By Steve Pawlett

By Investing over $20 million in upgrades, Ben Hokum & Sons sawmill is now the most automated sawmill in the Ontario pine market. Situated in the small town of Killaloe Ontario, the mill sees a mix of white pine, red pine, and aspen.

Established in 1956, Hokum Lumber is a well-trusted brand that knowledgeable buyers look to for their lumber needs. This small-town sawmill operation has come a long way since those early days. Hokum is committed to using the complete log creating mulch, sawdust, and bark chips which have led them into other markets including medium-density fibreboard, agriculture, and landscaping.

The official ribbon cutting at Ben Hokum & Sons: (l-r) Mike Bozak, sawyer, Tanya Felhaber, Dean Felhaber, John Yakbuski, MPP Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembrook and MNRF Minister, Marcel Belair, sawmill manager.

“We’ve always taken the view that we can’t standstill. That’s not an option for us,’ says Dean Felhaber, owner and president of Ben Hokum & Sons Sawmill. “We have to keep investing in our operations, and we have to continue to get our costs down, so it’s a continual process.”

Back in 1974, a big logline was added to the operation. It has a carriage with an automated set works on the carriage and resaw for primary breakdown, an edger, Canadian-style trimmers, and board way.

The first screen in front and to the left of the sawyer – 9 cameras located at strategic points in the sawmill and along the mainline that the sawyer watches closely for production problems so he can react to prevent or minimize downtime.

The second screen in front and to the right of the sawyer is showing sawing solutions for each log, both at the primary breakdown (log rotation degrees, and canter quad settings) and at the secondary (cant positioner, canter gang settings). The pictures show the scanned log, the different lumber that will be produced from the log, the required log rotation (which is done automatically by the optimizer), the dollar value of lumber that will come from the log, the exact measurement of the log, the footage (volume) of the log, the saw line speed, the target and actual spacing between logs on the line.

A third screen on the bottom right side in front of sawyer keeps track of shift data – number of logs processed, footage of logs and footage of lumber processed, average log count per minute since start of shift and for the last minute. This also provides a whole host of mechanical and optimization controls at the sawyer’s fingertips.

“We’ve run that mill for two shifts since 1974. It’s been a good mill for us, but the timber was getting smaller,” explains Felhaber who purchased the mill from his grandfather, Ben Hokum Jr. in 2015.

Hokum had decided to build a small logline in 1993. For breakdown in that mill, they had a twin-band resaw to take off two slabs then the cant would go over an 8” gang fed by hand. The mill was also equipped with a resaw and Canadian-style edger and board way with guys piling lumber.

“We were running with those two mills with two shifts on the big logline and one shift on the small logline. We would sort our logs as they came into the yard. Everything up to a 10-inch top would go into one pile for our small logline, and everything over the ten inches would go to the big logline.

Hokum was getting around 45,000 board feet of production through its small log line but found with the number of men that were in that mill, their costs were just too high, so in 1997 a new small log mill was built.

“For primary breakdown, we put in a bottom chipping head, and two side canters so that we could make a three-sided cant. Then we had a twin-band resaw behind that so we could take boards off the side or no boards, then we had an inline bow edger with a line bar to position the cant as it went through the bow. The bow was an 8-inch cant, so we couldn’t saw anything wider than 8 inches,” explains Felhaber. “At the same time we put in an Autolog automated trimmer so we had a 2D scanner that would scan every board and it would control the trimming, send boards back to the edger if they needed to and also control all the sorting Into a 60 bin J-bar sort, then an automatic stacker at the end. The 2D scanning improved our recovery from every log, especially our red pine.”

“Our old large log mill continued to run with two shifts with the same equipment in it, then we went through the downturn in 2008, which was long and deep, and we were able to pull through the downturn because we had built that mill. We were able to control our sawing costs, but with the big logline, because of the amount of labour, and costs going up all around, we knew that we had to do something to get our average sawing cost down so we could compete well into the future” continues Felhaber.

Originally, Felhaber wanted to build a new large log mill and go down to one shift and produce more lumber in one shift than they were doing in two. This would push down operating costs significantly.

“That was our plan but the capital costs to do anything these days is so high we knew it would cost us probably around $15 million to build a big log mill. We would want to incorporate a gang saw with two carriages to push the volume out to repay for the construction of it,” explains Felhaber.

“We also knew producing that much extra lumber would bottleneck our grading facilities.” Hokum keeps a large inventory of white pine on sticks for air drying and grades out 80% of that for the market, and the other 20% is sold directly from the mill. “We knew by building a new big log mill we would have to produce a lot more lumber to have a proper repayment of that capital investment and we would bottleneck our grading department.”

