The primary lumber industry has become increasingly competitive and will continue to be so in the future. As mills throughout North America and the world realize that cutting unit costs of production is critical to future profitability, the progressive primary forest products companies are investing in production and quality control systems and tools to reduce these costs and strengthen their future position in this highly competitive marketplace.
Additionally, there will continue to be threats from non-wood replacements that threaten traditional strongholds for the primary forest products industry.
Although there is a trend toward process improvements – such as better sawing methods to improve lumber yield, sophisticated lumber grading systems, better and faster planer technology to increase production without the risk of lower quality, and revolutionary kiln drying technology – there remain some ‘backwater’ areas at even the most modern mills that often are ignored. Yet, they have substantial consequences in terms of annual financial costs to primary lumber mills.
One of these very important – but traditionally lower-priority areas – has been moisture data analysis and associated moisture quality control. Although knowledge, technology, and level of management focus have improved in the last 20 years, it still remains a too-often-neglected part of a mill’s profit picture.
For example, hundreds of thousands of dollars are lost per year because of lumber degrade due to over-drying lumber – even in relatively small production mills. Combine these losses with the associated and unnecessary energy costs involved, and you have an insidious predator eating at mill profits. It is fairly easy to notice the impact of increased energy costs: your company writes a check to pay the energy bill (fans in the kiln, for example).
However, when it comes to drying degrade, no one writes a check for the cost; the cost just happens, and your mill profits suffer the impact.
So, are there solutions to moisture quality control issues? Yes! And often these solutions are not new, just technologically better than their predecessors.
For example, take lumber density/moisture scanning systems for the sawmill. These systems provide a very accurate method of sorting your lumber into two or three groups of similar drying-time characteristics. This can alleviate the problems associated with attempting to dry different density/moisture content lumber pieces together, which inevitably leads to either over-dried lumber and the associated costs or too many wet pieces through your planer.
Further downstream in the process, in-the-kiln moisture measurement systems are increasingly being utilized to measure the moisture content of the lumber as it goes through the drying process. These state-of-the-art systems are providing a valuable moisture monitoring tool for today’s kiln operators.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, extensive measurement of any process to establish baselines and results is a key to process improvement. Moisture measurement statistical information about lumber from modern, in-line moisture systems with database software in the planer mill is a key to discovering the relationship between key parameters, such as lumber moisture content average and sawmill target size, and moisture content/moisture variation and grade recovery.
Without a valid measurement system for moisture measurement processes to tell you how you are doing, it is analogous to being lost in the foggy woods without a compass or other familiar landmarks. You do not know where you are, and therefore which direction to head.
Without these systems, you are forced to guess, and often take a ‘shotgun’ approach to solving moisture-related quality issues. In short, you must establish baselines, know where you are, and then put a plan in place to improve the situation.
If you don’t effectively measure the process, you cannot easily, if ever, improve the outcome. Modern mills realize this, and planer-mill-based moisture measurement systems have become the critical moisture measurement tool.
Case Study: Battle Lumber Co., Wadley, Georgia
As you read through the following case study of Battle Lumber Company in Wadley, Georgia, consider why lumber drying and moisture measurement are the focal points. The decisions you make regarding moisture content quality control may have a huge impact on your financial bottom line.
Maximizing yield protects sawmills when prices go low and helps them to have inventory to sell when the industry’s inventory levels are low. Battle Lumber has been winning its campaign to maximize yield in a responsible, sustainable way since its founding in 1962.
Battle Lumber has followed a strategy of continuously modernizing its operations and technology to grow into one of the largest mills in the country. It produces over 90 million board feet each year from its grade mill division. The company achieves consistent production of high-quality lumber by employing advanced technologies throughout its operations, from its high-tech grade mill division to its state-of-the-art dry kilns and sorter with an advanced moisture detection system.
Battle Lumber started its dry kiln division in 1993 with its grade mill division following in 1994. The combination of both divisions and the cutting-edge technologies they use has propelled Battle Lumber into its position as a major producer and exporter of kiln dried lumber.
