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Cat is Back

Caterpillar is getting back into the tracked feller buncher market and has already done field trials with a prototype machine.

By Paul MacDonald


Cat is back-back in the tracked feller buncher game, that is. After being absent from the purpose-built feller buncher market for nearly a decade, one of the industry's leading heavy equipment manufacturers is now making a strategic move to get back into this key market and offer a more complete equipment lineup to the forest industry. And Caterpillar will also be introducing its own saw head to complement what is expected to be a broad new line of purpose-built tracked bunchers.

"There's a significant market out there for tracked bunchers, and Canada is the largest market for our new 541 machine," says Glen Peterson, program manager for the introduction of the new machines. "We intend to focus on applications both in Eastern Canada and Western Canada.

"It's clearly an advantage for our customers and for Cat to be involved in that market and to offer a broader range of equipment to the forest industry," adds Peterson. The company estimates forestry equipment represents a $4 to $5 billion industry. "We can't afford not to be in the forest industry equipment market in a bigger way," says Peterson. He says the company intends to provide the broadest product line to serve the forestry market, from road-building through to reforestation.

Cat is clearly marshalling its forces and planning for the long term. The company has stated that it intends to be the primary worldwide supplier for mobile equipment and attachments in the forestry market by the year 2005.

Cat's new 541 feller buncher's field trials included workouts with logging contractors in both British Columbia and Quebec. The 541 is the first of what is expected to be a broad new line of purpose-built tracked bunchers from the heavy equipment manufacturer. Following field trials in Canada, a number of improvements are planned for subsequent Cat 541 pilot bunchers including a change in the tail swing to allow improved accessibility for service, and increased engine horsepower. The design of the 541 will also be simplified, allowing it to shed 1,200 pounds from its overall weight in the process.

The first steps have already been made to achieve that higher market presence. Cat, working with local dealers Finning and Hewitt Equipment in Canada, has already carried out field trials with an experimental prototype of the Cat 541 feller buncher in British Columbia and Quebec. The company has since taken the field results, tweaked the machines and plans further trials with seven follow up pilot machines in various locations across Canada and in the US early next year.

Caterpillar has been well-represented in many facets of the forest industry with its equipment-its Swedish manufactured cut-to-length equipment, in the millyard, but also notably in the bush with its well-known line of purpose-built log loaders and skidders. The company has tried to emphasize to logging contractors that its loaders, for example, are not just modified excavators. The machines are specially designed and built to handle the extra weight, with the reach requirements, lift and torsional loads necessary in the bush. The high-wide carbodies, for instance, are built with thicker plates and increased box section height to handle increased loads.

The company even tests welds in its shops with high technology ultrasound equipment to ensure that they are fault-free. The company points to the fact that some 93 per cent of its components are produced "in-house", with the balance coming directly from certified suppliers.

In spite of all this great technology to produce iron, Cat has been noticeably absent from the buncher area. While that is about to change, don't expect to see a 541 down the logging road from you soon, unless you happen to be located near one of the field trials. The company has a very rigorous product development process and part of this process dictates that a successful field trial program must be completed, with any necessary improvements made to the machine, before production models are available to customers.

When the first 541 rolls out off the production line at Cat's Aurora, Illinois facility, it will mark the completion of a three-year New Product Introduction process. "We follow this process whether we are updating existing models or developing a brand new piece of equipment, such as we're doing with the 541," explains Peterson. The company used to face extremely long equipment development cycles of seven to eight years.

But that time cycle has now been reduced by more than 50 per cent as the company, understandably, realized that it had to be more responsive to the heavy equipment marketplace. And having a new product development cycle of seven years simply did not cut it.

Cat's New Product Introduction (NPI) program could be compared with the process major auto makers like General Motors or Ford go through to get a new car from concept through to production. The program addresses each new product from a number of perspectives-concept, development, production and support, for example.

The overall goal is to ensure that customers receive a production machine that is highly reliable from the start. Though the industries are strikingly different, heavy equipment users would in no way put up with the downtime that computer users have to tolerate, with computers crashing and having to be "rebooted" sometimes several times a day. Logging contractors need, and are demanding, high uptimes to keep the wood moving.

Cat's NPI process was introduced at the company in the late 1980s and is now an integral part of how the company does things. More than 500 new products, from completely new machines to equipment attachments, have been developed through the program since then. NPI is a methodical approach to developing new products and services. It helps to lower development and manufacturing costs, improve machine reliability and performance, get products to market faster and, for Cat, improves the bottom line. And there is some pretty hefty investment involved, as well. For example, while Cat declined to say what the exact development costs were for the 541, it was easily several million dollars.

Following field trials in Canada, a number of improvements are planned for subsequent Cat 541 pilot bunchers including a change in the tail swing to allow improved accessibility for service, and increased engine horsepower. The design of the 541 will also be simplified, allowing it to shed 1,200 pounds from its overall weight in the process.

In terms of the timeline, the company is currently between the development and production phases on the 541. It has had the prototype out in the bush, along with a squad of Cat technicians monitoring its performance, to determine where changes are required. The next set of prototypes are really more to confirm that the necessary changes that have been made are effective, and to do some additional minor tweaking before the machine goes into production, likely in the spring of 2001.

At this point in the heavy equipment industry, there are really no equipment revolutions. In the logging area, for example, there are no completely new machines being developed to harvest the trees or take them out of the bush. The new equipment, by and large, consists of improvements on existing harvesting equipment. In the past, the industry has been able to successfully adapt construction equipment to produce purpose-built forestry equipment. Using the excavator model to turn out log loaders and delimbers for example. But the 541 has been designed new from the ground up.

