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The Fatigue Factor

Targeting increased CTL machine productivity, an Ontario contractor finds one solution in reducing shift lengths for operators.

By Tony Kryzanowski
Copyright 1997. Contact publisher for permission to use.

An Ontario cut-to-length contractor believes he has solved the problem of low operator productivity due to fatigue, by adopting a split shift system. Other cut-to-length operators experiencing similar problems can easily apply his method in their own operations, given certain conditions.

Fred Brown operates Fred Brown Equipment Ltd. He operates two harvesters - a 1270 and 990 Timberjack, as well as two 1010 Timberjack forwarders. He harvests conifers for Abitibi-Consolidated, located at Fort Frances, Ontario, and deciduous for Boise Cascade, across the Rainy River in International Falls, Minnesota.

The Timberjack 1270 has an FMG762B single-grip harvester, and the 990 has an FMG762. Brown says they can cut and process wood up to 21'' in a single cut.

He became Abitibi-Consolidated's first and only cut-to-length contractor in 1990, after an extensive evaluation among their contractors as to who could best operate this new system.

Because the method was new to the area at the time, Brown says Timberjack wanted to ensure the equipment was given its best opportunity to succeed. During the first year, Brown went through some painful learning experiences.

"The first five months we had it, it was coming to the point where we were going to send it back," says Brown, "because we could not get production." His operators worked 10-hour shifts, but were only cutting 44 trees per hour on average. Timberjack's Swedish technical advisors suggested to Brown that he adjust his operator shifts. They said a 10-hour shift was simply too mentally tiring on the operators.

Brown investigated on his own, and discovered that his operators cut 75 percent of daily production during the first five hours. So he adjusted his schedule to a total of 14 hours of equipment production, using two operators working seven hours each on the equipment, and 10 hours each in total.

The first operator runs the harvester from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. At 9:00 a.m., the second operator arrives, and works till noon. During that time, the first operator returns to camp, takes an hour off, then works two hours in the shop. He sharpens chains, fixes bars or makes hydraulic hoses. He may even operate Brown's dozer, spreading gravel in road construction.

"He can do anything work-related, except think about running that harvester," says Brown.

At noon, both operators spend an hour onsite servicing the harvester, and at 1:00 p.m., the first operator starts a second three-hour shift. The second operator then takes an hour break, and contributes two hours in the shop or on the dozer. At 4:00 p.m., operator one is through for the day, and operator two works the harvester for another four hours. They shut down at 8:00 pm.

"It will give us the ability to pull more grades and trim more lengths than we can now," says Evans.

"During the first three days with this system, our average was 66 trees per hour," says Brown. "In one week, we were at 92 trees per hour, and that's where we've been ever since. We doubled our production. We get the same production in 14 hours as we were getting in 20 hours."

He employs a team of operators for both harvesters, and says they find it easy to stay focused on production.

"They know that they are only going to be there for four hours, so they don't stop for coffee, for a cigarette, nothing," he says.

In addition to better operator productivity, Brown has earned huge gains in equipment availability. In fact, he has created an operator bonus program based on equipment availability, not production. Brown says many contractors have tried to develop a bonus system based on availability, but he has succeeded with his approach. The lynch pin to his system is time clocks in each machine showing daily production hours. His equipment availability is 94 per cent on the 1270, and 88 per cent on the 990, even though the older 990 has 19,000 hours on it.

The equipment maintains high availability because of regular preventive maintenance within Brown's shift system. Operators work together for an average of one hour per day, in daylight, to conduct regular maintenance. And if a problem occurs on the late shift, the second operator has plenty of time to fix the machine because he is finished by 8:00 p.m. His bonus is not only tied to machine availability during his shift, but availability on both shifts. So, the bonus system encourages him to ensure that the machine is ready for production by 5:00 a.m. the next morning. That's barring a major breakdown.

"You've got a chance to work on the machine," says Brown. "You've got to do maintenance, and if you are running your machine 20 or 24 hours a day, well, then your availability goes down."

