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McDowell Lumber & Pallet Committed to Aggressive, Continuous Improvement: North Carolina Company Operates Hardwood Sawmill, Pallet Plant
McDowell Lumber: North Carolina company, which operates a hardwood sawmill and pallet manufacturing facilities, is committed to aggressive and continuous improvement.
By April Terreri
Date Posted: 6/1/2008
ASHEBORO, North Carolina — McDowell Lumber & Pallet Co. is a business that can spot an opportunity long before it comes knocking at the front door.
In 2002 an opportunity arose for McDowell Lumber to acquire a pallet business; the pallet company was a customer for pre-cut pallet stock. McDowell Lumber jumped at the chance to expand and moved the pallet operations into its facilities. Today, it operates a high-tech, highly optimized hardwood sawmill as well as high-tech pallet manufacturing operations.
McDowell Lumber, which began as a rough sawmill in the 1970s, last year produced 18 million board feet of lumber products. The company manufactures grade lumber, low-grade lumber and pallets.
Tony McDowell, 53, owner of the company, began the sawmill business in 1974. He started by cutting trees and running a portable sawmill in the woods. He added planer operations to make lumber for the furniture industry and eventually built a permanent mill.
His brother, Doug, 55, director of safety and manufacturing, joined the company almost three years ago after working in the furniture industry for 25 years.
State’s Largest Industry
The forest products industry is the state’s largest manufacturing industry, surpassing even the textile industry, according to the North Carolina Forestry Association. The state has about 3,000 forest products facilities, and over 300,000 landowners grow timber for profit.
McDowell Lumber is keenly aware of its responsibility to conserve forest resources and help ensure the sustainability of forest resources for generations to come, said Doug. “Our forestry division’s mission is to maintain our compliance with national Environmental Protection Agency regulations and to develop forest management plans to replenish the timber utilized in our daily production,” he said.
McDowell Lumber operates a mega-complex of facilities — nine buildings on 35 acres, a combined 112,000 square feet under roof. Two sawmill buildings occupy 46,000 square feet, a planer mill occupies 22,000 square feet, and the pallet facilities comprise two buildings and 34,000 square feet. The remaining space is divided among two offices, a garage and a warehouse.
Asheboro is about 25 miles south of Greensboro, which puts it roughly mid-way between Charlotte and Raleigh. The region is rich in timber resources.
“We buy trees from private landowners,” said Doug. “We run ads in the Yellow Pages, advertising that we buy logs, timber, and even land. So we have been fortunate in locating the raw materials we need in that people call us to let us know they have logs or timber to sell us.”
The company works with landowners who have a minimum of 10 acres of hardwood forestland. “We work with about 40 percent poplar, 25 percent red oak, 25 percent white oak, and the rest includes a mixture of gum, hickory, ash, sycamore, maple, and beech,” said Doug.
When the company is contacted by a prospective seller, a forester or other representative visits the site and inspects the land or timber. “We make an offer, and others do as well,” said Doug. “So this means we don’t always get the sale, but we do manage to win enough of the bids to keep us very busy.”
McDowell uses five contracted logging crews to harvest trees. The crews use their own equipment and deliver tree-length logs to McDowell Lumber.
In the log yard, logs are sorted by species. “We operate a Progress Industries log crane that picks the logs off trucks and sets them into specific areas in the yard, based on species,” said Doug.
The mill normally cuts one species at a time. When Doug talked to Pallet Enterprise for this article, the sawmill was cutting poplar.
The same crane that unloads the log trucks also is used to pick up logs and place on the infeed deck. The logs pass through a Nicholson ring debarker and an MDI metal detector and then are bucked; typical bucked lengths are 8, 10, 12, 14 and 16 feet. Average log diameter is about 24 inches.
In the sawmill, logs go to one of two head rigs, depending on size. One head rig is equipped with a McDonough band mill and Corley carriage and has a Lewis Controls 3-D scanning and optimization system; the other is equipped with an Edminston circular head saw. “We cut off two sides, and then the log goes through a Ligna gang saw,” explained Doug.
Four-sided cants exiting the head rig are routed to a West Plains Resaw Systems band mill to remove grade material. Edge boards exiting the gang are conveyed to a USNR two-saw edger with USNR optimization, and the lumber is trimmed on a Newnes trimmer with Newnes optimization.
“Before it goes to the Newnes, we have one of our guys grading the wood,” said Doug. A computerized scanning system reads the grader’s marks, and boards are conveyed to a USNR sorter and stacker. Lumber is sorted by grade, length, width and thickness and stacked in packs. The mill produces lumber from 4/4 to 12/4 thick.
All the company’s lumber production is sold green. Grade lumber is sold rough, but low-grade lumber is processed further. “None of the higher-grade wood goes to the planer because the companies we sell to will plane and groove it according to their requirements,” explained Doug. The company also cuts some railroad crossties.
Low-grade lumber is air-dried for several months, then goes to the planer mill, which is equipped with a Yates-American planer. Some lumber is surfaced on two sides, and some is planed on four sides, such as material to be used for furniture framestock.
