The Quebec equipment manufacturer Bid Group manufactures and sells machines to enable Quebec and North American sawmills to take a 4.0 turn. (Picture: courtesy)
Efficiency gains, better quality products, increased profitability and competitiveness, not to mention the resolution of the problems caused by the shortage of labour… Wood processing factories have invested, over the decades, in high technologies to modernize their production process, and they are now reaping the rewards. A textbook case that could inspire other industries to do the same.
SAINT-EPHREM-DE-BEAUCE. Everything is noisy and moving in the Clermond Hamel sawmill, along Route 271. The logs circulate on conveyors to be sorted, sawed, classified, then packaged. A well-rehearsed choreography, like in a beehive. Except that there are few “bees” here, because in the last decade, the SME has invested 30 million dollars (M$) to automate its processes.
“For 10 years, we have doubled our production, but with the same number of employees,” said plant manager David Hamel, shouting, in order to make himself understood in all the ambient din.
The family business, which employs 80 people, does not yet consider itself 4.0, but rather 3.5, because the machines do not yet communicate with each other. But they will soon be able to, assures David Hamel.
Thanks to these investments, Clermond Hamel is much more efficient, its profit margin is higher in addition to having reduced the number of industrial accidents since there is less human intervention in its processes. Recruitment is also easier, because the positions are more technical and therefore more rewarding.
During our visit, for example, we saw a worker seated behind a console, with a view of the production line, looking at computer screens that displayed indicators, while operating a handle to manipulate equipment that conveyed balls Of wood.
“If we hadn’t made these investments, we would have labor problems,” says David Hamel.
Investments that pay off
Production automation, as at Clermond Hamel, is far from being an exception in the forest industry. Other sawmills have invested over the years to modernize in order to be more efficient, underlines Jean-François Samray, CEO of the Forest Industry Council (CIFQ).
“It was above all a question of survival,” he says over the phone.
They had no choice but to remain competitive in a market that was often difficult due to sharp fluctuations in wood prices, labor shortages and competition from new, hypermodern American sawmills.
Investments that pay off since in 30 years, Quebec sawmills have made significant efficiency gains, explains Carl Gilbert, investment portfolio manager for the natural resources, construction and building materials sectors at the Fonds de solidarity of the FTQ.
To illustrate his point, he gives the example of the material yield of sawmills, a leading measurement standard in the industry. In 1990, a sawmill in Quebec needed, on average, 5 cubic meters of wood to produce 1000 board feet (fbm). In 2019 (the most recent year for the entire industry), this figure had dropped to 3.82 cubic meters. “The most efficient plants even manage to reach 3.3 to 3.4 cubic meters, but there is still a long way to go,” says Carl Gilbert.
To modernize, sawmills have not only automated their production lines, but they have also installed optical cameras and artificial intelligence technologies to optimize the speed and quality of the process.
Get the maximum value from each board
Many factories therefore do more with less, but they are also able to do much better with the same raw material, thus creating more added value.
The new planing plant of Matériaux Blanchet, in Saint-Pamphile, a village in Chaudière-Appalaches, close to the Maine border (there is even a border post that leads into the SME’s lumber yard), is one of them. nice example. We drove nearly 135 kilometers on Route 204 linking Saint-Georges to Saint-Pamphile, through the Appalachian mountain range and many small villages, in order to visit it.
“We are going to look for the maximum value in each board. That’s the real gain,” says Patrick Leblanc, vice-president of operations at Matériaux Blanchet, showing us the automated production line, after putting on a bib and a safety helmet.
It looks like the warehouse of a very large area, with a very high ceiling. We navigate the production line by walking on a multi-storey mesh walkway — don’t be dizzy!
We come across workers here and there at different strategic points in the production chain. Humans can be counted on the fingers of two hands in the planing factory, even if the entire site of Matériaux Blanchet employs 150 people.
Modernization has completely transformed the work of staff, insists Patrick Leblanc.
Previously, for example, it was an employee who sorted to determine if a log contained one or two quality planks. Sometimes, in doubt, he estimated that a ball contained only one, even if it actually had two, thus generating losses.
The machines, they are never wrong: they will draw from each log exactly the actual quantity of planks available – the Saint-Pamphile factory needs 3.5 cubic meters of wood to produce 1000 pmp.
The machines can even detect in a log the presence of two boards, but of different quality, which are sold at different prices. As a result, Matériaux Blanchet makes better profit margins, in addition to being more competitive on the market.
This efficiency and precision are possible thanks to the $30 million investment that the SME has made to completely rebuild, in 2020, the Saint-Pamphile plant, which has been in operation since 1958. Matériaux Blanchet has also invested $30 million to modernize its other plant in Amos, Abitibi-Témiscamingue.
These investments have greatly reduced the pressure on the workforce at Matériaux Blanchet. “We went from five to two shifts. There were no job losses; we even hire, because the ” jobs” are more interesting and less physically demanding,” says Patrick Leblanc.
A Quebec equipment supplier at the heart of this revolution
This technological revolution in the forest industry is little known. What is even more so is that it relies on Quebec equipment manufacturers, including Bid Group, in Saint-Georges – we also find its machines at Clermont Hamel and Matériaux Blanchet.
This SME has become the leader in North America in this field, by offering its technological solutions to transform wood much more efficiently. The gains of 5 to 3.82 cubic meters of wood to produce 1000 pmp observed for 30 years in the Quebec industry, it is largely thanks to it.
No wonder then that the contracts are piling up on top of each other, confides Simon Potvin, president of the company’s wood processing division, to whom we had made an appointment at the Saint -Georges to understand the role of SMEs in this technological revolution.
“The demand is very strong. We have an order book of 22 to 24 months,” he says, as we walk through the halls of the company to visit the factory adjacent to the main building.
It’s a typical production line. We see different trades at work, while walking carefully to avoid forklifts. But instead of making cars, they make big equipment for the Georgia-Pacifics of this world.
Bid Group, which operates eight other mills of its kind in North America, also builds new hypermodern mills for forestry companies, particularly in the United States. “We bring our expertise and we hire locally to build the buildings,” explains Simon Potvin.
One thing is certain, Bid Group is not a badly shod shoemaker. The Saint-Georges plant is itself 4.0 (the machines communicate with each other) in order to reduce the effect of the labor shortage in Chaudière-Appalaches. In December, the unemployment rate there was 2.9%, much lower than the Quebec average of 4.6%.
Bid Group also installs real-time performance indicators on their equipment, such as in Westervelt, Alabama, to help customers be even more efficient.
Indicators that Simon Potvin can consult at any time of the day on his computer screen in his office, more than 2000 kilometers from Saint-Georges, as he showed us. “I can extract information to help our customers better optimize their production,” he says.
We are far from the folkloric image of the small traditional sawmill in the region…
The benefits of the growing efficiency of Quebec’s forest industry sector are not limited to sawmills. Local communities also benefit through more stimulating and better paid jobs. Finally, more generally, this operational efficiency also somehow reduces the pressure on Quebec’s forests, while we must collectively find a balance between economic development and nature protection.
Admittedly, this balance remains precarious, not to mention certain tensions between environmental groups and the forest industry, for whom the security and predictability of supplies is the sinews of war.
On the other hand, as we were able to see by visiting the facilities of Clermond Hamel, Matériaux Blanchet and Bid Group, this quiet technological revolution certainly represents a step in the right direction.
Three players in the technological revolution in wood processing
How can the rest of the manufacturing sector learn from this revolution?
Upgrade or die
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Efficiency: the sawmills here make arrow of any wood
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