The system has some limitations. Firstly, contractors must operate live-in and mobile camps, or cutblocks have to be close to home base. As cutblocks are located more further afield, that is not always possible. Also, Brown says contractors in other areas are handcuffed by operator union agreements that will not allow for this split-shift system.

Cut-to-length harvesting has become popular with sawmill and pulp plant owners because it offers year-round harvesting, sorting in the bush and less environmental damage. Abitibi-Consolidated encouraged Brown to try the cut-to-length system, and helped him finance the equipment.

One complaint about cut-to-length equipment, however, is consistent processing accuracy. Operator fatigue is one contributing factor, as computer measuring systems require that they keep on their toes.

Brown says they achieve 96 per cent accuracy on average, and adjust their production should adverse factors, such as peeling aspen or limby, crooked wood crop up.

"You have to adjust your production to your accuracy," he says. "When you get into poorer wood, you've got to take a little more time to make sure you get your accuracy." All the more reason to have an alert operator. All things considered, he believes cut-to-length accuracy can compare favourably to a slasher.

Brown is a stump-to-dump contractor and a cut-to-length contracting pioneer to the area immediately north of the US border. He operates in the High Rock Forest, which extends from Fort Frances to east of Atikokan, and north about 80 km toward Dryden. He began in forestry 20 years ago, working nine years in site preparation for the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). Today, he is one of eight Abitibi-Consolidated harvesting contractors, and cuts 50,000 m3 per year of conifer, and 10,000 m3 of deciduous for the Boise Cascade paper plant. Starting this fall, he will ship aspen to the Voyageur Panel Ltd. OSB plant 50 km west of Fort Frances. The OSB plant is majority-owned by Boise Cascade. Abitibi-Consolidated has a smaller interest, and will manage all harvesting operations for the OSB plant. That ties in well with Brown's business.

Fred Brown Equipment Ltd. is a family operation with 14 employees. Brown's Finnish grandfather settled north of Fort Frances, in Finland, Ontario, and also worked in forestry. He says his family's European experience of forest management and minimal environmental impact explains his interest in cut-to-length harvesting.

His support of cut-to-length meshes nicely with Abitibi-Consolidated's forest management plans. This spring, they moved from a block cutting system, to a fire line cutting system.

"We'll be cutting larger blocks, but doing it like a wild fire would," says Brown. "We'll leave snag trees for birds, leave low areas, leave tops of trees here and there, and that's for management of the ecosystem." Abitibi-Consolidated's new system anticipates the work of scientists studying the boreal forest at the Canadian Centre for Forestry Excellence at the University of Alberta, and how contractors can mimic nature in harvesting practices.

Brown's history as a careful and quiet operator has opened up a new wood source for his client - shoreline removal of 30 to 50 per cent of standing timber. In the past, this area was untouchable despite tying up as much as 15 per cent of the company's annual allowable cut. The Fort Frances area is a prime tourism destination, with many lakes and rivers.

"We did some on an experimental basis with MNR, and they liked it," says Brown. "It's more expensive to harvest, but it's cheaper than hauling from 300 km away."

Brown has conducted several trial cuts involving thinning and advanced growth harvesting for Abitibi-Consolidated, because of his equipment setup.

"Sometimes, we get paid by how many trees we leave behind," says Brown. "They'll (Abitibi-Consolidated) go in and do a regen survey, and see exactly what's left there." If there is enough regen left so that they do not need to plant or scarify, Brown is compensated.

"They see the advantages of the cut-to-length system," says Brown. He says he has had terrific support from Timberjack and will likely move up to their new 1270B harvester model. However, because of strong production, he plans to trade in his 1010 forwarders first for the larger 1210B models. That's to haul more tonnage and to withstand the rocky, swampy and hilly terrain.

"You can get all the deals you want in the world (on equipment)," says Brown. "But if you don't have the backup, forget it."

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