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Small log processing shields Nothern Irish pallet maker from recession

Small log processing shields Nothern Irish pallet maker from recession By acquiring the right kit he no longer finds himself hostage to bought-in sawn timber; and the whole operation caneasily be removed to another location whereprofitsare for the taking!

Established by Stephen Sufferin in 2005 predominately to produce pallets, S& J Contracts operates from the small town of Maghera, in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

Production of pallets for distribution throughout Ireland and bespoke timber sizes for industry – some of which is destined for the UK mainland – are now the venture’s primary products. Dried kindling sticks and firewood blocks are worthwhile additional side-lines. Commended in the Belfast Telegraph’s challenging ‘Young Business Person of the Year 2009 Awards’ for his innovative approach to business, Stephen Sufferin believes that a major factor contributing to the success of S& J Contractors has been prudent investment in the best quality machinery for the job.

"In 2007 we had difficulty sourcing locally sawn pallet wood so diversification was in order.

"We decided to mill our own timber to guarantee supply and cut production costs.

"Originally the business was housed in the old farm buildings but in mid 2008 we invested in a large facility to accommodate
the new Wood-Mizer SLP (Small Log Processing) line and the semi-automatic pallet assembly equipment," he explains. A recent visit to Germany’s Ligna timber trades fair in Hannover has left the Ulster businessman in no doubt that, in opting for the Wood-Mizer SLP, the right choice had been made.

The time taken for installation was minimal, according to Stephen Sufferin. Wood-Mizer staff were on site in Maghera for a week for training purposes and he has high praise for Dave Biggs, then Wood-Mizer’s UK Service Manager.

"Dave was a great support, when we had a few little niggly problems on set-up he quickly sorted out all the parts and replacements that came from Poland.

"Now UK Manager of Wood-Mizer, in my opinion there is no better man for the job."

While the operator of the log-grapple of the Manitou Telescopic loader (MLT 643-120 LSV) feed the 3.6m Log Deck, the rest of Stephen Sufferin’s crew set about fitting the blades for the new shift to be worked. With the TVS (Twin Vertical Saw), SVS (Single Vertical Saw) and the four heads of the HR (Horizontal Resaw) running in the line, that means a total of seven sawbands to be fitted and tensioned – yet the preparation takes less than ten minutes. After a run-through to check produce specifications and fine tuning of the HR settings, the Wood-Mizer SLP line is in full swing.

Changing and maintenance of the blades had been a major component of the training process and that groundwork was
seen to pay off. Stephen Sufferin admits that even the small dimension softwood he buys in for pallet manufacture can still cause difficulties for any milling line. When the blade of the SVS encountered a problematic baulk halfway through the shift and needed changing, the stopwatch started. The three operators nearest the incident had the SVS up and running with a new blade fitted in just under three minutes! Minimal downtime is just one of the attractive features of the SLP line.

The 2mm kerf not only increases the yield of lumber from the raw material and reduces waste but also helps to keep energy costs down. Sufferin’s calculations indicate an electricity consumption for the full line of 8 euro/hr. The adaptable layout of the SLP was an added attraction, too. The conventional in-line arrangement may have had slight advantages in efficiency, but full access to the new semi-automatic Spanish-built pallet machine from the second entrance to the building was a priority: a cross-transfer deck between the SVS and the HR was an additional expense deemed a viable proposition to utilise the available space to best advantage.

The Maghera businessman admits that times have been tough recently and demand for pallets – and the price his customers are prepared to pay – has plunged. Nevertheless, by milling his own timber he can retain his pallet buyers yet take advantage of the profit to be made from new markets. The demand from one sector of the construction industry (Stephen Sufferin is, understandably, reluctant to be too specific about the product it requires) has been a great boon to the operation he runs. His ability to supply, he points out, is a consequence of the acquisition of the
Wood-Mizer SLP line.

The County Londonderry sawmilling venture looks set to thrive and stay put in the centre of Northern Ireland but should a change of location ever be required the 3.6m Log Loading Deck, Inclined Log Deck, Twin Vertical Saw, Single Vertical Saw, Cross-transfer Deck and the four-head Horizontal Resaw could fairly easily be re-located elsewhere within or outside the province.

