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Cut To Length Bonus

More productivity and lower costs were expected benefits when South East Forest Products bought into a cut to length system, and they have realized all that and more.

By John Dietz

outh East Forest Products Ltd of Blumenort, Manitoba, is a changed company. For a generation, cut and skid crews were the backbone of production. But today, a six man crew operating a Timberjack processor and forwarder has replaced about seven cut and skid crews. The benefits are substantial on several fronts, says Darrel Penner, company controller, and some were even unexpected. 

"We noticed our volume was going up significantly on the log side when we started mechanical sorting," Penner says. "That's one factor we'd never considered, so it's been a bonus." The processor's onboard computer accurately measures each piece of wood. As a result, sorting is much more accurate. South East processes sawlogs on its own Baker mill line in Blumenort, a small village southeast of Winnipeg. The balance of harvested volume is sent to pulp mills. 

"Clearly there's a big difference in value between lumber and pulp wood," says Penner. The company, naturally, is seeking to achieve maximum value from the wood. Stick by stick precise measuring led to an increase of about 15 to 20 per cent in spruce sawlog recovery. Up to 20 per cent of the material that was formerly slashed and sent for pulp is now going through the sawmill. Production in spruce forest now runs about 20 per cent sawlogs and 80 per cent pulp. 

The move by South East Forest Products into cut to length equipment- a Timberjack 608B processor with a Waratah HTL20 head has paid off for the company. Benefits have included lower road building costs and increased sawlog recovery. 


Production in pine forest runs at 70 per cent sawlogs and 30 per cent pulp. Precision sorting led to two other direct benefits, Penner notes. Local pulp companies changed their allowance for minimum pulp size. It had been at 7.75 cm under the slasher system, to provide a safety margin. That has since been reduced to 5.0 cm. "They know they'll never get anything smaller than that from us because we can measure accurately now," Penner says. South East gets an "extra stick" now out of most spruce.

 Former waste that previously went onto the forest floor is now a salable commodity. There's less debris and the machine is cutting two to three per cent less wood to achieve the same pulp volume. The company began seriously looking at its first cut to length system in the summer of 1998. They settled on two Timberjack machines that arrived that November. Until then, South East had relied on crews with chainsaws, skidders and slashers. Annual allowable cut had been growing gradually but certain struggles and inefficiencies had been increasing too.

To reduce stress and improve efficiency, Penner and Rene Levesque, his woodlands superintendent, decided to investigate whether they could justify a cut to length system. "This equipment has to be kept busy or the costs accelerate significantly. It's not for the small contract logger," Penner notes. He estimates their allowable cut today has increased to about 70,000 cubic metres. 

In their conditions, the processor is operating 20 to 22 hours a day, year round. The equipment purchase was an answer to a number of issues facing the operation. South East needed to replace a large amount of older equipment, which was incurring high repair costs. It could be replaced with new "old" technology or new "new" technology. The company faced a tightening labor supply situation in southeastern Manitoba. It was difficult to attract a quality labor force with conventional logging methods. 

It was also encountering significant costs in payments to the Workers' Compensation Board, in addition to wages. By going into new cut to length technology, their WCB risk factor would be a lot lower, and the work force itself could be reduced by half (about 40 per cent of South East wood is still cut by independent contractors). South East was able to log in swamp areas only in winter. This led to uneven inventory levels and uneven demands for loggers. Flotation specifications on new mechanical harvesting equipment enables them to access swamps most of the year. 

It "straightens out" the annual production curves and makes everything easier to manage. The operation was experiencing substantial support costs for conventional logging operations. Cut to length harvesting, with one crew instead of six, would slash costs for road building, maintenance, snow clearing and secondary equipment. Conventional logging does have a much lower investment cost. "But with our projected payback, that high initial cost wasn't a big issue," Penner says.  

