gate wood’ logs from independent logging contractors. He also increased timber purchases and increased the number of customers in the company’s land management program.
When his father decided to retire, Bob bought the business from his father and uncle in 2002. He added sales personnel and changed the company’s focus away from brokers and distributors to sell directly to lumber treating businesses and end users. Dixon Lumber reached annual production of 100 million board feet through efficiencies without a capital project expansion.
The lumber market began dropping in 2007 when the housing boom began to unravel. The company suffered continuous monthly losses in the third and fourth quarter and then the first quarter of 2008, and Bob closed the mill temporarily. A year into the Great Recession, it was evident that the housing industry would not recover quickly.
After studying the market, Bob decided to convert the mill to produce small timbers that are used to build decks and other outdoor projects. He bought a four-sided canter and began making timbers in 2010.
“Timber prices were relatively good and were going to continue an upward trend,” noted Jeff. “It was a minimal investment…Not a whole lot of risk there.” The company started with one shift and gradually increased to two shifts.
A few years ago Bob decided to retool both mills. The planer mill was upgraded in 2019, and the sawmill improvements were completed in September of 2020. For the planer mill, Dixon Lumber contracted with individual suppliers. The sawmill was a turnkey project by Timber Automation, which sourced equipment from its three divisions: Baxley Equipment, LogPro, and VAB Solutions. The improvements to both facilities represent a capital investment of about $30 million.
VAB Solutions, a company dedicated to sawmill and planer mill optimization processes using machine vision and artificial intelligence, was founded by Jean Bérubé and Marc Voyer in 2005 and was purchased by Timber Automation in 2018. Timber Automation recognized the value of the VAB systems, which aimed at simplicity and ease of maintenance and were backed by a strong team based in a suburb of Quebec City. The acquisition completed Timber Automation’s product offerings at the planer mill, and sales have been so good that the VAB team had to be expanded twice in the last 36 months.
VAB Machines was founded in 2014 as a separate entity to design and fabricate innovative and specialized sawmill handling equipment. Bérubé, now president, and Danick Dupont, vice president, acquired 100 percent of the company a few years back and changed the name to SmartMill.
Dixon Lumber already had a VAB Solutions grader-optimizer at the planer mill, so they already had a relationship with the SmartMill principals.
Dixon Lumber chose the SmartMill Smart Lug Loader to replace a machine in the sawmill because it wanted to increase throughput by filling every lug with a board instead of leaving empty lugs going through the trimmer, said Mike Morris, regional director for SmartMill. Another objective was to control labor. The Smart Lug loader only requires one worker to oversee it while most mills with other machines have two or three workers stationed there, he noted.
Jeff himself did not have much knowledge of SmartMill or their staff until they arrived for the installation of the Smart Lug Loader in the sawmill, including the company president, Jean Bérubé. “I instantly struck up a really good relationship with him,” recalled Jeff.
“When we first turned it on, I wasn’t sure we made the right decision,” said Jeff. The equipment uses tongs — like fingers — to pick up the boards. “Which is hard to do,” noted Jeff. Jean assured the Dixon Lumber team that the SmartMill staff would ensure the lug loader would perform up to expectations, or they would remove it. “He asked for a couple of weeks to get it done, and he did. He has by far done the best job of trying to keep us satisfied and keep us happy with the product.” SmartMill employees worked on the project night and day until the new system reached peak performance, said Jeff.
The Smart Lug Loader relies on a rotary system coupled with air activated tongs to grip boards one by one and release them on a set of speed chains. The chains introduce each board into a lug. The machine can perform at high speeds and fill 99+% of the lugs at the sorter chains for green or dressed lumber mills.
This efficient, affordable lug loader system provides a constant flow of boards into the lug chain, and there is no need for a dedicated operator. Every lug is filled, so the sorter speed can be reduced, minimizing wear and jams. The Smart Lug Loader requires only a small footprint, is fully controlled through servo-motors and variable frequency drives and is fully automated.
The commitment of SmartMill and the company’s service “absolutely” was a factor in the Dixon Lumber decision later to choose them to supply a fence system for the planer mill, said Jeff. It had been running for several weeks at the time he was interviewed for this article.
The SmartMill Smart Fence, which positions the board for correct trimming, can fence or move the board as little as 0 to 12 inches per axis, noted Mike. (Other SmartMill systems can fence up to 4 feet.) “Our fence is more accurate than any other fence in the industry,” he said, within 1/10-inch. “And it actually grabs the board and holds it and then lets it go.”
Most fences utilize rollers to move the board, he noted. The machine can fence up to 200 pieces of material per minute and requires a footprint of only 36×72 inches. It also is virtually maintenance free.
The Smart Fence system uses the optimizer solutions to accurately position lumber — green or dry — prior to trimming. Highly accurate and requiring only a tiny footprint, these systems have been operating in mills for over 15 years.
The Smart Fence precisely positions lumber of all dimensions with excellent speed. The positioning of the boards is not impacted by bouncing errors and ensures the company gets the maximum grade of each board, reducing trim loss. It requires virtually no maintenance, and the installation and start-up were achieved over a weekend.