Battle Lumber ships 5 million board feet of kiln dried lumber every month to more than 20 countries around the world. The mill has 17 steam-heated package kilns, complete with accurate temperature controls, to produce continuously high-quality lumber with on-target moisture content levels. With a 100-bay sorter, Battle Lumber efficiently manages a wide array of lumber widths and colors.
Being able to produce a variety of high volume, kiln dried grade lumber consistently positions Battle Lumber to prosper even during this period of price correction. Overall lumber production was expected to grow into 2020. Yet poor weather in the Northwest and industry challenges in Canada meant production growth wouldn’t be consistent across regions.
Battle Lumber recently upgraded its kiln drying operations once more when it transitioned from the Wagner Meters Apex In-Line Moisture Measurement System to the Wagner Meters advanced Omega In-Line System. Both the Apex and Omega systems reliably detect moisture and provide accurate wood moisture measurement readings. However, the more robust Omega system handles the volume that Battle Lumber produces with the dependable power and speed required.
“With the Omega In-Line System, we can check each board that comes into the sorter to ensure specified parameters are met since it keeps a tally of each board’s moisture content,” said Clay Grace, supervisor of Battle Lumber’s dry Kiln division. “If there’s a moisture spike somewhere in the kiln, it gives us a red flag. We can then check the line with handheld meters to see if it’s just a wet pocket or a problem with the fan, a leak, or something else. In some cases, it may be necessary to re-dry the lumber.”
To meet the demand from buyers for a variety of lumber products, it is essential that Battle Lumber’s moisture measurement system can have the moisture content range that qualifies as out-of-spec easily adjusted for different species. Optimal moisture content ranges from the low end with red oak and poplar to nearly double the moisture content for high-demand species like pine and cypress. A major lumber producer needs a moisture measurement system that can detect and react to all of them at the appropriate times.
Battle Lumber maximizes the speed of its moisture measurement process by configuring the Omega system to run boards sideways. The Omega’s sideway sensors scan lumber, taking more than 300 measurements per second. The speed and volume of data points collected give Grace and his team a detailed profile of each board running through the Omega.
“We use the sideways configuration with four sensors because it’s easier to mount and easier to use because of our trimming system,” said Clay. “It gives us an average percentage of the whole board all the way up to 16 feet.”
The mill has integrated the data generated by the Omega moisture system with its automated lumber grading system. This type of data integration improves the accuracy of the grading process even as it accelerates it.
“Another plus to having the Omega is the Wagner Meters service,” added Clay. “Whenever I call them with a question or issue, they respond quickly. About 95 percent of the time we can resolve any issue over the phone. They also regularly call and occasionally visit to see if everything’s running fine. Just knowing they’ve got my back gives me good peace of mind.”
“We’re always looking for ways to take advantage of advances in technology so we can offer our customers better products and greater production,” said Tony Morgan, senior systems technician for Wagner Meters. “As our customers’ needs change, we’ll continue innovating and providing the tools and resources they need to do their jobs well.”
While lumber production is expected to grow and stabilize prices, there are always unpredictable variables. Continuing demand from China can help offset a slowing construction market in the U.S., or new tariffs on forest products can depress demand from China over the next year. Perhaps expected closures of sawmills across Canada may increase Canadian demand for U.S. lumber – or perhaps not.
The unpredictability of the lumber market is exactly why a large sawmill like Battle Lumber prioritizes staying at the leading edge of technological advancements. Using technology to maximize quality, yield, and operational efficiencies means Battle Lumber will always have inventory available for customers.
Ron Smith is a sales manager for Wagner Meters and has over 30 years of experience in instrumentation and measurement systems in different industries. He has served as a regional sales manager, product and projects manager, and sales manager with manufacturers involved in measurement instrumentation.
For information about Wagner Meters products, call Ron at (800) 581-2963 or visit www.wagnermeters.com.)