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New Baker Sawmill at Priority Pallet Is a Southern California Opportunity
Priority Pallet is installing a Baker Super Streak sawmill and Baker cutup operation to process bug kill timber, a unique opportunity in California.

By Ed Brindley
Date Posted: 5/1/2010

Beaumont, California

            Commercial Lumber and Pallet (CLP), one of the largest pallet manufacturers in the country, is taking an unusual bold step in the West Coast pallet industry. Western pallet companies typically buy precut and random length softwoods from suppliers in Northern California, the Pacific Northwest, and western Canada. CLP’s plant in Beaumont, a separate company called Priority Pallet, is turning a challenge into an opportunity by building a new pallet stock sawmill. Priority is strategically located 60 miles east of the Los Angeles basin near the San Bernardino National Forest, where it has access to inland California timber, ranging from softwoods through hardwoods such as oaks and maples.

            While it would not be called a forested area by standards in some parts of the country, the San Bernardino National Forest had a lot of infested dead timber in the local mountains; so the Forest Service made an effort to remove and dispose of the bug infested trees due to fire hazards. In 2006, Priority Pallet obtained a U.S. Forest Service grant for $1.3 million, partnering with the Riverside County Economic Development Agency, to help harvest infested timber and turn it into pallet stock to either slowdown or prevent future insect contamination. Prior to this time, the federal government had been paying to have infested material removed and ground into wood fiber. In addition to material from the national forest, Priority Pallet has access to private land timber.

            Kathleen Dietrich, vice president of Priority Pallet and operations manager of CLP, is a major factor in the management team at CLP and Priority Pallet. She formed a team of three people, including herself, Jeffrey Sano, Controller, and Mark Jimenez, Quality Control, to apply for the grant dollars. People familiar with the western pallet industry are aware that the standard method of operation typically revolves around either buying precut material (softwoods or alder hardwood) or random length lower grades of softwoods. Thus, a pallet company typically nails cut stock into finished pallets or select cuts lower-grade softwood random length material into shorter pieces of softwood shook. Dealing with the many facets of processing logs is usually done at western sawmills, not pallet companies. Priority will soon be unique in that sense.

            Kathleen, the new President of the Western Pallet Association, has expressed concern about the prevailing attitude of pallet companies in the western states. She believes that the western scenario has changed and is trying to get westerners to be aware and realize that the forests are renewable resources, something that needs to be processed and managed. The old mentality needs to be adjusted throughout California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, and the Northwest. She said, “I am trying to get people to be aware. Grant money is available for conscientious applicants.” The West has experienced large quantities of bug damaged timber.

            During earlier times, western pallet companies built most of their pallets from softwoods, or sometimes from far away Midwestern hardwood cut stock. Alder precut from the Northwest and CHEP pallets replaced much of the hardwood used in GMA and grocery pallets. Priority Pallet manufactures pallets from both softwoods and hardwoods.

 

Baker Super Streak Sawmill at Priority

            Historically California timber from the San Bernardino National Forest has not been used commercially, other than as firewood. These forests have primarily been part of California’s beauty. But Priority Pallet will soon be accepting softwood (mostly pine) and hardwood (oak and maple) logs from the San Bernardino National Forest.

            This new sawmill has been three years in the making. In mid-2005, Priority contacted Baker about a log cut-up system to process bug infested timber because it had such a good experience with Baker machinery and the supplier’s support team. CLP has always had a good relationship with Baker.

            Clyde Reed came to Beaumont and took a trip into the mountains with Kathleen. He met with area loggers and helped design a mill system that could handle infested timber efficiently for Priority Pallet. Clyde designed the system from the building shell on up. He laid out a drawing of how to modify an existing 65 ft. wide by 146 ft. long building into a combination sawmill and resaw cut-up line facility, as well as storage space for pallet cut stock. Kathleen said, “This project has been a direct life line from Clyde to our company.” Kathleen, Ernesto Castro, Manager of Production, and Ray Gutierrez Jr., VP of Priority Pallet, managed the grant and new sawmill construction from the beginning. Clyde anticipates that the new mill will be in full scale production by the time this article is published. Priority is currently hiring people to staff the new mill and is now going through its training and startup. Baker engineer Wayne Swyers and sawmill technician Bryan Martin will be on site April 26 to commission the mill for full out production runs.

            The Baker Super Streak Sawmill at Priority Pallet, has a single operator system; it starts with a sixteen foot capacity, three-strand log infeed deck. While the Baker Blue Streak is Baker’s most common mill, in the Baker Super Streak, the sawyer controls every aspect of the mill from a control console using joy sticks and a few foot pedals while seated in a comfortable climate controlled booth.

