Red Stag Timber

March 2018

A company adding value to New Zealand's forestry sector

Commercial forestry is one of New Zealand’s top export earners and the second largest employer in Rotorua. The central North Island produces nearly half of New Zealand’s annual wood harvest.

Red Stag Timber is a privately owned company based in Rotorua. General Manager Tim Ritger says the company was set up in 2003 to run the Waipa Mill, a former government owned mill that had been operating since 1939. The mill had been built to deliver a long term sustainable supply of structural timber.

The mill was in government hands until the 1990s when Central North Island Forestry Partnership (a group that included Fletcher Challenge Forests Ltd and Brierley Investments) bought it. That company went into receivership and the mill was bought by Marty Verry and his late father Phil in 2003.

Tim Rigter was with the company before the Verry’s took over the mill. He says it was a brave move by the family to tackle a mill that was struggling. He says the new owners have reinvested in upgrading the mill so that today it is one of the most up to date and sophisticated mills in the southern hemisphere.

Red Stag employs 300 staff at its Waipa site along with around 80 contractors. The company supplies timber around New Zealand and to markets in Australia, Asia, Pacific and USA. Tim says the operation is producing over 550,000m3 of lumber each year, mostly Pinus radiata with some Douglas fir. Turnover is around $220 million dollars a year.

Around 50% of the timber produced becomes structural timber – the rest goes into outdoor construction, industrial use such as pallets and furniture. As well as timber, the company produces wood chips for pulp and paper, and uses bark and sawdust residue to produce electricity and steam to drive drying kilns.

Technology upgrades have played a big part in the current mill operational efficiency. They have included extending the plant from a twin mill to a quad mill. In 2006, a planer mill from Scandinavia was installed, which can process around 350 metres per minute. This has recently been replaced with a Gilbert planer that can process up to 1200 metres a minute.

A remanufacturing plant at the mill takes timber with defects (such as knots or structural flaws) and creates additional value out of that timber. Each piece is sent through the “reman” plant past a scanner, which identifies faults at high speed and then cuts out each flaw. Another machine reassembles the “clean” lengths of timber back together using finger joints and glues them back into usable lengths.

Tim says the ‘reman’ lengths are stronger than original clear timber pieces but currently they are unable to be used for framing in New Zealand. Instead they are used in areas of building such as mouldings and architraves.

Steve Roberts is the sawmill manager. He managed the construction of the new mill that was begun in 2014. The investment was around $60 million dollars and included the latest in milling technology (called a USNR Tandem Quadmill) with a capacity of 1.2 million tonnes. It was hoped it would re-establish Rotorua as the “wood processing capital of New Zealand”. Steve says there’s a lot of technology in the mill that is a “first”, especially around some of the saw controls and digital cameras that assist with the safe and efficient operation of the mill. The new technology also optimises cutting. Cameras and guides ensure the saw follows the grain of each log, so that the timber yield is maximised.

A quad mill generally describes a set up with four band saws in one cluster, although Steve explains in the new Red Stag mill they actually have eight band saws operating.

Steve says the difference between the new quad mill and the older single blade sawmills is that instead of the saw moving along a stationary log, the saw stays stationary and the logs are driven against it. The benefit of cutting logs this way is that they can achieve better production. “It’s all about conversion – the more timber we get out of each log the more profitable we are.” Nothing that is cut at the mill is done by “eye”, it is all driven using 3-D scanners. “The operator really has no input into how conversion goes, they are mainly there to keep the mill flow even.”

Each day an average of 140 truckloads of timber is processed at the plant. The mill has produced a record 2,000 cubic metres in one 10-hour shift, although the average is something closer to 1,700 cubic metres. Steve says an average house has around 13 cubic metres of timber framing (so 2,000 cubic metres is enough framing for over 150 houses).

Steve stresses the smooth running of the sawmill is crucial to the performance of the whole site. Because of the automation involved with the mill there’s a relatively small number of people involved but what they do is critical to the success of the rest of the business.

The company also took the opportunity to build a new saw shop when they built the mill. It contains the latest equipment designed to keep blades sharp and performing at their optimum. “What was normally done by the saw-doctors, which was always a bit of a black art, is now done on a machine.” Although there’s automation in the saw shop, the saw-doctors are still busy. “But now they’re doing more thinking than they are labouring.”

Environmental and quality manager, Tim Charleson, is in charge of all the sustainability aspects of the 75 hectare site. A big part of his work is overseeing and containing the waste from the mill. That includes air pollution, storm water runoff from the site, and wastewater. There are strict consent conditions that have to be complied with.

Tim explains one of the advantages of working in a sawmill is that all waste that is generated contains recoverable energy. Around 300,000 tonnes of wood chip is sent to pulp mills at Tokoroa and Kawerau. On site, sawdust and off-cuts from the remanufacturing plant are used to produce electricity to run the mill and they are currently in the process of installing a new boiler. Tim says they can produce close to 75% of their operational electricity needs.