Mechanical harvesting depends on machine availability-one machine breakdown can shut down the whole logging program. To keep the mechanical system running, Penner and Levesque set up a very well equipped service trailer at the cutting site. They have a trained mechanic available oncall and have trained the operators in basic service procedures. They also follow a rigorous service program. The Timberjack system they selected operates on swamp, rock and sand with 24-inch tracks rather than rubber tires. By delimbing at the stump, it is able to travel forward with very little ground disturbance. 

Their Timberjack 608 B processor is the high walker model with a Cat D5D undercarriage. It's powered by a six cylinder, 5.9 litre Cummins diesel engine producing 167 hp and weighs about 23,000 kg. Tandem pumps operate the hydraulics, one for each joystick. Each fingertip and thumb has an electric over hydraulic button to control various functions. It is using a standard 20inch Waratah HTL20 tree harvesting head that weighs 2,045 kg and rotates 340 degrees. It's also equipped with a full-scale merchandizing measuring system. A forestry blade is the only option on their Timberjack 1010 forwarder. They use the blade mainly for pushing brush out of the way. The forwarder holds five cords in two bunks. South East had the back bunk extended to accommodate 9 foot logs. 

Levesque says he's learned that "packaging" the hours in a workday affects performance and he's made adjustments to get optimum machine and operator production. Mechanical harvesting requires precise eye hand finger coordination and fatigue becomes a serious factor for processor operators. "We were doing two 12hour shifts at first. Now we're doing split shifts," Levesque says. "When we split shift, we're trying to achieve maximum production per hour from each operator. 

By split shifting, our operators are never as tired as if they had worked a 12 hour shift." Production figures reinforced the move to split shifting. Production in the second half of a regular shift that's 10 or 12 hours long drops off sharply. An operator would work five hours, have lunch for an hour, then go back for a second five hour shift. But production on the second part of the shift would drop by as much as five cubic metres an hour. The longest shift in split shifting is four hours, and two operators work together at times. Operator A works from 4 am to 8 am, then has lunch. 

Operator B works from 8 am to 11 am. For the next hour or so, both work together to service the processor. At noon, Operator A goes back for three hours. Operator B works from 3 pm to 7 pm. A third operator comes on at 7 pm, has lunch about midnight, and then works till 4 am. Each has worked an 8hour day. Operator Dave Levesque, Rene's son, says split shifts work best. "It's the fatigue factor. There's a lot of buttons and you've got to have a fresh mind. You can't be second-guessing. The fresher the mind, the more wood you put down." 

Eighteen months later, Penner and Levesque are happy with the cut to length investment. Higher than expected costs for repair and maintenance are the only disappointments. "We projected production costs would be 15 to 20 per cent lower, but at this point they're pretty much equal to conventional harvesting methods," says Penner. However, when other advantages are factored into the equation-like lower road building costs and increased sawlog recovery-he estimates the overall production cost now is 10 to 15 per cent less than before. Volume per hour has been outstanding, Levesque adds. "In pine, we've done up to 22.5 cubic metres an hour, although the average is around 13 cubic metres an hour. 

We're doing 8.75 to 10 cubic metres an hour in black spruce." Overall, the management approach and working conditions have also changed. Instead of dealing with seven crews in separate locations, Levesque focuses on the cut to length crew. The operators have made long-term commitments to the company, in exchange for better wages, training in machine operation and comfortable working conditions. Levesque finds the cut to length crew at work, regardless of weather. 

Only a fire hazard during hot, dry conditions in 1999 forced them to shut down for four days. "With the labour market tightening the way it has, we've had no choice but to reduce the requirement for labour and to improve working conditions," Penner says. "This equipment does that. These guys sit in some fairly comfortable, climate-controlled cabs. 

Once you're inside the cab, you can take your jacket off and be just as comfortable as in your own living room." In the long term, he says, this cut to length system was the only way to go. "I would go this route even if projected costs were the same, absolutely, because of the non financial factors like working conditions and management of your logging program."

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