Staffing challenges

“Like everyone else in this industry, one of our significant challenges is finding enough skilled and unskilled labour. The day of people looking for a job piling lumber is a thing of the past. In our grading department, we have graders and guys that are stacking lumber by hand, and we have a hard time filling those roles.

“In order handle that increased volume on the big log line, we would have to double our grading facilities. We knew that would have a lot of challenges, so we went back to the drawing board and rethought our original plan, and I decided to replace the entire saw line in our small log sawmill, said Felhaber. “The small log mill could only saw up to 8” lumber so I decided to put equipment in that could produce up to 12” wide so we could a take a bigger log in that line and produce 50% faster throughput speeds. This approach took away a lot of the log diameters that were going through the old large log mill, which was more expensive to saw in, and put those logs through the small log line where we could produce cheaper and faster.”

In 2016 Felhaber began traveling all over Canada and the U.S. looking at different equipment operators. “I wanted to make sure we did our homework properly and picked out the right equipment for the type of sawing that we do for our pine. We decided to go with PHL, which is part of the Bid Group.”

PHL specializes in hardwood and pine log processing.

During the two-month construction phase, Hokum had upwards of 70 tradespeople working day and night seven days a week. “It was a major undertaking for us. We shut the mill down on the September long weekend, and restarted on November 13th, By the time we are all done we will have just over a $20 million expenditure between the sawmill and phase two of our project,” explains Felhaber.

The sawmill itself required an additional 10,00 sq. Ft. added to the existing sawmill that was 18,000 sq. Ft.

“The biggest challenge for us was the two-month time frame,” adds James Welk, owner of Welk Electric.

“That’s quite impressive when you consider a large portion of the mill was disassembled and the building was expanded by 10,000 sq. Ft. Considering the challenges of the project they did a great job. I was very pleased with my staff of 35 and how they accommodated everything.” Welk Electric has been working with Hokum for more than 50 years and was responsible for all of the electrical work and upgrade portion including the distribution which was increased in size with the mill expansion.

“We are now in the process of phase two work. We have the new equipment in place, we are in the engineering portion of it right now,” adds Jordan Welk, manager, Welk Electric. Welk Electric also provides in-house engineering and dry kiln process control and maintenance.

New equipment

Hokum added a third ring debarker and lengthened their infeed for the logs to come up a wave feeder onto the main saw line. “We have a gap controller, so we scan the lengths of the logs when it is in the step of the wave feeder, and we program in the amount of space we want to allow between every log on the line so we can achieve our piece count on the line and keep it consistent,” adds Felhaber.

Currently, Hokum is running red pine with 10 foot spacing between the logs and is achieving up to 18 logs per minute going through the line. “That’s a significant increase over where we were before. Our target was to get 115,000 feet of lumber out in a shift of red pine logs, and we are at 118,000 feet average right now on our best day we hit 141,000 feet with 6,600 logs. These are heavy, 8-10 ft logs for the square market. We have exceeded our target, and we are gaining on it, so the gap control system has helped us to keep the piece count up.”

Comact True Shape 3D scanner pictured ahead of the primary breakdown.Scans are done every half-inch of the length of the log as it travels through the scanner. Each snapshot scans a total of 120 points, 360 degrees around to get an extremely accurate 3D picture of each log. Logs are moving through the scanner with 10′ spacing and at speeds of 600ft/min.

“One of the critical things we did was install a TrueShapes 3D Scanner from the Bid Group. The log goes through the scanner, and we program in all the different sizes we want to make out of the logs. We also program in all the different prices for each size that we get for that material and how much wane that we will allow on any given piece as the log goes through the TrueShape Scanner,” explains Felhaber.

The scanner gives15 different solutions for each log, and it picks the one with the most money value and applies it to that log. It does this in a split second then automatically turns the log, so the sawyer doesn’t have to make any decisions it assigns a pattern to it. The sawyer has a screen where he will see what pattern the computer has decided to make out of that log and what value of lumber is going to come out of that log.

“When you walk down the end of the line, and you look at what’s laying for lumber at the green chain it is exactly what the computer said it was,” adds Felhaber. “We are now able to produce 50% more volume than we did with the 2D line that we put in back in ‘97 and we were able to increase the yield from every log and achieve the payback period that we were aiming to achieve.”

Hokum also put in canter heads, so they are chipping two sides now, all controlled by the computer.

