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September 2005  - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal

 

INDUSTRY INNOVATIONS

ALBERTA EQUIPMENT TRAILBLAZERS

Four Alberta forestry equipment innovators have left their mark on the forest industry, in everything from harvesting equipment to sawmills.

By Tony Kryzanowski

The foundation of Alberta’s renowned spirit of entrepreneurship is in the pioneering spirit that worked to clear the land, plant crops and harvest the forest. That spirit is very evident in some of the province’s most influential inventors, especially when it comes to developing mechanized forest equipment.

As is typical in Alberta, the drive to invent and innovate was about one half invention and one half business building, which in hindsight makes a lot of sense. To use an analogy, anyone can build a better mousetrap that costs $17 to produce. But inventing something new that is also affordable is the real challenge.

While this article will focus on four noted inventors, there have been many other contributors to inventions that are continually meeting the needs of the forest industry. Just take a tour through any machine, welding or fabricating shop in Alberta, and the owner may have a brilliant new invention sitting in his back pocket, half built, or covered with a tarp in the back lot—just waiting for someone with deep pockets to put marketing money behind the product.

Alberta’s David Fenton and Lester Oilund have teamed up on a new project: a completely mobile, high production dimension sawmill (above) that features circular saw technology capable of cutting in both directions.

Mike Dika, Lester Oilund, Reg Isley, and David Fenton are familiar names in Alberta’s Peace Country, particularly for the inventions they developed as well as the businesses they began. Together, they have more than 20 patents. Three traits that are typical of all four are that they are good listeners, read a lot, and had an influential male family member who inspired them.

“I’ve got more books here than the library,” says Rycroft, Alberta, resident Mike Dika, who at 83-years-old, is currently in the process of rolling out a new invention related to the direct placement of grass seed. The device is directed to the landscaping and golf course management industries and is called the Green Sowing Machine.

“It’s a bad day when I don’t learn something by observation. You’ve got to be hardwired that way.”

Mike founded Dika Industries Ltd in Rycroft, which continues operations and is now managed by son Greg. Another son, Leslie, works at the business as a machinist/welder. Dika learned to be a millwright during military service in World War II, and among his first inventions was the Dika SuperSaw. Patented in 1974, it was one of Canada’s first vehicle- mounted, mechanized feller bunchers.“It was just a giant chainsaw,” says Dika, “bigger and uglier than the ones we had.”

He says his family farmed, logged and ran sawmills, which motivated many of his inventions. “We had problems keeping fallers when the snow got deep,” he says. “We had $200,000 worth of equipment laying around waiting for someone to fall our trees. So we decided that we needed something that would work in deep snow and was safer.”

Dika also designed sawmills that still operate today. For example, Zavisha Sawmills in Hines Creek, Precision Lumber Products in High Level, and the communities of Peavine and Paddle Prairie all operate Dika sawmills. One is also operating in Manitoba, with the prospect of another sale this fall.

Not all inventions, however, translate into financial successes for the owners. Dika has a good example of the heartache that sometimes comes down hard on the inventive mind. What he describes as his greatest invention has also caused him great financial pain. It is a log processor capable of 24 hydraulic functions, designed to delimb, cut, nd stack eight-foot aspen logs.

After investing about $1 million in time and effort into the device, building a prototype and proving that it would work, the company was unable to sell a single processor.

“We just didn’t have the marketing muscle to promote it,” he says. Much like Canada’s technologically advanced AVRO Arrow jet of the 1950s, the device was eventually dismantled. The hydraulics was used in a bucking station project. However, the patented portion of the device, which allowed it to stack slippery aspen logs especially in wintertime, remains intact in the Dika Industries yard.

The Oilund/Fenton creative partnership also reads a bit like a tragic ballad, yet recent events may lead to a happy financial ending. Grande Prairie resident Lester Oilund, nventor of the Ultimate harvester/processor felling head and, more recently, a complete mobile, high-production dimension sawmill, supplements his reading with surfing the Internet to see what sort of ideas are being developed by other inventors. In addition to forestry, he has a number of other personal interests, particularly related to power systems.

“I can’t believe the reciprocating engine is still around in this day and age,” he says.

