Barcode Tracking System & Unique, Transverse Saw System: Potomac Supply Makes History in Its Milling and Logistics Developments
Industry-leading Virginia company has made major upgrades to its mill in order to stay competitive in the softwood lumber business and has a unique bar coding process for inventory and shipping control; plant features custom equipment designed for its requirements.
By Ed Brindley
Date Posted: 9/1/2006
This is the third time that I have had the privilege of writing an article about the Carden family and its company, Potomac Supply Corporation. It is somewhat ironic that in our 25th anniversary year, I have come back full circle to the first pallet/sawmill company that I ever visited, way back in 1967.
A lot has changed since then because Potomac keeps on pushing the envelope of what is possible. Its latest improvements include a new sawmill and a barcode information management system that are both based on precision to drive quality in the plant. The company is hoping that recent improvements with a unique transverse sawing system will ensure its competitiveness in the sawmill industry. Potomac’s new mill design has more than doubled production.
New Sawmill Developments – Realizing The Dream, Doing the Impossible
Potomac Supply’s sawmill development has gone through four major stages: the original circle mill in the 60s, the expansion to its more automated mill in the early 80s, a major upgrade of its automated mill in the 90s, and now the unique mill that cuts 75 million bd.ft. of southern pine (loblolly pine) a year on a single shift. The company does not buy Virginia Pine logs because they do not treat well. Most lumber production goes internally to Potomac’s treating plant or pallet plant. Some is sold outside to truss manufacturing businesses or white wood for retail outlets.
The modern Potomac sawmill has two saw lines. The quad-band cuts logs from 6” through 19” in diameter on the new McDonough quad-band mill, and those 20” or more in diameter go to the McDonough band carriage mill. Before the recent sawmill renovation, Potomac manufactured about 160,000 bd.ft. per day with 18 people. Now those 18 people produce 300,000 bd.ft. a day, almost double the previous production. One person handles each of the following duties: big log yard crane operator, stationary knuckleboom operator, debarker operator, slasher operator, quad-saw operator, gangsaw operator, edger operator, sawyer on the carriage saw, sorter, forklift driver, manager, assistant manager, chipper operator, knife room, and floor manager. Two people on the trimmer and three on the stacking unit complete the crew.
It took several months to get the new mill running to its current level. “Our goal was 75 million bd.ft. per year,” Bill said. “We have achieved the first level of our goal. The second level is a two shift operation. Our next expansion will focus on optimized log bucking. All processes inside the mill are optimized, but the operator currently is handling bucking decisions.”
When Potomac was planning its most recent modernization, Bill had a special desire. Anybody who knows Bill well realizes that the last thing you want to say to him is, ‘It can’t be done’ — unless you want Bill to prove that it can. Mike Johnson, mill manager, said, “The best thing to tell Bill is, ‘It can’t be done.’ He turns dreams into reality.”
Bill wanted a primary breakdown that singulates logs in a limited 20’ space because Potomac did not have the room for a double or triple log breakdown. His dream was to have better control by analyzing logs and maximizing their potential. It would require a transverse log breakdown system.
The old mill was not optimized but could cut a center cant and two variable width slabs before sending the cant to the gangsaw. In the new mill, both the primary breakdown system and the gangsaw had to be fully automatic. The new Joe Scan system scans a log every five seconds. The system scans each log, sends the optimization information to the PLC, and rotates the log precisely to position it optimally on the sharp chain. Chipping heads remove two slabs from the side of the log before it is sent it to the automated McDonough quad-band, which cuts the center cant and up to four side boards. The system does all this automatically, but the sawyer has the option of overriding the system if a log gets misaligned.
The Potomac team pioneered a cup system that makes contact with a log in four places. Each log is automatically rotated to its optimum position. The sawyer has many cutting and yield options outlined for him if he decides to override the system for any reason. The scanning system looks at the log’s irregularities and its potential before placing it precisely on the sharp chain. The system makes decisions based on inventory needs and market prices. Potomac inputs parameter changes into the computer two or three times a week. Bill said, “We can control what we cut by the current price of wood and our demands.”
Bill and his management team visited the Portland Sawmill Show in 2002 to discuss his needs with sawmill manufacturers. Bill said, “Nine of the big saw optimization manufacturers looked at what we wanted to do. Most said it couldn’t be done. I was asking for a machine that would cycle 12-14 times a minute, do proper orientation of logs, and handle alignment of skewing on a sharp chain.”
The Potomac transverse system dream was special enough that most established manufacturers had not considered such an option and were reluctant to invest in the technology. Because Potomac has built its plant around doing specific tasks and doing them efficiently, its needs often are somewhat different from many large, commodity-driven sawmills.
