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June 2005  - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal


The Right Choice

An exhaustive equipment search by Tolko’s OSB plant in High Prairie, Alberta, led right to the choice of a massive Liebherr A974 B log loader, rated as the world’s largest wheeled material handler.

By Tony Kryzanowski

There is a definite sense of relief evident in the voices of the log yard managers and a feeling of pride among operators concerning the recent commissioning of a Liebherr A974 B wheeled log loader at Tolko Forest Industries’ Oriented Strand Board (OSB) plant in High Prairie, Alberta.

Rated as the world’s largest wheeled material handler, it is being used to transfer eight foot aspen logs 24 hours a day, seven days a week from the plant’s slasher deck to its six conditioning ponds. The log loader replaced two smaller wheel loaders, which could no longer keep pace with plant production.

“We made the transition at the right time,” says plant production manager, Ron Shunter Jr. The plant is expected to increase capacity this year to 680 million square feet of OSB, based on 3/8-inch thickness. That’s nearly 30 per cent more capacity than the plant was designed for when it opened 10 years ago, mainly due to process improvements to increase productivity within the plant. For example, a number of changes have been made to the plant’s dryers to improve chip flow and quality.

Opting for the Liebherr log loader to transfer logs concluded an exhaustive search by the OSB plant to address safety issues associated with how the previous wheel loaders needed to do their jobs. They were required to move back and forth at the same time to transfer the logs within a confined space, day and night in all kinds of weather, to keep pace with plant production. In addition to the collision hazard, a number of injuries were being reported as a result of employees slipping off equipment. During its search, the company investigated stationary electric cranes, electric cranes on rails, overhead cranes, and circle cranes. When presented with Liebherr’s wheeled log loader option, it was the solution the plant was looking for.


The Liebherr log loader is unique in that the cab can be lowered right to
ground level so that operators can simply walk in and out. Operators are able
to elevate the cab during the log transfer process, giving them a birds eye view
of the slasher deck and conditioning ponds at the OSB plant.

The A974 B’s size and configuration has allowed Tolko to overcome the challenge of moving logs over the 130-foot distance between the slasher deck and the conditioning ponds with a single, stationary piece of equipment. Although it has wheels, the extended outriggers keep it stationary. It can reach over 80 feet and swing wood in a 160-foot radius. The upper portion of the log loader is able to rotate 360 degrees. The log loader can also deck about 24 hours’ worth of slashed log production around itself in the event that the plant takes downtime and the ponds are full. If the portal crane or slasher deck go down, the log loader can continue to supply the mill.

Depending on the exact configuration, the material handler weighs in at between 111 and 121 tonnes, and has an engine output of 317 kWs (431 hp). It has a rated clamshell capacity of between 2.4 and four cubic metres. It’s hard to mistake a Liebherr log loader for any other brand because the cab can be raised and extended from its stationary position. This has benefited Tolko’s operators two ways. The cab can be lowered right to ground level so that the operator can simply walk in and out. There are no stairs to climb. Secondly, the operator can elevate the cab during the log transfer process, giving him a bird’s eye view of the slasher deck bins and conditioning ponds. Previously, the operators were constantly looking up from their fixed cab positions and were not high enough to see into the slasher deck bins. Now, there is no guesswork.

Woodyard leadhand Chris Ireland says his operators tell him that they feel a lot less fatigued when they complete their shifts. “It’s like being in their lazy boy chair at home,” he says. “Ideally, it’s the way we want them to be, totally relaxed. They’re not leaning forward anymore, like they’re going into a 40 mile per hour wind and struggling to keep up.” The operators have such pride in the log loader that they are still taking off their boots before entering the cab.

Ireland says the initial discussion with Liebherr began with a simple question: how large would a log loader and boom have to be to achieve the reach Tolko needed to swing from the slasher deck to its conditioning ponds. “Dealing with Liebherr just felt like ordering a meal,” says Ireland. “They came to the table with all the options. In my view, a lot of the other equipment vendors offer cookie cutter machines. This machine was custom built for our application—for example, items like the counter weighting and the boom.”

More specifically, Liebherr designed a log loader with a boom and stick to suit Tolko’s specific log transfer needs, with added features like outrigger pads, solid rubber tires with chains, a cab layout with removable steering wheel in combination with joystick steering, auto greasing systems, and a custom lighting package.

Liebherr designed a log loader with a boom and
stick to suit Tolko's specific log transfer needs, and
included added features like outriggers pads, solid
rubber tires with chains and a cab layout with a
removable steering wheel.

