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Alabama Mill on the Fast, High-Tech Track

Nelson Bros. Engineering, JoeScan Optimize Head Rig Controls for Winston Hardwoods

By Carolee Anita Boyles
Date Posted: 8/1/2006

DOUBLE SPRINGS, Alabama — In today’s increasingly high-tech world, using technology effectively is the key to mill efficiency and profit. One company that hopped on the technology bandwagon early is Winston Hardwoods in Double Springs, Alabama. Optimization has helped make them a major player in the region, with maximum resource use and minimum waste.

        Winston Hardwoods only began a decade ago. Frank McAlpine Sr. started the company after retiring from a career in the forest products industry. Frank has more than 50 years of experience in the hardwood lumber business.

        Frank started the business with his son, Frank Jr., as a small crosstie mill, recalled Jason Johnson, manager at Winston Hardwoods. “They found out they were on a good log base, and after a year they decided to go ahead with the construction of a more modern and efficient facility.”

        Located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Winston Hardwoods is at an elevation of 900 feet, which is the same elevation as most of the surrounding region. The company is located 60 miles northwest of Birmingham and about the same distance southwest of Huntsville. There are many forest products companies in the area, which translates into a lot of competition for Winston Hardwoods.

        “We have a lot of competition for resources,” Jason acknowledged. “We have several big mills around us. But it was part of the strategy for us to be centrally located, within a 90 to 100-mile radius of our competition. That gives us a little bit of an advantage in that we’re able to pull resources from within that radius into our mill. We bring logs into here from a 50-mile radius, but we have had logs come through here from as far as 150 miles away.”

        The region supports forests that produce high quality hardwood timber. “The red oak has good color, as does the white oak,” Jason said. “That went into the McAlpines’ decision to build the new mill.”

        When they built the new sawmill in 1997, Frank Sr. recruited Jason to help manage it. The two men had worked together before at a Seaman Timber Co. mill, where Frank Sr. had been mill superintendent before retiring.

        The sawmill equipment includes a Salem bandmill and HMC linear positioning carriage followed by a McDonough linebar resaw. As the company grew, the Mc­Alpines kept reinvesting their profits into the mill, upgrading equipment every time they could.

        “Now, the only thing that’s the same is some of the building itself,” Jason said. “The owners have done an excellent job of reinvesting to update equipment, and the facility has become more modern and more efficient. That’s our cutting edge.”

        Winston Hardwoods exited the crosstie segment of the hardwood industry to focus on manufacturing hardwood grade lumber. “We’re a hardwood grade sawmill,” Jason said. “We cut red oak, white oak and poplar, and separate all the grades of those species. We market to different segments of the woodworking industry, according to the grade and the species. The upper grades go primarily to molding, millworks and furniture. The mid-grade goes for things like cabinets and furniture as well. The lower grades are for residential strip flooring. The lowest grades are for industrial, uses such as pallets and crates.”

        Winston Hardwoods is now more than just a three-man operation. The company has about 30 employees and runs a shift and a half. “We do approximately 15 million board feet a year,” said Jason. “We’re no longer a small producer.”

        Technology and equipment have been a major factor in allowing Winston Hardwoods to expand so quickly. “We’ve relied heavily on technology,” Jason said. “We’ve just put in a new log line on which we’ll be installing a new ring debarker. We’re going from a rosserhead to a ring debarker for two reasons. One is because of the new technology. With 3-D scanning, we want to go to a ring debarker because the older rosserhead debarker fuzzed the log up too much.

        “We want a smoother log for scanning and optimization,” he continued. “We want to conserve as much of the usable wood fiber as possible. We need the contour of the log as smooth as possible so we get a really efficient, accurate scan of the log and it can be optimized accurately.”

        Winston Hardwoods also has installed a new, automated metal detector system to scan logs for metal fragments prior to sawing.

        A few years ago, the McAlpines decided to add scanning and optimization technology to the head rig. Along with Jason, they “shopped around” and considered a number of different suppliers of optimization systems, said Jason.

        “We did a lot of homework and had some ideas that we wanted,” he said. “We wondered who could incorporate our ideas into a practical application. Most of what we saw in head rig optimization was volume-oriented. We weren’t looking to optimize volume; we were looking to optimize value.”

        In the end, they chose Nelson Brothers Engineering. “It was a joint project between Salem Equipment and Nelson Brothers Engineering,” Jason explained. “Salem Equipment did the controls, and Nelson Brothers did the scanning and optimization.”

        Jason and the McAlpines worked with Robert Cecil, a project engineer at Nelson Brothers Engineering, to design the system they wanted.

        “Robert custom-designed us a program to do what we wanted to do,” Jason said. “We’re now able to enter a lot of information to manipulate the system as to what our end products are. We’re able to enter dollar values so the program takes into consideration the value of the product rather than just a minimum opening face, which was the old technology of a scan curtain. We were looking for a maximum opening face, which gets complicated, and even the best technology doesn’t do it flawlessly yet, but that’s the concept. We’re looking to get the widest, most valuable opening face we can, without sacrificing anything of value in the process.”