“We put in quad bandsaws so we can take off no side boards, one, or two, or three, or four side boards depending on the size of that log and what gives us the best value out of that log.

“It’s not about volume; it’s about value out of that log. Ultimately, it comes down to dollars and cents out of that log. We have changed our focus now that we have this technology. The reporting that we get at the end of the day is absolutely amazing,” says Felhaber. “We know exactly how many logs went through, we know to the 10th of an inch how many logs of what size diameter went through the mill, we know the length of the logs that went through; how many 8 ft and how many 10 ft, etc. We know if they had zero inches of trim or one, two, three, four, or five inches of trim.”

Hokum now works more closely with some of its jobbers to make sure they are getting the best amount of trim and not getting too much trim or not enough trim which costs down the line.

“We know what our recovery is over the batch of logs that went in for the day. It scales every log, so we know the footage of logs going in, the footages of logs coming out and we know the value of the lumber that came out for the day. We know the number of pieces that were produced for the day. It’s just amazing the type of information we are getting out of the line now,” he adds.

Felhaber also put in a quad cant scanner, so when a two-sided cant comes through and is scanned in full 3D, it gets appropriately positioned going through another set of canter heads where the slabs are taken off, then it goes through a double arbor 12inch gang.

“We don’t have to handle any slabs down the line off the primary or secondary breakdown. This saves a lot of manpower and allows us to process it at fast feed speeds.”

The line is designed to run up to 600 feet per minute. “We are targeting to run our red pine through at no faster than 400 feet per minute,” adds Felhaber.

Hokum made other changes in the sawmill in addition to changing the main saw line.

With two manual board edgers in the 2D line built in ‘97, Hokum needed to put in an optimized board edger in the mill to handle the increased flow of lumber that had to go through the edger.

“We worked with Autolog to provide the 3D scanning for every board, and we worked with TrueWay Manufacturing to build the unscrambler at the infeed to the edger, and we have a positioning system that positions the board and skews it going into the edger. The positioning system and the edger is built by Noone’s which is owned by US & R,” explains Felhaber. “With that edger, right now we have 25 boards per minute, so it’s running through the board in almost 2 seconds. And it is rated for 28 boards a minute, so we are almost there. Its operating in the 20’s all the time in red pine and white pine.”

The operator loads one board in every lug, and the chains carry it through the scanner and into the positioner automatically.

Hokum made another change at the trimmer area to handle the increased boards.” In red pine we are putting up to 22,000 pieces per shift, so we added an automatic lug loader from Carbotech with fingers and wheels, to grab each board and load it into a lug.

Hokum also added two board turners with grading stations so when they saw white pine and want to do a grade separation, it’s hands off for the employees. The board turners turn the wood automatically, the grader looks at the piece, and he can trim for rot or bad knots and assign a grade to the board.

“The 2D Autolog scanner that we had in there is still being used to scan for wane to keep our quality parameters within check. It’s automatically controlled so we can guarantee the quality of our lumber going out to the customer in the end, ads Felhaber.

PHL cant positioner, situated after the transverse 3D cant scanner. Accurately skews cant to feed canter gang.

Hokum is using the same 60-bin sorter that they have had for 20 years but upgraded their stacker by replacing the carriage for a faster style to handle the speed up in production.

Production targets surpassed

“We are happy to say it is finally producing more than what our target was. Basically, at the end of the day, we removed the night shift off of our big logline, so we run the biggest logs that come in through that carriage mill. We replaced the carriage and added new 3D scanning software for the carriage two years ago, installed a brand new resaw three years ago, and replaced part of the board way as well so it should operate for many years with those upgrades just sawing the biggest logs that come in,” explains Felhaber.

The small log line now saws all the medium size logs up to a 17”. When a truck comes in the sawmill does three log sorts — logs from a 5” to 10” diameter, and 11” to 16”. These go through the small line but are run separately to cut down on the amount of shifting for the primary and secondary breakdown and maintain a good piece count.

Hokum was selling 33 million feet per year before the upgrades with two shifts on its old mill and one shift on its small logline. The small logline, before the upgrades last year, produced just over 19 million feet. Now, with these upgrades, the Hokum mill will be producing just over 40 million feet per year with one shift on each mill.

“The payback comes in increased productivity, lower per-unit labour costs and much better recovery from every log. We are increasing overall volume by 20% with two shifts instead of three,” says Felhaber.

Phase II

This increased volume will add pressure on to Hokum’s grading department, so Felhaber decided to incorporate a phase II expansion.

