Efficiency, quality, customer focus and a minimal carbon footprint are recurring terms when Kaija Pehu-Lehtonen, Senior Vice President, Business Development of Metsä Fibre, describes the basis of the company’s sawmill technology concept.
The Rauma sawmill investment is the cornerstone of the concept. It is playing a significant role in the introduction of new technology and production methods, as well as in their gradual deployment across the company’s other mills.
“On the pulp business side, we have long experience of round-the-clock production, continuous improvement of quality and efficiency, and close cooperation with various technology suppliers. We are now bringing this same philosophy to our sawn timber production,” Pehu-Lehtonen says.
New smart technology to replace manual work
The concept of an entirely new Future Sawmill was put into action in 2016, when the sawmills owned by the parent company Metsäliitto Cooperative were transferred to Metsä Fibre.
A vision soon developed of a sawmill where the production process is overseen from the control room and the work of professionals is largely similar to that in the process industry. Instead of traditional batch production, the mill will transition towards 24/7 production, which will only be halted for more extensive maintenance shutdowns.
“Giving up manual production calls for completely new technology throughout the production chain. What this means in practice is more measurements, a variety of cameras, robotics and artificial intelligence used in monitoring and controlling the production process as well as product quality. The goal is to automatically remove any defective parts from the production line early in the process.”
Material and energy efficiency are other important considerations. Thanks to new technology, use of the raw material will be increasingly efficient. Data collected at different points of the production chain will help develop the production process and the final quality of sawn timber.
From the customers perspective, highly automated production based on the 24/7 approach will result in more consistent and secure sawn timber deliveries that meet their needs better than ever.
“New technology is allowing us to increase sawing speed and production volumes, ensure consistent product quality and further improve our delivery reliability. In addition, it will enable the provision of increasingly detailed product data to customers. Other important aspects include energy efficiency, traceability of raw materials, and fossil-free operations.”
New technology will further improve our delivery reliability.
Development spanning several years
In previous years, individual improvements and development measures have been carried out at all Metsä Fibre sawmills. For example, Vilppula has already introduced many of the technological solutions that are being used in Rauma – though Rauma is more advanced and on a different scale.
“We monitor each of our sawmills with various production and quality indicators and key figures that also steer their development investments. This enables us to focus on the right things when developing production, regardless of the sawmill’s age. Ultimately it amounts to improved delivery reliability and product consistency, wherever production takes place,” says Pehu-Lehtonen.
The bidirectional nature of the sawmill concept is also highlighted by Matti Toivonen, Senior Vice President, Technology of Metsä Fibre. New things have been constructed in Rauma, but the experiences accumulated and technology adopted at other sawmills are also being used. In turn, the solutions introduced in Rauma – many of which are firsts for the sawmill industry – will be phased in at the company’s other sawmills in the next few years.
“For example, the logs arriving at the sawmill are measured using X-ray technology, and machine vision is used in grading and dry sorting. The goal is for us to collect more and more data throughout the production chain and devise ways to use them in close cooperation with our customers. We can make increasingly efficient use of raw material as the customer gets exactly the right parts of the log.”
Data boosts industrial efficiency
The data is also used in the development of Metsä Fibre’s Timber Fox quality index. This index provides customers with more comprehensive information about the quality of sawn timber, and the data helps customers boost their industrial efficiency.
A more efficient and precise production process also enhances raw material use, as it reduces wastage in both sawn timber production and customer processes.
“The chips generated in the process are an important side stream. They will form an increasingly important part of the whole, as they are upgraded into pulp – ideally at the same integrated mill,” says Pehu-Lehtonen.
Safety at work is an indication of quality
The Future Sawmill is also a safer workplace. As duties are moved from the immediate vicinity of production to the control room, similar to the process industry, the proportion of accident-prone manual work will also decrease.
All Metsä Fibre sawmills comply with the same safety-at-work processes as other Metsä Group production units. Among other things, the sawmills use the 5S operating model familiar from the Lean quality development approach, in which each employee assumes responsibility for their own work environment and its safety, notes any shortcomings and reports them when necessary.
“We have continued to improve the level of personal protection. Part of our daily work includes the use of protective clothing, safety gloves, shoes and goggles, as well as hearing protection. Safety-at-work also means taking good care of our machinery and equipment. We carry out regular rounds on the shop floor, even though the process is steered from the control room,” says Toivonen.
He adds that safety-at-work is an important part of reliable deliveries, which serve as an indicator of the quality of operations.
“Safety is very important to us. It is something that customers also ask about and follow, because it says a lot about the company’s operating culture. When matters related to safety-at-work are in order, production is efficient and quality is good.”
We want to be at the forefront of this industry and work in close cooperation with technology suppliers in the field.
Aiming for top position in the industry
Increasing demand paves the way for new and more efficient sawn timber production. As the popularity of wood construction continues to increase, more and more uses are being identified for sawn timber as an ecological construction material that stores carbon over a long period of time.
Nordic slow-growing wood is seeing particularly strong demand, as it is suitable for both traditional construction and interior decoration.
“With our new production model, we are seeking the best technologies in the field, which will help us achieve increasingly efficient, clean, material-efficient and consistent production. We want to be at the forefront of our branch of industry and work in close development cooperation with technology suppliers in the field,” says Pehu-Lehtonen.
“At the end of the day, it is all about our customers. We want to listen to them and serve them better by delivering products that are ideally suited to their processes.”
This article was originally published in Timber Magazine issue 2022–2023.