Building a superior rough mill
December 21, 2009 | 6:00 pm CST

When Partridge River Inc. planned to build a new rough mill and dimension plant, it started from scratch. The company wanted a new location, plenty of space, all new equipment, new employees and a lot of time to get things set up right.

At the company's first plant in Hoyt Lakes, Minn., it didn't have any of those things. PRI started out in a former school gymnasium, expanding room by room and adding equipment wherever there was space.

"At that time it was just when dimension was becoming popular with furniture and cabinet industries," says Andrew Richey, PRI president. "We've grown steadily through the years, and our focus has been on serving the kitchen cabinet industry."

The Hoyt Lakes plant gradually reached capacity, running three shifts with 95 people processing approximately 35,000 board feet daily, primarily white woods such as soft maple, hard maple, birch and aspen. In 1998 the decision was made to build a new plant in another location. PRI wanted a tightly run operation that emphasized customer service and quality.

"Customers want to do the same things we do," says Dave Pagel, co-plant manager. "We get lumber delivered right off the truck, it goes right to the machines, through the plant to shipping and it's out the door."

PRI offers its customers one-week lead times. "Everybody's going to shorter lead times," Richey says. "Running one-week lead times is a lot different than what you'll see elsewhere. Most people in the industry are on a two- or three-week lead time."

PRI considered a number of sites for the plant construction. Richey says the city of Superior, Wis., was developing an industrial park and selling building sites for $1. The company also has an option on six acres adjacent to the 60,000-square-foot building. The plant's location on Lake Superior is a bonus. It sits on a narrow strip of land amid giant ships, grain elevators and the bridge that links Superior and Duluth.

The first thing PRI wanted in Superior was simple: More room that would in turn provide more flexibility.

"When you have this much room, you can lay out the plant in many different ways," Richey says. "We decided on the format we have, and in a few years it may change. Flexibility is critical."

"Flow goes in different directions in Hoyt Lakes," says co-plant manager Larry Dalton. "In Superior, it goes in one direction, from rough mill to the machines. The machines are all set so the flow is going towards shipping and out the door. It saves time, labor, frustration and the possibility of damage. And as we grow, we don't have to put a piece of machinery where it fits in the plant. We can put it wherever it works best."

Richey says the rough mill switchover introduced in Superior - which allows pieces to be unloaded from both sides of the conveyors - has helped speed production, along with a work cell arrangement that Dalton set up around a Weinig Hydromat 23 C moulder with a Mereen-Johnson PET and inspection conveyor.

"The rough mill switchover was one of the major changes we made in Superior," Pagel says. "With this setup, we can switch from one side to another in three minutes."

In Superior, lumber is brought into the plant and first goes to a Newman Whitney EPR-18 18-inch wide surfacer. Wood then goes to the GreCon Dimter Superscan with GreControl. Images of each piece are shown on an operator's computer screen with the good and bad portions and how the piece should be cut.

A Mereen-Johnson 431 ripsaw is next. Scrap is removed via conveyor right after the rip saw, so production workers can concentrate on marking the wood. After wood is marked, it goes through three GreCon 704 cutoff saws/optimizers, and pieces are fed to the switchable sort conveyors.

A Weinig Hydromat high-speed moulder is used for larger runs with a Mereen Johnson PET machine and a Carter side light for quality control. "It's amazing how this works; you see knife marks and everything," Dalton says.

The PET machine is built to attach to the feeding end of a moulder, which enables the operator to be able to equalize parts as he is running the machine. This eliminates an extra process. Pagel says this machine can equalize as short as 12 inches and as wide as 8 inches.

A Weinig Profimat 23 E is used for special mouldings and angled parts, and a Weinig Unimat 23 E makes wider mouldings, drawer sides and thicker parts.

The Superior plant has a Taylor gluer with clamp carrier, Rosenquist RF batch gluer and a Timesavers planer sander, which is used for components such as drawer sides. A Mereen-Johnson double-end tenoner does end trimming, including equalizing, copying, grooving and sanding.

One of the biggest differences between Hoyt Lakes and Superior is in the optimizing.

"In Hoyt Lakes with the Barr-Mullin rip saw, we were focused on getting the best rip, always shooting for 90 percent yield," Pagel says. "And then we would worry about marking the wood and chopping it later."

