February 2005 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal
Extending equipment life
Rather than double-shifting their logging equipment, Ontario contractor Henry Fiset and Sons finds that single-shift operations are safer and extend the life of their machines—and deliver results to their bottom line.
By Ray Ford
The bush is an unpredictable place at any time, but never more so than at night. Consider the night a feller buncher, owned by Henry Fiset and Sons Ltd, was working in the boreal forest north of the company’s Elk Lake, Ontario, home base. The buncher struck a rock, and its operator hopped from the cab to inspect the damage. As he landed on the ground, the worker saw light reflecting from the earth beside his feet. “Turned out he’d landed right beside an old mine shaft,” says Dennis Fiset, grandson of the firm’s founder and one of three brothers now running the family operation. “The only reason he saw it was because it was full of water. We measured it the next day, and it was 70 feet deep.”
Incidents like that turned the Fiset brothers against around-the-clock shifts. In the long run, they argue that the wear and tear on workers and equipment isn’t worth the potential gains. “No matter how many lights you put on a machine, you just can’t see as well as you can during the day,” Dennis says. “I understand new machinery is a big investment, and if you could work it more that’s good. But you have to think longer term: there’s more production today, but how much more is it going to cost me next year?” That long-term view is characteristic of Henry Fiset and Sons, a progressive stump-to-dump operation that stresses worker safety, staff retention, and productivity.
After three generations and more than 50 years in business, the firm’s 70-odd workers and sub-contractors harvest about 300,000 cubic metres of wood a year. “The key thing is that time is money. You have to streamline the whole operation as much as possible,” Dennis says. “Decision-making and planning is so important. Where am I going next? What am I doing next? For a buncher that’s sitting there, cutting or not, every hour is $150 or $200, so it can’t be sitting for too long.” Henry Fiset and Sons traces its roots to a small trucking business founded just after World War Two.
In 1954 the family firm was incorporated, with Henry and his three sons, Norman, Guy and Roger trucking everything from lumber to asbestos and electrical cables. In the early days drivers loaded their trucks at bush-camp sawmills, drove to the Elk Lake railway siding, and hand-loaded boards and 2x4s into box cars. “Back then some of the camps were still using horses and sleighs and ice roads. I remember my dad saying they had an ice bridge up by Matachewan, and when you crossed it you’d put the truck in gear, stand on the running board, and hold the steering wheel,” Dennis says. “You wouldn’t be doing that today with the Ministry of Labour!” During the 1960s, the Fisets expanded into logging, running their own gangs in bush camps throughout the region. Today they and their sub-contractors supply all the SPF wood sawn for Domtar at the Elk Lake mill, as well as additional poplar and birch for companies including Grant Forest Products.
The new generation at Fiset is the three-brother team of Jerome, Terry, and Dennis Fiset. Now in their forties, the Fiset brothers took over the business from their dad, Norman, and uncles Guy and Roger. Jerome acts as president and general manager, and spends much of his time at logging sites in the bush. Terry is in charge of road building, training, and does mechanical work, while Dennis acts as maintenance supervisor and purchaser. “We all think along the same lines, we all have our own areas to look after, and we have good supervisors to help,” says Jerome. “Things haven’t always been easy, but we can talk about things and work them out. We look at it as not one guy against the others, but what’s best for the company.”
Henry, the company’s founder, died in 1986, but his drive and determination is still a powerful influence. “It was our grandfather that really taught us how to work, “ Jerome says. “When we were kids he’d have us digging holes, and filling them in again.” “He used to say you could tip over the Empire State Building if you had a long enough pole,” adds Dennis. Rather than pushing over tall buildings, the brothers content themselves with harvesting tall trees with a fully-mechanized operation of feller-bunchers, grapple skidders, and the company fleet of tractor trailers. In 2003, the Fisets became the sole contractor for Domtar’s Elk Lake operations, taking in fellow loggers Joe Mazur Logging and Timiskaming Timber as sub-contractors. (Timiskaming Timber has since left the partnership to cut closer to its Gogama home base.) “To simplify the process from their end, Domtar just wanted to deal with one contractor,” Dennis says.
As the company’s oldest and largest contractor, the Fisets agreed to oversee bush operations. “It allows us to make better use of our people and equipment, to be more efficient in scheduling and planning,” Jerome adds. Cutting operations range up to 200 kilometres from Elk Lake, with crews working in the Temiskaming, Shining Tree, and Temagami forests. Delimbing is subcontracted to Dan Boucher of Angel Wood Logging, and log loading is handled by Serge Rioux. Additional log haulers are brought in as needed. When the Fisets broke into the logging business during the 1960s, most of the work was done by cut-and-skid gangs. The labour tended to be seasonal, and as experienced cutters got older, it became tougher to find young people willing to do the heavy work of felling trees. Forest work was hazardous, too. “Our compensation rates were outrageous,”
Dennis recalls. “For every 100 dollars of payroll, we were putting out 17 or 18 dollars for compensation.” Aiming for more consistent production, better safety, and a more stable work force, the Fiset brothers began mechanizing the operation during the 1980s. Roadside delimbers came first, followed in 1987 with the first feller buncher. In 1993 the cable skidders were phased out in favour of grapple skidders. “At that point, there were no more feet on the forest floor,” Dennis says. Today the operation works year-round, except for a shutdown during the spring breakup. Offering safe, full-time work is an important part of the company’s philosophy. “We have an extremely good work force. When you’ve got a guy trained to run a $500,000 piece of equipment, you want to keep him. You don’t want to lose him, because that costs you money.” While delimbing and loading may be double-shifted, actual harvesting works on one 12-hour shift, including the commuting time to the site. Dennis credits the single shift with helping make the operation safer.