Pallet grade is used in McDowell Lumber’s pallet manufacturing operations.
Besides other pallet manufacturers, markets for the company’s lumber products include the furniture industry, flooring manufacturers, millwork businesses, fencing manufacturers, pressure-treating companies and kiln-drying yards.
Chips, bark, shavings and sawdust are collected and sold to other businesses. About 70% of the bark is sold to fuel markets and the other 30% is sold to markets that process it into landscape mulch. Sawdust generally is sold for fuel. Chips are supplied to paper companies, and shavings from the planer mill are sold for animal bedding, fuel markets or for particleboard feedstock.
Sawdust, chips and shavings are collected in a network of overhead bins. “We just pull a tractor-trailer under the bins, and they open up like a clam shell, dumping the sawdust right into the waiting trailers,” said Doug.
Cants are moved to the pallet facilities and are staged outside. When they are ready to be cut, the cants are placed on a chain infeed deck to go into the cut-up shop. The cants are cut to length on a West Plains Resaw Systems cut-off saw, typically to lengths for pallet deck boards and stringers. Typical cant sizes are 3-1/2x6, 3-1/2x8, 6x6 and 6x8.
The sized cant material goes to one of two Brewer-Golden Eagle gang saws to be resawn into deck boards or stringers. The components are stacked automatically by a new Pendu stacker.
“We move them with the forklifts to a staging area until we are ready to build the pallets,” Doug said. The staging area is just outside the pallet shop. “When we are ready to build pallets for an order, we take those parts over to the (nailing) machine to manufacture the pallets.” Finished pallets are stored in the warehouse.
The pallet shop is equipped with three Rayco nailing machines; they use collated nails. The company also assembles some pallets by hand with Stanley-Bostich pneumatic nailing tools and collated fasteners.
“We build about 100 different sizes of hardwood pallets,” said Doug. The most common footprint is the GMA 48x40 size. The company also manufactures pallets ranging from 26x26 to 72x72. The shop produces about 10,000 pallets per week, about 80% new and the remainder recycled.
McDowell Lumber has a Converta-Kiln pallet heat-treating system in order to supply pallets for export shipments. About 40% of its new pallet production is heat-treated for customers.
For the company’s limited pallet recycling operations, it is equipped with a Smart Products bandsaw dismantler to disassemble surplus or scrap pallets and a Smart double-end trim saw to cut recycled lumber to length. Pallets made of recycled material are assembled on a Third Man Products nailing system, which uses pneumatic nailing tools and collated nails.
“Our new and reconditioned pallets are built to meet uniform standards utilized by various distributing companies, such as grocery stores, big-box chain stores, home improvement retailers, and others,” Doug said.
Grade lumber markets are weak, Doug acknowledged, and prices have been impacted. “Prices right now are lower than normal, and these prices fluctuate regularly,” he said. In addition, fuel price increases have added to costs of hauling raw materials and delivering finished goods.
Staying competitive means employing aggressive, continuous improvement initiatives, noted Doug. “One of the main things we try to do is upgrade our equipment continually, and we also continue to improve the efficiencies of our processes. This has really helped the company to grow and remain stable. For example, most hardwood companies don’t have a log crane like we do…It’s unusual in this business to do the kinds of updates we do.”
McDowell Lumber has made regular, steady improvements over the years. Three years after starting the rough mill, the company added planer operations. The mill underwent a number of major improvements, starting in 1996 and continuing to the present, including the addition of the McDonough band mill and a metal detector.
The improvements have improved the company’s efficiency and increased yield and production. “When you use a bandsaw versus a circle saw,” noted Doug, “it makes a big difference in your lumber yield. These things make a difference in your profits as well.”
McDowell Lumber has a strong commitment to safety. The company uses a consultant on OSHA issues who makes regular visits to the plant to ensure the company is in compliance.
“We provide a very extensive safety program for our employees to follow, and we always do everything by the book,” said Doug. Employees use safety glasses, earplugs, and all personal protective equipment that is necessary for their safety. Forklift drivers must wear seatbelts. “I think we are more dedicated to safety and cleanliness than a lot of companies are,” said Doug.
“I think our company is one of the best I’ve seen in the industry in terms of operating in a modern and environmentally friendly way,” added Doug. “For example, we paved all around our sawmill in order to keep down the dust. Most companies have either dirt or gravel, but the asphalt drives we invested in really keep the dust to a minimum.”
McDowell Lumber is focused on continually investing profits into the business. “We always keep up with the current wage structure, and we try to do our best to pay our people fairly,” said Doug. “We keep up with what’s happening in the industry by subscribing to several magazines devoted to the timber industry and the pallet industry. We stay in tune to what is going on in the overall economy as well.”
The company’s 75 employees have a benefits package that includes health insurance, paid holidays and vacation, and a company-paid retirement program.
The addition of the pallet operations in 2002 was a significant change, and it was the right step, said Doug. The pallet operations now account for about 30%of the company’s revenues.
“It’s important to keep up with the marketplace,” said Doug. “We began our own pallet operation so we could have some kind of control over our low-grade lumber.”