SmartMill, a Canadian business based in Texarkana, Texas, designs and develops integrated solutions to improve and optimize factory production and manufacturing processes.
SmartMill designs, manufactures, and installs automated state-of-the-art equipment that is customizable to preserve and even increase the profitability of its customer companies.
The company’s products include the Smart Lug Loader, a lug loader coupled with technology to produce MSR (Mechanical Stress Rated) lumber, the Smart Fence board positioning system, and the 3-in-1 Smart Trim, which integrates the lug loader and fence with a trimmer. The company also offers stand-alone machines for testing MSR lumber, engineered lumber, and finger-jointed lumber. SmartMill also offers custom automated machinery solutions.
(For more information about SmartMill, visit www.smartmill.ca or call (903) 277-0877.)
Dixon Lumber buys tree-length pine logs, minimum 26 feet, with 9-14-inch butts and down to a 5-inch top. Logs are unloaded by a Progress 2010 radial crane that is also used to place them on a five-strand log infeed deck. They go through a LogPro stem singulator, and a Barko 495 electric loader feeds them to a Nicholson A8 debarker.
After debarking the logs go through a LogPro five-saw merchandising system to be cut to length. The logs travel down a belt to a LogPro rotary kicker and onto a five-strand deck prior to being transferred to a LogPro-Baxley wave feeder.
The logs travel down a belt and are scanned by a Nelson Brothers Engineering optimizing system. The logs are turned by a Cone-Omega log turner, then scanned again by the Nelson Brothers Engineering optimizer to ensure the accuracy of the log rotation.
The Dixon Lumber log optimizer was provided by Robert Cecil, a licensed representative for Nelson Brothers Engineering. Log optimizers from Nelson Brothers Engineering feature true dollar-driven solutions with real-shape edge wane, face wane and additional ‘restricted length’ wane for added control of ‘saddle wane’ conditions. They also feature scan data save-to-disk ability with replay features of all saved scan files as well as log simulation capability. Reports automatically track the effects of any parameter changes to support evaluations of varied ‘what-if’ scenarios.
The log is then moved via a Cone double-length v-flight infeed into a Cone four-sided canter. If a side board solution is available, a Cone profiler can remove two boards from each side. The cant then moves to a Cone quad saw box to remove side boards, then to a Cone spline remover. Finally, a Cone vertical saw arbor can remove multiple top or bottom boards, leaving the timber at the center.
Lumber travels along a series of Baxley floor chains to a Baxley unscrambler, a Baxley roll case and Baxley scanner chain to the SmartMill Smart Lug Loader. The VAB lumber transverse trimmer optimizer assesses each piece before it goes to a Baxley 16-foot trimmer. After trimming the lumber goes to the new Baxley 29-bin sorter system, and the bays of lumber are assembled by a MoCo stacker.
In the planer mill, packs of kiln-dried lumber are placed on an Advanced Sawmill Machinery (ASM) 75-foot infeed deck, and the packs are disassembled by an ASM tilt hoist. The lumber travels along a series of ASM chains to a Miller Mfg. infeed and six-roll planer to surface four sides. When material exits the planer it is scanned by a VAB linear optimizer using tracheid and artificial technologies to grade the board, and then it travels down an ASM belt to an ASM slow-down belt. The lumber is turned on ASM chains and feeds into a new Baxley servo feeder and down grade chain into the SmartMill Smart Fence to be positioned for the best trimming solution. The boards pass through an Irvington Moore trimmer and then a Wynn-Z-Tec grader stamper before entering a sorter. A new SmartMill stacker was scheduled to be installed in mid-June.
Dixon Lumber has three Teaford batch dry kilns with combined capacity of about 335,000 board feet per charge.
The company supplies chips to three paper mills — a Georgia-Pacific mill in Cedar Springs, and West Rock mills in Cottonton, Alabama, and Panama City, Florida. Shavings from the planer mill are supplied to an Enviva pellet mill in Cottondale, Florida. Bark and sawdust are used to fuel a boiler to produce steam for the company’s dry kilns.
Dixon Lumber, which is a member of the Southeastern Lumber Manufacturers Association and the Alabama Forestry Association, retains a “very family atmosphere” in the business, noted Jeff. “We have a very low turnover rate.” A few employees have worked for all three generations of the Dixon family. One such employee is Ralph Baker, an accountant who is 85.
The company also has a strong safety program and a good safety record, said Jeff. “We pride ourselves on doing things very safely even if it’s slower.”
The COVID-19 pandemic had minimal impact on the company until January of this year, said Jeff. That month, an office employee who does payroll unknowingly contracted the coronavirus. The employee did the payroll as usual and handed out checks. The entire management team came down with the virus.
The company followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, so most employees who contracted the virus were out of work for 10 days even though some were only mildly ill.
“We were 30 people short at one point,” said Jeff. “We were able to make it through…You just have to deal with it the best you can.”