"The difference here is we started from scratch with the 541," says Peterson. "We successfully adapt excavators to log loaders, but because there's so little in common between a feller buncher and an excavator, we didn't take that approach ."

In terms of the mechanical basics, the machine has an operating weight of 73,300 lbs, offers 260 hp and maximum reach of 27'6".

Overall, Peterson says the prototype machine received excellent marks. (See sidebar story for contractor comments.) The contractors working with the machine generally reported productivity gains due to increased ground clearance and the smoother operation of the machine allowed them to put more wood down at the end of the day.

Areas for improvement, however, included improving service accessibility. The tail swing was changed slightly for improved accessibility for service and tanks and valves were relocated. The design of the machine was simplified, allowing it to shed 1,200 pounds from its overall weight in the process. And while it did not receive any specific comments from contractors in this area, Cat itself felt the trials showed the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system fell short of what it should be and is making improvements.

The end result: the tail swing has been stretched out, the cab has been resized so that operators can see right over the tracks, engine power has been increased by 10 horsepower and service access has been improved.

The air cleaner on the machine, for example, was moved from the top of the engine to behind the cab for better accessibility. But Cat engineers know that accessibility goes beyond servicing the day-to-day items.

"Even though the major components on the machine will last for a long time, equipment owners see things in the long term and look for the serviceability and accessibility of replacing major components. We want to address that.

"Getting information and feedback, in the form of comments from the logging contractors in BC and Quebec, and from our dealer people, is the most important part of this part of the process," says Peterson. "We made some very significant changes as a result ."

While some in the forest industry might have viewed Cat as a solid performer in specific areas of the forest industry, such as skidding and loading, the company is clearly intent on having a presence right up to the tree with the new bunchers. Evidence of this is that once the 541 has been introduced, the company will be bringing on several smaller tracked bunchers to complete the line.

New Buncher Involves Customers

Prototypes are a key part of Caterpillar's New Product Introduction program and a core goal is to involve customers early in the process.

That's where contractor Darren Getz of San Jose Logging in Williams Lake, BC comes in. Getz and his logging crew recently worked with the Cat 541 feller buncher on a field trial basis for three months. San Jose contracts for the Lignum Ltd sawmill in Williams Lake, BC, which produces about 230 million board feet of lumber annually. San Jose operated the 541 in a wet belt area east of Williams Lake. It had what Getz describes as "nice-sized wood", primarily pine, from 14 to 18 inches in diameter, and some Douglas fir. These days, the outfit, like many loggers in this area of British Columbia, is working under the direction of the provincial Ministry of Forests and the major forest companies in chasing after the mountain pine beetle, which is infesting wood at an alarming rate in the region.

Some of the mountain pine beetle areas they are working in might only require a couple of days' harvesting. "You have to be very flexible in those situations, with everybody working together," says Getz. "Our guys have been very good at that ." By the time the 541 buncher prototype made its debut in British Columbia, it had been run through a battery of engineering tests at the Illinois plant. But the proof is in the cutting. And Getz said the machine performed well. "For a buncher that had not been worked before, it was suprisingly good right from the start," he says. "The availability, the uptime on the machine for the time we had it, was excellent ."

While the 541 was put through the paces for San Jose, it was hooked up to an extensive variety of electronic and hydraulic diagnostic equipment, with the Caterpillar people monitoring every function. "You don't really get an idea of what goes into testing these products until you see it firsthand," says Getz.

Currently, Getz has a great deal of yellow equipment, having made the migration back to Cat equipment five years ago. His lineup includes four Cat 320B processors with Waratah heads, two Cat 525 skidders, a 527 skidder, and two Cat log loaders, a 325BLL and a 950G. They are also currently working with three Timberjack bunchers, two 618 machines and a 2618 machine. Getz notes that while Timberjack "makes a very good buncher", when Cat starts production on the 541 "we'll definitely take a hard look at it". Even though they are working with a lot of Cat equipment and it is working well, Getz says their business can not be taken for granted by local dealer Finning and Cat. "We've worked with all the different brands of equipment in the past and we keep an eye on what everyone is doing with their equipment. We're very much aware of what the other companies are producing ." But he noted that Tony Desousa and the Finning group at the Williams Lake branch have worked hard to keep San Jose's business.

Getz says they look at swing power, speed, cutting, serviceability and availability in evaluating a buncher. He reports that the 541 received good marks in each of these areas and in areas where minor corrections were required, the Cat people wanted to know the full details. "Production was excellent with the buncher. They are definitely on the right track. They really wanted to know what we thought and listened to what we said ." Getz said it was a useful process, being involved in the testing of a prototype and having direct input into changes.

Arnie Kunka was the San Jose operator who handled the 541 and he gave the Cat people the straight goods, Getz said. "Arnie definitely was not shy about telling them what he thought and they wanted to know what he had to say about the buncher ." When Cat engineers were doing follow-up work back in Illinois, they called Kunka several times in the woods for clarification in a couple of areas.

Oddly enough, operators reported that they actually found the 541 cab to be too spacious and the windows too far away. San Jose operator Kunka-who is 6'4"-says he uses the windows to lean against when he's operating on a slope, and the windows on the prototype were too far away to do so. The cab on the production model will be resized. Getz says the major shortcoming on the machine-and Cat knew this going in-was a lack of serviceability. This was handled and cleaned up toward the end of the field trial and in the final cut of the machine, that will be addressed, says Cat. "They knew they would receive those kinds of comments from us at the start. They were just anxious to get it out cutting and working to see how it performed in the woods ."


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