Forestry Plant & Equipment: growing and diversifying
Phillip Hall, often referred to as ‘Mr Mechanisation’ in forestry circles, is one of the most experienced people in South Africa when it comes to mechanised harvesting.
He has been working with big machines his entire career, and most of it has been focused on forestry. He is frequently invited to forestry field days and conferences to demonstrate harvesting systems, or to talk about the challenges of running mechanised harvesting operations. Forestry audiences don’t always like what he has to say though, because Phillip is a straight talker, and he doesn’t beat about the bush.
His energy and drive – coupled to his vast mechanical experience – has been largely responsible for turning Nelspruit-based Forestry Plant & Equipment (FP & E) into a leading forest machine business focusing on equipment hire, repairs, servicing and maintenance, equipment sales and support and mechanised forestry contracting. The company currently employs 300 people.
FP & E was one of the first businesses to introduce forestry equipment hire and backup in the Lowveld region, back in 1998. When one of the contractors hiring equipment went out of business, FP & E stepped into the breach and took over the contract. The rest, as they say, is history.
FP & E is currently contracting to Sappi in Mpumalanga, MTO and PG Bison in the Western Cape, Montigny Investments and Peak Timbers in Swaziland. These are harvesting and shorthaul contracts. Total timber harvested by the company is around 850 000 tons timber per year.
FP & E also has a timber handling contract with Sappi in the Ngodwana Mill timber yards.
Phillip Hall has always been an innovator willing to test new machines in the field and figure out how to optimise productivity. As a result he has developed a good working relationship with a number of equipment manufacturers, and it is no surprise that he is now the licensed dealer for leading forestry brands including Waratah and Peterson grinders and chippers.
The company also has strong links with Caterpillar and John Deere as Phillip has many of these machines in his fleet and knows how to get the best out of them.
FP & E has for a number of years been working with a rotary pitting head. This head is currently mounted on a Kobelco excavator and is undergoing further R and D to turn it into a one-stop pitting and planting head.
FP & E has been running Waratah heads for many years and has a lot of experience with them. A new head that Phillip is highly impressed with is the Waratah 215. It was originally developed for the Brazilian market, but has now found a useful home in South Africa. This head handles Eucalyptus with ‘soft hands’ and is capable of de-barking with minimal damage to the timber, while maintaining a high level of productivity.
Phillip says it is a lighter head than the Waratah 616 and needs less hydraulic power than the more aggressive heads. The key feature of the 215, according to Phillip, is that the knives do the de-barking – not the rollers – hence the damage to the stem is minimal.
Phillip uses a Waratah 290 for pine saw timber harvesting.
The company also does quite a bit of steep slope harvesting, and has built an excavator yarder that ticks all the right boxes. This is an area that Phillip wants to focus on going forward.
In-field chipping operation
A few years ago FP & E was the supplier of a large 5900 Peterson disk chipper and a 4800F chain flail debarker that was used by Sappi in KZN to test run an in-field chipping operation.
However this project has been sent back to the drawing board due to the high cost of transporting the chips to the mill.
However Phillip is convinced that chipping has a huge role to play in maximising our forestry resources and it is just a matter of finding the right location and developing the right business model to make it work.
Phillip has some very firm ideas about mechanised forestry operations. He believes that when it comes to carriers of harvesting and processing heads, excavators are the way to go, although he acknowledges that purpose-built equipment has its place.
Excavator vs purpose-built
“Excavators are cheaper than purpose-built machines, and when you’re finished with them you can sell them as used equipment,” says Phillip.
He also prefers processing at roadside. His preferred harvesting system is to use a feller-buncher working ahead of a grapple skidder which hauls tree lengths to roadside. The timber is de-barked and cross-cut with two excavator-mounted Waratah heads.
The big advantage of this system, apart from the high productivity, is that it leaves the compartments clean and ready for re-establishment.
One of the biggest challenges faced by contractors using highly mechanised systems, according to Phillip, is that many of the young foresters managing these contractors lack experience and an understanding of how mechanised systems work. This is a huge cause of frustration for the contractors who need to keep their machines operating at a high level of productivity in order to cover the high capital and running costs.
Also, the trend in South Africa is that tree stem diameters are getting smaller, due to the fact that growers are harvesting their trees earlier and earlier. This has a huge impact on the productivity of mechanised harvesting systems. In this scenario, equipment selection and optimization is key.
Of course, no mechanised forestry operation will succeed without serious capacity to service and maintain the machines working in the field. Nobody knows this better than Phillip Hall, who has established a formidable team of experienced and highly trained people to do just that.
“Don’t rely on the manufacturer to keep your machines running, no matter what they say,” says Phillip. “You are on the spot and you must have the capacity to do routine and preventative maintenance and repairs. You can’t afford any weak links in the chain. If one machine breaks down, your whole system can be standing idle, and you will be bleeding money.”
And as in sport, we all know how hard it is to play catch-up!
FP & E is about to open a new facility next door to their existing premises in Nelspruit to house the growing equipment sales and backup side of the business. This will include serious spare parts inventory and operator training facilities.
“We will sell you the best equipment for the job, fit it out with the required safety features, show you how to run it optimally and train your operators,” says Phillip.
A major advantage that FP & E enjoys is that the equipment has been tried and tested in their own forestry contracting operations, so they know how to make it work.
Accreditation of FP & E’s training facility by the Seta is also on the cards, and the company is keen to play a role in providing forestry students with an opportunity to gain exposure to mechanised systems as part of their training. The company already does extensive training for their own mechanics and operators, utilizing a Waratah simulator to get their operators up to speed.
And if you notice the familiar Forestry Plant & Equipment logo on a tiny forestry machine carrying the kicking Tee to the place kicker at Mbombela Stadium, you’re not seeing things.
The company is one of the official sponsors of the Puma’s rugby team, and has contributed to the team’s resurgence in recent times. This is a way of giving back to the community some of the success that FP & E has enjoyed in the Lowveld forestry industry.
*First published in SA Forestry magazine, October 2017