About to leave the show somewhat frustrated, Bill and his team happened to meet Ad Landers of Land East Machinery, an engineer and machinery manufacturer. Bill said, “As I explained my dream to Ad, his eyes started to sparkle. Ad stated, ‘Not out of reality. I think I can produce it.’ In the excitement of the moment, I forgot this machine would be serial number one. We were going to be in for a real challenge. It took one year to engineer and manufacture the mill and a year to arrange our current mill to accept the new machinery. But the ending was good. We are now in our second year of manufacturing with our new mill and have gotten it to do what we had hoped it would do. There were many who doubted along the way, but we have persevered.”
Bill said, “I had a dream. We wanted to have better control and maximize the potential of each log. But the mill could not have a double breakdown scan system because of the lack of physical space.
Bill continued, “Log quality of eight inches and above is optimal for grade and recovery. Log selection is very important if you want to be efficient and get the maximum return per log. If you have a nice premium log, then you can go for the highest grade that you can cut.” From my experience, the logs on Potomac’s yard were certainly high quality.
The new mill profiles each cant as it goes through. Bill stated, “We wanted our Land East gang saw and its optimization program to recognize the potential of each cant being processed. We wanted the versatility that other systems do not have. Eight saws on individual linear positioners can move to accept the commands of the optimizer. We have total versatility in our saw system from one log to the next. I realized that if we didn’t develop these machines our growth and recovery in the sawmill business could be greatly diminished.”
In addition to the new mill, Potomac has a tried and true McDonough carriage mill for the logs that are 20” and more in diameter. About 10% of its production goes through the carriage, while the remainder goes through the quad band and the gang. The carriage saw has an Inovec optimizer. The rest of the mill’s optimization is done with Newnes equipment consisting of the edger and the optimized trimmer and sorter.
All boards from the quad and carriage line go through a new, high-speed Newnes edger. The Newnes machine runs at 1,000 linear feet per minute, edging 28 to 30 boards a minute. Each piece of wood is scanned with lasers at both the Newnes trimmer and Newnes sorter to optimize that part of the system. At any point a slab can be sent back to the edger if needed. Potomac stacks bundles of lumber from its sorter on a USNR stacker.
Bill said, “Each step in the system has to be functioning at a faster rate than the earlier steps or you can get a bottleneck.” I have had the privilege of visiting Potomac over many years and can say one thing with certainty – Potomac has no bottlenecks. It seems to run hour after hour without a hitch. In fact, I have never visited any forest products plant where production ran more smoothly.
On the front end of the mill, Potomac uses a Prentice knuckleboom, two portal cranes, and a Heede yard crane to handle incoming logs. A MDI scanner detects any metal in a log so it can be removed before entering the mill. Bill said, “The MDI scanner maintains vigilance and continuously monitors logs for foreign material. It is a very fine system. We have virtually no metal coming into the mill. It has been a very good machine.”
Potomac processes its wood scrap with a 66” Fulghum Industries chipper. It produces 138 tractor-trailers per week of sawdust, shavings, and chips for paper pulp, particleboard, poultry litter, and animal bedding.
Bill summed up some of his thoughts about the new system and performance. “Our recovery is about 15% higher than with our previous mill. The quality and density of our region’s timber is very good, which contributes to our mill’s performance. We now talk in terms of 1/10,000 of an inch. At one time we wouldn’t even dream in these terms of precision. We have made McDonough bandsaws, the Rolls Royce of bandsaws, the center of our cutting operations.”
Tracking Technology & Top Notch Logistics = Quality & Precision
No matter how impressive you find Potomac’s manufacturing lines and practices, the supporting elements of the company are equally as impressive, such as its logistics and maintenance practices.
Potomac’s 192 employees are a multi-cultural group of Hispanic, Ukranian, Afro-American and Caucasian people. They are extremely dedicated to the company. I have watched Bill walk through the plant, communicating with Hispanic workers with a smile, a kind word, and genuine concern. Many of our readers view labor as their number one problem. Bill said, “We have a wonderful work force.”
Larry Carey, a lifetime employee at Potomac Supply, once told me, “Billy’s daddy took a chance on me when I was a young kid without any experience. I told him that if he would give me a job, I would be the best employee he ever had.” Bill will tell you that Larry has lived up to his promise. This kind of loyalty is shared by many of Potomac’s people.
Like virtually every area of business at Potomac, the company has some unique things about its logistics operations. In any discussion of logistics, trucking is usually at the forefront, and Potomac Supply has a separate trucking company, Potomac Express, for deliveries.
Trucks enter through one of five bays at the shipping and receiving center. Incoming products include logs and lumber, most of which Potomac will treat. Other incoming traffic includes trucks to pick up pallets and other lumber products.
