Robbins Lumber automates material receiving and identification using Voice Recognition system.

Robbins Lumber plant photoLog Scaling Pro

For more than 100 years, Robbins Lumber Co. has been working the Maine woods and producing quality pine lumber for retailers and wholesalers up and down the East Coast. Robbins long ago recognized that a market with highly variable demand puts a strong premium on being a low cost producer, and that low unit costs would be best attained over time by applying automation. Robbins has made a commitment to automated sawmill equipment, automated inventory and warehouse management systems, and modern ID systems to track work in process and finished goods inventory. The result is a company that can respond quickly to availability inquiries and to customer demands while providing steady and secure employment for its workers. One piece of automation runs one of the most rugged operations in the plant: log scaling.

Log scaling is a receiving function. Logs arrive in trucks and must be measured and graded, as they are off-loaded. Species, grade, length, diameter, and defect type prior to entering the inventory system describe each log. The scaling operation can take place in weather conditions ranging from -35 degrees and dry to snow or rain, to 95 degrees and very humid. Because the incoming material is headed for debarking and cutting operations, it's generally unsuitable for any labeling system such as bar codes.

For an automated log scaling system, Robbins turned to systems integrator and software development firm Simply Computing of Westbrook, Maine. Focusing on the needs of the timber industry, Simply Computing developed a networked PC based (and single user version) log inventory system program called Log Scaling Pro. This system monitors the scaling process from the moment the trucker pulls into the mill yard. The software computerizes scale slips-the paperwork that shows exactly what was received at what dollar value. The software also maintains a log inventory and generates payable slips that are used in conjunction with accounting computer programs.

As a scale slip is completed, each log is entered into an inventory file, which is organized by row. Row numbers can be assigned by the truckload or by species or even on a log-by-log basis. As the mill uses inventory, the software can deplete a row, or deplete just the pine logs from a row, or move certain logs from one row to another, etc.

Log Scaling Pro accounts for every log that comes through the mill, not just totals for each load or summaries by row. This level of detail provides enormous downstream flexibility. For example, if a manager wants to know the average cost of all the pine select logs in row 27 with a diameter between 16-16 in. and a length of 12 ft., the Log Scaling Pro can provide the answer. The software uses a Microsoft Visual FoxPro relational database, which makes it easy to ask the system about any price or quantity statistic for any length of time, based on a log-by-log analysis. The FoxPro foundation also allows the system to be easily modified and customized to fit unique needs as they arise in the future.

Log Scaling Pro provides accurate payables for each truckload received. Each time a scale slip is generated, Log Scaling Pro creates a payable for the landowner and for the trucker as needed. This information can then flow directly into a variety of popular accounting systems. The software also stores data by supplier, by wood species, by grades, and accommodates pricing table schemes for unlimited pricing flexibility.

One of the more challenging issues with the Simply Log Scaling program is the actual data entry step itself. Log Scalers, who are licensed by the State of Maine, work in an unusual environment. It can be very cold or hot; there may be other equipment operating in the background; large tractor-trailer trucks are moving in and out, and overhead cranes are unloading logs from truck to ground. Data needs to be gathered quickly to keep up with the incoming loads; and data must be collected accurately, since the figures directly affect profitability. Robbins has used several log scaling data collection methods over the years, ranging from paper-based methods to radio frequency hand-held terminals. A few years ago, Robbins installed a Simply Computing Solution based on Talkman voice terminals from Vocollect of Pittsburgh, PA.

With industrial voice recognition technology, the operator speaks answers in response to prompts heard in the headset. The Talkman unit digitizes the speech into ASCII text, at which point it appears similar to keyboard output, and then sends the data off to a computer program via radio frequency to the PC.

The Talkman packaging is an ideal design for rugged industrial applications. The Talkman headset is small enough to be mounted inside a scaler's hardhat. The electronic unit is small enough to be belt mounted, and operates for more than one work shift off a single battery charge.  The user is completely mobile. The Talkman operation is totally hands-free. There are no buttons to push once the unit has been turned on. This is very important since operators typically wear heavy gloves. The log scaler's hands are free to use measurement tools. Equally important, Talkman is eyes-free. There is no need to look down at a hand-held input device keyboard. The scaler can keep his eyes on the logs at all times. This is an important safety benefit.

The Talkman voice terminal is very similar to a computer. Before it can be used, it must be loaded with a task or program, which is created using Vocollect's graphical Task Builder software. Task Builder creates and connects a series of questions such as grade, diameter, length, and defect status. Each question has a list of allowable responses. The software also supports logical and arithmetic branching operations based on the operator's answers.

When Talkman is recording a log, for example, it asks "Species?" and the operator might say "Pine". Talkman will then repeat the answer by saying "Pine" so that the operator knows what Talkman heard. The program continues to the next question and repeats the process until it receives the "Done Slip" command to complete the scale slip. At the beginning of each job, the operator enters in header information identifying the account number, seller, trucker, etc. using alpha and numeric calls.

Talkman is based on speaker-dependent voice-technology, which is well suited for the industrial environment. While this means that each operator has to invest time in a training session to teach the Talkman how he or she speaks certain words and numbers, the training pays off with higher recognition accuracy, higher recognition speed, and greater immunity to background noise. This is a particularly important in a timber operation. Also, speaker-dependent voice products can deal with any variety of accents or dialects. Before any scaler begins his job, his first operation is to download his personal voice template into the Talkman; this usually requires 15-30 seconds.


Benefits of Log Scaling Pro

The use of voice recognition has resulted in several productivity improvements at Robbins Lumber. Because the Talkman is hands-free, eyes-free, the scaler is more efficient. Accuracy is now 100% because there is no longer a separate data entry task (which reduces costs), because there is no handwriting to read, and because the Talkman echoes back what it has recognized, providing immediate aural feedback to the scaler. Because the scaler can keep his eyes on the moving log at all times, he is able to get closer and can scale the log more accurately. The voice recognition process is also a faster way to collect data. With the same number of scalers, Robbins Lumber is able to meet higher peak demands on the receiving operation. The company recently received more that 1.2MMBF in a single week, a company record than could not have been accomplished using the previous technology.

Robbins has always cared about the well being of its employees. The company conducts an extensive and successful safety program that recently resulted in 120 employees going 705 days without a lost-time accident. The Talkman voice terminal helped make this possible in the log scaling operation. Because the voice terminal operates "eyes-free", the scaler does not have to worry about not seeing a log that has tumbled free.

Because data is sent real-time via radio back to the accounting system on a log-by-log basis, scale slips are available by the time the truck driver walks to the scale house. The log scaler can also stay in the yard and tally several loads before returning to the scale house, thereby reducing "downtime." The detailed computer system allows immediate verification of gross scale, net scale, total number of logs, total value of the load to the driver and the landowner, a breakdown by species, length, diameter and defect type.

Overall Log Scaling Pro has made the material receiving task much more efficient. This means real cost savings as well as safer, more enjoyable working environment. The variety of information collected is readily available and is easy to use in the very important cost evaluation of raw material, the most significant contribution to the final cost of the product.

With a traditional payback calculation, the investment in voice technology would show a payback period of slightly less than 12 months. However, the traditional methods overlook many important benefits, which are hard to quantify. For example, voice terminals enable Robbins to accomplish some work that absolutely couldn't have been done before. Robbins is able to capture far more data and do analysis by grade, by supplier, by truckload, by log length, and log mix. Other tasks, such as generating detailed inventory reports, which used to take up to two days, are done in less than 30 minutes.


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