These top manufacturers offer tips to help you narrow down what to look for when buying a new saw and which type will work best for you.

For businesses with money in the bank and/or tax liabilities they’d like to minimise, this is the best time in years to be buying equipment. A mix of asset write-offs as part of the government stimulus package and suppliers with more time than usual to work with you, who may even be offering deals mean there are genuine savings to be had.

For most in the timber industry, saws are a key piece of infrastructure, both in terms of cost and their contribution to productivity.

We asked several leading suppliers for their tips and advice about purchasing saws for various timber businesses. Even if you’re not cashed up now, this will help focus your plans for when the recovery comes.

When to buy a new saw

Comparing saws isn’t easy. “It’s hard to look at apples versus apples,” says Sam Rowe, general manager at Hundegger Australasia, “because the information isn’t presented in that way. All the top-end companies have good products, but different strengths, so it’s a case of knowing what you want and then finding who can best deliver it.”

There’s a huge range, designed for specific end uses but they fall into three general groups: manual, semi-automatic and fully automated, or linear. In addition to the saw itself, semi-automatic and automatic saws often come with software and equipment to optimise the cuts (delivering the most economical cuts from the boards and/or avoiding defects) and add-ons, ranging from sophisticated automated infeeds and outfeeds to automatic pickers and multiple kickoffs.

Two key pieces of advice about the right time to buy a new saw were echoed by everyone we spoke with.

The first was, as Jason Reints, sales manager building automation at Bliss & Reels, puts it: “As soon as possible if you’re currently using a manual pull saw. The risks of injury are just too high.”

While some manual saws minimise risk with a two-button system to get hands out of the way before the blade engages, operators can still thwart the safety features.

Warwick Porter, national machinery sales manager at Multinail agrees. “One accident will cost $100,000 to $300,000 in insurance costs depending on how much of a finger you cut off, and that’s the price of a new saw,” he says.

The second was that a semi-automatic or linear saw can dramatically up productivity, but that buyers should have a sense of proportion. Ed Serrano, managing director of Vekta Advanced Automation, says, “There are steps into automation that can limit your capital investment but give you plenty of room for growth. That’s especially useful at times like this when no one really knows what’s going to be happening in the local industry coming out of lockdown.”

Reints is similarly cautious: “If you buy an automatic machine and you’ve got enough on to use it for six to eight hours a day, it’s a great payback, but if its’ less than that, other options could be a better fit for the business.”

Serrano recommends you focus on what you’re trying to achieve both now and over the next few years. “Further than that and the industry and technology may have changed before you get there.”

Most manufacturers are in strong agreement on what sort of questions you should be asking of yourself, your workplace and potential suppliers when it comes to choosing a new saw (see Ask The Right Questions, below). However, when it comes to sawing ‘philosophies’, they all have different approaches. None is 100% ‘right’ for all comers; the other unanimous suggestion was to talk to multiple suppliers and, where possible, multiple customers of theirs to see who will make the best fit for your plant.

Customised solutions

WA-based Vekta may have the broadest range of customers of all the manufacturers. “We range from customers operating out of their garage to fully customised automation solutions,” says Serrano.

The main Vekta product line has two different base saw modules, the Razer S5 and the Razer V5. The S5 delivers a lot of volume for people focused on trusses, “while the V5 does a bit of everything,” Serrano says, “so it’s more flexible. There’s two different price points for those, but then the real flexibility comes in from all the options that you can select for upgrade.”

Lengthy discussions with customers about how their business works now and what they want for the future form the basis of recommendations at Vekta.

“While we have a lot of automation options at the upper end of the market, the core saw module for our range of product lines is very configurable,” says Serrano. “We recommend some of the smaller plants start with something simpler, particularly when they’re on the cusp of whether they can justify or afford going to a fully automated solution.

“An entry-level Razer system is still a linear saw and it will deliver big productivity gains for as little as $220,000 installed. Not the same as if you went up to say, a $400,000 saw system, but you can start with that entry system and then in two or three years’ time when you’re ready to get a bit more out of it, you can build the system up with automated feeds and other bells and whistles.”

There’s no big cost premium for upgrading and all Vekta products are designed to be backwards compatible. Serrano adds, “If things are going really well in five years and you want to upgrade further still, then you can add higher level infeeding systems, packfeeding systems, multi-station kickoffs and other automation solutions that will keep growing with your business.”

