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July Aug 2003

Taking the challenge

Thunder Bay logger Tom Canuel is taking on the challenge of working with new equipment: Caterpillar’s 580 harvester equipped with a pendulum arm system, the first of its kind in Canada.

By Dave Lammers

Tom Canuel has a new “toy” to play with. Like a child’s Tonka truck, it has big rubber tires and a flashy yellow paint job. But this toy bears the name Cat on the side. It’s also bigger and more expensive than most other toys—including those designed for loggers to use in the bush. The 54-year-old Canuel, owner of Canuel Timber Ltd, based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, made a major investment on a 1999 Caterpillar 580 harvester and a 2000 Cat 574 forwarder from Cat dealer, Toromont.

Tom Canuel (Sr) and Tom Canuel Jr.

The pendulum arm technology on the Caterpillar 580 eliminates the need for conventional axles. Instead, tires are attached to pendulum arms with a single system at the back and a bogey system with two tires at the front.

The harvester is the first of its kind in Canada and despite a few problems early on, Canuel says he’s determined to make it work. “I wanted this challenge,” says the soft-spoken Canuel. “I’m like a kid with a new toy, a new bicycle. I’m excited about it. There have been ups and downs but I’m coping with it well.” The ups include rubber tires that operate as part of a unique pendulum arm system, allowing the harvester to climb up and over obstacles far better than a tracked machine.

The downs include a harvesting head that initially has proved to be too heavy, leading to intermittent problems with hydraulics and some overheating. But overall the veteran logger says he’s impressed with the harvester and its ability to get around in the bush. “I haven’t got stuck with it yet.” These comments come from someone who likes to put his logging equipment to the test in the rocky terrain of northwestern Ontario. In 1998, Canuel was pinned under his Cat 325 feller buncher after the machine slipped from a rock and fell seven feet.

Canuel escaped uninjured after calling for help on a radio he had to rebuild while lying trapped on the forest floor. But he doesn’t expect anything like that to happen with the harvester. “I’m going everywhere with it—climbing obstacles—I’m doing pretty well with it.” Cat has acquired a pendulum arm technology that eliminates the need for conventional axles. Instead, tires are attached to pendulum arms with a single system at the back and a bogey system with two tires at the front. Both the front and rear systems are controlled by pendulum arms that allow the operator to adjust tire positions independently. The result is a machine that can contort itself into bizarre shapes with the tires at times lying almost flat on their sides. “I can level my cab so that I’m always comfortable— uphill, downhill or on a side hill,” says Canuel. “If I’m coming to a rock, I can go up almost five feet high.” He adds the rubber tires give the harvester a much smoother ride.

Tom Canuel also has a Cat 574 forwarder. A licenced mechanic, Canuel has always taken a high level of maintenance approach to his equipment and believes in running only the best equipment. “I’m very particular about my stuff,” he says. “I always say I don’t like to run junk.”

The undercarriage also takes much less of a beating than that of a tracked machine. Jeff McKnight, territory manager for Toromont in Thunder Bay, explains that the pendulum arms help keep the machine’s centre of gravity low. “The pendulum arm technology allows the operator to adjust and compensate for variation in terrain to maintain the contact points with the ground,” says McKnight. “That’s what the Cat harvester does that nothing else out there will do. If you had a solid axle machine, a lot of times you’d have one wheel off the ground.” “It’s not a question of Ford versus Chevy when you’re dealing with tracks versus rubber,” adds McKnight. “The tougher the ground is, the better the job the rubber tires will do. The steeper the slope, the rockier and the softer the swamp, the better the rubber-tired harvester does.”

Canuel notes the 580 harvester is also much easier on the environment than tracked harvesters. “When you’re processing trees, you’ve got all your limbs right in front of you, so you’re walking on them,” he says. “So when you want to turn around, you’re not steering a track machine. With the wheels it just turns like a car.” With rubber-tired machines more prevalent in Europe, Caterpillar purchased Swedish forest equipment manufacturer Skogsjan in 1997. Cat adapted the pendulum arm technology and subsequently changed all the major components including the engine, hydraulics and electrical components. The 580 harvester features a hydrostatic drive system—meaning it uses a fluid drive system instead of a transmission—and a 220-horsepower Caterpillar 3126 engine.

