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Robert Barron column: New technologies transforming wood industry

I worked on what is known as the green chain
Robert’s column

The tour I was part of recently at Ron Anderson & Sons Ltd. in Chemainus was a real eye opener.

The company is a wood-product manufacturer that builds and installs prefabricated wood-frame buildings for residential and commercial units.

RAS is receiving up to $2 million from the province that will be used for an expansion project which will use automation and advanced manufacturing to diversify the company’s products, including prefabricated floors, roof panels and stairs.

Brenda Bailey, B.C.’s Minister of Jobs, Economic Development and Innovation, visited RAS’s facilities on River Road to announce the funding, which is through the BC Manufacturing Jobs Fund, and I and a number of other reporters tagged along for the tour that company officials gave her.

I worked in a sawmill at Duke Point more than 20 years ago and the tour made it very clear to me that a lot has changed in the wood industry since those days.

I worked on what is known as the green chain at the mill and it was one of the hardest jobs I have ever had to do.

Basically, lumber of different sizes and dimensions moved along a conveyor belt at a controlled rate and about 10 workers are each in charge of removing whatever sizes they are responsible for from the green chain and placing the lumber in ordered stacks.

Seems simple enough until a pile of lumber that you are responsible for comes along all at the same time.

You find yourself frantically trying to get them off the chain and into their stacks because if some of that lumber gets past you, the next guy down the line has to stop the chain so you can retrieve the wayward log(s).

Having the line shut down with everybody just standing there looking at you like you’re an idiot as you apologize and haul the lumber back to their proper stacks is not a position you want to find yourself in too often.

It was hands-on, back-breaking labour and there was little automation to make the tasks any easier and more efficient.

The work was brutal, and I lost about 15 pounds in just two weeks.

Walking around RAS’s facilities was a view into an entirely different kind of operation.

Mind you, the sawmill I worked at just sawed up lumber, while RAS is geared toward creating pre-fabricated buildings, but the amount and types of high-tech equipment that the company utilizes is mind boggling and makes the sawmill look like something that Fred Flintstone would have worked in.

RAS has lasers in the ceiling of one of their warehouses that beam down on panelled walls so the workers will know exactly where holes have to be drilled, making measuring tapes a thing of the past, which speeds up production and makes the operation more efficient.

The saws at RAS are also computerized so wood is cut to very specific lengths at a fast rate and they are much easier and quicker to use than their manual counterparts, and machines are used to nail sections of the prefabricated buildings together that shoot out nails like machine guns in perfectly straight lines that even the most professional carpenters would never be able to keep up with.

One of the best things about the operation is the small amount of waste that results from such an automated system.

The tour (which was led by RAS’s chief operating officer Matthew Kiley who is an east coaster like me) was 30 minutes long and Kiley promised Bailey that by the time it was over, about six workers would have put together a home from a pile of prefabricated parts.

Sure enough, when we returned to the warehouse where the tour started, the workers were sitting waiting for us with the sections perfectly put together, and it appeared they didn’t even break a sweat.

During a time when housing is desperately needed across B.C., I can see why RAS was chosen to receive a grant that will enhance and grow its operations, which I expect will go a long way to help meet the incredible need out there for more housing as quickly as possible.

RAS will also hire another 35 workers in high-paying jobs who will be spending much of their money in the local economy.

It’s a win-win for everyone, and it really shows me how far the wood industry has come since my days at the sawmill.

Robert Barron

About the Author: Robert Barron

Since 2016, I've had had the pleasure of working with our dedicated staff and community in the Cowichan Valley.
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