This Is Not Your Grandfather’s Sawmill

View from inside an operator's booth at Sierra Pacific's sawmill in Anderson. Photo courtesy of Sierra Pacific.

There's a dangerous myth spreading across America, and someone needs to bring it to a halt. That myth is that robots and automation are stealing all of our jobs.

OK, it's not just a myth. Robots and automation are stealing some of our jobs; maybe even most of them. But someone must still design, develop, program and utilize the technologies that have integrated themselves into nearly every facet of our civilization.

In short, someone needs to watch over these damned robots, before they take over the whole show.

But who? On a gloomy overcast mid-January morning, I tagged along on a field trip to the Sierra Pacific Industries sawmill in Anderson with a score of students from Shasta High School's Industrial Technology department, who might just be up to the task.

Full disclosure, their teacher, Chris Scheide, is one of my two younger brothers. I occasionally substitute teach for him, so I was familiar with most of the boys (and one girl) on the bus. They're the ones most interested in mastering computer-aided drafting and the impressive collection of CNC machinery in Shasta High School's fabrication shop. They're also students of Brian Grigsby, my brother's colleague who heads the school's robotics program.

What back in the day we called wood and metal shop are now, thanks to the technology involved, considered part of the STEM curriculum. For the past decade, labor market specialists have been warning that the United States isn't training the number of students in science, technology, engineering and math (that's what STEM stands for) required to remain competitive in the global economy.

Depending upon geographic location, these shortages are occurring at every level of employment, from degreed engineers and scientists to skilled and semi-skilled workers such as machinery and electronic technicians. The field trip I tagged along on was in fact part of a growing regional effort to address the STEM shortage that involves Shasta Community College, a dozen area high schools and a host of local businesses, including Sierra Pacific, Knauf Insulation, Seco and Absolute Machine Tools.

Sierra Pacific Industries operates 14 sawmills in California and Washington and is the second largest lumber producer in the United States. Currently the mill in Anderson is processing 3000 logs per day, turning them into neat stacks of lumber some of which lately have been railed to reconstruction efforts in fire-ravaged communities in California and hurricane-struck Houston, among other disaster zones.

Sierra Pacific Industries tech shop manager Drew Peterson. Photo by R.V. Scheide.

For safety reasons, we weren't permitted to go into the actual sawmill, so the tour began in what Sierra Pacific tech shop manager Drew Peterson calls "a sawmill within a sawmill," a makeshift museum set up in a corner of the tech shop with exhibits demonstrating how automation, optimization and miniaturization have transformed the industry.

It's all about programmable logic controllers, or PLCs, which have automated and optimized an industry that sort of looks like your grandpa's sawmill—with vastly improved work-space conditions—but is light years beyond it in terms of productivity.

Today's sawyers sit in a sealed control booth overlooking the logs directly and via an array of video cameras, controlling multiple saws with multiple panels of buttons, each corresponding to a PLC that makes the adjustment to log and machine required to get the most wood out of the process. Any step in the process that can be optimized has been optimized.

“You want a tactile environment,” Peterson explained. Translation: There's a hella lot of buttons to push. Employees who know how to operate the equipment often prove adept at designing methods to improve the process. He ticked off a list of the skills Sierra Pacific is looking for: “electricians, electrical engineers, computer engineers, instrument engineers, mechanical engineers.”

Computer algorithms and laser beams tell the saw operator exactly which boards, two-by-fours, four-by-fours, two-by-eights, etc., can be cut from any given log. Pearson explained that this process alone was formerly performed by a sawyer and a ratchet-setter riding in a moving carriage parallel to the saws. The sawyer eyeballed his measurements and the ratchet-setter had an exceptionally low life expectancy.

But here's one of the most interesting things I learned on the tour. Despite these advancements brought forth by the digital revolution, the folks on the factory floor don't put all their faith in the computers.

“We don't trust computers,” Pearson said. “We don't trust the computers to make adjustments—we do it. A computer is good at showing what should happen. An operator is needed for what actually happens.”

Somehow, I found this idea comforting. The machines still need us.

Sierra Pacific's fabrication shop manufactures and repairs equipment for all of its sawmill operations. Photo by R.V. Scheide.

After completing our tour of the tech shop, we proceeded to the fabrication shop, situated in a cavernous structure large enough to contain a blimp and filled with heavy metal objects tended by men in standard factory safety garb.

One side of the hangar contains banks of state-of-the-art Haas CNC machinery, including 4 milling machines, 2 lathes and a bar feeder. There is a corresponding bank of manual machines as well—plenty of machinists still do it the old school way.

On the other side of the building, two enormous machines dominate the scenery, a kinetic plasma cutter, measuring 12’ x 72,' and an Omax waterjet, measuring 10’ x 20,' controlled by operators via CNC panels. Each operator was respectively burning and etching sheet steel components for a chain race the size of a railroad boxcar.

