Managing the Technology of Making Lumber

To start this blog, I thought I should start with an overall look at the technology of sawmilling before going to the finer details.  In this case, I’m thinking of how we manage the technologies we work with, whether it’s saws, grinders, machines, computers, etc.

Not so long ago the technology in a sawmill was easy to understand – it had to be since each machine was operated by a person.  This applied to orienting and feeding lumber into a machine or putting a saw on a grinder.  In new mills this is not the case: most machines now have at least a PLC or a computer somewhere in their guts.  For the most part this allows the machines to be faster, more accurate, and more consistent than would ever be achieved by a human operator.  In most cases it’s also relieved people from monotonous or dangerous jobs, especially repetitive strain injuries.

This change in how the tools and machines are built means we have to change how we keep them going.  Before the computers were introduced a person with a good mechanical abilities could see the problem and come up with a fix, or better yet, and improvement.  This of course still happens with new machines, but it now requires a specialist (PLC or computer programmer) to understand where the problem lies, never mind how to make an improvement.  As more electronics have been added, it has also added to the list of things that can go wrong: any problems with wires, sensors, computer boards, or communications links can shut down a machine that is mechanically fine.

The addition of electronics and computers to sawmill machines has, in many cases, been the addition of “black boxes” that are impenetrable, or at least difficult to understand.   Even with better user interfaces, some machines have so many options to know that it still takes a specialist to make sure a machine is setup correctly.

Actually, the most costly problem is when a machine runs, but not optimally.  Just because lumber (or saws, or whatever)  is being processed doesn’t mean that the machine is getting the most value from the fibre.  This leads to the question how do we know if a machine is operating correctly.    On a larger scale, how do we know what could be done to improve.

The constant drive to improve is a fundamental aspect of manufacturing.  If we’re improving it means we are not standing still waiting for a bump in the economy or an ambitious competitor to leave us in the dust.  At a fundamental level, if we can improve, it means we understand our technology and are willing and able to control it for our goals, not let it limit what we want (or need) to do.