Wolf River Lumber in New London, Wis., operates a state-of-the-art customized wood processing facility and has embraced Lean-manufacturing techniques. In the past couple of years, the company also took major steps to guarantee customers its own continuity of operation.
The company installed a comprehensive 3-Megawatt backup power system consisting of four 750-kilowatt Generac Gemini Twin Pack gensets (powered generators), each of which has a pair of 375-kW diesel generators mounted side by side in a single enclosure. Brought on board in early 2007, the gensets also use onboard paralleling technology to combine their output.
“With our industry and our business, it’s essential that we’re up and running,” says Mark Christopher, Wolf River Lumber general manager. “We’re pretty much a next-day supplier — we’re kind of a supermarket for the hardwood industry, specifically the cabinet people. With Lean process becoming more prevalent in manufacturing today, people are calling up, and they want a next-day delivery. Well, in hardwood lumber, you have to have a large volume of inventory and then the specs with the cabinet manufacturers may change the next week, the next day.”
Power interruption: not an option
Continuous operation is key at Wolf River. There are 40 dry kilns all powered by the company’s own steam boilers. “If we ever went down in the dead of winter, when it was, say, 20 below, 30 below, and if our pipes ever froze, it would take us forever and a day to rebuild,” says Christopher. However, he expects having a foolproof backup power supply will encourage customers to depend on Wolf River for most or all of their finished wood supply.
Wolf River Lumber did consider partial power backup at first. “All of us put our heads together—[company owner and president] Gary [Ort], myself, our maintenance manager Michael Harder and Cal Lehman of Master Electrical Services, the electrical contractor, to figure out the best strategy,” Christopher says. “We looked at fully backing up our dry kilns, which would be putting two of these units in and then maybe giving ourselves enough power to keep some heat on in our building. We figured that, given our facility’s 335,000 square feet filled with 12-14 million feet of lumber, it was going to take a long time for that to cool down and everything where it would be detrimental to our sprinkler system.”
New London Utilities, the local power company, convinced company management that full power backup would make economic sense. “We finally brought in our power supply people,” says Christopher.
“As we learned more and more about that, we decided that if we’re going to do this, why not have full backup for the full operation? We figured that, as we grow, we could go to [our insurance company] and we would get a full guarantee for customers and our employees that we would be up and functional no matter what would happen.”
Choosing a system
Ort eventually decided that the Generac Gemini system best suited their needs for redundancy and expandability. Part of the manufacturer’s Modular Power System, the Generac Gemini is scalable.
Customers can add up to six more Gemini units to the base system. According to Lehman, the 277/480-volt, three-phase installation consists of four separate areas of power supply, with the automatic backup system having 1.5 Mw and the manual backup system having another 1.5 Mw. The entire facility can be removed from the power grid if necessary.
Lehman and Wolf River Lumber’s management team considered production requirements, traffic patterns, future expansion plans and utility requirements when deciding on the location of the generators and transfer switches. Two of the gensets combine to back up the main building and the other two are located separately near the kilns.
The process of getting the backup system online went very smoothly, according to Ryan Dutkiewicz, a master certified field technician with Brookfield, Wis.-based Wolter Power Systems, the local dealer for Generac. “It was the first Gemini that they hooked up and our engineering department provided them with accurate drawings,” says Dutkiewicz. “They were ready for me 100-percent at startup.”
Following the startup, the generators powering the main processing line were kept on to prevent downtime that would result from switching back to utility power.
“The comical thing was that as we were getting ready to connect the first generator, we had the first-ever power outage in the history of Wolf River Lumber,” he says. “I just stood there and threw up my hands at all of the employees; this happened at about 11 o’clock and I said, ‘See? If we had all of these generators in, we’d all still be working.’ We wound up sending about 100 or 150 people home. We could actually see how essential it is to our business to keep power going.”
He explains how the system is configured. “If we have a power surge or outage at our kilns and our boiler room, then it gets backed up with an automatic start system,” he says. “It’ll be a matter of a few seconds’ delay and then the generators will automatically start up and bring themselves up to power.” Conversely, “We didn’t configure the other two generators that run our plant that way because we didn’t find an outage or surge to be as detrimental; we would be down 15-20 minutes and we’d go down and start them up and switch a few breakers over. That was our decision because automatic startup is expensive.”
The system is self-monitoring, Christopher adds, so if backup power is needed when the plant is not at full capacity, the system will run at less than 100-percent output.
A boon to customer relations
Christopher argues that Wolf River Lumber can now position itself as a lean-manufacturing company that can respond to customer needs without fail. “I think the confidence of the personnel here is worth a fortune in itself, knowing that we have this backup,” he says. “My biggest fear as general manager of the plant—of course nothing ever seems to happen when it’s sunny and 80 degrees — but when it’s 25 below, I’m sitting there worrying about whether we’ve got heavy snow and heavy wind with all of our power lines and the millions of dollars of equipment and millions of dollars of product sitting there. “It definitely allows me to sleep easier at night knowing that if anything does happen, it’s automatically done with our kilns and it’s a matter of 15 minutes to get the plant up and going.”
The backup system also boosts customer relations, Christopher adds. “With lean manufacturing, Wolf River Lumber is going through a journey of learning right now. The main concern that we’ve had is keeping our customer and keeping our customer satisfied. They have that security of knowing that we’re going to be here. When I’m touring people through our plant, that’s one of the main things is guaranteeing to them that under any circumstances, we’re going be able to support them in their lean ventures. We are not going to go down.”
Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.