Automation & human labour: both are needed
The importance and role of human labour in sawmill drying kiln operations is constantly changing. Automation now does work that used to done by human labour and will increasingly do so going forward.
Increased automation not only improves operational efficiency but also makes work safer, more predictable and more meaningful. The human role is increasingly one of supervision rather than performance and doing things. Full automation has a big role in this transformation.
Automatic transport wagons are one example of this transformation. The traditional way has been for a human to select the drying kiln load, take it to the transporting wagon and deliver it to the required track or the dry load to the next step in the process.
State-of-the-art automation at the new Rauma sawmill
In our latest project at the Metsä Group’s new Rauma sawmill, the human role in the drying process has changed from operator to supervisor. Once a load has dried in the kiln, the manufacturing execution system gives the load a new address either to a temporary warehouse or to the next production stage, dry timber sorting.
“Far from all sawmills are ready for full automation.”
At Rauma, the drying parameters are also automated. This is not very common and it’s normal for the formula to be selected manually. Far from all sawmills are ready for full automation even though it would otherwise be possible. This is why capacity expansions at old sawmills are often carried out following the old model. What works and what doesn’t all depends on the customer.
There must be no conflicts in safety
The role between automation and human labour also applies to safety. Increasing the level of automation usually goes hand in hand with increasing the safety level. Here we have to look at what makes sense when upgrading. Increasingly more attention is being given to safety and new technologies make drying kilns increasingly safer places to work.
“We should think carefully about modernisation.”
The most important thing is again project-specific planning. Old sawmills can be given new totalities by increasing the level of automation but it doesn’t necessarily make sense to do so.
The improvement in the safety level brought about by increasing the level of automation in the area modernised must not lead to different levels of safety in the same area and thus create hazardous situations between the new and existing part of the plant. This is why we should think carefully about modernisation.
Human labour also includes supervision during the drying process. This include malfunction situations and other alerts where, for example, the drying temperatures do not keep to within the parameters or a load gets stuck. Reacting to these situations, resolving malfunctions and returning the process to automation is human work. Dealing with disruption situations is human work at Rauma, too, even though virtually everything else has been automated.
Prediction is also a key word in automation
Automation constantly increases not just quantity but also quality. When data is available from almost all operations, the machinery and equipment can also automatically generate requests for preventive maintenance. More serious issues can be avoided by following processes and predicting maintenance.
Carrying out regular maintenance and servicing in time – before anything has broken – delivers significant savings in operations. Prediction also helps to minimise production breakdowns and has constantly increased. The smartest systems are already able to decide things without human intervention.
Even though the amount of automation in drying kilns is increasing, human labour still plays an important role in total operations.
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Jan Räsänen appointed Managing Director of Heinola Sawmill Machinery Inc. – Kari Kiiskinen continues on the Board of Directors
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