Thursday, 19 January 2017 20:54

The Differences in African and American Sawmills

Sometimes you can take it for granted, but the North American hardwood lumber industry has really come a long way. It becomes extremely evident when you tour different facilities. Especially when you are with people who are not native to North America.

Jesper Bach in AfricaLast week I had the opportunity to visit one of the newest sawmills in the industry with one of my suppliers who owns multiple sawmills in Africa. I was hosted by Wagner Lumber in their new state-of-the-art sawmill in Owego, NY. This facility was recently redesigned and rebuild due to a devastating fire they experienced in the winter of 2014. I must say the facility was extremely impressive.

I heard a lot about this new sawmill so visiting was something I was really looking forward to, and so was the the supplier I was traveling with. I can honestly say our visit was amazing! I was immediately struck by the feeling of efficiency. This new sawmill is incredibly well organized. The speed of production, accuracy and the amount of automation was truly impressive. It is a stark contrast to the sawmills operated in Africa.

As we toured the facility we discussed the significant differences between operating a sawmill in the United States and operating a sawmill in Africa.

In the US, technology plays a large role in the sawmill operation and therefore training new sawyers could take months. In African, sawmills are significantly more basic. All of the advanced technology would never hold up to the humidity they have to deal with. Also the size of logs a mill in African needs to cut comes into play. In Africa, sawmill equipment needs to be large, extremely durable and as simple as possible to allow it to work efficiently. Which means the skill sets of the sawyer do not have to be as technically savvy.

In the US, sawmill operators continuously keep turning and turning the logs on the carriage to get the best grade lumber cut before getting to the middle of the log which develops mostly industrial grade products. In Africa the outside of the log is the part they get rid of first. In the African hardwood species the outside of the log is where most of the sap and knots are found. The most valuable lumber is found in the middle of the log and where sawyers focus most of their attention.

In the US we have a multitude of hardwood lumber grades being produced from our logs, (FAS, 1 common, 2 common, 3 common, etc.) In Africa they operate more or less with two grades of lumber being produced. An extremely high grade, which we would compare to Prime and one lower grade. That is a huge difference which impacts the approach a sawyer would take in cutting a log!

Furthermore, a typical mill in Africa is only sawing about 25% of what an advanced sawmill in the United States would produce. Because of their lack of automation they would most likely require at least 7-8 times the amount of employees conducting a great deal more lumber handling activities then we would find acceptable here in the States.

Our tour was terrific and extremely valuable. In the end we agreed the sawmill environments are, and will continue to be, vastly different between a sawmill here and those in Africa due to the nature of the timber, the economies of scale and the economic conditions.

If you are interested in learning more about our African hardwood lumber program, or other tropical species, please do not hesitate to contact us. We would be happy to speak to you.

Jesper Bach
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