Ford Sawmills Focuses on Quality Lumber, Consistent Board Thickness: Viking Machine Automates Pallet Assembly Operations for Indiana Company
Indiana company is focused on quality lumber and consistent board thickness; Viking nailing machine provides automated pallet assembly.
By April Terreri
Date Posted: 11/1/2005
VINCENNES, Ind. — In 1984, Ford Sawmills Inc. experienced a dramatic sea change. Its major client, a pallet manufacturer, announced that it was closing its doors forever. The pallet company had been purchasing over 90% of the deck boards manufactured by Ford Sawmills.
So the sawmill company bought its first Viking pallet assembly system and began manufacturing pallets with the components it had been in business manufacturing for other pallet suppliers over the prior two decades.
"We are a sawmill that just happens to build pallets," said David Ford, plant manager and son of John Ford, founder.
Ford Sawmills has built its reputation satisfying customers with on-time deliveries – originally manufacturing deck boards and stringers and now making and delivering new pallets to the food, pharmaceutical and chemical industries.
Even after a fire gutted the company’s pallet mill in February 1997, Ford Sawmills’ first priority was to continue supplying customers during the challenging period of re-building and salvaging its business. "I think all our customers were taken care of…(despite the fact that) a lot of what happened was beyond our control," David recalled.
Today Ford Sawmills employs 30 people, with David, his sister and a
"Even though the fire was a setback, we were fortunate because we were on a friendly basis with companies we had been selling our excess lumber to for some time," said David. "Dodd Sawmills in Sullivan was very helpful. They built the pallets we were unable to for some time after the fire, taking good care of
The company rebuilt the mill itself. Just under four months later, by the end of June, Ford Sawmills was up and running again and in full operation with a new pallet plant and a new Viking 505 Turbo nailing machine. The company’s first Viking machine, a Duo-Matic, was damaged in the blaze, and the company had it rebuilt and sold it, replacing it with the Viking 505 machine.
"The first Viking we had was good, but they made many improvements to the 505, and we get better production with the new machine, which is easier to maintain and requires a lot less maintenance than the older machine," David said.
The Viking pallet nailing machine is somewhat of an anomaly at Ford Sawmills, where the majority of the company’s equipment is shop-built.
Evolving with Necessity
John Ford opened the sawmill in 1969, making pre-cut stock he supplied to pallet manufacturers. "When our main customer decided to close its doors (in 1984), we decided to buy a Viking nailer so we could manufacture our own new pallets, and we began manufacturing pallets," David said.
"We do the best job we can to build solid, durable pallets," said David. "The focus of our company is to produce quality lumber with boards of consistent thickness because a nailing machine will run a lot more productively if the thickness is consistent."
To achieve consistency in board thickness, Ford Sawmills resaws with 8-inch-wide bandsaws rather than smaller blades, which don’t run quite as straight, explained David. The mill operates two band resaws that run on 56-inch-diameter wheels, turning band blades that are a little over 26 feet long.
The current sawmill, built in 1997, cuts virtually all its own lumber for the pallet operations. "I don’t think I bought any lumber from the outside market in over a year," said David. Ford Sawmills delivers all the pallets it produces, using four company-owned semi-trucks that are re-loaded after the day’s deliveries
An advantage of employing your own truck drivers is that they can be ‘eyes and ears’ for a company, David noted. "Sometimes they get wind of what’s going on in your customers’ operations, such as if the customer is low or overstocked on pallets. They might also see that another company is delivering pallets. So the more information we have about our customers, the better we can be a good supplier to them."
Ford Sawmills buys small diameter, pallet grade logs, currently paying about $34 per ton. "We buy tops of trees being cut for grade and smaller logs from cleared land," said David. The company usually buys logs ranging from 7 inches to 22 inches in diameter.
"Anything under 25 feet needs to be cut to either multiples of 44 inches or 51 inches," David explained. The company works strictly with hardwood species, primarily oak and hickory although it also buys poplar, elm and hard and
With the rising cost of raw material and fuel, Ford Sawmills has increased pallet prices. "It’s getting less and less difficult to raise prices because people out there know what the market is doing," David said. He also acknowledged that demand has been relatively low in recent years, which made it difficult to raise prices to offset rising costs. Earlier this year, the company began adding a surcharge for deliveries as fuel prices rose. "Our customers really did not balk because they understand this is pretty much standard now," said David.
Two of the company’s tractor-trailers are used exclusively to transport pallets. One hauls chips and sawdust to paper mills, and the fourth semi is used in a part-time capacity, usually to haul bark, which is supplied to a business that processes it into mulch.
Log trucks pull into the yard and are weighed, unloaded, then weighed again to determine load tonnage. "We pay loggers when they want to be paid – even that same day, which helps maintain good relations," said David.
