Plant Modernization in the Wood Products Industry

Crane Operator controls OSB plant

by guest blogger Andrew Green

It’s been said that money doesn’t grow on trees. While that may be true, have you ever thought about just how much we use and consume that does come from trees? The desk where you’re sitting and probably reading this from, the paper you used to take notes in that incredibly long meeting, even to the ibuprofen you took in hopes of a speedy recovery from said meeting can all be classified as part of the forest products industry.

According to the American Forest & Paper Association, “The forest products industry accounts for approximately 4 percent of the total U.S. manufacturing GDP, manufactures over $200 billion in products annually, and employs approximately 900,000 men and women. The industry meets a payroll of approximately $50 billion annually and is among the top 10 manufacturing sector employers in 47 states.” To say that the forest products industry is a significant contributor to the US economy is no joke. The most recent Forest Products Annual Market Review released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN shows upward trends for the US in production, consumption, imports, and exports. Not only is the industry a huge contributor to the national economy, it is also on the rise.

Automation and Plant Modernization

With rapid growth of any industry, there is a constant pressure for companies to keep pace. Of the 8 largest, US-owned, forest products producers in 1981, only 2 are still producing today. Privately owned companies have found ways to innovate and contribute to economic growth in ways that those other companies could not. One of the biggest ways that players in the industry are looking to compete is through automation and plant modernization.

Considering the two main ways to increase profit (decrease cost and increase revenue) and the growing economy, adding revenue is virtually taking care of itself. Companies are left with the challenge of decreasing costs. Automation and modernization strive towards lower costs through increased efficiency. That task, however, is much easier said than done.

The ARC Advisory Group estimated in 2008 that $22 billion worth of process automation systems in the US are nearing the end of their useful life and most are over 20 years of age. The study went on to report, “Manufacturers face a challenging environment when it comes to running their plants with “legacy” system.” Plant modernization and automation are essential to maintaining the increased speed and flexibility in the production process as demanded by a rapidly growing environment.

Project Example

Several years ago, RCS was tasked with modernizing a plant network and control systems for an engineered lumber plant that had been closed for seven years and was planning to re-open. The original system contained a single controller and 87 slave units. A single, failed controller would have shut the plant down. The plant modernization was accomplished through three major systems in the plant: the bark hog, the glue system, and the dust collection system. A total of 11 retrofitted panels were installed and three MCCs were rewired to link to the new PLCs. The result was reduced risk of downtime and a very pleased customer.

Automation systems alone are not the only low-hanging fruit for modernization in the industry. With regards to the equipment and processes throughout wood products facilities, at least two areas are worth mentioning:

Drying Kilns

In most processes, kilns are used to dry wood. Think of a kiln as a giant oven. Without a kiln, all wood products would still be filled with sap when they came to the final consumer. Kilns vary in style and in drying times with optimal drying time for a continuous drying kiln (CDK) sitting at around 18 hours.

Because of the length of drying time and the amount of heat required for a kiln to function, this process can easily become both the bottleneck and the most costly area of the mill to operate at the same time. Various modernization efforts have taken place to ensure maximum efficiency with kilns in wood products facilities. Companies have done everything from changing the fuel source to better control heat to adding additional kilns on-site to installing new heating coils and siding to better retain heat. For many wood products facilities, this process is where modernization efforts would make the biggest production impact and have the highest return-on-investment.

Planer Machine

A planer machine’s purpose is to take dried wood from the kilns and “plane” the sides and edges. Many of the planer machines in operation today contain parts which have no known direct replacement in the United States. While facilities still have the ability to share amongst themselves, the time is fast approaching in which there will be no more parts for older model machines.

With a new planer machine, and modernization of controls and automation, process efficiency improvement is a given. Modernization efforts are most effective when other areas of the plant are already up-to-date. While always beneficial, there is definitely a comparative advantage with updated equipment in the wood products industry.

The US Department of Agriculture reported in 2005 (regarding a rough mill – a process in many wood products facilities) that “processing efficiency is important when comparing lumber dimensions. From a material-handling standpoint, it is easier to handle short and narrow lumber than longer or wider lumber in manual operations. Even so, productivity usually is greater when processing wider, longer lumber than when processing narrower, shorter lumber of the same quality. However, the difference in productivity is not as great as with automated systems.” Though automation and modernization typically require a large up-front capital investment, and a high throughput to offset the cost, the increased uptime and output are worth the cost – especially in an industry where most of the equipment is obsolete and in dire need of upgrade.

Since the discussion is about forest products, consider locomotives. While the railways used to be filled with 100% wood-burning trains, coal, diesel, and now electric have all but made the preceding methods obsolete. Will we ever get away from using forest products? It certainly doesn’t seem that way, at least for the near future. But as the industry grows, companies are expected to grow with it. Due to the coming of age for so many automation systems, plant modernization is a must to avoid getting left behind.