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Preventive Maintenance Keeps Pallet Plants and Sawmills Up and Running
Preventive Maintenance Keeps Pallet Plants and Sawmills Up and Running

By Alan Froome
Date Posted: 4/1/2004

Every pallet manufacturer and sawmill, big or small, needs to maintain the machines and equipment they use, whether on a planned or random basis.

            The axiom, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ does not really cut it in today’s competitive world of high volume production.

            In fact, in the realm of automated equipment and precision sawing, cutting and nailing, another saying comes to mind: ‘You can pay me now or pay me later.’

            Downtime, of course, means lost production and lost revenue, just as much to the small producer as to large plants and mills. However, maintenance costs money, too.

            Pallet Enterprise talked to representatives of a few larger pallet manufacturing companies to learn what they are doing in their maintenance departments, the payback for preventive maintenance, and, indirectly, how smaller manufacturers and sawmills might benefit.

            Some very sophisticated computer programs are now available for managing preventative maintenance, and some companies are using these tools. Companies interviewed for this article were asked about these kind of computer programs as well as individual machine maintenance practices that could apply to smaller manufacturers --  that often do not have the benefit of permanently staffed maintenance departments.

            The companies interviewed for this article, Edwards Wood Products in Marshville, N.C. and Arrington Lumber & Pallet in Jacksonville, Tex., are among the largest in the pallet industry.


Edwards Wood Products

            Edwards is a very large operation. It employs over 390 people and could not run without its own maintenance department and staff. Edwards has two pallet plants and manufactures an average of 84,000 hardwood pallets a week. The company also owns a dry kiln facility and two sawmills, including a hardwood dimension sawmill in Liberty, N.C. The main pallet plant and sawmill complex is at Marshville, and the second, smaller pallet plant is at Laurinburg, 65 mile away. The company is currently installing a PM computer system.

            At Marshville, logs are stored by a Fulghum crane and debarked by a Price Industries drum debarker. Pallet logs are sawn by three scragg saw lines, a Cooper scragg, an older Evans, and a home-made scragg saw. The scraggs saw bolts into pallet stock; cants, produced at the grade sawmill, are resawn into pallet components, too.

            The pallet plants are equipped with a total of 11 Viking Duomatic automated pallet assembly machines – eight at Marshville along with a Viking Champion and three at Laurinburg.

            The pallet plants works four 10-hour shifts a week and are overseen up by Steve Griffin, pallet and pole plant manager. “The machine operators are responsible for light maintenance and saw change,” said Steve, “but we have two full time daily maintenance guys to help on the pallet machines, including the resaws and notchers. A couple of operators also come in after hours on Fridays to grease and lube the machines.” The maintenance staff also does welding and fabrication – such as make machine guards.

            Maintenance on major machines and equipment is planned and performed regularly. “All the scragg saw and pallet machines are maintained on a weekly basis,” said Steve, “and saws are changed daily. If you keep things well maintained, you don’t get problems.”

            The scragg sawmill has its own maintenance crew. “There are three guys roaming the mill during the shifts to keep things running,” said Steve. “We also just added a second maintenance shift so that at night there is now a welder-fitter and a helper to repair the scraggs, which take a real heavy pounding during the day.”

            Keeping the plant clean is also the responsibility of the maintenance staff. “We have two guys who clean the pallet plant wall to wall every night because of the fine dust,” said Steve. Two other workers clean part of the sawmill each night so it, too, receives a thorough wall to wall cleaning weekly.

            As for saw filing, the scragg operators are responsible for sharpening and changing the inserted tooth saws, but the carbide and gang saw blades are sent out for service. A new Brewer Inc.-Golden Eagle triple-saw slab recovery system has just been installed, but it runs disposable blades.

            Edwards has a low tolerance for conveyor and deck chain failure. “We keep an eye on wear, and if a chain breaks twice, we replace it,” said Steve.

            The maintenance personnel work out of a well equipped shop that is stocked with a selection of spare parts and is equipped for welding, plasma cutting and general repairs. The shop also has a lathe that is used at times to make shafts, rollers, and other parts.

            “If we have some thing that’s giving us trouble, we fix it,” said Steve. “We have a motto – ‘don’t fight it, fix it.’ ”

            When major repairs or a new installation is called for, Edwards has a central engineering group that is involved. The group includes a welder and two electricians, one of which looks after computer maintenance and new systems.

            Edwards also has an information technology specialist on staff who is responsible for the scanning and computer optimization systems in the sawmills as well as a new preventive maintenance computer program. Philip Grooms, the information technology manager, has been on staff for two years.