Cat has sold approximately 100 of the model 580 harvesters in Russia, France and Germany, as well as a couple in the United States. However, the company didn’t introduce the machine to Canada until late in 2000. And while Thunder Bay has the only 580 harvester, a four-wheel 570 harvester was recently purchased in Nova Scotia. The 580 harvester comes with a Log Max 7000 processing head capable of processing 16 feet per second.

The crane and cab are mounted on a turntable— instead of in front of the cab—for improved visibility. The telescopic boom has a reach of 28 feet and the machine has plenty of lights to see when working the night shift. The harvester comes with a lot of other luxury features including a heated seat and fully adjustable hand controls. The harvester is six-wheel drive and can shift power from the front to the back wheels when going up hills.

Canuel notes that the machine is perfect for younger operators who grew up playing video games. His 24-year-old son, Tom Junior, for example, would be a whiz at running the harvester, he says with a laugh. “That’s the trick: eye and hand coordination.” Canuel, originally from New Brunswick, was first hired by Abitibi-Consolidated as a mechanic’s helper in 1971. In 1984, he formed Canuel Timber Ltd in an owner-operator arrangement and bought a Tanguay slasher that he operated for eight years. His next purchase was a Cat 225 delimber that he operated along with the slasher until 1994. He then purchased a Cat 325 feller buncher and a John Deere 640AD skidder.

Three years ago, Canuel bought a new Timberjack 853G feller buncher and a Cat 535B skidder—his last purchases before acquiring the 580 harvester and the 574 forwarder. A licenced mechanic, Canuel has always taken a high level of maintenance approach to his equipment. He does many of his own repairs at his garage at home and believes in running only the best equipment. “I’m very particular about my stuff,” notes Canuel. “I always say I don’t like to run junk. “With my Tanguay slasher, I had it for eight years, double shift. And when I sold it to a guy in Winnipeg, it was still like new. And my Cat 225 delimber, I got a good buck for it. The guy took six months to buy it and went all over and found lots of newer ones—but he didn’t find any in as good shape as mine.”

Looking back, Canuel wishes he had traded in some of his equipment sooner. “The key is buying new equipment that cuts more and is faster,” he notes. “It’s volume that makes the difference—and your employees also. You’ve got to have guys that work steady and get the volume up.” Canuel says the problems he has been experiencing with the new harvester are largely a result of the head being initially too heavy for the machine.

The harvester worked well for the first two months, but problems arose when he tried to increase his output. There have also been some “bugs” to work out with the new Cat 574 forwarder, a 14-ton eight-wheel drive machine he bought at the same time as the harvester. McKnight, who works as the Toromont/Cat representative for Canuel, notes the grief with the processor has to do with the fact that Canuel’s machine came equipped with a topping saw, whereas the factory-prescribed harvester doesn’t include a saw.

The saw has since been removed and the machine is now working well. “We haven’t had any engine issues. We haven’t had any drive line issues,” adds McKnight. In the past, Canuel harvested around 30,000 cubic metres a year, working approximately two hours north of Thunder Bay up the Spruce River Road. He hopes to harvest around 20,000 metres a year with the processor, with seven employees working a double shift that consists of four 10-hour days (Monday to Thursday), as well as eight hours on Friday and eight hours Sunday night.

Canuel is up every day at 3:30 am and gets back to camp around 7 pm. He leaves home Sunday night and returns to his rural Thunder Bay residence Friday afternoon, where his wife and business partner, Ellen, does the books for the company. Notably, Canuel attributes his success in the logging business to constant communications with his wife over every business decision. The Canuels—who have six grown up children, five sons and one daughter—go over business matters on the weekends over coffee. “It’s probably why we’re still married,” Tom jokes. Asked what is the biggest challenge he faces today, Canuel responds with a laugh: “Buying the right equipment.”

He says he looked at harvesters off and on for 10 years before taking the plunge with Caterpillar. “I’m taking one day at a time,” says Canuel. “We’re working as a team on this—I’m not alone on this. They’re doing a lot for me to help me make it, and I’m giving them a lot of feedback. I’ve got to get this proven, and make it work.”

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