            This unique mill system has been designed for Priority Pallet to cut a log into flitches, not boards. The Baker mill cuts a log down into 3-1/2” thick flitches, starting with a narrow flitch from the first cut and working toward wider flitches as you go further and deeper into each log and then ending with a narrow flitch on the final cut. These flitch sections travel on a roll case that feeds a circular gang edger with five 14” diameter circular saw blades which has spacers set at 5-1/2”. Thus, the circular gang edger creates 3-1/2”x5-1/2” cants.

            The edging strips will travel via a belted pan waste conveyor to a vibrating conveyor feeding the West Salem Machinery 3232BH hog. Hogged edging strips and wood fiber residue is used for soil amendment products, sold to nurseries as bagged product for fertilizer, flower planting, etc.

            Cants from the gang edger are cut into shorter lengths on a six-head Baker circular saw multi-head trimsaw. Next a Baker six-head band resaw with 20 hp motors resaws each cant into the desired cut stock dimensions. A Baker M6 Deduster removes the remaining sawdust from the cut stock, which transfers onto a Baker off-stacking conveyor. Baker stacking racks and two-yard dumpsters are simple but important parts of the system to handle finished lumber and lumber scraps. Baker also designed the complete waste removal system for the entire system. It will handle end trim blocks and shim cuts or any materials determined to be waste.

            While this is not a scragg mill, like a scragg mill it is designed to produce pallet cut stock. The Forest Service approached Priority Pallet to examine the potential of building a sawmill to process timber that had been devastated by beetles and bugs. Commercial applied for and received a grant. Like so many government programs, the time required to complete the process took long enough that most of the beetle kill timber had already been removed by the installation date of this mill. So, the new mill will process both the remaining beetle-kill pine and other fresh new timber that is thinned off mountainous timber plots.

            Priority Pallet had an existing 65 x 146 foot empty building on its property. Baker engineer Mark Brickey designed the system to fit the existing building, with exterior walls composed of a concrete bottom portion and a sheet metal top portion. The design allows for logs and lumber to be moved through engineered openings made in the top metal portion of the building.

            Priority also wanted to be able to close the doors and lock them as desired, so Clyde designed the alterations to accommodate this need as well. There is an alternate back up plan for the cutup operation which is designed to process out-sourced/purchased cants, even if they cannot get enough logs and in the future have to supplement the resaw half of the line with outside material. The sawmill and cut stock line are in the same building, along with inventory storage space. The machinery utilizes about 60% of the floor space; the rest will be used to store cut stock.

            A forklift can drive from the sawmill building straight into the adjacent assembly building to deliver pallet stock to the nailers.

            Priority Pallet will buy pine logs coming off area mountains. In addition to beetle kill timber, Priority will go into the surrounding mountains and thin timber to improve the forest stands and reduce the risk of wildfires that have been common in California. While California is home to a heavy environmental movement, many people have gotten tired of losing expensive homes. The public is more accepting of the concept of thinning to maintain fire control. They are increasingly understanding that this is wise silviculture and is actually a positive environmental move.

            Priority Pallet and Baker have had conversations about a possible scragg mill in the future for lower grade smaller diameter logs. The Baker Super Streak is built to process logs of varying sizes up to large 36” diameters. Priority wants to see what type of logs it will get. There is a little concern about the availability of larger logs, so being flexible to accommodate a high mix of smaller logs maybe a move that Priority has to consider down the road.

 

Pallet Manufacturing

            Many years ago CLP became one of the largest pallet manufacturers in the country by building pallets with collated tools on nailing tables. Over time the company has added to its automated nailing while still maintaining the flexibility provided by hand nailing. Four years ago, the Pallet Enterprise carried an article about the machinery expansion at Priority Pallet. Priority was adding a Viking Turbo 505 at that time.

            Ernesto Castro, production supervisor at Priority Pallets, said, “I really appreciate the speed of production and changeover time of a 505. I get the same production with three operators that would have required seven or eight hand nailers.” With its Viking Turbo 505, Priority Pallets can assemble as many as 2,000 pallets per shift.

            Priority runs many of its longer runs on a GBN Excalibur. It keeps finished pallets on the floor for immediate delivery to some of its larger, higher volume customers. It can set up its Excalibur to build several loads in a single run for high efficiency.

            The company has been running two Viking Duo-Matics at its CLP plant for over 20 years. The company uses Mac NP80 nailing tools for hand nailing requirements. Crane Point, Active Sales, and D&D Fasteners supply the companies’ collated nails and pneumatic tool requirements. Bulk nails are typically supplied through a bid process.

            A variety of blade suppliers service the companies’ needs. Other production machinery at Priority includes several Baker resaws and a Baker notcher.