A band saw looking like some sort of over-sized Depression-era tractor and a log-stacker comprised of chains, sprockets and welded steel beams completed the scene.

This is a band saw, not a tractor. Photo by R.V. Scheide.

“We don't just build stuff from scratch,” explained Sierra Pacific mechanical engineer Nelson Wheelehan. “We rebuild and repair machines for all of our other mills. We like to run equipment here. This stacker is going to our mill in Sonora. All our fabs are expected to be able to install the equipment as well.”

At the completion of the tour, Wheelehan handed the baton to Rick Osbrink, head of Shasta Community College's Industrial Technology Department.

“Everything you're hearing about here today, we've got a program for it,” Osbrink told the students. He wasn't kidding. Coordination with the aforementioned community partners helped Shasta Community College develop its well-attended welding program and now thanks to a timely federal grant, it has provided more of the tools needed to train the next generation of engineers and machinists.

“We've added a full machine shop,” Osbrink told me later via telephone. That includes state-of-the-art Haas CNC machinery, including a mill, lathe, press break, robotic arc welder, surface grinder, 3-D printers and an industry standard coordinate-measuring machine.

“That's the CNC side,” he continued. “There's also a manual side. Our CNC operating certificate requires students to learn to operate manual machines as well.”

For the past several years, the same thing's been happening in Shasta High School's machine shop. Every time I visit, it seems like some new piece of fancy digitized machinery has turned up, the latest being a Haas plasma cutter, albeit one on a much smaller scale than the one seen on our tour of Sierra Pacific.

It didn't happen by magic. My brother credits former Shasta High School principal Milan Woollard, who “saw STEM coming years ago and worked with us to make Shasta High School leaders in the North State,” for getting the ball rolling. Milan has since become superintendent of curriculum for the Shasta Union High School District and his successor, principal Leo Perez “has also been very supportive of our STEM programs.”

My brother also credits Mike O'Leary, director of categorical programs for the Shasta Union High School District, for being “extremely proficient at getting us grant money to purchase the equipment we need.”

Mr. Scheide, that is, my brother, said that based on surveys, 30 percent to 50 percent of his students say they plan to study engineering at the college level. Four of his former students currently work at Sierra Pacific, two in the fabrication shop and two as laborers.

Log stacker from Sierra Pacific's Sonora mill. Photo by R.V. Scheide.

As part of its effort to ensure its future workforce is trained, Sierra Pacific Industries last year offered $680,000 in scholarships to high school students in the communities in which it operates. Students on the tour who plan to attend Shasta College were encouraged to apply for a paid internship with Sierra Pacific where they can gain real hands-on experience working with today's technology, as long as they're enrolled in STEM classes.

These efforts, some of which are just now beginning to bear fruit, couldn't come a moment too soon for Sierra Pacific Industries, Knauf Industries, Seco, Absolute Machine Tools, Transfer Flow in Chico, and all the mom-and-pop machine shops that comprise northern California's manufacturing sector, which roughly accounts for a small-but-important 3 percent of the region's economic output (depending on which agency is doing the counting, it may be higher).

“The job shop, people working out of their homes, with maybe a CNC machine in the garage, is still a very viable thing around here,” Osbrink said. He recalled visiting one of the larger regional machine shops recently and noticing there wasn't an employee on the floor younger than 30. “What are they gonna do when their employees start retiring?” he worried.

That's a concern for Sierra Pacific as well, despite the millions the company has invested in local workforce development during the past two decades. It's a phenomenon affecting manufacturing across a wide swath of industries as the baby boom generation retires, particularly in rural areas that have a harder time attracting degreed engineers and scientists, as well as skilled and semi-skilled technicians, than locations such as Silicon Valley, Seattle or New York City.

“There is a huge demand for automation and controls specialists, programmable logic controller (PLC) programmers, and a next generation workforce that inherently includes technology in a variety of applications to assist in finding solutions,” said Sierra Pacific spokeswoman Becky Roe. “High schools and community colleges absolutely can help local employers meet this demand. However, there is generally a shortage of local candidates that are qualified to fill STEM career pathways.”

My brother's classes are well-attended, but he still has to contend with the fact that industrial technology, what we used to call wood shop and metal shop, isn't exactly on the radar of most high school students today.

“Some students don't even know that we have a shop,” he said. “I have talked to former graduates who say that they would have loved to take a 'shop' class, but didn't know they existed.”

That particularly applies to female students, who historically have been under-represented in STEM fields, and remain so. He has at most four to five girls in each class of 30 students.

“Some of my female students have reported that their friends don't want to take it because there are too many boys in the class,” he said.

