Partee Flooring has had a long history manufacturing flooring. Unfortunately, so did the equipment in its flooring mill.

In 1999, the company undertook a major equipment upgrade, which improved the quality of the product, reduced manufacturing time and reduced the number of employees needed in the plant. Today, Partee has about 60 employees in the plant, 75 total. Before the equipment upgrades, there were as many as 100.

"We had all 50-year-old technology, with 1956 side matcher and 1960 end matcher models updated and sped up way past their speed limitations," says Coby Burrow, flooring mill plant manager and third generation to work in the family business.

Before the upgrades, Burrow estimates that 99 percent of work was manual. There was no automated equipment, no timing, just a stop button or a stop switch.

"We have all had competition from imported products," says Sam Sharp, general manager. "That is why we are trying so hard not to focus on the competition, but to improve our own manufacturing process in order to be even more competitive in the marketplace."

In 2000, Partee started a two-year project of working on a new optimizing rip system. Then the company decided to update the grading/nesting system, working with Hasko. It introduced Partee to a Canadian company, Mekanika. Its founder, Louis Faucher, designed much of the equipment provided by Hasko for the Partee mill, including a SR30 gang rip saw, FSP flooring strip pre-surfacer, FSM Matchmaster side matcher, HSEM end matching center and a GNS automated grading and nesting system.

The scanning and ripline material handling system and many of the conveyors were made by Froedge Machine & Supply. The lumber yard and kilns are a separate operation, outside the door of the Magnolia plant.

Unscrambling lumber

When lumber comes in the door for processing, it's taken to a tilt hoist and is separated from stacking sticks. Lumber goes up an unscrambler to a board feeder, which separates the boards so they go individually across the scanning system.

The scanning system, made by Froedge, determines cutting patterns; measures each board for width, thickness and length; and determines the saw pattern to get the most yield out of the board. The saw operator has an override to handle unusual defects.

"The operator has to understand the character of the wood to be able to do a good job," Burrow says.

Running wider

Partee runs 1-1/2, 2-1/4 and 3-1/4-inch-wide pieces. It plans to add 4-inch-wide pieces, but wider pieces affect how the boards go through the process and the overall piece count.

The flooring mill will only get two 4-inch rips out of a 9-inch board, but it could get three solid pieces from the same board if each piece is 2-1/4 inches wide.

As an example, if 7,000 boards are run through the ripsaw, only 14,000 pieces are run through the side matcher if they are 3-1/4 or 4-inches wide. This affects the production numbers and makes it difficult to keep the side matcher and other downstream processes busy. (The side matcher runs at 375 feet a minute.)

It takes 5,000 linear feet of wood to make 1,000 feet of flooring, Burrow says. Partee might run 4,000 feet of flooring in an hour. "When we go to the wider material, we can slow down and still do the same amount of output, say 40,000 feet a day, without running as much linear footage to get that amount," he says.

Partee has three ripsaws, including the two newer Hasko SR30 gang ripsaws that are optimized.

The third ripsaw is an updated version of an older Yates-American that Burrow describes as "old school." Partee plans to add a new specialty feeding system to an existing ripsaw that is capable of handling short lengths.

Cutting and matching

After ripping, rough knot cutting removes splits and shear knots, anything that would make a side matcher stop running.

The FSM MatchMaster is a throughfeed dedicated flooring machine with five cutterheads to cut flooring to the proper dimension, mill a tongue along one edge and a groove along the opposite edge, and mill a hollow back relief cut on the bottom of each piece.

After the side matcher, pieces are run into the finish knot cutters, which "cut into grade" before end matching. Any defects that come through the side matcher that weren't seen on the back end or wouldn't make a good quality piece of flooring are eliminated.

Pieces then go in front of the graders, who choose the grade, then through the HSEM-C EndMaster, a random length end matching system that mills a tongue on one end and a groove on the other end of a solid wood strip and plank flooring.

Then grooved pieces go back to the graders, who feed the smaller conveyors that are going to the nesting stations.

Grade, nest and sort system

The GNS grade, nest and sort system is one of the most important upgrades. It's a semi-automated material handling system designed to reduce the manpower requirements of grading and packaging flooring. It's available in several different configurations with different numbers of stations, and can handle three or four grades per station and 20-square-foot bundles of random length material. The system is designed to deliver balanced flow to each sort station, and can be adapted to most kinds of end matching systems.

At the nesting stations, each person creates a package of material, matching different lengths of pieces and making a nested bundle. The completed bundle is sent by conveyor to a packaging machine, which straps them.

Each of three levels in a single nesting station could accumulate a different grade, and the machine determines that the bundle on the upper level, for example, would be No. 2 grade, and matching material would be sent to that spot. Normally, people manning the nesting stations would bundle 300 bundles a day.

Partee is running a 10-station system, and Burrow says that this grading/nesting system handles more production than any similar system in the United States.

Partee uses standard NOFMA classifications: quartersawn, clear, select, No. 1 and No. 2 common. Partee does not do a "clear," but also has the option of "select and better."

(The two most popular grades are select and better, and No. 1.) People who want No. 2 want a more rustic look, maybe for cabins, Burrow says. Partee uses mostly red oak and white oak, with some hickory and ash, and does no finishing. Burrow says imports continue to rise each year.

Burrow says that Partee's production target is based on linear footage coming out of the side matcher.

Running 200,000 linear feet on the front end should yield 40,000 board feet on the back, but that can vary depending on the product. The output may vary from 38,000 to 44,000 board feet, even with same amount of footage going through the machine.

Partee is updating one rip system to handle short stock more efficiently. It will be ripped into one size, and it will not be an optimizing rip. Anything good enough to be made into another product will be separated out.

The future

"The price paid for lumber has always been the biggest cost factor in manufacturing flooring," Sharp says. "The market has continued to be good through the past two years," he says. "The margins are what have suffered, and 2007 is not looking any better."

"Other companies run faster, but I don't think there is another operation that runs as efficiently," Burrow says.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.