The Glennon name has been synonymous with sawmilling in Ireland since 1913 when two brothers, William and James Glennon returned from America and set up a mill at Longford.

Getting on for 90 years later, some details are just the same. Most notable is the fact that the company is family run, now by the second and third generations, William Glennon’s son Paddy (chairman) and his grandsons, Pat and Mike (directors). In other respects, however, the business is light years on from those early horse-drawn days.

Take the new £20m mill at Fermoy, County Cork for example. The site for the mill was acquired from Smurfit Group subsidiary Woodfab Fermoy in 1998. The reasons for the acquisition were twofold, as general manager Peter Wilson says: ‘The key reason for the new mill is that Coillte forecasts that, in the period to 2005, there will be huge increases in saw log output and we want to avail ourselves of that’.

In addition, the success of Glennon’s Longford mill in producing value-added products, such as GlenDeck decking, its GlenPine range of finger-jointed flooring and CLS, was putting a strain on its capacity to produce construction timber.

Any visitor touring the Fermoy mill and attempting to keep up with Pat Glennon as he sprints along gantries and bounds up stairs will be in no doubt of his enthusiasm for the operation. And while the new line might be capable of similarly impressive turns of speed, the planning of it was anything but hasty.

In-depth research

Pat and Paddy Glennon spent around 18 months checking out the latest developments in bandsaw and circular saw technology. ‘We had to see what the Swedes had,’ says Pat, but they didn’t stop at Scandinavia and visited Europe, the US and Canada in their search for the sawmilling equivalent of the holy grail.

At the end of their mission they had confirmed their faith in the Linck circular saw system which they had first installed at Longford. Linck is represented in the UK by Woodtech Machinery Ltd.

‘It depends on the application,’ says Pat, ‘but for our requirements a bandsaw can’t cut as fast with such consistent accuracy and with such a quality surface finish as a circular saw.

‘Some people criticise Linck for lower yield on the basis that the kerf on a circular sawblade is wider than that on a bandsaw blade, but that is not my experience. At high speed a bandsaw blade can be 1mm out on the cut size, which negates the kerf benefit.’

Meanwhile, back in Fermoy, work started on preparing the 60-acre site. Only the six original kilns remain from Woodfab days with the rest of the site being cleared and asphalted. Twenty-five acres are being used at present, leaving plenty of opportunity for expansion.

The mill’s reconstruction started last year and it commenced production in May this year. ‘The line at Fermoy can run at 50-130m/min with a tolerance of +/-0.25mm on the finished size,’ says Pat. ‘We process logs from 120-470mm top diameter and 2.4-6.6m in length, cutting the larger logs at 70m/min and the smaller ones at 120m/min.’

The line is so efficient that Linck’s guarantee that it would achieve 90% of capacity within two months of start-up was easily met.

All the logs used are Irish – 50% sitka spruce, 25% Norway spruce and 25% pine/larch – and around 95% of them are sourced from Coillte. On arrival they are sorted by length and diameter, the latter in 15mm increments and stored according to species, length and diameter.

The sawing pattern for the day is set up and the logs enter the mill after passing through a 2D scanner which determines which way they are oriented and ensures they enter top, or thin end first. Glennon processes quite a high proportion of curved logs and this orientation will be necessary if the company decides to introduce curve sawing technology – which Linck can provide – in the future.

Curve sawing is claimed to increase yield from logs that have a distinct sweep. The circular saw follows the contour of the log to cut ‘curved’ boards which, within certain limits, then straighten out during kilning.

The lynch pin of the system, the Perceptron 3D scanner/optimiser which Linck incorporated at Glennon’s request, now awaits the logs. Sourced from the US automobile industry, this sophisticated box of tricks rotates the logs in 5O stages to achieve the optimum yield of side boards. Looking at the smallest diameter, ovality and shape, the scanner sends the cutting instruction for each log down the line.

Quick decisions

It takes around three seconds to assess a log and it’s one occasion when a snap judgement (by the technology, not the operative) pays dividends. ‘One per cent up or down represents £150,000 at the end of the year, so optimising conversion is very important,’ says Paddy.

The first canter produces two flat sides and the log is then rotated 90O before the second canter. This is followed by a profiler which cuts notches from the top and bottom of both sides of the cant to prepare it for the first multi-rip which separates two, four or six side boards depending on the size of the log. The cant is then rotated another 90O and passes through a second profiler, after which the second multi-rip cuts the remaining side boards and the centre boards.

As the sawn timber comes off the line (currently in mixed dimensions, although in future these will be separated) it passes through another scanning station which grades the timber and gives any final trim decisions. The timber is cut to optimum length and dropped into bins ready for kiln drying.

Kiln capacity at Fermoy is 60,000m³ per year but a new progressive kiln is about to swing into action. Believed to be the first of its kind in the UK and Ireland, the 45m-long kiln, says Pat Glennon, operates ‘like a sausage machine’.

‘The idea is to minimise handling between the mill and the kiln,’ he continues. ‘Wet timber is automatically loaded into one end and emerges dry from the other end about three-and-a-half days later.’

The Fermoy mill has already started to produce substantial quantities of GlenDeck and has established a small value-added planing mill which works two shifts, five days a week.

However, it is focusing its potential 150,000m³ a year production capacity on kiln-dried, graded construction timber at the moment. ‘We aim to get the mill to full production first and then will match Longford for value-adding (about 25-30% of Longford’s production is value-added) one or two years down the line,’ says Pat Glennon.

As the Irish construction market currently imports up to 50% of its raw material, Glennon believes there is huge potential for its timber on the home market. But it is not blinkered by the booming Irish economy and keeps an eye on opportunities abroad.

UK exports

Glennon exports 15-20% of its product to the UK and, with Fermoy on stream, intends to push this to 30% by 2004. The company, whose UK sales manager is Aidan Curran, likes to adopt the personal approach in its marketing: ‘We try to build up personal contacts rather than use agents,’ says Pat. ‘And we try to target second line merchants. During a recession you’ve got more chance of holding onto their business.’

Those exports may soon include residues. Vecoplan, also represented by Woodtech, supplied the extraction system for the mill, mirroring the arrangement at Longford. High quality chips are sold for MDF manufacture and sawdust is burned to produce power for the kilns or sold for chipboard production.

However, with the predicted increase in raw material, a residue surplus is on the horizon.

There are high hopes at Glennon that Willamette Europe‘s new continuous press line at Clonmel will increase the MDF plant’s hunger for chips, but the family phlegmatically concedes that it may have to look ‘off Ireland’ for customers.