Boys will be boys, I guess. That's a topic for another conversation. In the meantime, I'm feeling pretty optimistic about his present crop of students, who may or may not step in to fill the void in the manufacturing skills gap.

I took an informal poll after the tour of the sawmill and was pleasantly surprised to discover that just about all of the students were thrilled with the technology on display and could imagine themselves someday working at Sierra Pacific. I was concerned they might be turned off by the fact that some of the work, particular in the fab shop, involves, gasp, manual labor.

Of course, when I pressed one of them on the subject, I learned that today's kids, like kids from every generation but perhaps even more so now, have stars in their eyes. His plan? Graduate from high school, go to Cal Poly and earn as many doctorates as he can, then go to work for Elon Musk at Space-X.

A wise choice. Musk has been warning the world about automation, artificial intelligence and these damned robots a lot longer than I have.

R.V. Scheide
R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas.
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24 Responses

  1. cheyenne says:

    What a positive article on Shasta County. It appears it is not all gloom and doom like many commenters post on here. Good writing, RV.

    • Well, there is an underlying urgency that is prompting the various actors involved to do something about the STEM shortage that is perhaps more doom-and-gloomy than I have portrayed here. Nationwide, there’s legitimate concern that we just don’t have the people to stage any sort of manufacturing comeback. We may not have the money either. It will be interesting to see if the president mentions anything about this tonight, he actually has signed an executive order throwing $200 million at apprenticeship programs.

  2. Michelle says:

    As a teacher we rarely know what we say or do that will leave a lasting impression. But as a mom and a teacher, I listened to my kids who spoke of their teachers. Your brother Mr. Scheide left just such an impression to my son Kyle Nicolls about a decade ago at Foothill in a drafting class. Kyle loved that class and his teacher. I can only recall three teachers who touched any of my three kids. Mr. Scheide and a math teacher whose name has slipped my memory. Kyle spoke often of Mr. Scheide. You can pass on the info that Kyle went on to get a degree in Mechanical and then nuclear engineering and is working in a nuclear energy plant in eastern Washington.

    • I’m sure Mr. Scheide will be reading this, because I’ll tell him to, and as his big brother, he has no choice but to listen to me (right). He has a surprising number of students who actually go on to study and have careers in engineering. He’s very protective of his students.

  3. conservative says:

    The cut ends of the 2 x 4s in the stack at the home center or lumber yard usually show the “bulls eye” or grain pattern very close to it. The lumber used to build houses in N. CA is green, not kiln dried. The boards are straight at the sawmill, then twist and warp as they dry. The truss tails on the two houses I built twisted as much as 20% and had to be covered. Decades ago, larger trees were milled and exposed truss tails still appear straight. The cut ends appear to be quarter sawn. Interior 2 x 4 walls need a lot of “stud straightening” before the sheetrock goes on, otherwise the walls will be wavy.

    • There certainly were some larger trees back in the day. Incredibly large. Sorry you’re having trouble keeping your boards straight.

      • conservative says:

        I may build another house. I would have no overhangs, so no truss tails to cover. Back east, houses have no overhang to reduce ice dams. Overhangs are a waste of materials and labor to make a house look bigger than it is. Judging by the photo on AnewsCafe, Doni’s house has minimal overhangs.

        Wavy interior 2 x4 walls are really noticeable when the baseboard has gaps at the top.

        • Justin says:

          funny, the current building science guys think overhangs are important to have and give many benefits.

  4. James Montgomery James Montgomery says:

    Nice article. Gives hope for the bright kids, anyway. Very interesting to see that the STEM movement has led to a dovetailing of science and shop classes. This is good reporting.
    Speaking as one who once pulled greenchain, tho, I wonder what those of us who are not so bright will do. Collecting welfare and consuming alcohol and opioids are good choices, but hopefully there will be some other options.

    • You raise an excellent point about semi-skilled labor. Students who aren’t over-achievers can earn individual certificates for say, CNC milling, at Shasta College. That’s all some companies require, because the machinery is automated. While there are definitely less semi-skilled positions than in the past, they still exist. Besides, it’s often the bright kids who turn to opioids, as they’re more cognizant of our messed up world.

      • cheyenne says:

        There is a shortage of semi skilled workers in the nation. The Sac Bee reported a need for 7,000 construction workers in Sacramento alone and they pointed out they do not need four year degrees. Denver area is reporting a shortage of construction workers as shuttered sub divisions are now being built again. Phoenix is also seeing a shortage as housing starts are on the rise. Unfortunately this doesn’t help Shasta Counties semi skilled workers.

  5. Justin says:

    Good one Scheide.
    Except the part about semi-skilled…these guys are super skilled.

    My high school shop class was nothing like these, but I sure appreciate what I learned and or was exposed to. Thanks Mr Schroeder.(SP?)

