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 Bangor,
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 Simply Log Scaling.
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 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 Simply Log Scaling program 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.
Simply Log Scaling provides accurate payables for each truckload
received. Each time a scale slip is generated, Simply Log Scaling
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 system based on several
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. Also belt mounted is a Talkman narrow
band radio, which sends data off to PC base station after every
log is scaled. 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.
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 both the driver
and the landowner, a breakdown by species, length, diameter
and defect type.
Overall the Simply Log Scaling program 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
under 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.