Pyramid finishes phase two of tech upgrades

SEELEY LAKE - Over the past three months, Pyramid Mountain Lumber has made some major upgrades in its production line. Despite the uncertainty in the economy due to the coronavirus pandemic, Pyramid just finished the $1.5 million second phase in the three-phase project.

As a part of a three-phase plan, the 70-year-old company installed an automated tray sorter system in the second stage. After lumber was scanned, graded and trimmed by the GradExpert, an automated grading system that came online in 2019 in the first phase of the Pyramid's automation upgrade, computerized controls sort it by length and grade into different trays installed above the dry chain. Once the tray has enough pieces for a full unit, the tray is discharged to the stacker.

Todd Johnson, general manager of Pyramid, hopes that with all three upgrades the company can increase production by 20%. 

"Since we don't need to have as many people pulling lumber, we can use them to go to two shifts and get out our backlog of inventory caught up," Johnson said, adding none of the current employees will be laid off and they are still hiring.

Pyramid's planar currently cannot keep up with the sawmill. For every 40 hours of lumber made at the sawmill, it takes 60 hours to run through the planar according to Johnson. Pyramid's goal is to decrease the 60 hours to 50, increasing production.

Johnson estimated the old system, which made workers organize and stack by hand, created about 60% of Pyramid's output. Now, over 90% of that work is done by a machine.

"With that 10% that has to be pulled, it is not as physical as it was before," Johnson said. 

He explained that every year it is more difficult to hire because people don't want to do manual labor. Before the upgrade, most entry-level workers worked on the dry chain pulling lumber and stacking it.

With the new technology, Johnson hopes to establish a long-term labor pool that is not just based on one's physical abilities. 

"The amount of physical effort to do that job has been cut," said Johnson. "If you ever thought you wanted to work at the mill, but physically you couldn't do it, you can now."

Johnson also hopes to make work times more reasonable for people at the mill, which currently operates 10 hours a day, six days a week. By eliminating Saturdays and creating two shifts per day during the week, he feels the the job should look more desirable.

Montana Department of Labor statistics from 2019 indicates the state's workforce will shrink by roughly 10,000 workers each of the next several years. Pyramid has experienced this withdrawal and dropped dozens of employees in the last several years, according to previous reporting from the Pathfinder.

Before the GradExpert was installed, at least four people worked as graders full time. Now only one person works with the machine. However all of the graders are still employed and are either grading or checking grading. 

In the last phase, the lumber will be packaged by a new lumber strapper. This machine squeezes the units so they are tight, adds dunnage, loose wood or other material, to the bottom of the units and then bands them with a poly strap instead of steel bands.

Right now, forklift operators have to get out of their vehicles and place wood strips on top of each package. Since the machine will place the dunnage, they will be able to stay in their lifts and can move more lumber in one shift. 

Johnson expects all the new upgrades will be finished by the end of 2020.

*Editor's Note: This story has been modified from what was printed to further clarify terms and processes.


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