Voyageur Panel tours up and running

Summer tours are up and running at Voyageur Panel in Barwick, offering residents and tourists the chance to see how oriented strandboard (OSB) is made.
Built for $100 million, employing 140 people, and producing enough panels in one year to cross the country one-and-a-half times, a look around the inside of the plant may be surprising as it appears to be running on its own.
Regular tours are offered Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. during the summer months although tour guide Jacquee Savage is available to give tours most weekdays.
“People can just come in off the street,” said Savage, who is new on the job at the mill this year.
Although everyone on the tour is asked to wear earplugs as large machines rumble throughout the building, it seems strangely quiet as, for the most part, there is no one in sight.
Logs are slowly hauled out of a tank of water, carried on a chain conveyer belt, and dropped into a large de-barking machine. Large blades scrape the bark away before the logs continue on into the next machine to be chipped.
The only sign of people is a chainsaw sitting beside one of the machines.
No wood is in sight as everything moves internally and automatically from machine to machine on hidden conveyers running overhead and even outside along the top of the roof. Huge cylindrical tanks–larger than some people’s homes–spin smoothly.
Inside the spinning drums, wood chips are being dried and then mixed with glue and resin, Savage explained.
Finally, across a room that’s larger than five high school gymnasiums, the wood re-appears, now carefully laid out in chips oriented at different angles to make the strongest boards possible.
A large conveyer belt slides the bed of chips along beneath a saw, which cuts the flats in lengths before continuing along to be cooked.
The chips then are pressed by a huge mechanical arm and heated intensely to form the strandboard before being cut, painted, and packed for shipment–still without a person in sight.
But employees are keeping a careful eye on the machinery to ensure that if anything goes wrong, the problem will be solved without hampering production. From towers above the assembly lines and from adjoining rooms, they watch and control the process.
Staring intently at control panels and television screens, they constantly monitor the wood as it goes from logs to strands to boards, and is finally loaded into waiting railroad cars.
“The plant is 80 percent automated,” said Savage as she led the way back towards the front entrance.
Along the way, where moments before there was no one to be seen, a small vehicle is sitting in the aisle while two men labour over a chain trying to repair a jammed conveyor belt before disappearing again, leaving Savage and her tour alone on the floor of the monstrous plant.
Savage encourages visitors and residents alike to take a peek inside the plant.
“It’s a good thing to do on a rainy day,” she remarked.