            Philip recently installed a company-wide computer software package supplied by DP Solutions in Greensboro, N.C. Edwards selected the software “because it integrates all our accounting needs with our parts inventory and preventive maintenance planning,” said Philip.

            The DP Solutions plant maintenance program that is used at Edwards is called iMaint. It includes scheduling for the company’s fleet of vehicles as well as the machinery in the sawmills and pallet plants. The program produces automatic work orders for the maintenance staff and daily reports for management.

            “The iMaint system also identifies any interchangeable parts from machine to machine, so we can reduce our parts inventory and avoid duplication in some cases,” said Philip. He expects in the future that the maintenance crew will use portable, hand-held data terminals to receive work orders and other information.


Arrington Lumber & Pallet

            Arrington has three sawmills, employs around 200 people and produces 100% hardwood lumber and pallets. The pallet plant produces an average of 41,000 pallets per week.

            The company does all maintenance planning and scheduling manually, but president Eddie Arrington said he “can see a time in the future when this will be done by computer.”

            The Arrington maintenance staff -- 11 workers, including automotive mechanics -- has a lot of experience, said plant superintendent Nathan Dyess. “Some have been doing it for 15 years and know what to watch out for,” he said.

            The plant maintenance workers do double duty as quality control inspectors. “They monitor product quality on a regular basis,” said Nathan. “This is part of their job description.”

            The company’s sawmills produce components for the pallet plant. Tree-length logs are debarked and bucked and then go to either a Cooper end-dogging scragg line or a Baker Products ‘short wood’ scragg saw. The company is equipped with Baker Products horizontal bandsaws for resawing.

            The pallet plant has six Viking nailing machines – Turbo 504 and 505 models -- for assembling pallets automatically. Like Edwards, the operators are partly responsible for maintaining the machine. The regular full-time maintenance staff also helps to maintain the machines and keep them running smoothly.

            The mills run a single shift, five days per week. Maintenance and repairs are performed after the shift and on Saturdays. “We like to run from 7 a.m. to 3.30 p.m. and do repairs after that,” said Nathan. “We try to keep to a 5 1/2 day week for the maintenance guys. We have three permanent guys working in the pallet plant and one more assigned to each of the sawmills.”

            The company also employs a full-time welder for making repairs. For electrical work, Arrington relies on a local contractor.

            In addition to maintaining the trucks and trailers, the fleet mechanics also service the company’s forklifts and knuckleboom loaders.

            A major repair project or installation of new equipment may involve all the maintenance personnel. Arrington also uses a local machine shop when a new shaft or certain other parts must be made.

            The maintenance operations have an inventory of spare parts. “We keep some critical bearings, switches and computer components on the shelf,” said Nathan. “The value of parts in inventory is well over $75,000.”

            Inserted tooth saw blades are serviced by the Arrington staff. “We also sharpen the Lennox bandsaws used on the Baker machines one time, then throw them away.” 

            The people interviewed for this article indicated that when production reaches a certain level, a permanent maintenance staff become essential to keep sawmill and pallet manufacturing operations running smoothly. However, it is not easy to determine that level. Steve Griffin at Edwards has a rule of thumb. “When you are spending more on overtime than a permanent maintenance guy costs, hire one,” he said. “At one time we out-sourced our electrical work, but after a time we found he was here almost every day.”

            “Downtime costs a lot,” Steve added, “so we can’t afford to out-source much and be kept waiting.”

            Another advantage of full-time maintenance personnel: in the case of Edwards and Arrington, they were all kept busy on mill improvement projects and machine rebuilds when they were not carrying out their regular tasks.

            Even with permanent preventive maintenance staff, a mill will be down at times, but the frequency of equipment failures will be less. Computer programs for managing preventive maintenance are likely to become more common, at least for bigger companies.

            The software must be adapted as no two mills are the same. Predicting bearing failures, for example, for the same machine may vary widely from one mill to the next depending on wood species, feed speeds and other factors. Even so, over time more common mechanical failures, such as conveyor chain breakage and bearing life, can be predicted more accurately for an individual mill, and this information may be used to update its preventive maintenance computer program.

            If a company invests in a preventive maintenance computer program, training will be required. Combining preventive maintenance with bookkeeping and inventory is an interesting option, as Edwards has done.

            Someone must be able to update the program from time to time, entering data when machine parts are replaced, and so on. As one person noted, a computer program is only as good as the person entering the data.

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