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Ohio Company Enjoys Growth, Investing in Plant, Machinery: Sawmiller Operates Two Scragg Mills to Produce Pallet Lumber
Sawmiller Inc: Ohio pallet manufacturer experiences solid growth and invests in plant and machinery using scragg mill to respond to market changes.
By Tim Cox
Date Posted: 4/3/2017
Ohio pallet manufacturer experiences solid growth and invests in plant and machinery using scragg mill to respond to market changes.
Haydenville, Ohio — Rudy Brandt has been quietly making investments in machinery and equipment at Sawmiller LLC since his family’s business, The Logan Clay Products Company, acquired the pallet manufacturing company in 2010 He continues to evaluate changes in processes and equipment. Safety, productivity, and making tasks less difficult for employees are drivers behind these projects.
Located in Haydenville, Ohio, almost an equal distance from Columbus and Parkersburg, West Virginia, Sawmiller operates two scragg mills and cut-up equipment to manufacture the hardwood pallet components it requires.
“The pallet industry has a problem,” said Brandt. “The industry is too reliant on low cost labor.” He competes with other pallet businesses that pay low wages and have no benefits, he said. “The industry is going to have to increase automation,” suggested Brandt, “the labor issue is not going to change.”
The primary operation that Sawmiller seeks to improve is the company’s bolt length mill. The mill is an “under-achiever,” he said — not producing enough pallet lumber and requiring too much labor. Brandt is currently talking to suppliers about equipment options and may make a decision this year.
One of the reasons he has made investments in machinery and equipment is to make the working conditions better for employees. “You have to make it easier on the people,” said Brandt.
Quality Control Drives Sales Growth
Situated on 17 acres, Sawmiller’s operations are contained in several buildings ranging from 7,000 to 12,000 square feet. There are two buildings for the sawmills, two for cut-up operations, and two for pallet assembly. The company also has a truck garage, maintenance shop and an office building.
Sawmiller LLC employs about 50 people in its operations. It produces about 15,000 pallets per week, most of them assembled on the company’s two Viking Engineering automatic nailing machines.
The company manufactures several different types of 48x40 pallets, but most of its sales are of other custom sizes ranging from 32 x 32 to a 144x40 pallet. Pallets are supplied mainly to businesses within about a 70-mile radius, which includes numerous customers along the Ohio River and in Central Ohio.
The company has enjoyed substantial growth since Rudy Brandt and his father’s company purchased Sawmiller, growing 30% since 2010. Brandt credited the economic recovery as well as adding new customers. “Dad and I communicated the need to grow to our staff; after they bought in to the benefits they ran with it and made it happen” said Brandt.
“We have never had to actively go out and sell,” explained Clark Beery, vice president. “If you do a good job for a fair price, people take note, and it leads to more repeat business.”
“We never let anyone down on any order, or have had real quality issues,” added Beery.
Brandt’s biggest investment since acquiring the company was the purchase of a new Precision chipper. He also had staff from Viking Engineering come to the plant to look at the company’s nailing machines and service and upgrade them. Brandt also made considerable investments in guarding for machines and related safety issues. The company owns and operates its own trucking fleet, and he also has purchased several new trucks and trailers in recent years.
The 58-inch Precision chipper and high velocity screen replaced an outdated, undersized grinder that proved to be a bottleneck. The chipper also enables the company to tap into the paper industry as a market for residual material. Markets changed, and grindings had become more difficult to move.
“Residuals have become a huge problem in Ohio,” said Brandt. The Buckeye State had two paper mills, but one closed in recent years. “The ability to move by-product has gotten very difficult.”
Another market for residual wood material is a pellet fuel plant. However, that plant is currently not purchasing due to large inventories.
Operations Overview – Two Mills Provide Versatility
In the early 1980s, the company put in its own sawmill to control quality and its supply chain. A number of other big pallet companies in the Midwest and South have done the same thing. But Sawmiller was an early leader in this philosophy according to Brandt.
Normally the company operates one sawmill or the other, depending on log supply. The two sawmills together produce 7.5 million board feet of lumber per year. The circle mill cuts about 30,000 board feet per day, and the newer mill produces about 25,000 board feet daily. The company also buys about 250,000 board feet of cants per month, about half from mills in Ohio and half from mills in West Virginia.
“Controlling our supply and sawmill process is critical to our success,” said Brandt. “We can make custom cants that we can saw into components with limited waste to produce specialty sizes.” He explained that many other companies are reliant on what other sawmills produce, which means they have to make do with what they get. But Sawmiller produces its own cants with the end product in mind, reducing waste. The company generally purchases cants that are 3-1/2x6 or 4x6. “We don’t buy random width cants because they are just too inefficient to process,” said Beery.