“Right now, we are building a 26,000 square foot building, and we are working with Carbotech and Autolog to change the way we grade our lumber. Instead of doing it manually over a tilt hoist and a chain with men piling lumber, we are going to do it through a grading line,” says Felhaber. “We will have three graders on a line, and they will grade the lumber with chalk, and we will have a UV scanner that will pick up that grade mark and cutting instructions, and we will have a 16 foot trimmer that will automatically trim the board and scan the board and put it automatically into a 25 bin J-bar sorter.”

Hokum is also installing an automated tray system that will prepare the full bundles after they come out of the sorter so they can package their pine in 6 to 16 ft random length bundles.

“This is something new for the industry,” says Felhaber. “It has typically been done by hand or a combination of mechanical and human intervention. This operation will be completely automated.”

With these current and planned changes, Hokum is effectively removing the majority of labour-type jobs that are hard to fill.

“We want to improve the workplace for our employees, and we know that we have to change the workplace and the type of work that we have if we want to find the employees to fill those roles,” explains Felhaber.

Hokum’s workforce needs have remained relatively stable. “We eliminated the night shift from our old mill, and we are utilizing most of the men in the small log line temporarily as we get the downtime down. We are still running with higher downtime than we want as we tweak the line. We also have employees who are at retirement age, so we have people who retired last year and are retiring this year. By not replacing some of those retirements we have not had to lay anyone off.”

Hokum’s employment levels will increase when phase two remanufacturing stage of its upgrade is completed in 2022.

Dean’s grandfather Ben passed away a year ago just before his 90th birthday. “He had always wanted to put 3D scanning in the sawmill because he knew the recovery we could get. He would be proud of what we have accomplished here. I wish he could have been here to see that,” said Felhaber.

BID Group sawmill install

For the new Ben Hokum & Sons sawmill installation, the BID Group has a project manager and specialized crews to handle the removal and replacement process. “The installation crew spent three weeks removing the old sawmill and installing the new line. Then the service team comes in to do the correct alignments and set up all the parameters to ensure its ready to run,” explains Mario Tremblay, sales manager, The BID Group. “Its always team work between the supplier and the customer.”

“One challenge with this project is the mill will now run both big and small red and white pine through this sawmill and each has a different saw pattern. The old sawmill ran 6” cants and this one now runs up to 12” cants,” adds Tremblay.

This means everything had to be modified to handle the larger cants throughout the line. “It touched the debarker, the saw line, the edger and the trimmer. But these changes to go to 12” cants make the Ben Hokum mill a leader in the industry,” adds Tremblay.

BID Group installed a quad canter bandsaw with a recently modified design.

The bandsaws are back to back with a set of rollers between them. “The biggest challenge with a quad bandsaw is to maintain the cant for consistent sawing. The first board is always accurate but the second board through the second set of saws can have some variance,” explains Tremblay. “With this new design, you get the same quality from both saws. With the value of the white pine, its essential to have this level of consistency.”

This is the third install of this newly modified quad cant bandsaw by the BID Group. The first one was done in Brazil and the second one was installed in a mill in Washington State.

Tiltran Upgrading power requirements

“The Hokum & Sons sawmill expansion required additional electric power and we assisted Welk Electric with expanding the electrical system to accommodate the mill expansion and upgrades to meet those requirements,” explains Paul Krupicz, director of business development and engineering, Tiltran.

Tiltran Power Service is part of the Spark Group and is a medium voltage electrical contractor. Established in Tillsonburg, Ontario, Tiltran has been delivering customized engineering experience and practical solutions with a customer-first mindset since 1984. Tiltran prides itself on its team of skilled and dedicated tradespeople: Engineers, Technicians, Electricians (309A), Apprentices, and Support personnel.

“We work with local contractors who deal with specific customers and supplement their skillset to address the medium voltage applications,” says Krupicz.

“When we started our relationship with Hokum back in 1997, we worked with Welk Electic then and we have worked with them on a number of other mill projects. James and Jordan Welk are people we work with on a regular basis. They look after the local customers and we try to look after their requirements,” adds Krupicz.

Tiltran changed out a 2,500 KVA transformer with a 4,000 KvA unit and assisted with the increased equipment sizing to address the added loads. The surplus transformer will be relocated to the new grading building.

“Hokum & Sons basically doubled the size of their electrical service to the primary end of the new sawmill and they are looking at further requirements for the next phase of the expansion. We are dealing with the grading building at this point. The kiln is for future discussions,” adds Krupicz. “All work was supporting Welk Electric who did all the in-plant equipment wiring. We did the main power connection upgrades.”

