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TLA convention centres in on steep slopes

Jan. 30, 2017 - The 74th annual Truck Loggers Association Convention & Tradeshow rolled through Vancouver for three intensive days in January. Education was on the top of the agenda with maximum capacity audiences catching the impressive lineup of subject matter experts. The “Not In My Backyard” panel was chippy with stakeholders from tourism, labour, government and association taking shots at one another and agreeing to disagree. The First Nations panel “In it for the long, long run” provided a great deal of insight on trends in respectful forestry engagement and consent with First Nations. Hegus (Chief) Clint Williams of the Tla'amin Nation reflected on partnerships, lessons learned and the necessity to have the proper checks and balances in place; “Partnerships made us successful. Without partnerships, we would have still be stuck in some troubled waters and wouldn’t have been able to create some of these new jobs.”

While Premier Christy Clark campaigned to fight for B.C.’s softwood lumber industry, the “Greed, Fear or Folly” market update panel was less than optimistic. Still, the overwhelming reoccurring theme of the conference was steep slope harvesting.

Dzhamal Amishev, researcher for Vancouver based FPInnovations, has spent the last 8.5 years researching steep slope harvesting. “I’ve seen most of the winch systems which have obviously been the big focus of the developments recently,” Amishev said during the “Steep Slopes – Where are We Now” panel. “Steep slope harvesting has been called a revolution. Is it really a revolution? We’ll see.”

Steep slopes posts challenges, and probably the biggest one is safety. Taking people out of the elements and protecting them in the cab is the most important thing. “We all want everyone to go home to their loved ones,” Amishev said. “Happy employees, environmental protection, improved productivity. These machines have the opportunity to help. With safety, they take the operators off of the hillside with their hands on a chainsaw and puts them into a protected environment even in rollovers.”

According to Amishev, in the last 18 months, the number of steep slope machines has skyrocketed. “The interest is huge. Most purchasers claim that safety is their priority. It is about the people, which is why it is gaining traction.”

Amishev’s presentation included several steep slope equipment failures from around the world. Cables, shackles and connectors have broken. In one case a whole winch detached from the end of a machine. In another case, a machine tipped over. But none of these have caused any injuries or serious damage to the equipment. “We should celebrate these,” Amishev said. “This is what we learn from. We’re not aware of any incident with winch-assist in Canada. But if there is one, don’t be afraid to speak up because that is when we will be learning. And these are gifts we should welcome.”

In one incident that Amishev covered, a drawbar failed. It was rated at a 24 ton safe working load and would have required nearly 90 tons to break; a force which is nearly impossible to reach with a 40 ton machine. So how did it break? “The failure was because the drawbar was designed for a straightline pull. In this application, it had been torqued and twisted with 3,000 hours of abuse. It failed at a gentle 36 per cent slope. It basically just fell off.” Since then, one of the improvements has been swivelling and pivoting attachment points.

Another incident Amishev discussed involved a feller buncher machine on a 62 per cent slope harvesting windblown trees when the operator lost his footing on a rock outcrop. The other track started lifted up and he went on his roof. “The cable prevented him from going down the hill but he was still on his roof. What is the lesson here? The operator should be aware of their surroundings; rock outcrops, stumps or anything that will jeopardize their stable position on the hill. I cannot emphasize best practises enough.”

“Operators that have experience with tethered equipment can get over-confident with their ability to manage all of the risks, and that breeds complacency. We all know what complacency leads to, but we all do it. These things happen. All incidents are preventable.”

Amishev recommended event monitoring for further R&D of extreme tension. And not just a screen for the operator to monitor in real time. “The operator is concentrating on his work cutting trees, so there should be some application or alarm that will trigger an alert.”

Anchors are another risk to manage. With the various integrated winch systems, what anchor do you use? Do you use stumps or deadmen? “In New Zealand, most companies have decided to do away with stumps because they fail quite a bit. However, is a stump felling really a big thing if you are not relying on it as a lifeline? That’s something to be looked at.”