One of the unique materials handling functions at Potomac is its ability to track all products, from logs through outgoing finished products, at any location on the grounds and any time. In its 750,000 sq. ft. warehouse Potomac can tell you at any point in time where every bundle of its treated and untreated lumber is located. In a plant of this size where materials are constantly shifting location, this is no small task. The company does this through bar codes that are put on each incoming bundle of lumber and each stack or bundle of lumber products that Potomac manufactures.
Potomac’s logistics system routes all trucks through an efficient process at the shipping and receiving center, where loads are inspected and cataloged. Each unit is bar coded to track it through the plant. Each truck is weighed, inventoried and photographed. Shipping and receiving is the first line of defense against bad log supplies. If a load of logs is not right, Potomac will send it back. Incoming loads of lumber are photographed, bar coded, and checked for count and quality against the purchase order.
Many readers are familiar with the RFID concept. Potomac has an interesting take on its bar coding system that makes it almost like a bar code version of RFID. The day of our visit a team of four men from a major forest products company had driven up from South Carolina just to study Potomac’s internal tracking system.
Every stack of pallets or bundle of lumber is scanned and tracked. Each building is portioned into zones with unique zone numbers. Each forklift is equipped with a scanner so the driver can scan the product he is moving and then the zone number, which is posted for his convenience.
The company has a real time record of the product’s location along with a complete DNA of the product. There is no guessing what you have, where to find it, what quality it is or how it entered inventory. This system allows Potomac to keep accurate records.
Bill added, “Our bar coding system really allows us to maintain control over inventory and quality. Our system will not allow a driver to put the wrong product on a truck because it has to match the purchase order or shipping documents. We get very few customer complaints because we know what they ordered and what we shipped.”
Bill added, “Tracking details requires details. You cannot track what you do not have. Your people have to understand the importance of accurate information and information exchange in order for them to support the effort required to make a bar code logistics system and to develop its benefits.”
One of the unique features at the shipping and receiving center is the drivers’ welcome center. Potomac provides truck drivers with a place near the receiving center where they have access to showers, bathrooms, a kitchen, a rest area and a washer and dryer. They can take a shower and use the bathroom, have a snack, take a quick nap, relax and chat with other drivers, or call a loved one. This doesn’t require a fancy, expensive building; nevertheless, it is a valuable service to drivers. And with about 150 trucks coming and going on a typical day, Potomac can justify a welcome center for drivers.
Every sawmill and pallet company has some kind of a parts and maintenance department. Usually it is a dirty room with belts hanging off the wall, parts on a bench, and loose, assorted fasteners in a cardboard box.
Not at Potomac. The parts room looks like a hospital surgical supply room. It is immaculately clean, with virtually every part packaged and catalogued in drawers. Potomac has made an enormous investment in its parts department, carrying a large inventory of stock parts, so it can provide immediate service to its machinery and equipment.
One of the impressive things about Potomac is the lack of downtime. The management team knows that downtime costs money, so the company has made a strong commitment to maintenance. Because Potomac is located in a somewhat secluded, rural area, the parts department is the key to keeping its machinery and equipment up and running. Otherwise it would have to go 60 miles to buy many standard stock parts. With the parts room neatly organized and labeled, replacement parts can be retrieved quickly when they are needed. A future project calls for putting all parts inventory and records on-line.
Every sawmill and pallet plant has a place to perform maintenance; usually it is a small, out-of-the-way room, greasy and dirty, and with little if any organization. The Potomac maintenance room is adjacent to the parts room, employee recreation center, and second floor conference area. You can look down from a window from one of the two conference classrooms to the floor of the maintenance shop. It is virtually spotless.
Potomac’s preventative maintenance program contributes directly to reducing downtime because every machine and system is watched carefully. Moving parts are analyzed for needed repairs typically before a breakdown, making more efficient scheduled shutdowns and reducing the number of more expensive breakdowns during production.
As an example of the company’s efficient preventative maintenance practices, Potomac’s 21 forklifts have 99% uptime. The large lifts are Taylor lifts and the smaller 5000# lifts are Toyota. The maintenance shop and the forklift drivers have a daily check list to keep them running smoothly. Preventative maintenance is done on each forklift every 200 running hours. Bill stated, “We probably have one of the best forklift maintenance programs you will find anywhere.”
Potomac also has a machine shop that manufactures many parts the mill needs to keep running. Tommy Lewis, the head machinist and manager of the machine shop, is also the local fire chief. During our visit, the machine shop was molding and resurfacing guides for the gangsaw; they manufacture a new set each day.
Potomac has had a fire suppression system for many years with sprinklers throughout its buildings and a 400,000 gallon water tank. The company also dedicates 50,000 gallons of water in its tank for the Kinsale fire department to fill its fire trucks. In case of a power outage, a standby generator can provide electricity to keep the main office and shipping and receiving center functioning.