Autolog 3D Scanning

Working with the BID Group and Autolog, Ben Hokum & Sons retrofitted its old edger to handle the larger 12” cants and installed 3D scanning to improve throughput and yield.

“Hokum can now scan at a quarter inch cadence, so they get a better scan, better definition, and a better width. Because they are now scanning at 45 degrees, they see all faces of the lumber,” explains Gilles Gauvin, sales manager, Autolog. “When you scan top to bottom all you are seeing is 90 degrees so you can miss the edges. When you go at 45 degrees you see all four sides, so you get better data to make better decisions.”

Hokum also made modifications to their stacker to handle the higher throughput. Autolog has been installing 3D scanners since 2005 and added the 45degree 3D scanners in 2008. “We have just over 100 units installed so far,” adds Gauvin.

Autolog also upgraded the computers on the trimmer optimizer. “We modified it so we could use new computers, and new optimizers with brand new controls,” said Gauvin.

The lug loader Autolog installed adapts for different widths and thicknesses. “We have an arm that comes under and helps support the widest boards and we can close down the gap so we can go from narrow to wide in one lug loader and be very efficient. At the end of the day, if you get more lug fill you are more productive,” adds Gauvin. Autolog is also involved in automating the grading operation in phase II.

Provincial Support – John Yakabuski MNR & F

“Looking at the positive impact that the Ben Hokum & Sons sawmill expansion is having on their ability to be competitive in a very tight forestry market, we are very happy the Province was able to assist in modernizing the mill which is the number one employer in the area,” explains John Yakabuski, Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry. “This puts the mill in a position to be at the front of the line for a long time to come with respect to modern technology and to extract the maximum value out of every single log that goes through that mill. Kudos to Dean Felhaber. I know that if his grandfather, Ben Hokum Senior, was here today, he would be quite proud of what he has accomplished.”

“The days of extracting some of the value out of a log are over,” continues Yakabuski. “You simply won’t be able to compete, so we have to make sure our sawmills are in a position to do exactly that. Ben Hokum & Sons serves as an example of that and as a template for other mills to achieve the same results.”

Yakabuski explains that Canada has a tremendous forest industry and our potential is even greater. “I think it’s up to us to make a lot of the right decisions at the government level and I’m not sure they have been focused on that over the last number of years. We need to make sure we are partnering properly with our forest industry to give it the best chance possible to utilize this amazing sustainable natural resource. A properly managed forest is a wonderful environmental asset.”

“The forestry industry is something that will always be necessary. And we have to make sure that here in Ontario and across the country, we are at the cutting edge. This mill expansion is a good way to say to our youth; there are good jobs in this industry. Don’t rule it out when considering where you might be seeking work. The forestry industry, I think is being recharged and will present opportunities for young people well into the future,” says Yakabuski.

Business Leader – Cheryl Gallant MP

“Ben Hokum & Sons has been a long term multi-generational mill providing a stable source of work for people in the area. But most of all, because it has been in business for decades, it’s become a family-centric business,” explains Cheryl Gallant, conservative MP for Renfrew, Nipissing, Pembroke riding. “For three generations, the owners have demonstrated that they genuinely care about the people who work in their mill. When there are downturns, they are highly sensitive to what that means to their employees and their families. I think it is that sense of responsibility that has driven the leadership during various generations to adapt to do what is necessary to be able to survive and prosper in an industry that is full of economic swings and is so dependent on politics between Canada and the US.”

“I have seen Ben Hokum & Sons go through several evolutions in my time, and when I saw this new technology at the official opening, it speaks well of Dean Felhaber. He is always investigating ways to make his business better, and more able to survive the next unknown swing that will inevitably come. Whether it be it political, weather-related or economic, there is always something on the horizon, and he always positions himself and his employees in such a way that they can weather any storm that comes along,” adds Gallant.

Gallant says the current $20 million upgrades and expansion to make his mill more efficient and safer for his employees, speaks to the tradition of excellence as an employer as well a supplier of quality softwood lumber products in Canada and the United States.

“The company is well-liked for being good corporate citizens, for helping the community and of course the people who work there certainly enjoy the time that the mill is closed down during hunting season. It’s a right of passage around here,” adds Gallant.

“I have hired people at my office who have previously worked at Ben Hokum & Sons, and Dean has taught them how to work ethically. Everyone who has worked there after school and then come my way, I have found that Dean has instilled a good work ethic in them. My provincial counterpart, my municipal representatives and my self, are very proud of Dean being awarded this prestigious title,” said Gallant.