But how do you choose a stump? “Choose a strong stump,” jokes Amishev. Well, what is a strong stump? “We all know some species have deeper roots, bigger trees, live trees. It’s common sense, but if no strong stumps are available, use multiple stumps. Fresh, strong soils is another consideration. If you are on a rocky outcrop with loose soil, don’t anchor there. There was also a failure where the rope jumped off the deadman. It was at way too much of an angle and it jumped off.”

Another opportunity for improvement is the end connector. “The system is only as strong as your weakest point. The rope may not be your weakest point in this case. It is evolving. We have done quite a bit but we are still on the bottom of the hill. Literally. Safe practise and due diligence is vital for the continued safety of the industry. Continuous improvement and information-sharing are important. No matter what, winch-assist technology will save lives in British Columbia.”

“The main reason that the industry is faced with the steep slope challenge is because of the tragic loss of life and serious injury to ground-based forestry workers,” said Richard Lawler, director of engineering for John Deere Forestry. “Safety is significantly more important than profitability. It must be first and foremost in all of our thoughts.”

According to Lawler, the mechanization of harvesting on slopes isn’t really a new challenge. Many equipment manufacturers including John Deere have invested significant dollars in the past at trying to solve this challenge. There have been several inventions and innovations that have occurred, however the challenge with those earlier inventions is that they are expensive, complicated and not all that profitable for the customers. As such, customers quickly lost interest. The forestry industry quickly lost interest. And then ultimately the equipment manufacturers quickly lost interest in them also. Therefore, many manufacturers, like many customers, are naturally a little apprehensive about this new opportunity.

“There are many unknowns, but one thing we do know is that as an industry we cannot continue to do the same things and expect to get different result,” Lawler said. Improving the safety and financial sustainability of harvesting forests on steep slopes is really only something that can be solved by bringing the key stakeholders in the whole industry together and working towards a common goal.”

Lawler told attendees that Brazil actually started its steep slope mechanization harvesting venture around the same time as the Kiwis. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been as much information-sharing from Brazil, but Lawler explained a lot has happened there that can be used to learn. Typically the equipment in Brazil is owned by forest companies, not contractors. “They haven’t moved to a contractor model yet. Typically, they operate the machines around 22 hours a day, seven days a week. Most times, for most forest companies, they are only shutting down the machines for two days every year. They are typically averaging around 100 stems per hour. The productive time is around the same. They are using the same amount of fuel, about 20 litres of fuel an hour which is about the same level of fuel compared to traditional ground-based harvesting.”

According to Lawler, the biggest difference has been in forwarding. Brazil has seen a 15 per cent reduction in productivity which has been driven by two facts. “First, you have a winch on the machine which has some weight which takes away from some of the carrying capacity of the forwarder. Secondly, there is less tendency on steep slopes for operators to overload the machine which has a significant impact on productivity. Not that anyone in Canada overloads their forwarders.”

“Operation planning has been something that all forest companies have said they really need to step their game up for,” Lawler said. Companies work hard to have contingency plans to shift machines to other sites in adverse weather conditions. “Having a better site layout has been something that they have really had to focus on.”

They are doing a lot more proactive/pre-emptive maintenance now for machines that are working on slopes. Cable replacement is still being worked on in Brazil. Lawler explained that the Brazilians don’t have any non-destructive cable testing yet although it is something they are working towards. “They are putting in place a replacement cycle for cables. In forwarders, the cables are being used a lot more, they are being replaced every 300 hours. On harvesters, they are replacing them every 500 hours. It does add another cost element into the equation.”

“The Brazilians have had no serious injuries since they moved to tethering,” Lawler said. That has been a significant turnaround from their ground-based work that they were doing previously, which according to Lawler, was a similar accident rate to what we’ve been seeing here in Canada. Lawler explained that while Brazil has seen a 10-15 per cent increase in costs versus ground-based harvesting, it is actually a 30 per cent reduction compared to traditional steep slope harvesting using chainsaw and cable extraction methods.