The Loading Deck, a strong and robust infeed system, is designed to give years of service in the demanding sphere of heavy material handling, but the Inclined Log Deck is able to deliver raw material to the operator of the first stage under complete control – allowing him/her to concentrate on optimum alignment and continuous feeding of the TVS. Employing Wood-Mizer’s top of the range cutting technology, the Twin Vertical Saw’s 600mm belted wheels and a 4.67m blade length capitalize on blade life and retain sharpness, thereby maintaining optimal accuracy. Blade life is also prolonged by Wood-Mizer’s unique tilting head which offers straightforward slab removal onto a cross-transfer deck thus contributing to reduced labour costs.

An important feature of the head’s design is the ease of access it brings to maintenance and alignment areas. This facility also applies when changing the blade speed to accommodate the species being sawn. Intensive tes
ting of productive local sawmills undertaken by Wood-Mizer at the company’s European HQ, proves that the 11kW motors fitted as standard create the precise balance between energy costs and cutting performance. Sawing logs between 100mm and 400mm diameter, of lengths between 0.9m and 3.6m, the minimum cut width of the TVS is 70mm.

The Single Vertical Saw shares the same head as the TVS, thus reducing the costs incurred in carrying stock of both blades and spare parts. Normally used for splitting or for removing a third slab from the cant delivered from the TVS, the SVS can also edge larger slabs for production of smaller dimension lumber by the resaw. A laser optimisation system assists the operator to achieve maximum recovery.

Accepting cant lengths consistent with the vertical saws, the Horizontal Resaw is at its most efficient when installed in the MultiHead format. Up to six HR units can be fitted to resaw cants or slabs up to 300mm in height in a single pass. If weight permits, or mechanical assistance is available, the sawn products emerging from the steel flat-bed conveyor can be handled in multiple. In the case of the Maghera production facility, which has four heads on the resaw, the removal of the final slab allows four boards to be loaded into the produce stillage with one operator movement.

Edging down-line from the primary breakdown machinery allows the bandsaws to operate to maximum efficiency. While the Wood-Mizer Industrial Edger E430 is built to complement modern high-production sawmills – comb
ining speed and accuracy in the edging of large boards – the Edger Multi-Rip shows a versatility that is of great benefit to those sawmilling businesses that survive on their ability to adapt quickly to market forces. The machine can work efficiently as a twin blade variable width edger or be converted to Multi-Rip mode. The transformation, achieved by the insertion of up to five additional blades and spacers, is simple and quick.

Stephen Sufferin acknowledges that adaptability is the key to surviving through tough economic times. Although his sister, Sonia Wright, is almost always to be found in the office, the rest of his team are multi-skilled. Sawn timber production on the Wood-Mizer SLP line and pallet manufacture are just two of the operations the workforce at Maghera must be ready to undertake. Conversion of slabwood into saleable products – dried firelogs and kindling – is helping the company ride through the rough period that the construction industry is going through.

When it comes to battling out the recession, the installation of the new mill has given Stephen Sufferin two new lines of defence. Firstly, the business is no longer hostage to the prices demanded by sawn timber suppliers; secondly, it can move quickly into those areas where profits are there for the taking. Sufferin explains: "We have timber enough in the yard to get on with our normal jobs without being reliant on sawn timber suppliers. The mill is very variable in what it can cut, though. I make my money from the sizes of bespoke timber I am asked to produce." There is little profit to be made just now, he adds, in producing timber of standard dimensions.

Urgency is of the essence in securing the best prices and the workforce of the County Londonderry mill is geared up to respond rapidly when the lucrative special orders come in. Stephen Sufferin points out that the outlay on the raw material (poorer grade round timber) does not give too much cause for concern.

"I source my roundwood from the [Northern Ireland] Forest Service and Scottish Woodlands and only buy timber already delivered to the roadside." With the top grade logs long ago picked up by the larger sawmills, foresters are usually keen to see the roadside cleared, and will often accept a very reasonable price.

Even deadwood has been well tested on the decks of the new Wood-Mizer SLP line at S& J Contractors and the machinery has proved more than capable of turning it into usable produce. "The Wood-Mizer has no problem with deadwood handling," says Sufferin. With markets now secured for the slabwood, even the low recovery (down to 40% in the poorest material) does not give rise to too many worries. It is admitted, however, that better graded roundwood, bought in at higher prices, would significantly increase the yield of primary product.

However, a move in that direction will probably have to wait… until the green shoots of recovery are in full flush and pallet prices are soaring again.

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Nothern Ireland, United Kingdom
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