A stationary knuckleboom loader unloads cut-to-length logs in one part of the log yard, and a knuckleboom loader on a self-propelled carriage unloads tree-length wood in another. Poplar logs are sorted out because the specie is not acceptable for some pallet orders.
The older sawmill is equipped with a Sanborn scragg mill that runs twin circular saw blades — Simonds blades with Simonds insertable carbide teeth — and is used to process logs that arrive on the yard already bucked to lengths ranging from 8-14 feet long. The logs first go through an HMC debarker. In the mill, the Sanborn scragg removes two sides of the log, turns the two-sided cant, and returns it to square up the remaining two sides. For large diameter logs that will yield two or even three cants, the cant is routed to a two-saw edger to be split or cut into two or three cants. The finished cants exit onto a green chain and are off-loaded by hand and put into inventory. Slabs coming off the scragg mill drop down to floor level; three workers pull them off and put them through a slab edger, and a Whirlwind chop saw cuts them to length. They are put in racks and taken to another building to be resawn into deck boards.
The other mill, which is newer, is set up to process bolts. The company buys tree-length logs from 7-16 inches in diameter; they are bucked with a slasher saw outside, then processed on a Fastline debarker. The Fastline head saw utilizes a sharp chain feed system and consists of two twin vertical band mills running 1-½ inch band blades. The first twin band mill squares up two sides of the log, and it is turned 90 degrees and advanced to the second mill to square up the other two sides. Oversize cants are split on a horizontal bandsaw with a run-around system, and the finished cants are double end-trimmed. Stringer cants are then conveyed to a Pendu resaw line with a Pendu notcher/stacker machine. The deckboard material, including slabs, is processed by a three head Fastline horizontal resaw.
In addition to the cut up system in place in the bolt length mill, the company has an additional cut up line for cants produced in the circle mill and purchased from outside suppliers. This system has a fully-equipped Pendu re-saw line to unscramble the cants, cut them to length, size them as necessary, and resaw the blocks with double-arbor gang saws. The line for stringers also incorporates a Pendu in-line notcher with a Pendu stacker behind it. The edged, trimmed slabs originating from the old mill are processed on a Fastline three-head horizontal bandsaw system — utilizing 1-1/8 inch band blades — to recover deck boards.
The same building houses one of the company’s two Viking 505 nailing machines. Another building houses the other Viking 505, as well as about 4-6 employees who assemble pallets by hand with pneumatic nailing tools; the crew assembling pallets by hand produces about three truck-loads per week.
The company has two Converta-Kiln systems and a trailer-size chamber with Nyle Systems components for heat-treating pallets. Besides heat-treating pallets for customers who need export pallets, Sawmiller provides limited heat-treating services to other pallet manufacturers. The company’s heat-treating certification is provided by Package Research Laboratories.
Beyond heat-treating, Sawmiller also offers customers computer-assisted pallet design services using the Pallet Design System™ software.
Sawmiller relies on some other well-known pallet industry suppliers. It uses Mid-Continent bulk nails for machine-nailed pallets, for example. LINC Systems supplies Bostitch and BEA nailing tools and Bostitch, BEA, and Air-Drive collated fasteners. Country Saw & Knife and Albright Saw Company provide circular saw blades and service. Wood-Mizer blades are used on the company’s bandsaws.
Scrap wood material is used to fuel a heating system. “The wood heat systems are efficient and cost effective for the plants,” commented Beery.
Buying into the Pallet Business
Brandt and his father are also majority owners and operate The Logan Clay Products Company in the town of Logan, about eight miles away, which manufactures clay sanitary sewer pipe and masonry products. It bought Sawmiller from Eric Miller in 2010.
“We didn’t wake up and set out to get into the pallet industry,” said Brandt, 39. “We knew we wanted to diversify a little bit, and we started to look around.” Sawmiller was close, and there were similarities between the businesses, he said – using machinery and equipment to make a product from raw material. “It was something we could get our heads around, based on our background and experience.”
Brandt is at Sawmiller every day although he divides his time, roughly equally, between the pallet company and the pipe business. With Sawmiller he spends his time on strategic planning and special projects, such as planning for investments in machinery or equipment, lumber procurement, and more.
Beery oversees the company’s day-to-day operations; his duties include dealing with customers, scheduling sawmill production, hiring new workers and counseling employees. Beery has two managers under him, one for the pallet assembly operations and one for sawmill operations. “We are very fortunate to have managers that run their departments as if they owned them” said Brandt.
Sawmiller is a member of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association and the Ohio Forestry Association; Brandt serves on the governing board of the latter organization.
Despite a number of challenges from labor to tight wood residual markets and low lumber prices, Brandt believes that his company is positioned to continue to grow and be competitive in the Ohio market.