In the cutter-skidder days “there were a lot of cuts and back injuries. The big concern now is the slips and falls that come with getting in and out of the machines. We stress that employees should plan their job, keeping their work area clean, and being aware of the hazards. Our foreman makes sure the operators get out and take a look at the ground, check for potential hazards, stretch their legs and get a breath of fresh air.”
The results have been impressive. The Fisets haven’t had a lost-time injury since June 1986, a year before they went to feller bunchers. Dennis also credits the single shift with easing equipment maintenance and reducing wear-and-tear. “When we got our first buncher, we worked every shift combination we could think of: three eight-hour shifts, two twelves, two tens and a four-hour maintenance shift. Between cutting and fixing, we ran around the clock seven days a week. “But after four years we had 15,000, or 16,000 hours on those machines. They still had another year of payments on them, and they were finished. With forestry equipment, you put it on a double shift for six or seven years and it’s garbage. You can’t do enough work on it to get the money out of it.”
The move to a single shift coincided with the 1993 purchase of a Timberjack 2628. That unit worked for 11 years before being traded in, and set the pattern for subsequent acquisitions. “A feller buncher today would be somewhere around $475,000, so it’s got to last,” Dennis says. “You finance it for five years, and on a single-shift basis we hope to get 10 out of it. You need those few years of not having payments on it to put enough cash in the bank to buy the next one.” He argues the benefits in safety and machine maintenance have more than made up for the slight drop in productivity. “When we were using six operators on two bunchers, we found we could cut 70 per cent of that volume with just three operators on a day shift.”
When the Fisets went shopping for a feller buncher, they settled on Timberjack, and they’ve stuck with the manufacturer ever since. “There are pieces of equipment that are cheaper, but we’re looking for a long-term relationship. When it’s time to trade in five or 10 years, I want to know my dealer is still around, and he’s still carrying the same line,” Dennis says. “Those long-term relationships make a big difference. You can do business very quickly. You can make a phone call and in five minutes order a machine, and know what you’re getting. “Our goal over the next year or two is probably to standardize with Caterpillar for roadbuilding, and then we’ll have three suppliers: Timberjack, Kenworth, and Cat to cover the whole fleet. It simplifies purchases and minimizes inventory.” Over the years, the Fisets have developed close ties with Timberjack’s engineering department, regularly field-testing new models.
Perhaps the most notable result is the 900 feller buncher, a combination of the heavy-duty base of the 950 buncher with the compact upper of the 850. The hybrid machine emerged from a suggestion made by the Fisets. “We wanted the stability of a larger undercarriage, but we didn’t need a bigger upper,” Dennis says. “Companies like Timberjack or Cat or John Deere want to make a better product for you, and I think you have to spend some time giving them the proper feedback so they can get it right.” The company runs two Timberjack 850s (one from 2001, another from 2003), and their most recent addition, the 900. “It’s 17 years since we got into bunchers, and it’s really unbelievable the changes that have taken place. The operator no longer waits for the machine, the machine waits for the operator. It’s that fast.”
Some improvements are more subtle, including the use of interchangeable hydraulic cylinders, and hydraulic hoses in matching lengths. The result is speedier repairs, and greater ease in stocking parts. On the other hand, the sophisticated electronic controls on new machines “give you options you could never get with the mechanical system.” An example is track speed. If one track is faster than the other, the fix would mean shutting down the buncher, removing the guards, and making a manual adjustment. “Now I can pull up track functions on the screen, and if it’s a left track that’s slow, I just ramp it up. You don’t need to pull out any wrenches, you don’t even need your coveralls.”
Like most mechanics, Dennis was skeptical about the benefits of the new low-emission electronically-controlled diesel engines. But a close look at Timberjack’s John Deere power units has won him over. The engines are laid out with accessibility in mind, placed diagonally across the compartment with a hydraulically-driven fan to cool the rad and oil cooler. (Every 30 minutes the fan reverses direction to blow debris out of the cooling fins.) The bank of hydraulic valves is at chest height, speeding adjustments and repairs. When the new unit came out, the Fisets compared the Deere motor to an older Cummins mechanical engine. The Deere is designed to meet the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Tier II emissions standards, so Dennis was expecting to it to be cleaner, but less fuel efficient.
The results were a pleasant surprise. “We found there wasn’t a lot of difference. When the electronic one was working harder, it burned more fuel, but in the light-load operations it was much more efficient. The Cummins ranged from about 6-6.5 gallons per hour, while the John Deere ranged from 5.5 to 7, but it has the ability to do more, too. “I wasn’t sure about going with the new electronic engine, but the guy who put in it perspective for me was the salesman for Cat. He said, ‘Would you like to have the car you have now, or would you rather go back to points and condensers?’” The way the Fisets see it, surprises—pleasant, and otherwise—are unavoidable in a business where workers grapple with the vagaries of trees, weather, and terrain.
But with the right combination of people, technology and good working conditions, the company can minimize those unpleasant surprises. In the logging business, sometimes the best surprise is when things go according to plan.
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