One of the many challenges that equipment manufacturers are facing is the consistent referencing in most guidelines to the manufacturer’s maximum slope operating stability limits. That’s been a real challenge for most manufacturers. “We see this as the same as asking a car manufacturer,” Lawler said.  “What is the maximum safe speed the car can be driven at? That depends on a number of variables and the same applied to forestry equipment. There are a lot of variables that occur in the forest. Different terrain. Different weather. Similar to what happens on the road. For us to specify the maximum slope operating limit is a real challenge.”

“We’re really heading to the need of having an operator to be some superhuman. There are so many things he now has to do. Not only concentrate on cutting trees but also understand if he is on a rock or a stump and what it is going to do to the stability of the machine,” Lawler said. “We’re doing what we can from a technology standpoint to help mitigate some of those issues. What tools do we provide to operators to tell them what levels they are on? We tell them don’t go above 40 per cent, but we don’t provide them tools to know exactly what level they are on. One of the other things that is really being worked on are methods to show the operator the slopes that they are working on.”

Lawler projected there is going to be more invention and innovation going on to find the optimum balance of tethering, profitability and safety. Ultimately the goal for manufacturers is to improve the operator experience; automating more functions on the machine so the operators can concentrate on the task at hand.

“The average age of a handfaller in British Columbia is 58,” said Jesse Drover, Tigercat owner-operator of JBM Falling Ltd. “The first and foremost objective is to reduce injuries and fatalities. This style of [winch-assist] system limits the exposure to handfallers and rigging crews; two of the highest risk occupations out there. Our next objective is increased productivity. While we are finding, on average, we are having a higher falling cost over conventional methods, we’re aiming at having a cheaper final product at roadside with a greatly reduced amount of cable logging.”

“Working on these steep slopes, we’re not subjected to all the rough weather and seasonal work that handfallers have. All of the falling and yarding is done in one single phase. The system is much more beneficial in short yarding as there is less handling of each stem and less breakage. It’s more efficient than having to go back and cover all the same ground over again. As well as the costs of mobilization and demobilization of bringing grapple yarders and crews in and out every day.”

Drover made it clear, it isn’t possible to access more fibre without proper planning and engineering. “We’re looking to reduce the amount of costly road building we have here on the coast. This machine has 370 metres of cable on it. It can winch itself into these rougher areas, disconnect from it’s tailhold if need be, fall and round up all of the wood.”

“The first leap when you are tethered, have the boom up in the air and you bail off a 40 degree hill, every ounce of your being feels like you’re going to tumble down that hill. It is a very unnatural feeling,” Drover said.”

Drover told attendees it has to succeed. “Failure is not an option. The most frustrating part has been the downtime and being unfamiliar with a complex, high maintenance system. It makes running a couple [of] chainsaws look pretty simple. We’ve had to make several upgrades to the machine. We’ve had several components fail prematurely that we hadn’t budgeted for, but thus far we’ve had excellent support from the Kiwis. They have compensated us for failed parts and had an excellent service department to keep us running. “

According to Drover, these systems are definitely a game changer for logging in B.C., and on the coast.
“There is a huge difference in confidence in being tethered and untethered. The systems are only going to get better, safer, more user-friendly and more reliable in the years to come. Not only will these machines let you work on steeper ground, but different types of ground as well.”

Steep slope wasn’t just a hot topic in the conference, equipment manufacturers and distributors were busy handling questions on the tradeshow floor. “It all started in New Zealand because there was a real shortage of skilled, manual tree fallers in the forests and the industry was suffering from a number of tree felling fatalities,” said Phil McKenzie, equipment sales specialist for Rosewarne and May, manufacturer of the Remote Operated Bulldozer (ROB). “So loggers designed this equipment for loggers. They have taken people off the hills and replaced them with machines.” According to McKenzie, since they have done that, the rate of deaths in New Zealand and Canada have dropped off dramatically. “Not everyone realized at the time that these were being developed what the other spinoffs were, but one of them is environmental. There is less disturbing the ground so soil doesn't end up in the creek through erosion when it rains. ROB is also extremely productive which helps finance the cost of the investment of the machine.”

“Steep slope is here to stay,” McKenzie says. “It's going to continue to evolve. People need to get onboard with new techniques, not just for the safety and environmental benefits also but to get the timber off the hill.”

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