Technology pushing productivity envelopes
The objective of every machine manufacturer is to produce a machine that can lower the operating costs for clients who purchase their product. This can be achieved by designing the machine to produce more in a given period of time, or by reducing the input costs per machine hour.
By Andrew McEwan
We will examine some of the technologies that are being used, or will be used in the future, to achieve this.
Firstly, the potential productivity and cost savings can only be achieved with a competent operator and comprehensive maintenance programme. Research has shown beyond doubt that the operator effect on productivity is huge. The operator also has a big influence on the costs per machine hour through their operating technique, their ability to pick up faults before they cost lots to repair or result in excessive downtime, and attending to breakdown events professionally.
Considering this, it is concerning that so little attention is given to upskill operators in line with what the harvesting technology has to offer. Simulators for example, have scientifically proven benefits in reducing the learning time required for operators to achieve optimal productivity, and to acquire the operating techniques that reduce machine down time.
As is the case in many other industries, machine operator simulators will increasingly be used to achieve these objectives, and the simulators of the future will utilize virtual reality technology to get closer to operational reality.
Machine manufactures have also realised that to achieve productivity and cost improvements, they cannot just build a machine and wave goodbye to it at the factory gate. They need to harness information from the machine while it is operating to provide feedback on the effectiveness of the technology that they have installed, and measure how the machine is being operated.
The use of sensors and on-board computers have changed the way that machines are managed for both manufacturers and owners. Manufacturers can remotely monitor the machine, its components, the operator and the general management of the machine through telematics. Machine owners can do the same using their smartphones, with live productivity and production information available.
Engine condition, hydraulic condition, faults, tyre pressure, productivity information, production information, operator behaviour, machine location, machine settings, service schedules, maintenance requirements etc can all be monitored, the data analysed and the results distributed to role-players.
Specific focus will be placed on the operator, with their machine handling and productivity monitored in real time, with operator improvement suggestions being made via the onboard computer. In addition, the performance during the shift will also be monitored and compared to prior work, with real-time feedback.
The onboard computer system will increasingly be used for planning activities as well. For example, productivity risk areas identified during operational compartment planning, or daily planning, will be incorporated into the machine’s onboard computer map and linked to GIS. This will give warnings, precautions and advice to the operator regarding the sequence of activities and specific productivity risks. The positions of other machines working in the compartment will also be shown. An increasing number of choices for data transfer to and from the machines will be used depending on location. For example, 2G/3G/4G, satellite, digital radio, wi-fi and bluetooth.
Machine intelligence coupled with the use of sensors will advance to improve the mechanical reliability of machines. For example, control electronics will be embedded in hydraulic components or drive transmission components. This will result in better diagnostics of component problems, or possible future problems. Electronics will be used to protect machines from operator abuse. Sensors will help keep components within their operating range and predict failures.
Also, electronics allows lower engine revs and improves fuel consumption, as the controls will prevent excess revving. The engine revs will also be more constant due to the intelligent selection of gears.
The data storage also provides an audit trail if something does go wrong. On-board computers can now be remotely accessed by service technicians if the data connection options mentioned above are available. They will rectify certain faults remotely, eliminating the need to despatch people to site unnecessarily.
Examples of remote changes are pre-programming of computers, software updates and settings changes. Specialised sensors such as acceleration sensors could be used to detect machine component wear and any critical operating states. This allows for corrective action to avoid potential damage. It is also used to determine how well/poorly the operator is using the equipment.
Some of the most exciting new technologies being developed include power management technologies. In logging operations, the engine does not need to run at peak power all the time. However, a certain level of peak power is needed to handle certain events, for example handling a very big tree.
Engines currently need to run at high revs to meet peak power demand, which can be two to three times higher than average power needs. Machines therefore need larger engines to provide for these peak power demands.
New technologies such as high voltage electric hybrid systems and variable displacement hydraulic pressure with compressed nitrogen, can supply power for peaks and therefore allow lower engine revs, with resultant lower fuel consumption, reduced emissions and longer component life. Engine size can be reduced (e.g. from 6 cylinder to 4 cylinder engines and all the associated benefits like smaller after treatment and cooling systems).
These factors all show that there are still many valuable new technologies which can improve productivity and reduce costs. In the August edition we will examine more of these.
*First published in SA Forestry magazine, June 2017