A sawmill tucked away in a forested corner near Blenheim at the top of the South Island, New Zealand, is not so quietly producing a large chunk of the timber used for the country’s houses, decks, fences and furniture.
Nelson Forests harvests about 1.2 million cubic metres of raw logs, and Kaituna Sawmill produces 65,000 cubic metres of high-grade, market-ready timber each year. About half is sold domestically, while a quarter each goes to Australia and countries consuming more timber than they produce.
The journey from tree to timber is not the dangerous, strenuous job it once was, but a smoothly automated dance of saws, claws and conveyer belts, supervised by people in high-vis, hard hats and earmuffs.
Boilerman Don Boon says when he started at the Kaituna Sawmill 27 years ago the labourers were “pretty rough and ready” and injuries happened “all the time”. “You’d have to be a dummy to injure yourself now,” Boon says.
“It’s not really physical work now; it’s more monitoring and computers. It’s much more enjoyable. You barely have to touch the wood anymore, so you have time to optimise, to think, ‘how can I do this better?'”
Boon monitors his “babies” from home, with a real-time camera in the boiler fire streaming live to his cellphone. A software expert does repairs remotely from Europe. “These new gadgets are the best thing to happen in the boiler industry. I thought I would never get my head around it, but you do. You’re learning all the time.”
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