Spokane Journal of Business

Potlatch plans upgrades at St. Maries mill facility

$2.7 million project to add capacity at sawmill, enable plant to make new product

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A $2.7 million upgrade at Potlatch Corp.s St. Maries, Idaho, lumber and plywood mill is expected to boost productivity and enable the company to make a new product there.

Potlatch spokesman Mike Sullivan says the Spokane company expects that improvements at the sawmill will increase the flow of logs and lumber there by up to 40 percent, and allow Potlatch to recover more usable wood from the logs it processes.

The investments at St. Maries are part of an overall program to increase lumber production by up to 15 percent and reduce costs in our wood-products division, Sullivan says.

Equipment upgrades at the plywood mill will enable the company to make a new veneer that it will sell to other wood-products companies, which will use the veneer to make a specialized building product called laminated veneer lumber.

Potlatch operates a sawmill and a plywood mill in its complex at St. Maries, which is located along the St. Joe River about 60 miles south of Coeur dAlene. Together, the mills employ 320 people.

The bulk of the work at the complex will be completed during a 21-day shutdown scheduled in July, but some of the improvements will be made during a six-day shutdown set for late May, Sullivan says. The plants are expected to be running with the new equipment by July 23, he says.

Sawmill upgrades

The St. Maries sawmill currently has the capacity to produce 100 million board feet of lumber a year, and in 2002, produced 96 million board feet of lumber, Potlatch says in its annual report.

To achieve a productivity increase there, the company will reorganize the way logs and lumber flow through the mill and install what Sullivan refers to as computerized optimizers, which will be used with edger saws and trimmers that cut rough lumber into usable boards.

The optimizers will help the mill cut more usable lumber from logs. They also can be programmed to determine the best way to cut various lumber products from logs and will allow the company to produce higher-value products, Sullivan says.

In the complexs plywood mill, Potlatch plans to install equipment that will enable it to peel veneer for laminated veneer lumber.

Laminated veneer lumber is a high-strength, engineered wood product made of a number of layers of veneer that are pressed and glued together. The product often is used in support beams in structures to take advantage of its strength, Sullivan says.

Potlatch will produce the veneer and sell it to a company that makes the finished laminated veneer lumber products. Such companies include Louisiana Pacific Corp. and Boise Cascade Corp.

Plans to begin producing the veneer are consistent with Potlatchs trend toward making specialty products and away from manufacturing conventional plywood, which Sullivan says is losing market share to less expensive oriented-strand board products.

Potlatch says its net plywood sales fell 14 percent in 2002, to $34.9 million. Last years net sales of oriented-strand board, which Potlatch manufactures at mills in Minnesota, rose 12 percent to $187.3 million.

Potlatchs St. Maries operation currently has the capacity to produce up to 145 million square feet of plywood annually. Last year, the operation produced 123 million square feet of plywood.

Separate from its upgrade efforts, Potlatch has begun experimenting at the St. Maries plywood mill with production of whats called a radiant-barrier plywood. That product, which is being called LumaPly, consists of conventional plywood with a foil attached to one side. When used in new construction, such products have been found to reduce heating and cooling costs, Sullivan says. Similar products are particularly popular in the warmer climates, such as the southwestern U.S., where they help curb air-conditioning costs, he says.

Potlatch is selling LumaPly on a limited basis now and hasnt decided whether to roll it out on a broader scale.

The company is encouraged about the potential of LumaPly because of the reception given to a relatively new radiant-barrier oriented-strand board product, called LuminOx, which is made at the companys Minnesota facilities.

It has been widely and well-received in the marketplace, Sullivan says.

The company has a patent pending on that product and has a registered trademark for the name LuminOx, but hasnt decided whether it will go through the same process with LumaPly.

Potlatch, founded in 1903, employs about 4,200 people and makes a variety of wood and paper products. In addition to its facilities in Idaho and Minnesota, the company operates mills in Arkansas and tissue-converting facilities in Nevada and Michigan. The company owns more than 1.5 million acres of timberland in Idaho, Minnesota, and Arkansas.

Linn  Parish
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Editor Linn Parish has worked for newspapers and magazines since 1996, with the bulk of that time being at the Journal. A Montana boy who has called Spokane home for some time now, Linn likes Northwest trails, Deep South foods, and lead changes in the ninth inning.

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