The Downie Timber mill is a complex maze of machinery, conveyor belts and catwalks. The belts carry logs and boards around the mill, past workers and high-tech scanners who’s goal is simple — extract as much value as they can from each tree that comes to the yard.
It’s a dizzying facility if you’re not familiar with it. In late October I took a long overdue tour of the mill after seven years in Revelstoke. My pitch was to write an article about the technology used by Downie Timber. With the City of Revelstoke embarking on a push to develop a technology sector, I wanted to see how our current businesses are using technology to advance and stay competitive.
Where better to start than Downie Timber, where investments in technology have kept the mill successful even as others around B.C. have closed? On top of that, it and its sister mill, Selkirk Cedar, are, combined, the biggest employers in Revelstoke.
I met with Landon Erbenich and Mike Holland inside the Downie offices where they kitted me out with safety gear. I was expecting one of them to have a fancy title like “Chief Technology Officer,” but they both said they simply work in quality control. They both started at the mill about 15 years ago stacking wood and slowly made their way up the ranks.
Photo: The mill’s automated grader can scan more than 130 boards per minute.
Our first stop was actually the end of the line — the automated grader, a $1.2 million machine made by Comact that is used to grade each board that comes off the line. When we got there, the machine was idle, but soon enough it came to life and hundreds of two-by-six boards came flying past.
The machine was installed about two years ago and Erbenich, who’s in charge of quality control on the machine, says it almost quadrupled the speed at which they can grade lumber. It grades 130 boards per minute, up from about 30, which is what a good lumber grader could process manually.
“That speed is because we can’t feed it faster. If the line would do it, we could go 250 per minute,” said Erbenich. “We spend more time and more effort ensuring we have a really high grade quality product, versus running high volume fast.”
It uses 24 cameras that produce high-definition images of each side of each board. It also determines where any deficiencies are in the board and grades them accordingly. It also shows where a board can be further cut in order to extract more value.
“We know the price of every board,” said Erbenich. “This will tell me how to maximize the value.”
We walked along a catwalk alongside the conveyor belt and Erbenich took me into a control room and turned on a computer monitor to explain the machine in more detail. An image of every board is taken and stored and Erbenich can pull any one at will to look at it.
Photo: One of the 24 camers used to photograph and scan boards processed at Downie Timber.
He pulled up one board on the screen and the software showed where all the knots and other flaws were. The software measures the size of each knot and then uses parameters set by Erbenich to grade each board. He can change the parameters and even simulate up to a week’s worth of runs to see how changes effected it.
“It really allows you to fine tune everything,” said Holland.
The machine will sort and mark boards based on the number of defects found, and, to be sure, a grader stands at the end of the line to quickly look at each one to make sure nothing is missed. He’ll look for issues the machine struggles with. The best are clear boards — ones without any noticeable flaws – which can be worth $150 each.
“We’re 96 per cent on grade, that’s with his assistance,” said Erbenich. “We would be 88-90 without him.”
The automated grader is probably the showcase machine at the mill, but all over, I was shown examples of machinery Downie installed to increase productivity. Our next stop was at the “dynamic tensioning system,” where each board is aligned before running into the grader. It was installed two years ago. “It eliminates a lot of our jam ups so we can feed a lot smoother,” explained operator Ron Durocher. He estimated they’ve reduced jams to three or four a day from 10 to 20.
“Our feed speeds have gone up. We can feed more efficiently and a lot faster,” he said.
Photo: Ron Durocher operates the small log line.
Over at the small log line, a scanner examined each log to determine how it would be cut in order to maximize the value extracted. Each log that came through was scanned, rotated, then scanned again by four lasers. It’s used for logs less than 18 inches in diameter.
“It comes in as a whole log and it comes out roughly 80 to 85 per cent as a finished product on the back end,” said Holland. “But we also recover slabs that we re-saw and get more products out of, rather than just chipping it like most mills.”
Surprisingly, the technology is almost 15 years old. “They haven’t upgraded it because it is so reliable and so accurate,” said Holland.
Elsewhere, I watched as another operator worked the large log scanner, which is for logs of up to 18–54 inches in diameter. This machine will scan the log in order to get a profile, said Holland.
“It scans thickness, width and length and then we use the operator inputs to extract the clear values, or downgrade a piece for rot or large knots,” he said. “We rely very heavily on the sawyers to know what to expect from seeing the outside of the log.
“Once it’s opened up, they chase that clear.”
Photo: Chris Berarducci monitors the line from his control booth.
The tour continued through various control rooms, where operators kept their eyes on dozens of screens and manipulated joysticks to prevent jams on the line. To be honest, I started to get overwhelmed as the tour continued and I was introduced to the array of machines throughout the mill. Meanwhile, workers stood over the line, making sure nothing went wrong.
Our final stop was in the saw sharpening shop, where several new machines have been installed to ensure the mill’s saws are precisely sharpened.
Photo: Head filer Dana Norman holds up a circular saw. New technology ensures the saws are filed more accurately than before.
First up was the Iseli RZ-1, a machine that provides automatic levelling and tensioning of the mill’s band saws. “This is basically like another man to me, but works 24/7 and doesn’t take a break,” said head filer Dana Norman, who’s worked at Downie for more than 20 years.
While it’s an expensive machine, Norman says it allows the mill to repair saws that would otherwise be thrown out. It’s also faster and more precise than a human.
“It creates a better product out there because we can monitor the saw better to see its performance,” he said. “It cuts our wood that much better.”
The shop also has several computer-controlled filers for its circular saws. The saw profiles are stored in each machine and the saws are filed automatically. They also have a new grinder that helps ensure saws are cut accurately to within a quarter-thousands of an inch.
“What this does for us, upgrading to the new technology, QC-wise on the floor, it will help us put out a better product,” said Holland.
At Downie Timber, that’s what it’s all about.