Working with lumber is a challenging business. By its very nature, every board is unique and thus it immediately tests a manufacturer’s efforts to reduce variability. Additionally, a characteristic of unfinished wood is that it always is trying to adjust to its environment.
“It’s completely adaptive, and that’s a bad thing,” says Danny Hudson, quality assurance manager at Batesville Casket Co.’s Vicksburg (Miss.) Operations, a recent winner of the annual IndustryWeek Best Plants award. In short, slight environmental influences, such as fluctuations in humidity, can change the material even after processing, often in transit, complicating efforts to maintain quality.
Nevertheless, Batesville’s Vicksburg facility does it—maintain quality, that is. Its success at doing so is imperative, for this plant annually processes more than 18 million board feet of lumber to deliver wood component parts to assembly operations at sister plants in Mexico and the United States.
The facility’s attention to quality begins outside, in the lumber yard, where qualified vendors deliver “green” lumber—product that has not yet been dried. There Vicksburg lumber inspectors evaluate each board to assure it meets industry standards. Lumber that passes inspection moves into Vicksburg’s drying facility.
Alesia Mathes, drying system group leader, describes the processes that occur before the milling operations as the “front line defense” for the plant. Additional defenses against quality defects include layered process audits, which were introduced early in 2010.
Batesville conducts layered process audits along the plant’s entire production process, from the lumber yard through to the shipping dock. The audits perform two functions: to assure that process parameters are being maintained as well as to answer the question, “How do we make this process better?” Approximately 195 audits are conducted per month.
“If you control the elements of the process, you control the output,” Hudson says. And greater use of data is helping Batesville to better prioritize projects, adds plant manager Russell Johnson.
Among the continuous improvement projects Vicksburg has pursued is that of “optimizing” the yield of each board passing through its facility. (Optimizing the yield refers to achieving the maximum usable product from each board.) The optimization project started with a major capital improvement project in 2007 that saw the plant add scanning technology in several locations as well as new optimizing saws that use information from scanners to make cuts that provide the best yield from each board. It takes the technology just seven seconds to determine how to achieve the best yield for each board, a significant improvement over what was previously a manual determination.
However, the introduction of new equipment was simply the beginning of the optimization effort. “We’re still on the vertical part of [the learning curve]” with the new technology, says engineering manager Keith Pittman. The optimization effort under way includes not only understanding all the ins and outs of the equipment, but also comprehensively challenging the strategy used to process lumber for best yields. For example, the plant recently launched a project to reduce its re-rip inventory (a byproduct of wood cutting), which both freed up floor space and reduced material handling.
Jill Jusko is senior editor of MH&L’s sister publication, IndustryWeek. Learn more about the IW Best Plants program at www.iwbestplants.com.