As customers move towards that higher end of automation, a close relationship with the manufacturer becomes even more essential. “It’s not just being able to design the right system for their needs at that point,” says Serrano, “it’s the customer having direct access to engineers who worked on the project and not just the salespeople – because you’re losing huge production every hour stopped. You need to be able to talk to the people who are writing the code or creating the mechanical system so that any issues can be solved very quickly.”

Vekta’s emphasis on machinery and software customisation is backed up by its in-house engineering capabilities. “Vekta’s focus is the customer and ensuring downtime is minimised,” Serrano says.

Speed counts

“I’ve been specifying timber processing machinery for 30 years,” says Rowe, “and all that time machine capacity has remained a key factor. The technology changes, but the speed of cutting remains vitally important.”

Rowe uses the Hundegger Turbo-Drive II as an example. The linear saw performs basic drilling, milling and printing operations in addition to its 5-axis cutting. “We sell models anywhere from $330,000 to $480,000. Say one chap is cautious and buys one at the bottom end: it’s a bit cheaper, but it has a lower capacity. If he’s using it six hours a day to start, in a couple of years, his business has grown and he’s maxed out, so he gets a second saw. So that’s two leases, double the floor space, double the operators.

“Another chap might buy a slightly higher specced model around $380,000. It’s some $1500 more a month and he’s using it half a day at the start, but that frees up staff to assemble components, so he gets more orders, and then two or three years later, it’s going most of the day and still has capacity. And he’s not paying for extra operators and he’s saving about $6000 a month compared with the lease for a second saw.”

Rowe says that while you should buy for capacity, modular components mean you don’t have to spend all your money up front. “We make sure our models can grow with their owners. At the lower end of our sales structure you can buy exactly the same saw frame, the same software, the same construction as in top-end systems, just those top-end systems have modules added that make them faster. So you start with the saw body, then automate your infeed and outfeed as your business grows, without having to spend all that upfront, and you can double the capacity again.”

One advantage of being an international brand is that there are offices worldwide. While every Hundegger saw is built specifically for its customer, the Australian team has worked on so many that, as Rowe says, “we’re across all the technical challenges. But if something does come up when we’re out of working hours, the team in Germany is ready to help.”

Productivity revolution

Rather than selling a range of options, Multinail focuses on its flagship linear saw, the PieceMaker. “It can replace two good saws and two good operators – or three average ones,” says Warwick Porter, national machinery sales manager. “Even the smallest operation can utilise one if they can afford $300,000 with a two-year payback period.”

While some companies adapt their saws to fit each client, Multinail is almost the reverse. “When we put a machine into a factory, the owners expect it’s going to change their output, but what they quickly realise is that it changes how they think about their entire workflow,” Porter says.

“These saws make many production efficiencies available to the factory owner – some of those only come about when you adjust the material flow, the factory layout, the information flow and the processes.”

While it sounds like a lot, Multinail works closely with its customers, before, during and after installation. “As people use their saw, we help them with their detailing, with automating their information flow, even basic things like optimising getting timber to the infeed and moving cut timber off the outfeed to the jigs,” says Porter. “Because your tonnage of timber cut is at least doubled and sometimes tripled. And it has to move.”

In addition to the increase in production, the operating skills are more transferable through the factory, which helps to lessen staffing issues, because a specialist sawyer is less essential. “It’s a great saw and will continue to get better,” says Porter. “We’ve got new automation coming that will be integrated: feeders and robots that turn the PieceMaker into a manufacturing cell, similar to what the car industry has had for years.”

Covering the bases

Bliss & Reels specialises in top European brands selected for the Australian market. “We work with people across the industry, including a lot of fabricators,” says Reints.

Their strategy is to listen at length to what people want to be doing with their saw, then review the options together. “Sometimes, that can be adding in something quite basic, it depends on the specific needs,” Reints says.

“The Cursal TRSI cross cut saws are great for specific applications. It’s an ideal saw for cutting wall frame components since its designed for straight cuts. If a customer finds their main saw spends a lot of time tied up processing framing components, this will free it up at a fraction of the price of putting in a linear saw. They’re very fast, include optimising logic, and are simple to maintain.”