The logs are put into inventory on the yard. When they are ready for the sawmill, they are put on a set of chains and moved to a debarker and then through a metal detector. Any logs containing metal fragments are removed from the line and sold for firewood.
Logs entering the mill first are bucked to rough lengths. "For example, if we are cutting 40-inch or 42-inch deck boards, we will cut the logs into 44-inch sections," said David. "With the lower grade logs, there is normally some crook and curves, and we achieve some savings by cutting the logs into short sections so the curve doesn’t create as much waste."
Logs are broken down on a shop-built scragg mill. The scragg is an overhead, end-dogging mill that runs two vertical bandsaws turning on 56-inch wheels. "The bandsaws are set on movable tracks so we can cut either a 4-inch or 6-inch cant from the center of the log," David said. The slabs drop onto a conveyor and are routed to another area to recover a board. The two-sided cant moves to a circular saw that removes another side to make a three-sided cant.
The three-sided cant is conveyed to a horizontal band resaw; the resaw is the same size as the two-band mill of the scragg saw but is configured horizontally instead of vertically. The cant is conveyed along a merry-go-round that continuously feeds cants to the resaw, which removes one board before the next cant goes through.
From the resaw, the boards drop onto another conveyor and move to an end-trim saw, where an operator lays the boards on a set of chains that carries them to the next station in order to be cut to finished length. Then the boards are stacked by hand.
The slabs are processed similarly to recover lumber. "This is another (merry-go-round) that runs a bit slower because we are making a wider cut, still using the same types of saws," David explained. Boards are cut from the bottom of the slab, and what remains of the slab continues around the track. The boards recovered from the slab feed to another operator who runs them through an edger for a finished width. The edged boards then go through an end-trim saw and are stacked manually. When the lumber is pulled and stacked, pieces with defects and shorts are culled out and processed further in another area to recover short stock.
Heavy Duty Equipment
Since 1960, when John Ford first began working in the forest products industry, he was continually modifying factory-built equipment. "My father is an experienced designer and machinist, and he always built equipment heavier than what is on the market," David said.
For example, he said, "We found it was difficult to change the bearings in large bandsaws we owned in the past. So we use bearings found in semi-trailer axels because they’re designed for heavy wear. It also simplifies maintenance and reduces down time for us. Wheel bearing parts are easily obtainable, so ‘over-design’ is not a bad word here."
The company operates a 10-hour shift, four days a week, producing about 400,000 new pallets annually. Yearly sales – including pallets and residuals, such as chips and sawdust – are over $4 million with pallets accounting for about 85% of total sales.
Ford Sawmills has three buildings on a 15-acre site. The pallet assembly building occupies 33,000 square feet and can accommodate flatbeds that are loaded indoors in severe winter weather. The sawmill building is 15,000 square feet and a third 30,000 square-foot building is used as a warehouse and for heat-treating and drying pallets.
"We have four kilns we built ourselves," said David. "Typically, we put in about two-thirds of a truckload, which seems to work most efficiently." Each kiln is 12 feet wide, 10 feet tall and
Ford Sawmills manufactures pallets ranging from 28x28 to 60x60; the smallest pallet is generally 32x32. The company makes two-way entry and four-way entry pallets. "We build quite a few 54x40 pallets" for customers in the agriculture industry, said David. About 80% of the company’s pallet production is in the 40x40 to 48x48 range. The mill produces about three truckloads of pallets daily, delivering within a 250-mile radius. Ford Sawmills also sells a small volume of deck boards and stringers to other pallet suppliers.
A full-time employee maintains the four bandsaws, changing the blades out about every five hours. The file room is equipped with a Simonds automatic leveler and tensioner and an Armstrong automatic grinder. The company buys saw blades and chamfer machine heads from Leitz Tooling Systems Inc.
In its shop-built notching machine, it runs cutting tools supplied by Profile Technology.
In the yard, three Volvo L70 loaders are used to move logs, sawdust and bark.
David, 45, has a wife, three children and a grandchild. In his spare time he volunteers as the Scoutmaster of a local Boy Scout troop.
David has worked in the forest products industry since high school. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Southern Indiana and working in construction for a few years, he returned to work full-time at Ford Sawmills when he was 24.
"I came in as the plant manager once my father got the Viking nailer and we began manufacturing pallets," he said. "I handled sales, pricing, scheduling, and ordering lumber – and I maintained the Viking machine," David said.
"The service department at Viking Engineering was great in helping me understand how to diagnose and fix problems on that particular machine," he added.
Ford Sawmills’ employees are paid an hourly wage and receive personal health insurance; they can purchase health insurance for their families, too. During monthly safety meetings, employees learn basic safety tips by watching videos supplied by the company’s insurance company.
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