Oilund had a long history working in the forest industry and in 1989 approached Grande Prairie machinist David Fenton about building a fixed-mount log harvesting head that would limb trees and cut to length. Thus the Ultimate harvester/ processor head and Ultimate Forest Products were born.“We didn’t even know about Scandinavian processors at that time,” Fenton has said. “There were just one or two Lako heads around.” At its peak, Ultimate employed 47 people at its manufacturing facilities in Grande Prairie.

Oilund says it was a great product ahead of its time in the wrong market, as the local forest industry did not adopt cut-tolength (CTL) harvesting with the same vigor as other parts of North America. The company experienced a lot of expansion over a short period of time. But with only one product and despite efforts to diversify its product line, it fell victim to a market downturn in 1997. The company went into receivership and Quadco purchased its assets.

Oilund continued to work for Quadco until 2002. He says the Ultimate head concept as been improved upon, but is still largely intact in the harvester/processor line offered by Quadco today. He still owns two patents on the head design.

Fenton and Oilund have now teamed up on a new project— a complete mobile, high-production dimension sawmill that features circular saw technology capable of cutting in both directions. The team has completed a prototype, tested it in production, and is now making final modifications before making it commercially available.

David Fenton (left) says his biggest achievement came with the development of the Davco brush mower. Over 3,000 Davco brush mowers have now been built, with sales throughout North America and into Australia.

Fenton says his biggest personal achievement probably came more recently with the development of the Davco brush mower. As has been typical in his career as a machinist, people have walked into his shop needing to solve a problem. Once in a while, some of the ideas he’s developed have turned out to have more than “one-off” potential. That’s what happened with the brush mower project, where he determined that there was a need to develop something more sturdy.

Over 3,000 Davco brush mowers have now been built locally at his son’s shop next door, operating under the name of Barda Equipment. Sales have been made throughout North America and into Australia.

When recently presented with an achievement award for outstanding manufacturing by the Peace Region’s Innovation Network, Grande Prairie’s Reg Isley says he learned a lot from the 300 issues of Popular Mechanics that his father owned. If he wanted something, it usually meant that he had to make it himself, often from the drawings in Popular Mechanics because money was scarce.

Isley later attended the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and became a welder. After cutting his teeth working in welding shops owned by other people, he teamed up with some creative partners and launched his own business venture. He partnered with Dave Fenton in Fenley Machine and Welding. After selling their interests in that company, Isley went on to become owner of the Risley Group of Companies and Fenton went on to start Davco Machine Ltd in 1972, which he still coowns today with his daughter, Janet Plante. Both Risley and Davco are wellestablished companies in Grande Prairie, with products manufactured locally and
shipped worldwide.

The Risley group under Reg Isley developed the Lim-mit delimber, a patented process for delimbing trees. Always the inventor, Isley— who has an interest in aviation and is a licensed pilot—is now working on building an innovative coaxial drive helicopter.

Recognizing that the forest industry was evolving from horse logging and crosscut saws to mechanization, Isley determined that there was probably a safer, faster, more economical way to harvest trees, with less fibre damage. So he invented the Rotosaw, which could be attached to an excavator or purpose-built forestry carrier. The patented Rotosaw has been an unqualified commercial success, and in 1986, the Risley Group developed the Lim-mit delimber, a patented process for delimbing trees.

Then followed the Timber King, which was a purpose-built carrier sold as a complete stand-alone product line to Caterpillar, which today markets the trade name and product all over the world. Because of limitations in developing large scale manufacturing in a smaller centre like Grande Prairie, Risley decided to focus on the manufacture of purposebuilt attachments in the Peace Country, and sold the Timber King line to Caterpillar.

In addition to his interest in forest industry equipment, Isley has an interest in aviation and is a licensed pilot, flying single and multi-engine, fixed wing aircraft and some models of helicopters. As a hobby, he successfully built a fixed wing aircraft and helicopter, and continues to work on his long-term project of building an innovative coaxial drive helicopter.

While all four inventors take a few more extended holidays these days, the creative problem solving juices continue to flow. “I know a lot of times I’ll go to bed with a problem that seems like it is impossible to solve, and for some unknown reason in the middle of the night, the solution comes to me,” notes Oilund. “Of course the next few days are spent trying to get it all down on paper and analyzing how it will work.”

 

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