By Jack Petree
The development of innovative equipment and techniques to accomplish steep slope logging has been an area of sharp focus for the timber harvesting industry and its suppliers in recent years. Richard Lawler, director of Forestry Engineering for John Deere, points to the physical safety of ground-based forestry workers, a decline in the number of workers willing to do hand falling, increased productivity over traditional systems, and potentially significant environmental enhancements as driving the effort.
Over the past 50 years, Lawler puts forward, the forest industry has made “. . . remarkable progress in improving the safety of forestry workers.” Much of that progress, he says, came as a result of “. . . putting workers in machines where statistics show they are substantially safer.” But that progress has not been industry wide. “The missing link in traditional steep slope harvesting systems has been the mechanized felling of trees on steep slopes,” Lawler continues. “There is a continuing perception that tree felling is done with machines, which is true for the most part, except for the falling of trees on steep slopes.”
Minimizing danger to fallers is of special importance, Lawler says. “The job of tree faller is still considered to be the most dangerous job in the USA according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The high risk of being a hand faller coupled with the challenging working environment has resulted in a lack of people wanting to become hand fallers, making it increasingly difficult for traditional steep slope harvesting crews to find and retain hand fallers.”
To address the many issues presented by steep slopes, harvesting equipment manufacturers like John Deere have developed a number of approaches. “The most recent inno-vations in the mechanization of the felling of trees on slopes relate to the use of cable-assist winch systems where a cable winch is used to supplement the traction of the machine working on the slope,” Lawler puts forward. “The purpose of this cable winch system is to replace the portion of the traction that is lost due to gravity.”
Lawler says, however, that while “modern leveling, tracked felling machines are extremely capable. . . they cannot defy the laws of gravity. The traditional weakness of these machines when working on slopes is the potential loss of traction, which typically results in the machine sliding, building up momentum, and, in the worst cases, the potential for tipping over when the machine comes into contact with a solid object such as a stump. Winch assist systems help by providing the operator the same amount of traction they have when they are on flat ground.”
Lawler explains, “A winch assist system typically involves an “anchor” machine [a modified bulldozer or excavator] that has been fitted with a large winch system. The anchor machine is typically positioned at the top of the slope and the end of the winch cable is attached to the tracked felling machine. The winch system on the anchor machine is typically remote controlled by the operator in the felling machine.” That innovation, Lawler says, makes the approach “one of the first commercial applications of teleoperated [remote controlled] machines in forestry.”
While stressing that the most important benefit to a logging operation utilizing traction assist is employee safety, Lawler points to other enhancements as well. The safer work environment achieved by putting an employee into a machine can mean reduced insurance fees.
Productivity increases are also being seen and, Lawler reports, “Several studies have been done on soil disturbance resulting from the use of machines on slopes, and most parties have found that soil disturbances can be minimized with careful job site planning. In practice, most steep slope harvesting operators have found the cable assisted felling machine can be used to repair areas where soil disturbance has occurred before leaving the site.”
Lawler believes that the timber industry, whether steep slope or not, may be at an “inflection point” in its history; the point at which an event, or series of events, brings fundamental and lasting change to that industry.
“As an engineering director at John Deere, I am often asked what the future in forest harvesting technology will look like,” Lawler comments. “Looking at past trends and future predictions, I consider that the most likely hypothesis is that labor shortages will continue. As a result, increased automation on forestry machines will ultimately lead us to autonomous vehicles in forestry.”
“Skidders and forwarders will likely be the first segment of the industry where we will see autonomous machines. Increased use of site mapping technologies will enable route planning to occur. Removing the operator from the system will enable smaller, lighter weight machines that will likely work in groups where one larger machine will be replaced by several smaller machines that will work for longer hours in a day.”
The size of the industry, the complexity of the environment harvesters work in, cost, and sometimes a reluctance to do new things are all issues, Lawler says, that make achieving radical change challenging, but the need to put employee health and safety first and continued difficulty finding skilled employees require those challenges be addressed.
“As an engineer, I believe the best way to predict the future is to create it,” he says, adding that contractors, equipment manufacturers, and even the regulators have been working in concert to create that future. That opportunity to work with stakeholders for the betterment of the industry is, Lawler professes, “Exciting to me.”
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