Alexander "Sandy" Mullin B.S.E. '61, M.F. '68

Chairman of the Boards
Writer: 
August 1, 2005
Alexander

One might say there's more than one way to save a tree. You can save it in the traditional way--while it's still in the ground. Or you can save it on the back end, keeping its lumber from being wasted and making it less likely that too many more of its brothers will fall.

Sandy Mullin isn't technically in the tree-saving business, but he likes to believe his lumber-saving devices indirectly conserve forests. His interest in wood comes naturally: Mullin's father worked for the U.S. Forestry Service, supervising Jefferson National Forest in Virginia; his father's father was a logger in Northern Maine "back when they used double-bitted axes, not chainsaws," Mullin says with a laugh.

Mullin came to Duke in 1957 from Roanoke, Virginia, earned a civil-engineering degree, and met his wife and current company CEO, Coty Jones, at a Duke football game. After four years in Japan, paying back the Navy for his tuition money, he returned to earn his master's in the business side of forestry. For a few years, he taught at North Carolina State University, and, while he was there, got interested in technology that made better use of wood.

During World War II, the lumber industry applied mathematics to solve the problem of how to cut boards into smaller rectangles most efficiently. "But the problem had never been solved when you consider a board with defects," Mullin explains.

In the early 1970s, the company Mullin started with his friend Jim Barr began introducing computerized hardware and software that cut boards in just the right places, discarding knots and other defects, while saving as much of the good lumber as possible. Today, Barr-Mullin Inc., in Cary, North Carolina, creates technology used by lumber and furniture companies all over the world.

Barr ended up selling his share of the business to Mullin in the mid-Seventies and went on to found the software giant SAS Institute Inc. But Mullin stuck with wood, going on to create award-winning lumber optimizing and scanning devices such as the Mini-Max (1979), the Compu-Rip (1986), and CellScan (1994), which uses lasers to analyze the surface cells of wood for defects.

Without such technology, wood waste can reach as high as 50 percent per board. (The waste is chopped up for particle board or simply tossed out.) Mullin boasts that with his woodsaving technology, "it's not unusual for a company to increase yield by 5 or 10 percent."

"Sandy is one of the most innovative people in the wood-machinery business," attests Roy Rentschler, president of Indiana Dimension Inc., in Logansport, Indiana, who has used Mullin's products for fifteen years. The National Science Foundation has also seen the value in Mullin's work. Since 2002, the NSF has awarded the company grants totaling $600,000.

Mullin's main market for his technology has moved where much of the furniture business has gone--overseas. He's traveled to South America, China, and Russia, where companies that make lumber and furniture are looking for a competitive edge. But there are also manufacturers in America that use the Barr-Mullin technology. "The only thing that we can hope for is that our U.S. friends stay ahead of the curve," says Mullin, who plans to stay well ahead of the curve, too.