Mechanisation changing the face of forestry
New machines transforming forestry operations in South Africa
Poorly operated and managed forestry machines can be costly, ineffective and downright dangerous. But in the right hands, in the right place and in the right combinations they can deliver a reliable, sustainable, cost effective flow of timber that could turn your business into a winner. The Focus on Forest Engineering Conference, held at Piet Retief, put the spotlight on the mechanization process that is transforming South Africa’s forestry operations, providing a platform for learning and sharing ideas.
Modernisation or mechanisation … there was a lot of talk about the difference between these two concepts last year, but this year the gap has narrowed as industry insiders recognize that they are essentially one and the same thing, so lets stop beating about the bush.
Mechanisation – in the right place at the right time – is becoming increasingly imperative due to the competitive nature of global timber and fibre markets. This means quite simply that in order to compete, the South African industry has got to grow timber, harvest it and get it to the processing site and then to market as cost effectively and sustainably as producers like Brazil, who are way ahead in the mechanization process.
But not every tree farmer in South Africa is competing with the Brazilians, and not every compartment can be prepared, planted and harvested with machines, so there will always be places where manual and semi-mechanised systems are more appropriate.
Then there is the issue of sustainability. Not only must South African forestry operations be efficient and cost-effective (that’s a no-brainer), but they also need to meet a string of challenges related to people and the environment, which cannot be compromised by the equipment and systems selected:
· Minimise environmental impacts
· Achieve energy efficiency
· Conserve water resources
· Conserve biodiversity
· Conserve soil integrity
· Protect carbon balance
· Ensure the highest standards of health and safety
· Create decent, sustainable jobs
· Meet national BBBEE transformation objectives
· Create opportunities for community involvement in forestry operations
· Ensure neighbouring communities benefit from forestry operations
· Ensure employees, shareholders and the nation benefit from your forestry operations.
It was clear from the presentations at the conference that mechanization is a process that has accelerated in the past few years. The spike in the minimum wage for forestry workers that occurred in South Africa in 2013 was the driver for the recent wave of mechanization, although the process has been gathering momentum for a number of years.
The pioneers of mechanization are the corporate timber companies and their contractors, followed by innovative commercial growers and farmers pursuing their own ideas, but keeping an eye on the big companies so they can learn from their mistakes.
Harvesting was the first operation to be mechanized. Now it’s silviculture – land preparation, pitting, planting and weed control – that is at the forefront of mechanized innovation. It’s no surprise that these machines featured prominently in the field day after the conference.
Safety and ergonomic considerations are frequently mentioned as key drivers for mechanization. Going hand in hand with these considerations are issues around operator training and machine maintenance.
Considering the high capital and running costs of forest machines – and the consequences when things go wrong (machine down-time, high cost of repairs, safety of operator and people working in the vicinity) – it’s imperative that operators are:-
· well trained specialists with general forestry knowledge
· wide awake, alert, healthy and have a good attitude to the job
· responsible for the routine maintenance of the machine, or at the very least are able to understand the mechanics so that they can anticipate/avoid mechanical problems arising, and can identify mechanical problems when reporting to a supervisor/mechanic.
Regarding machine maintenance, there is general agreement that effective, routine maintenance is critical, as are manufacturer support and spare part availability. Most (if not all) successful mechanised operations have excellent in-house equipment maintenance and repair capacity.
Good planning and management, are also essential ingredients for successful mechanized operations.