  6. Carol Perea says:

    Dear Mr. Scheide, THIS IS GREAT !!!! I am a teacher at Anderson Union High School, as well as a member of the Sierra Cascade Logging Conference. We are holding our annual Logging Conference in February at the Anderson District Fair Grounds. on Thursday, Feb 8th,2018 we have our “Education Day”, where we host over 700 Shasta County 4th grade students, who are escorted by professionals who work in the woods to different educational stations where they learn of careers and and why people work in the woods. they are treated to a show by a wild animal rescue, to further educate them about how these animals live in the wild, why they needed to be “rescued” and how nature and animals and people all need to work together. Would love to see you there !!! You absolutely did Sierra Pacific Industries Justice. We have been working together since 1992 (SPI and Anderson High) and thus have become the onlylocal high school to have a “Natural Resource” educational pathway, along with Advanced Manufacturing that you witnessed at SPI. People need to learn and understand the importance of “Managing Forests”….as well as 21st Century Manufacturing/ Engineering/coding.Sierra Pacific Industries absolutely does all that. Again, great article…,..with respect and appreciation, Carol King Perea Anderson High School p.s. The Sierra Cascade Logging Conference goes from Feb 9th through Feb 11. Lots to see..strongest logger competitions with Highland games qualifer !!

    • conservative says:

      When I lived in California, I often hiked and snowshoed on Sierra Pacific land. It looks ugly on Google Earth. On the ground, there are meadow like cleared spaces with lots of birds, deer and other wildlife. Lots of animal tracks in the snow in the cleared areas, few in the heavily forested. The meadow-like cleared areas are home to bird species not found in the densely forested areas. Sierra Pacific and Lassen National Forest prohibit logging near the creeks and streams to protect water quality. I often see trout fishermen on the banks of the streams in Sierra Pacific land off Brokeoff Meadows Rd and 44.

    • A private local logging company just cut the SP tract next to my home in the Whitmore area. I knew they were coming for years and was worried what it would like when they were done. They actually left a large buffer area between us and the cut, and the cut was done very selectively. Was there not also a huge fire in the Manton area recently? At any rate, thanks to state and federal regulations, timber companies don’t clear cut as drastically as in the past, and in fact keep some forests intact because they get carbon credits for it.

  7. Jedediah says:

    Have they thought about doing a girl-only intro to industrial tech class? They could do X amount of weeks on drafting, wood shop, welding, etc, and maybe it would allow girls to get their feet in the door without being intimidated by the boys. I know it’d be hard shuffling around the schedules so that it would get filled, but might be an idea.

  8. conservative says:

    Many people oppose cutting down any tree, anyplace. It is almost a religion. The wine country fire appears to be the result of failure to cut down trees impinging on utility lines, costing 42 human lives, almost 5,000 houses and thousands of acres burned to the ground. The fires were so intense the topsoil carbon was burned away in areas. An air quality disaster in the bay area. The carbon dioxide produced by burning threw the state’s goal out of whack. The satellite photo are really ugly. Rural California fire insurance rates will go up, as reported on the KRCR website. Ironically, failure to cut down a small number of trees in the utility right of way will cause many times more trees to be cut down to replace the houses. PG&E and some private owners did an inadequate job of trimming near utility poles. Drive around rural Shasta county and see how many digger pine trees are leaning over power lines. (I am an old man and feel free to call them digger pine, the tree Mark Twain said gives about as much shade as barbed wire). In rural Shasta county, dozens or hundreds of shallow rooted, short lived digger pines fall every year. Drake Vegetation management trims the same trees every year, when they should be cutting them down. Oak will sprout from the stump, but they won’t need to be cut again for twenty years. The state and county response to the wine country fire is totally inadequate.

  9. Ginny says:

    My late husband used to talk about automation. One thing he said when speaking of the loss of jobs the machines replace it wasn’t so. Different jobs are created.

    They need people to run the machines and also, most important machines break down and need repair. They need people who know how to repair. Same as when televisions and computer came onto the market, it is the same with the big machines that are taking jobs.

  10. George Roy Heustis says:

    This is all a big fat lie! There are no jobs in the United States for anyone unless they already have a job. Robots are taking jobs from Americans, and school teachers are not teaching anything that anyone can use today in order to get a job. That’s why no college graduates are finding jobs. Because they have spent all of their time going to school and not learning a trade or getting any job training. Today you can have 2, 3, 4, or more degrees, it doesn’t matter, this will not help you get a job, but prevent you from getting a job in the U.S. The fact is that all American jobs have went over seas, and most people in the United States are either homeless living out in the elements freezing to death in the winter and having heat strokes in the summer and starving to death, or so poor and on starvation that they are the verge of becoming homeless.

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