Guthrie Enterprises of New Brunswick has established a solid market niche for its mobile chipping operation, and the company sees a good future ahead supplying chips for pulp mills and biofuel production.
By George Fullerton
Royden Mollins’ pick-up truck swallows up the small bumps and slows for the larger imperfections in the Forks Stream Road as it meanders north from the Canaan River in south-central New Brunswick. The road leads through Crown land, a mixture of plantation, pre-commercially thinned stands and stretches of mature forest. The forest terrain varies from well drained sites with mixed tree species including a high component of pine, intersected by areas with wetter soils with a high black spruce component.
The journey turns on to a newly constructed side road, and soon you are in a recent harvest with rows of buncher wood lining the sides of the road. Mollins points out that the larger diameter wood on the edge of the cut will be processed for sawmills, and a little further into the cut, we find the goal: Guthrie Enterprises’ flail chipper #40. The chipper is situated in the middle of the cutover area, which is dominated by small diameter mature black spruce.
As a loaded truck heads out, another backs up to the chipper’s discharge spout, while the chipper crew is busy inspecting and clearing debris with compressed air. Meanwhile, Guthrie’s Cat 545 skidder clears mulched limbs away from the debris conveyer and smooths up the work space around the chipper.
Within a few minutes, the operator of the Morbark 2755 Flail Chiparvestor climbs in his cab and turns up the Cat 760 horsepower (chipper) and the Cat 365 horsepower (flail) power units, and begins feeding black spruce stems into the chipper. As discharged chips begin hitting the front of the 53-foot long chip trailer, Guthrie’s Cat skidder and a contracted Deere skidder trundle away across the cutover to grapple a load of skinny spruce trees. After about twenty minutes of continual skidder deliveries and infeeding spruce, the truck and its 30 tonne plus payload is ready to head out for the two-hour run to the mill in Saint John.
This routine will be repeated by Guthrie’s chipper #40 and chipper #19 throughout the year, each producing about 70,000 oven-dry metric tons of softwood and hardwood pulp chips. As business manager and co-owner of Guthrie Enterprises, Mollins shares an office and supervision of mobile chipper operations with Guthrie’s founder and president, Jack McMillan.
Jack McMillan built Guthrie Enterprises into a major forestry contractor whenas a highway truck owner-operator he purchased a Valmet forwarder and became a contractor for Irving Woodlands - Sussex District. His success as a forwarder contractor led him to purchase a Morbark 2755 Flail Chiparvestor and the skidders in June 2001, and hiring owner-operators to transport chips to mills in Saint John and Lake Utopia. The second chipper was added in 2004. Chipper contracting is an extremely demanding business. Initially, chippers are an extensive capital investment, and secondly, they are complex and highly technical units.
They are very demanding to operate and especially demanding in maintenance and repairs in order to maintain productive uptime.
“Like any contractor, we are paid for the tonnes we produce, so when we have a breakdown, we know it is a double cost for the operation. When there are a couple of trucks sitting at the broken chipper and some more between the chipper and the mills, there is a lot more pressure to get things running.”
With his years of chipper experience, McMillan has developed an extensive knowledge of the chippers and an intuition as to what components need attention in order to maintain uptime. He spends long days (and nights) visiting both chippers and talking with his operators, in detail, about how the machines are operating.
“We keep a very close eye on the chippers, and try to see ahead what components will need attention before they actually break down,” explains McMillan. When a potential problem is identified or when a failure occurs, McMillan’s mechanical team, consisting of his brother Mike and Richard Blizzard, land on site to get equipment up and running as soon as possible.
In a typical week, Mike, Richard and Jack start scheduled maintenance on the machines as the last load is chipped on Friday afternoon, carrying on through the weekend until the work is done. “Having the right people working is critical to our success,” says McMillan.
McMillan, like most mechanical contractors faces a continual challenge to keep good operators. “We pay our operators a higher than average wage, we pay them for travel and when we are a long way from our home base, we rent motel rooms so they don’t have to spend a lot of their off-shifts traveling.”
They have an operator bonus system, based on bark content and percentage of accepts, that is shared collectively by each chipper crew. If everybody shares the bonus equally, it’s in everyone’s best interest to leave their shift with the machines in the best possible condition, he explains. “I say to them: ‘If you want the opportunity to make $4 an hour while you sleep, make sure the machines are operating the best they can when you leave your shift.’ If the following crew has fresh chains and fresh knives, all the chipper and skidder crews will make production bonus.
“Like everyone else in the contracting business, we have seen rate adjustments and we have had to look for ways to reduce our costs while at the same time produce more tonnes of chips,” adds McMillan. “One cost cutting measure was to reduce manpower. We have changed from three-man crews to two-man crews with an operator that splits his time on both shifts.
“The swing operator comes to work at two pm, taking over the chipper from the first operator after he has put in about nine hours of his shift.”
The growth of Guthrie Enterprises led McMillan to expand his business by purchasing J&J Machine Shop at Penobsquis, just outside Sussex, in 2005. As Guthrie Enterprises has grown, the requirement for fast and high quality machine shop services has grown as well.
“Now, when we require machine shop work for our equipment, we are assured very prompt service,” Mollins explains. “We also brought in hydraulic hose inventory and assembly equipment, and since we have a comprehensive inventory, we are seeing that retail business growing. We also installed a new Bertech knife grinder andin addition to our own chipper kniveswe are getting business from other mobile chippers and some sawmill knives too.”
At J&J, the company has built its own shafts, rebuilt chipper wheels, feed rollers, debris chains and other specialized work. When other chippers are looking for this type of mechanical work, they realize J&J has the reputation and knowledge to handle the job.
In addition to chipper work, they are seeing more and more work from regional exploration, mining and manufacturing coming in the door. J&J is also a maintenance centre for Guthrie’s fleet of four road tractors and six trailers, in addition to outside trucking customers
One of Guthrie’s constant challenges is to find and keep chip truckers. “We are continually challenged with high fuel costs, low trucking rates and finding competent ‘in-woods’ drivers. The skill demanded in the woods is very different from highway driving,” says McMillan. “We have also been trying doubleshifting trucks, but our hauls are typically less than two hours from the mills and the trucks face the inevitable bottlenecks at either end. I readily admit that doubleshifting has merits for longer hauls, but I’m still not convinced it works with the logistics of short hauls.” They have seen some increases in efficiency created by the central dispatching of chip trucks, however.
Over the years, McMillan has developed some innovations for his Morbark chippers. One major modification has been to change the infeed rollers from the horizontal traction bars to staggered feller buncher teeth, providing more secure traction for the rollers, and some assistance to flail debarking by puncturing the bark. He has also worked with Peerless Chains to develop round link flail chains.
“Conventional flail chains only wear out at the end of the links, while the remainder of the link is relatively unworn. If we had round links, the wear pattern would extend around the entire link and we would see longer chain life. We have modified a flail drum and we are anxious to try some chains that Peerless has developed for the trial,” says McMillan.
Even though the New Brunswick forest industry has witnessed a major downturn and economic adjustment, McMillan remains optimistic about the future for the industry and Guthrie Enterprises.
“There are opportunities for expansion,” he says. “Despite the downfall in the lumber market, pulp mills still require fibre for their paper and tissue products, and the mobile chippers continue to be a viable way to source that fibre. Biofuel production would also fit very well with our current operation, since the equipment and technical demands are similar and we already have the trucking system in place.”