117-year-old Pike Lumber Company Continues Legacy of Sustainable Forest Management and Tech-enabled Sawmill Operations with Help from Manufacturing Readiness Grant
Pike Lumber Company
A Case Study
From Akron, Indiana, to “anywhere From Northern Indiana to Around the World,” Pike Lumber Company Has a Long Standing Global Sales Pipeline
Founded in 1904, Pike Lumber Company combines a Hoosier sensibility with an entrepreneurial attitude that is open to change and willing to evolve. A vertically-integrated company, Pike Lumber starts in the woods and produces lumber that customers use to make finished products. At its heart, Pike Lumber Company is a hardwood lumber producer with sawmills in three locations in Indiana. The company harvests standing timber that grows in the Midwest –Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan–and turns it into sawn and kiln-dried lumber products for sale to a global market.
“Our core mission is to make kiln-dried hardwood lumber. Then, someone else is going to use this as their raw material to make everything from flooring to furniture to guitars to moldings to cabinets,” explained Corporate Treasurer and Director of Marketing, Rich Solano. “We own forest land and manage forests for other landowners. Our crews log, transport and process this timber through our sawmills supplying our lumber products to customers around the world.”
Early on, Pike Lumber’s leadership recognized that sustainability was critical to maintaining the Midwest’s position as a major hardwood producer to the world with a long-term view of forest management.“ Our university-educated professional foresters work with the landowner to evaluate the forest and determine which trees should be harvested. We remove the diseased, damaged, over-mature timber, focusing on trees that have reached economic maturity. Then we come back in 7 to 10 years and do it again,” said Solano.
Pike’s Long-term Vision Extends From Forestry Practices to Technology Investment Decisions
Leadership at Pike Lumber approaches technology with the same long-term view it brings to its forestry practices. The company decided it was time to augment a mostly manual process and implement a machine vision system to scan logs in order to determine the optimum way to position and saw each log–maximizing efficiency and minimizing waste. The machine vision system with its algorithms, paired with a processing system that physically positions the logs, allows Pike Lumber to maximize yield and value of each log. The result is a semi-automated process, where the logs are rapidly scanned, positioned, and cut while supplying the operator real-time data on exactly how much volume is flowing through the sawmill.
Timber and cut logs are a large expense for Pike Lumber. The company must carefully make the initial cut on a log to maximize the value and yield. The stakes are high on every log, and every log is unique and needs to be individually assessed. With the machine vision system, the log is scanned and the software solution arrives at the ideal log position to start the first cut and positions the log on the carriage. The human intervention is now safer, more focused and less manual. The entire process now only takes 1 to 2 minutes per log. If, for instance, the cutting order calls for a board that is 4 inches wide by 6 feet long, the carriage optimizer places the log in the exact position to achieve that cut, taking off just enough to accomplish the finished product with minimum waste. “Recovery is another of our production pillars,” said Brian Schilling, Pike Lumber’s Vice President of Engineering. “Recovery is the third leg of what we’re doing, along with production and quality. Once the initial cut is determined, there’s no need to reposition the log in between cuts. You’re good to go through the entire process.”
“The technology is helping judge that line, while leaving room for a human expert, or sawyer, to override or approve the map,” Pike Lumber’s Vice President of Production Operations, Chris Herrell, explained. “It’s not an entirely automated process; it’s a collaboration between the technology and the sawyer.” The technology not only speeds the process, but it performs consistently in reference to the best human expertise. Pike has since tested the new tech-enabled process against the careful scaling of Pike Lumber’s most consistent log scalers – and the results show the new scan is consistently within 1 to 5 percent of the hand scaling.
Choose a Technology Provider That Can “level-up” Workforce Training and Supply Critical Knowledge for Rapid Tech Adoption
Finding a great vendor is critical, Solano said. “Emerging technology can be extremely complicated, and in-house resources may not be the best choice to implement it,” he explained. “It’s important to choose a vendor that can supply that extra level of knowledge, troubleshooting things quickly, and get the system back up and running.”
Workforce training is essential, too, for the sawyers and the supervisors in the sawmill. Every species is different, and the program and placement for each species will be slightly different. And training is not limited simply to production, as it’s also necessary for the staff who maintain and service the new technology, said Solano. “Pike Lumber has long demonstrated its consistent drive to produce quality products with the same or less effort, the same people and the same inputs. When you can do something that improves the work environment for your co-workers, that makes it so people have less to lift and move, and enables a smoother workflow, the workforce adapts quickly. The sawmill team here was comfortable with the old system,” he added. “I’m not going to lie to you; they were skeptical at first. But the system has proven to be user friendly, has done a good job, and now people are won over.”
“The grant was timely,” Herrell agreed. “This project had been on our radar for more than a year. We were in the middle of the late 2020 COVID crisis so there was a lot of uncertainty, especially in the market and what was going on politically. So, we had taken this idea and this capital improvement project and kind of shelved it over here. We weren’t quite sure we were ready to let go of all that money. But when this grant became available, it allowed us to have a little bit of help. It made it a much easier decision. We were very grateful.”