No doubt about it, North American sawmillers are in the middle of a truly rough patch of markets and operating conditions right now: Five years ago the housing market began to crumble; three years ago the financial crisis hit like a tidal wave; and in the three years since there’s been a lot of hanging on, holding out and making do in the industry.
Lagging markets after a good start to this year continue to put a drag on signs of recovery. Despite a bright area reflected in booming exports to Asia and China in particular, the U.S. housing market, driver of North American lumber sales, remains three or more years away from sustained increases in housing starts.
In such recessionary times, each supplier must closely analyze operations in relation to log, conversion and transportation costs and make changes accordingly in order to stay in business. Buying logs right, and right-sizing operations to match market conditions are the orders of the day. But even in such a challenging business environment, there are low-cost ways to address efficiency, performance and capacity in order to maintain profitability or even viability. One of the first places many look is in the filing room, and there the path to boost the bottom line is clear:
For every sawline that can be cut thinner or more accurately, that’s money back to the mill. Results can be relatively quickly realized through thin-kerf sawing programs, closer monitoring of feed speeds vs. accuracy with the goal of reducing sawing variation, changes in saw geometry and makeup and more.
We just received a press release that the Western Saw Filers Educational Assn. (WSFEA) is holding its annual conference and workshop September 16-17 at the Monarch Hotel in Portland, Ore. In the release, WSFEA Sec. Bill Saily notes that “for less than the cost of a consultant for a day, you can send your whole filing crew to these workshops.”
Indeed, considering the quality and value implications and overall operational impact that quality sawing can have on mill profitability, time and money spent on everything from filing and sawing component upgrades to employee training provides a cumulative return that builds mill strength in tough times. Closely related to filing is maintenance, and the opportunities there are plenty as well. Machine alignment is critical, and all support systems that must perform for quality sawing to happen—electric, hydraulic, air—can be analyzed and inspected for areas of improvement. Efforts to maintain system integrity and performance with older equipment must also be stepped up.
It’s an old saw—pun intended—that tough times mean it’s time to go “back to the basics.” But times like these are when owners and managers of mill operations are smart to honestly assess strengths and weaknesses and do what’s possible to improve when markets are soft, financing is tight and major capital improvements have to wait.