Milton timber mill bucks trend

Millstream Lumber manager Murray Daniel (foreground) and his staff of about 50 employed at the...
Millstream Lumber manager Murray Daniel (foreground) and his staff of about 50 employed at the Milton mill. Photo by Craig Baxter.
All the news about the timber industry recently has been doom and gloom. But as South Otago reporter Glenn Conway discovered, a mill in Milton sees bright things ahead.

The timber industry may be depressed overall by the economic recession, but the management at Millstream Lumber believes there is no better time to invest in the industry's future.

Millstream Lumber is bucking a trend that has seen Blue Mountain Lumber, Brightwood and Harveywood either shut down their operations or make dozens of staff redundant in recent months.

The staff casualty rate from those three southern ventures alone stands at an estimated 135 workers.

But a different tale is emerging from Milton and the sawmill that sits at the town's southern entrance.

Activity there has been furious in recent months as workers race to complete the construction of a bin sorter-stacker processor that eliminates much of the heavy manual labour previously carried out by staff.

Construction has finished and the new operation is expected to be commissioned in the next few weeks.

This kind of project does not come cheaply for the Southern Cross Forest Products-owned plant.

Operations manager Tom Whitefield declined to name a specific sum but said it was a multimillion-dollar investment.

The timber industry was rife with stories of workers with back injuries and other issues associated with lifting heavy timber.

With the new machinery being installed at Milton, those days were gone, Mr Whitefield said.

The new machine automates all the wood flow usually conducted by manual labour.

Mechanical arms handle the timber instead of staff being exposed to the possibility of back and other injuries.

Usually, the introduction of new technology in industries signals job losses at the same time but not so at Millstream Lumber.

Staff who previously lifted the timber will be redeployed to other parts of the sawmilling operation.

There is even the prospect of more staff being needed in the future as the company capitalises on its competitive advantage.

The decision to invest in the new machinery meant the company would reduce the amount of heavy manual work, improve productivity and reduce manufacturing costs, Mr Whitehead said.

Because this would lower the unit costs of an item, Millstream Lumber was positioning itself to become even more competitive in the marketplace, he said.

"We are exporters and we need to be in a competitive position with other major manufacturers around the world . . .

"Our philosophy is to invest when the market is down so we are positioned to increase production when the market kicks up again."


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