Sawmills have changed a lot since the pioneer days. The overall process is still the same: a rough log goes in on one side and a precision-cut board comes out the other side. But the sophistication and speed it takes has changed.
The days when it took a large amount of manual labor—pushing, pulling, moving, transporting, and manhandling the logs and boards—are over. Those hardworking people have now taken over the monitoring of super efficient and high-tech sawmills. They double check product quality and ensure equipment is maintained and delivery schedules are met.
Another major change is the technology of the saw blade material that is used. Stellite alloy coatings are applied to saw teeth, enabling the blade to cut more logs with higher accuracy and at a faster rate. The new coatings and materials have increased the life of the tool and reduced machine downtime. To help protect expensive cutting tools, lasers scanners, metal detectors, and sensors, check incoming lumber for any metal or other tool damaging inclusions.
Scanning and optimizing systems analyze logs, checking for knots, grain variations, bends, and much more, to get the most cost-effective cuts out of any log. Some even have the ability to look at daily market price fluctuations and adjust for profitable cuts. Scanners are linked to order systems, helping to ensure you are cutting what you have orders for, reducing excess inventory.
The logs and boards are then propelled by high-speed conveyers that are hydraulically or pneumatically controlled and allow for fast, precise delivery of the wood to the cutting operation. This has also helped with reducing waste of raw material.
Saw dust and chips, which used to be a byproduct or waste, are now collected as biomass. This was driven by the demand for dryer wood than treated or green wood due to mold and mildew concerns in the housing industry. Using saw dust and chips to fire kilns has reduced the demand for energy from external sources, reducing operating costs at the mills.
In addition to all of this shop floor technology, operational software like material resource planning (MRP) communicates directly with loggers and lumber haulers to ensure the needed wood is cut and transported to the facility on time.
IoT has also found its way into sawmills, providing connectivity between different processes, machines, maintenance, and safety. Many of these systems can remotely monitor saw and planer performance as well as temperature or moisture content of wood and kilns, resulting in a more effective and efficient overall mill operation.
High-tech shop floor equipment and machinery have helped improve the safety within facilities. Removing the operator from direct contact with cutting tools and moving materials has made the workplace safer. This decreases work comp claims and improves employee morale and engagement. In turn, this helps productivity, reduces accidents, and cuts down on missed work days.
Increases in technology have driven the need for higher skilled employees with greater flexibility. In many areas, this has improved wages and provided better living for the communities surrounding the mills.
Many mills do a great job improving equipment and upgrading technology, but some fall short on employee development and training. New technology does not replace the human factor within sawmills. Sawmills need to focus on providing training and educational opportunities for their employees to ensure they have the right skills, knowledge, and understanding of new tools and processes so the technology is utilized to its full potential, resulting in a satisfactory ROI.
Today’s sawmills are not what those pioneer mills used to be. They are highly efficient, cost-effective manufacturing facilities that help ensure the U.S. has the housing materials to support the American dream of owning a home.