EACOM Timber Corporation is spending $2.8 million on increased automation at its Timmins sawmill.
The company is putting in place a new lumber grading dystem, which will determine the grade of each piece of lumber faster and more accurately than human workers.
“The job (when done by humans) demands high concentration because the piece goes flying by you, and you have to decide in that time if that piece is a premium, or a No. 1, or a No. 2, or No. 3, or economy,” explained Guy Fleury, the mill’s general manager. “Whereas the scanners pick up all the defects like rot and all that. So it’s an automation to more precisely put the lumber in its proper grade.
The upgrade means that two mill employees will lose their jobs. Currently, there are two workers per shift responsible for grading wood. With the new scanners, that will be reduced to one person per shift who will be watching for certain defects that the scanners would miss.
Even though the automation will mean job losses for two people, the scanners will require technicians to run and maintain them. Fleury said this is in keeping with a general shift in the mill’s workforce from general labour to skilled labour; which has shifted from a 1-in-5 ratio of technicians to labourers, to 1-in-3.
With the industry becoming ever more technical, unskilled labourers are being displaced, and Fleury said there isn’t any room to find them other jobs on the site.
“You will never see an announcement from this mill where we have increased our hiring,” said the general manager. “This mill is at the end of its hiring. We’re at two full shifts capacity and we will not go to three shifts because the forest cannot sustain that. We have about 100 people at the mill and that hasn’t really changed since 1999.”
Because of EACOM’s sustainable forestry practises which limit the amount of timber the mill can bring in, the scanners are meant to allow the mill to get more usable wood to market in proper grade with the same amount of trees. This, said Fluery, makes them critical for making sure the mill remains competitive.
“If we don’t automate more to be more competitive, then we face the fate of those mills that closed during the recession,” said Fleury. “You either keep up with the West Frasers of this world, or you end up on a lifeline like Tembec, which is constantly on credit watch and close to bankruptcy.”
The new scanners will be installed at the EACOM mill during a shutdown in early January and should be up and running by the middle of that month.