For fabricators looking to move up to a semi-automatic saw, the Randek Cut Saw SP720 starts at around $100,000. “It can make all the sorts of cuts you need for truss production. The saw is modular with a variety of upgrade options including for the infeed and outfeed” says Reints. “So it can be automated further later. You can load in a cutting list or you can set the saw on the touchscreen. With the base version, there’s a little more operator involvement, but it’s still very safe. The operator pushes two buttons, the guarding and clamps come down, then the blade cuts from the bottom up.”

A step up again is the Essetre Techno Saw. “For fabricators who are doing a greater volume of work or with some complexity, the Essetre Techno Saw is a good fit. Starting at around $300,000, it’s a lot of capability in a small footprint. Uniquely it’s got a double output head as standard: one side has a fixed blade and the other side has an output for drilling or milling tools. So it can drill studs for wiring or plumbing, or be fitted with a milling tool to do trenching. A tool changer can be retrofitted, as can automated loading systems, so it can grow with your needs.”

The Essetre range has 12 standard models, including options designed for various sizes of solid, LVL and glulam beams, plus CLT panels. “It all depends on the size of timber element the fabricator want to process,” says Reints.

Joinery matters

While TTN often focuses on fabricators, they’re only part of the industry. Sawmills, joiners and furniture makers are also well served. Neil Forbes, managing director at Weinig, supplies to many of these.

“Before you consider making saw upgrades, work out the minimum size you want to cut down to and the maximum dimension, because those points will determine the model you buy,” he says.

Other key considerations include the type of timber being cut, as there is more variety than in trusses, and the capacity. “It’s amazing how many companies can’t tell you what they run on a typical day,” Forbes says. “Most importantly, what are you going to do with the timber after you cut it?”

Much of Weinig’s sales consist of cross cut saws for frame manufacturers. “Their timber is usually pre-dimensioned, but they might want to rip a piece back to a special size. For that, we’d say a UniRip which is basically our entry level gang rip saw. It’s very quick to set up. Instead of an arbour with blades and spacers to match the sawn size of the timber you want, you just slide the blades along to the right positions. It’s very quick to change over and that suits many companies, whether it’s a frame company or a small timber yard.”

Other popular Weinig models include the FlexiRip and the VarioSplit 900. “The FlexiRip is another circular saw,” says Forbes “It’s similar to a beam saw, except it’s designed for solid timber, not panel. It can cut up to 200mm high, dead straight, because the timber is stationary and the blade runs along it. In a low capacity, it works well with EWP as well as solid timbers. For a smaller firm doing varied work, it’s a great machine.

“The VarioSplit 900 is our entry-level bandsaw and again, it’s extremely flexible. It’s got a 900mm diameter bandsaw wheel and about 350mm cutting height. Its optimisation automatically moves the blade to avoid defects and give you the maximum recovery.”

Ask the right questions

With so many reputable manufacturers and models, it can be hard to know where to start. Porter speaks for everyone when he says to begin with your own business. “Have an idea how much timber you’re processing, how many cuts you need to do per day or hour and how automatic you want to go,” he says. “Is your biggest need more production, lower labour costs or adding something a bit more sophisticated to your offer?”

“Talk about what can set you apart from your competitors,” adds Reints. “Will you benefit from optimising software or high-end printing? Is it worth looking at automatic vacuum pickers or different kinds of systems on the outfeed for stacking or discharge?”

When it comes to maintenance, start with the basics: how easy is the machine to clean? How is the waste managed within the saw? For more complex issues, all suppliers have expert staff for servicing and to solve problems, but check out ongoing costs.

Rowe says, “Our customers pay for their software and support once, when they buy the machine. And after that it’s free for upgrades and remote support, but other manufacturers have a pricing schedule, so make sure you ask, and ask how easy it is to get access to engineers or documentation.”

Asking what else a saw can do can also be enlightening. “A really important part of my job is helping customers find ways to get more use out of their saw,” says Forbes. “When people buy new machines and new technology, they often find other uses for it, particularly with smaller, variable machines.”

Serrano emphasises that the whole point of buying a new saw is solving a problem: “Talk to the manufacturers based on that: ‘this is the problem I’ve got, what would you recommend?’ And then see what sort of flexibility they offer in return. Are they trying to sell you a system that delivers the best profits for them? Or are they customising it for your particular operation?”

Image: Vekta’s Razer saw body comes in two basic units but with an enormous number of configurable modules depending on users’ needs.