        Winston Hardwoods has a 3-D scanning system that scans both sides of the log. “A lot of systems load a log on a carriage,” Robert noted. “They have a scanner over the infeed deck that can look at the front side of the log. But in addition to that, the system at Winston has a row of scanners that provides scan data for the other side of the log. This lets us get scan data all the way around the log, which lets us model the true shape of the log.”

        With the comprehensive data, the optimizing computer software creates a dollar-driven solution for sawing the log. “The optimizer plans different cuts into the log,” Robert added, “but it can only do that accurately if it knows the true shape of the log. By finding the true shape, we’re able to accurately predict the width and size of the boards that are going to come out, so we can make the comparisons of different cuts, and by equating that back to the dollars that result from the different sizes, we can pick the highest dollar solution. The idea is to maximize the revenue from the board products you’re going to cut from each log.” The process optimizes the wood fiber recovered from the log and also minimizes waste, in part because there is less scrap material when the board is edged.

        The scanners manufactured by Van­couver, Washington-based JoeScan are unique, according to Robert, because a standard ethernet cable plugs directly into the scan head, and the optimizing software runs on a standard desktop personal computer and Microsoft Windows. No specialized electronics are involved.

        The key to the efficiency of the optimization software is the scanning technology supplied by JoeScan. Joey Nelson, the president and founder of JoeScan, said that in order for Nelson Brothers’ optimization system to work, it needs to know the shape of the log. His company’s scanners provide the necessary data.

        “Other scanning products only get the front face of the log, which leaves you to guess what’s on the back,” Joey said. “What’s different about Nelson Brothers’ product is that it scans all sides of the log.”

        “The biggest thing we’ve done is to create an extremely rugged scanner that is able to be mounted directly onto the back side of the carriage and look between the knees,” Joey explained. “Most scanners can’t do that because they won’t survive. When a large log is dropped on the carriage, it really vibrates a lot, and scanners are generally kind of sensitive devices that have a lot of fine alignment issues. We designed ours to get around those problems, so that it’s very rugged and very solid and not subject to that vibration.” Some of the company’s scanners have been operating on carriages in sawmills since 2003 without a single one being returned for failing, he indicated.

        “Our approach is to have the scanner be not very adjustable but rock-solid and to use software later to go through an extensive calibration process to figure out where all the things are,” Joey explained. His company’s scanners were analyzed at an industrial products testing laboratory equipped with a vibration table, then modified so they were tough enough to withstand the same level of vibration they would receive on a head rig carriage.

        The scanning technology and optimizing system at Winston Hardwoods, as Nelson Brothers Engineering set it up, accomplishes the goal of setting a maximum opening face without sacrificing value, said Jason.

        “They worked with us and took a combination of our ideas and their expertise and were pretty well able to customize a program for us,” he said. “We’re the first hardwood sawmill east of the Mississippi that’s running this technology.”

        As with any new equipment or technology, Jason said there have been a few bumps along the way, but overall the system has served Winston Hardwoods very well.

        “Nelson Brothers has been great to give us customer support and service on the parts that didn’t work exactly like we wanted them to,” he said. “They’ve always been just a phone call away, and they’ve helped us out with whatever we have needed.”

        The new optimized controls have enabled Winston Hardwoods to increase production. They also have given the company greater control over lumber manufacturing.

        “From one species to the next, we may have different priorities,” Jason noted. “Now we have keypad console access to change major parameters at the touch of a few keystrokes. We like that…With this system, we’re able to manipulate it to produce what we feel is best. We’re not stuck with what the original program says. We have unrestricted access to every parameter imaginable, from saw kerf to any type of value parameter. That’s a big advantage.”

        Although it hard to measure the economic impact the new technology has had on the mill’s output because of fluctuations in the marketplace, Jason said the optimized head rig controls enable Winston Hardwoods to adjust quickly to changing market conditions.

        “What we’re doing today is different from what we were doing when we installed the system,” he said. “And that may be different from what we do a few months down the road. But now we have the ability to roll with those changes, and we’re confident that we have the ability to adapt to the market conditions.”

        One of the biggest challenges Jason expects in the future is labor – finding, hiring and retaining good employees, and controlling labor costs. Automated equipment already is helping Winston Hardwoods to control labor costs. A few years ago the company installed a 38-bay bin sorter and automated grading system. “As we become more efficient and automated, we do more things to address the labor situation,” said Jason.

        Another big challenge Jason sees in the future is maintaining profitability.         “The log cost is still almost unsustainably high versus the value of the lumber being produced,” he noted. “We also face stiff competition from overseas. Most domestic furniture manufacturing used to be done here, but now it’s all been moved to Asia. For a while those countries were still importing a lot of North American hardwoods to produce those products, but now we find that more and more they’re using indigenous species from those areas. That’s a looming problem, and its part of why we do what we do with optimization — efficiency and productivity — so we can remain competitive.”


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