Five sawmills, five strengths

Metsä Fibre’s Finnish sawmills are renowned worldwide for their premium sawn timber. We asked their managers about what makes the mills strong and what creates quality in sawn timber. Quality turns out to be the sum of many factors, but everyone agreed on the most important.
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  • 2023, Sawn timber, Our professionals

#1 Nordic wood

A timber lorry pulls into the yard of Metsä Fibre’s Renko sawmill and halts, brakes wheezing, as it waits for its logs to be unloaded for grading. Renko sawmill in southern Finland is one of Metsä Fibre’s two spruce sawmills. It produces sawn timber for various sectors of industry, such as internal and external cladding, furniture making, construction and carpentry products.

Finnish sawn timber from Nordic tree species – pine and spruce – is known worldwide for excellent quality. Its unique features are derived from a combination of wood’s natural properties and Finnish forest management competence.

Examined close up, there are rings on the sawn surface of a log. Each millimetre-thin ring represents the tree’s growth in one year. Slow growth and a close grain are repeated from one log to the next. They mean good density and strength properties that are valued by converters.

“The strength of Nordic spruce lies in its consistency. If you convert spruce into one hundred packages of sawn timber, all the packages will be of the same high quality,” says Jussi Lehtosalo, Mill Manager of Renko sawmill.

In the case of pine, slow growth results in the formation of heartwood at the core of the tree. The substances that accumulate in heartwood act as natural wood preservatives. For example, pine heartwood used in doors and window frames is exposed to ever-changing weather conditions but still lasts for hundreds of years.

It takes an average 80 years for Nordic trees to grow into logs. Correctly timed forest management work and thinning of young stands will ensure that their growth is channelled into trees of the highest quality.

#2 Resource efficiency

The sawline at Metsä Fibre’s Vilppula sawmill is about 100 metres long. Each log on it is first optimised before being debarked. A chipper canter removes the outer surface and it is then sawn into rectangular logs, slabs, and finally into heartwood boards. The modern single-line spruce sawmill is one of Europe’s largest and produces about 530,000 cubic metres of sawn timber annually.

On average, around half the volume of a single log can be used for sawn timber. The rest is woodchips, sawdust, and bark. Log wood is valuable raw material so it is used to the last splinter.

“The woodchips produced by sawing are converted into pulp, mainly at Metsä Fibre’s Äänekoski bioproduct mill, while the sawdust is sold to Neova, a partly state-owned company, which converts it into wood pellets for power plants and to heat buildings and homes. We convert the bark into bioenergy and use it in our own kiln drying department,” says Tomi Saine, Mill Manager of Vilppula sawmill.

In 2021, side streams from sawing and other forest industry operations generated 112 terawatt-hours of power in Finland. This is more than all the energy produced from fossil oil and coal.*

However, power production is just one way to use side streams. Bark can be used for landscaping and to make compost soil, for example. Ash resulting from energy production is suitable as forest fertiliser. It contains the right proportion of tree nutrients which it releases over a long period of time.

Following the path of resource efficiency even further, side streams of Nordic wood are found in surprising places. For example, crude turpentine, generated in wood pulping, is used as one of the ingredients of perfumes.

#3 Technology

At the sawline in Metsä Fibre’s Rauma sawmill, you need to keep a close eye on the process. Blink at the wrong moment, and the log has already whizzed by.

“A pine log becomes sawn timber in just over a second,” says Johanna Harjula, who has worked in Metsä Group since 2010 and will start as Mill Manager of Rauma sawmill in June 2023.

Rauma sawmill was constructed to meet customer demand and began continuous production in September 2022. Its output is mainly targeted at demanding end uses, including window and door production, component manufacture and woodworking.

Machine vision, robots and automation are used throughout, and the overall process is run from a central control room using special cameras.

“Central control room work allows the operators to spend time on quality control and user maintenance, which are important components of the sawmill’s operating model,” says Harjula.

Rauma sawmill is a frontrunner and trailblazer where development work benefits the entire sawmill industry.

However, high-quality sawn timber is also produced with more traditional equipment.

Back at Renko, spruce sawn timber is produced on a bandsaw-bare chipper-rip saw line. Compared to Rauma, the sawline is slower, but offers premium quality, especially for the wide boards produced on it. Its excellent utilisation rate can be as high as 90 per cent, which is second to none.

“Metsä Fibre’s vision of industrial efficiency becomes reality at Renko sawmill,” says Mill Manager Lehtosalo.

Metsä Fibre is developing the efficiency of its sawmill operations as a whole, guided by the life-cycle plan prepared separately for each production unit.

Rauma sawmill is the world’s most modern sawmill, and its development will benefit the whole sawmill industry.

#4 Logistics

At Metsä Fibre’s Lappeenranta sawmill another bundle of sawn timber moves from the kiln drying department to dry sorting. Next it will be graded and aligned at the ends before being packaged. Carrying the Metsä logo, the package is now ready for the world market.

Pine sawmill produces close-grained heartwood for windows, doors, and log buildings, for carpentry work and for high-quality glulam solutions.

“70 per cent of our products are exported. Our main market areas are Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and the Far East,” says Anssi Meuronen, Mill Manager of Lappeenranta sawmill.

It is important to customers that sawn timber orders are delivered as promised. With the help of its partner network, Metsä Fibre can efficiently optimise routes and, thanks to its volumes, it can invite competitive tenders for the routes to benefit customers.

Operations related to sea transports are centrally handled by Metsä Group’s service centre, which creates made-to-measure consignments and notifies the customer about their progress.

Logistics development is also important for the environment. The optimisation of transport chains, loading and routes supports Metsä Fibre’s goal of reducing the carbon footprint of transports.

Export deliveries from Lappeenranta sawmill leave via the Port of Hamina, the Port of Mussalo in Kotka, or the Port of Kaskinen. The most distant deliveries are to Japan, a voyage that takes six weeks.

Safety at work at Lappeenranta sawmill is world-class.

#5 People

Merikarvia is a small municipality in the Satakunta region on the shore of the Bothnian Sea. The municipality of 3,000 inhabitants boasts a diverse economic structure. Local livelihoods come from metal and plastic products, agriculture, and fishing.

The municipality’s largest private employer is Metsä Fibre, which employs 74 wood processing professionals at its pine sawmill.

The Finnish sawmill industry has typically developed far from growth centres, close to forests and waterways. In many municipalities, residential areas have grown up around the sawmill. Its operations create other local businesses.

“In towns with a sawmill, everyone knows at least one person working at the sawmill, and many people enjoy long careers at the mill. Last year, we gave an award to someone who had worked for us for 45 years,” says Mikko Lintula, Mill Manager of Merikarvia sawmill.

Among the personnel, Metsä Fibre has a reputation for taking care of its employees. This may explain why the first stage of recruiting for Rauma sawmill attracted over 600 applications.

What role do employees play in the quality of sawn timber? This is something all the mill managers of Metsä Fibre’s sawmills agree on.

Even the most modern sawline cannot operate without people who anticipate the need for blade changes to ensure high quality and who know the customers’ processes and requirements. Their professional approach helped ensure that Lappeenranta sawmill had gone without a single accident for 700 days at the time of this interview.

No wonder, then, that all the mill managers, independently gave the same answer to the last question – “What is your greatest source of pride at the sawmill?”

“Our employees.”

“I am very proud of our good and professional employees.”

“My answer is: our employees. They stand for everything we do.”

* Source: Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry of Finland