Pagel says the Barr-Mullin is more of a hands-on machine. The operator controls everything and can throw a ton of wood away or save a lot of money. The GreCon Dimter equipment in Superior is geared to the software, he says. If the software is set up right, everything else generally runs smoothly.

"The Superscan takes everything in perspective, looking at what it's going to chop," Pagel says. "The rip scanner computer knows the cut bill you're working on. It might sacrifice a little on the rip yield to get a little more on the chop end. It will also take a defect and center it so you have scrap on one board instead of two."

Superior is not yet at capacity on its day shift. The plant is running 17,000 feet in an eight-hour shift, measured by rough wood coming in. "That's dependent on the markers. There's still a big manual aspect on any of the optimizing systems," Pagel says. If everything is running right, the Superior plant should be able to run 20,000 feet in an eight-hour shift.

"That optimizing system gives us greater value out of the lumber," Richey says. "The amount of longs we're able to get out of 2A Common material is impressive."

Both Dalton and Pagel credit the people who work in Superior. "We've been fortunate to hire people with a good work ethic, people who can work in a team environment," he says. "We keep them informed, and they want to get involved and they take pride in what they do. We've been fortunate to have good people at key positions."

PRI is planning to add a second afternoon shift this month, but it's moving deliberately, taking the time to develop new employees.

"We're not going to a second shift because we can't get the work done on the first shift," Richey says. "We've been very productive on first shift, and we want to have that success on a second shift. Dave and Larry have done a good job of tracking the numbers. They've been able to set goals for moulder footage and rough mill footage that we've been able to achieve and maintain."

PRI processes 2A Common grade (cuttings must be clear with 50 percent good wood) primarily in hard maple, birch, red oak and white oak, along with some hickory and cherry. Most wood comes from Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Canada, and the company achieves a 49 to 50 percent overall yield.

"We will actually take a single board of a new species and run it through the system," Richey says. "We'll watch how it's scanned, what kind of waste we have on the rip, mark it out, and collect a piece to see what the percentage of waste and good is on a single board. That gives you a lot of insight."

In addition to Hoyt Lakes and Superior, PRI recently purchased the Masco Corp. Fieldstone Cabinetry Inc. plant in Northwood, Iowa, that makes cabinet doors and employs 40 people.

"PRI will also offer doors and drawer fronts; we'll be able to offer the kitchen cabinet industry the full package of products," Richey says.

PRI's Dave Tygart says the company is also planning to implement barcoding early next year, and plans to link the three plants via the Internet.

All of the Superior plant's business is related to kitchen cabinets. At Hoyt Lakes, it's about 50 percent kitchen cabinets, 25 percent export (mostly panels) and 25 percent furniture. Five or six years ago, more than 50 percent of PRI's business was export. Now the business is probably 85 percent domestic, as the U.S. economy has remained strong.

PRI also added a quality control area since the plant was built. A QC person looks at every pallet and pulls out seven pieces. "If two or more of the seven pieces are bad, we generally go through the pile, so it doesn't go out unless it's been inspected," Pagel says. "The customer receives documentation that each shipment has been inspected."

"Historically, customers have accepted that 2 to 5 percent of the parts are bad," Richey says. "They aren't accepting that anymore. They want 100 percent usable parts. That's our goal. It's next to impossible to achieve, but you can get 99.8 percent, sometimes 100 percent. And they're looking for shorter lead times with guaranteed deliveries."

"They want 1,000 pieces exactly," Dalton says. "They don't want you to ship 998 because you ended up two short. The number doesn't make much difference in production, but a lot of customers are entering the part information with a barcode system, so their ordering clerk pulls up the sheet and it shows a backorder of two, and they have to go in and manually delete that."

"We laid out a pretty exact plan with our growth and what we needed to do," Richey says. "We've got the financial strength to be able to do that. Our focus is very long term. We want customers who are going to be with us for a long time.

"There is a lot that we want to do differently down here. We want to prove that it works, and we'll take it back to Hoyt Lakes," Richey says. "This is our showcase plant."

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About the author
Karl Forth

Karl D. Forth is online editor for CCI Media. He also writes news and feature stories in FDMC Magazine, in addition to newsletters and custom publishing projects. He is also involved in event organization, and compiles the annual FDM 300 list of industry leaders. He can be reached at [email protected].