            Priority has been getting cut stock from Commercial’s City of Industry plant or buying it on the market. Its new mill will make it much more self reliant when it comes to raw material. It builds a lot of alder pallets as well as softwood pallets. The City of Industry plant uses a variety of sawing systems to produce precut pallet stock, including a Brewer Golden Eagle 2000 band resaw, Brewco band resaws, a Baker products three-head bandsaw system, and a Producto circular resaw.

            The two companies use two Pacific Trail unit cross-cut saws and a LM Equipment package saw for efficiently cutting packages or bunks of lumber to desired lengths.

            While the two companies focus primarily on manufacturing new pallets, like so many major pallet companies they are involved in pallet recycling as well. They limit themselves to buying 48x40 cores, which they repair into #1s, #2s, and club pallets. They have some drop trailers but are very selective about the companies they serve in this fashion. They practice a limited amount of pallet disassembly and focus mostly on replacing deck boards and turning around 48x40s.

 

The Priority People

            One way that Priority and Commercial stand out is their emphasis on people. Ray Gutierrez, president and CEO, was hired by a previous owner of Commercial Lumber in 1961. The company started as a lumber business in 1941. It moved from Wilmington to City of Industry and added pallet manufacturing operations, including a cut-up shop. Ray grew the pallet business to become one of the premiere pallet companies in the country. Its emphasis has always been on people. In its early stages CLP grew by using its people wisely and building many pallets by hand. Over time it has automated to adjust to changing conditions. Throughout its history, Commercial has emphasized making it a good place to work.

            Kathleen said, “Respect is at the center of the guiding principle across all activities at Commercial and Priority. Our entire corporate mindset is that we view our employees as our most important asset. Wages are competitive and benefits include health insurance, dental insurance, and a pension plan. Team meetings involve everyone in discussions of how to get the job done. Listening is very important.”

            When the time was right for Commercial Lumber and Pallet to expand, Ray formed a subsidiary, Priority Pallets, in 2000. The new company has grown to employ approximately 100 people, while the original CLP employs about another 100 people.

            Consistent with its emphasis on people, both companies revolve heavily around safety. The safety incentive program includes cash, prizes, and individual recognition. Kathleen said, “Safety is number one at both companies.” They created a library of safety videos for the different machines their people maintain and run. Years ago Kathleen took over the workmen’s comp program. Over the years, the companies have been able to reduce workers comp rates down to about 84%, cutting them in half by using good management. This translates into significant savings since the companies employ close to 200 people. Kathleen said, “For some orders, our savings on workmen’s comp exceeds the profits. Workers comp comes straight from the bottom line.”

            Kathleen said, “We are fortunate that in both locations we have a good stable labor pool. We have never changed our corporate mindset that our employees are #1. Safety is our #1 goal. We have a tiered safety program. Upper management peruses the facilities every week and plant management does it on a daily basis. We make certain that our people take the necessary steps to work safely – such as wearing lifting belts, safety glasses, and hearing protection.”

            The company’s safety committee works closely with employees to educate them and keep them involved in the safety process. People at all levels in the business talk safety. Management walk throughs are done at the beginning of a shift to conduct safety checks. Annual hearing checks are a standard part of the hearing conservation program.

            When asked what suggestions she would like to share with our readers, Kathleen said, “More than ever before pallet companies need to pull together. The only way independent small companies can effectively work on industry problems, such as legislative issues, is to band together. Once that was not so important, but today with the attacks that plastic pallets are placing on wood, we need to present a united front. At one time I didn’t think much about this. Once I started listening and becoming involved in helping tell the story of wood, I realized how important it is today to speak out. The consequences of current events affecting our industry could be devastating to the future of our families, children, and industry. We need to be proactive and keep our sawmill friends informed as well. They need to join in the fight to protect wooden pallets.”

            The National Wooden Pallet and Container Association and Western Pallet Association are working together to speak for the industry and present a united front to face common problems. Kathleen is now serving as president of the Western Pallet Association. CLP and Priority Pallet are dedicated readers and supporters of what Industrial Reporting does in the pallet industry through the Pallet Enterprise, Pallet Profile Weekly, and Recycle Record.

            When asked about the biggest challenges in today’s pallet industry and how Priority Pallet has tackled them, Kathleen mentioned the economy. She stated, “Today everybody is struggling with the competitive environment. We have to pay very close attention to our business, looking at every way to be more efficient. Looking at cost cutting we sometimes have to spend money to make money.” Priority illustrated this when it took on the challenge to install its new Baker sawmill system.

            Kathleen’s closing comment pertained to the challenges of getting a fiber supply in today’s market. The western softwood market, including the low-grade lumber historically used by the pallet industry, has experienced some unprecedented conditions the last few years. The fiber being exported to China may well be forecasting future market issues we will have to contend with. The Chinese demand is affecting domestic prices, and it is likely to continue impacting our future. The housing market has certainly affected the lumber market. Uncertainly in this arena presents another challenge.








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