Shunter says the purchase of the log loader was definitely cheaper than the purchase of two smaller log loaders, and there are inherent cost savings to operating one log loader versus two, such as reduced maintenance costs and fuel consumption. Ireland says the log loader burns about 45 litres of fuel per hour. This is less than the plant’s two previous log loaders combined, but not by a huge amount. Over time, however, he says the savings will add up.

Liebherr also came to the table with the ability to offer a proven solution, as it had already provided a Swedish company with two wheeled A974 B log loaders to unload processed logs off barges to decks on shore. Tolko also had previous experience with the performance of Liebherr equipment, with the purchase two years ago of an A934 B HD log loader, followed by the purchase of an L580 wheel loader and an R944 Liebherr butt ‘n top track machine to unload trucks to feed the slasher deck. Tolko has found that the purchase price of Liebherr equipment is comparable to other equipment brands, although there was no comparison on the A974 B because it is the only material handler of its size.

The OSB plant’s relationship with Liebherr began when Tolko representatives discussed their log management problems with Liebherr representatives at the Northern Alberta Forestry Show in Grande Prairie two years ago. That resulted in the purchase of the A934 B log loader. The performance of that unit after 10,000 hours of service allowed Tolko to pursue the A974 B log loader purchase with confidence.

The service support offered by Liebherr helped to seal the deal. With its corporate headquarters in Switzerland and equipment manufacturing facilities in Germany, France, and various world locations, the Liebherr Group distributes its products in this part of the world through Liebherr-Canada Ltd. The company hired and trained a local heavy-duty mechanic in the service and repair of its equipment, giving Tolko access to local service support 24/7. Not only has it ensured that a locally trained mechanic is readily available, but Liebherr has also placed a parts container on the OSB plant site, loaded with parts that experience has shown are most likely to be in demand for regular maintenance and any breakdowns or damage. That pertains to all Liebherr equipment in Tolko’s fleet. Tolko has also taken a page from the mining industry’s standard approach to fleet management and has negotiated a cost-per-hour service agreement with Liebherr. This means that Tolko pays a certain amount per hour of operation for Liebherr to provide regular preventative, unscheduled, and major maintenance on its equipment over a defined time frame. In this case, Tolko has projected a useful life of five years on the A974 B log loader.

The benefit to Tolko is that it has predictable equipment maintenance costs on its Liebherr equipment for the next five years. “Prior to signing this agreement, we were in reactive maintenance mode,” says Ireland. “It’s starting to sound like a fairytale, but I can’t tell you how much worry is taken off of me. Before, I was getting calls in the middle of the night about components on our old machines breaking or cracks on the whole machine.” The structural integrity of the Liebherr units in the company’s fleet is “phenomenal,” he adds.

“We went and toured a lot of scrap metal applications where there was extensive extreme use of these material handlers and grapples,” says Ireland. “We didn’t see any welding on any of the machines.”

Uptime has also been impressive. During the log loader’s first 700 hours of service, it delivered 98 per cent uptime. The heavy duty mechanic in charge of providing Liebherr’s service support says the combination of having parts kits close at hand and easy access to service points means that he is spending less time servicing Liebherr equipment than he is used to with other equipment brands.

Because of its size, transporting the log loader to High Prairie from the manufacturing plant was quite a challenge. Before transport, the unit was assembled and tested at the factory to ensure everything was in good working order. It was then disassembled, transported by ship through the Panama Canal, and finally loaded on trucks and transported to High Prairie from the Port of Tacoma, Washington. All the components were re-assembled and re-tested at the Tolko site.

“I’ve never seen a piece of equipment go together so well,” says Ireland. “Everything was so precise and fit together perfectly.” That should come as no surprise, considering that some of Liebherr’s other ventures include manufacturing components for the air and rail transportation industries, not to mention offshore oil and gas platform rigs. The only issue Tolko has had with the log loader was a corroded wiring harness, which was likely caused by transport across the ocean.

A number of representatives from other forestry companies have visited the OSB plant to watch the log loader in action. Tolko will also consider further purchases of this size log loader for its other OSB facilities, but would like it to have a larger cab so that a trainee can sit with the operator.

The log loader is fitted with a Rotobec grapple, and is currently operating at only 20 per cent of its lifting capacity. It is capable of lifting and transporting both eight- and 16-foot logs. Given its performance to date, the OSB plant now has the option of constructing additional conditioning ponds to feed the plant’s fibre needs as production capacity grows.


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This page last modified on Thursday, November 17, 2005