Potomac plans to upgrade and expand its lumber drying operations. It expects to double or triple its drying capacity soon. It currently runs a Unitemp kiln and is planning on installing another one with a wood-fired McConnell boiler.
No article on Potomac Supply would be complete without at least a mention of its pallet and treated wood products. It has one of the most highly automated block pallet manufacturing lines in the world (a Gunn Vanderloo line), and has been a major supplier of high quality CHEP Mark 55 block pallets for 16 years. The precision required by CHEP and the precision that is part of the Potomac DNA have been a natural partnership since CHEP first entered the U.S. market.
Founded in 1948 by Robert and Hazel Carden, Potomac Supply Corporation began as a toy and fish-box company in the small fishing village of Kinsale, located in the historic Northern Neck of Virginia. Potomac’s objective from the beginning has been to protect the natural resources of the area and establish a
Potomac evolved into a building-supply business in the 1950s; shortly afterwards it built its first sawmill. In 1960 it started its first pallet manufacturing business, and in 1971 it entered the lumber treating business. By the mid 1980s, Potomac began manufacturing home-specialty items.
Throughout its history, Potomac consistently updated, rebuilt, or modernized its technology and manufacturing with a constant eye on being environmentally responsible. A visit to the company is a treat to anybody in our industry. People who know the industry are likely to be awed by what they see.
Bill and his brother, Herb, followed in the footsteps of their parents. They steered the company through its various stages to the industry leader that it is today.
The pallet plant evolved from hand nailing to machine nailing with a variety of nailing machines and concepts. Potomac has specialized in manufacturing block pallets for high-volume, demanding customers.
Potomac Supply has been a leader in the wood treating industry for decades. It distributes its treated wood in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states.
Many years ago, a treated lumber association leader told me that Potomac Supply had pioneered lumber treating techniques to protect the environment — techniques that many treaters were just beginning to discover and implement at the time. For example, Potomac pioneered the design of drip pads and made other environmental advances in wood treating.
Jeff McBee, well known in the pallet industry as our market analyst for Pallet Profile Weekly, once said, “The thing that impressed me the most during my visit to Potomac Supply was a little thing. Over 200 people were visiting this fine complex, and I saw Bill leave the group to walk over and pick up a gum wrapper. That is the kind of commitment to detail that he sets for his people.” I couldn’t have said it better.
I have had the privilege of visiting many of the finest mills and plants in our industry, but none has impressed me more than the people and products at Potomac Supply.
I owe a lot to Bill. He gave me the idea of getting into the pallet industry. Bill and 10 other pallet manufacturing friends in Virginia were the first subscribers to the Pallet Profile Weekly, which then was named the Wooden Pallet Index. Everything my company, Industrial Reporting Inc., has accomplished grew out of this opportunity.
How many sawmills or pallet plants, much less lumber treating plants, have been recognized with a major award for protecting the environment? Potomac has been recognized numerous times over the years. In 2002, for example, the Governor of Virginia, the Secretary of Natural Resources, and the state Department of Environmental Quality honored Potomac as Virginia’s best small manufacturer; Potomac received the Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award.
The Isaac Walton League presented Potomac with its Clean Water Award in 1986. In the same year it received the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Chesapeake Bay Conservation Award for its efforts to help conserve and restore the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Potomac was recognized for protecting air, water, and soil quality, receiving the Award for Meritorious Achievement in Conservation in 1975. The Garden Club of Virginia has recognized Potomac for preservation and beautification of open spaces and promoting responsible, effective land-use planning.
I had the privilege of being at Potomac last fall when over 460 manufacturers, suppliers, allies, and state officials observed Manufacturing Appreciation Week in Virginia. Keynote speakers included Gov. Mark Warner, state Sen. John Chichester, state Sen. Charles Hawkins, and Del. Bill Howell, who is Speaker of the House of Delegates. Like most other states, Virginia officials are concerned about the future of manufacturing in our state and nation.
Bill’s driving passion is our country’s manufacturing industry. He is doing everything he can to ensure that people in his community have good jobs.
Bill possesses an unusual combination of compassion, dedication to details, and devotion required to make things happen. This combination that has made him an effective business leader, and it has made Potomac an exceptional place to work – a successful business that supplies a dependable supply of quality products and services to its customers.
The Potomac success story is highlighted by these words that Bill wrote, “Our new sawmill is a story about VISION. It is a story about bringing a dream to reality. It was a step-by-step process that most people said was impossible. However, today that impossible dream is now possible. We are cutting approximately 300,000 bd.ft. a day (75,000,000 a year).”
Do you want reprints or a copyright license for this article? Click here
Research and connect with suppliers mentioned in this article using our FREE ZIP Online service.