‘Smart’ trucks improve efficiencies

October 27, 2011

Timbernology is a relative newcomer to the world of timber transport, but it has made quite an impact on the industry in a short period of time. It is one of only a few timber transport companies operating PBS or 'Smart' vehicles, which are considered to be the cutting edge of timber transport, capable of carrying bigger loads and improving all-round efficiencies.

Timbernology PBS truck Timbernology PBS truck
PBS or 'smart' truck heading for the mill with a full 50 tonne load. Francois Joubert of Timbernology.
Timbernology PBS truck carrying aluminium Timbernology drivers
Timbernology truck carrying aluminium on the return trip from Richards Bay to the midlands. Timbernology drivers and trucks are monitored, and driver performance awards are held regularly.

Timbernology is owned by Francois Joubert, a qualified accountant who bought a timber farm in the Piet Retief area in 2002 after returning from a spell of living and working in the UK. When his trees were ready to harvest in 2005, Francois set up Timbernology and bought a Scania 470 'King of the Forest' to haul the timber to the mill. He also secured a small subcontract arrangement with SQF in Zululand.

Sound business fundamentals and passion for the industry led to Francois purchasing three new MAN 33480s in 2007, contracting for TWK and NCT, mainly around Vryheid and Paulpietersburg, doing the long haul to Richards Bay.

Timbernology quickly earned a reputation for efficiency and reliability, and was successful in securing two transport contracts from Mondi in mid-2010 to haul around 440 000 tonnes of timber a year. The terms of the contract included the requirement to operate seven 'Smart' trucks, special permit PBS vehicles designed to improve efficiencies and cost effectiveness, thus providing considerable benefits for both the grower and contractor.

Timbernology's Smart vehicles are Scania R500 8x4s, with specially designed five-axle trailers made by TPI in Pinetown. These are the 'second generation' Smart vehicles to be designed and built in South Africa, and have a number of innovations. The total vehicle length has been reduced from 27 metres to 25 metres, just three metres longer than the standard timber trucks on the road. Yet with a tare mass of 19 100, these trucks are capable of carrying a 50 tonne payload, compared to a standard timber truck payload of 38 tonnes.

The benefits of those extra 12 tonnes per trip are significant, and go beyond the obvious cost benefits for timber grower and transport contractor. They mean significantly fewer vehicles on the road, reduced road damage and reduced fuel consumption and harmful emissions per tonne/timber delivered to the mill.

But there's a lot of additional admin and red tape that an operator of these vehicles must negotiate, as Francois explains. Firstly, these vehicles can only be operated with special permits issued by the KZN Department of Transport, and there are a host of strict safety and operational standards and rules that have to be complied with. The operators must be RTMS accredited, the vehicles are only allowed on designated routes within KZN, and are constantly monitored by the DoT authorities.

Sappi and Mondi worked together with the CSIR, transport operators, vehicle and trailer manufacturers and the DoT over a period of several years to develop these vehicles, which are based on similar vehicles being used in Australia.
The essential difference between a standard rig and a PBS or 'Smart' vehicle is that the standard rig must conform to set dimension and mass limitations, whereas a PBS vehicle must meet certain performance standards relating to safety, stability, handling ability and so on. This allows vehicle operators to achieve higher productivity and safety through innovative vehicle design. They have been dubbed 'Smart' trucks because they work smarter.

In 2008, Sappi and Mondi obtained one PBS permit each, and after those vehicles had proved their effectiveness, they obtained 15 PBS permits each. The 'second generation' PBS vehicles now being rolled out have a few improvements from the first ones, including a shorter overall length. Francois predicts that the total vehicle length will come down even further to match the standard timber trucks (22 metres).

Of course, the cost of putting a Smart truck on the road is considerably higher – R2,3 million compared to R1,8 million for a standard rig. Francois expects his trucks to last for three years or 700 000 kms, after which they will need to be replaced. The trailers have a 10-year lifespan.

Francois has installed Loadtech on-board weighing systems and central tyre inflation on all his trucks. A sophisticated on-board driver monitoring programme called 'King of the Road' and managed by FM Telematics/Compass provides detailed data on vehicle and driver performance. The trucks are maintained under contract by the manufacturer.
Francois employs experienced drivers who receive extensive on-going training. They average 97% on the 'King of the Road' balanced scorecard which measures driving style, time performance, payload accuracy and fuel consumption.

The Timbernology Smart trucks are used to transport timber from the Richmond area to Richards Bay and Sappi Saicor in Umkomaas. Timbernology also operates seven standard rigs hauling timber out of the Paulpietersburg area – also for Mondi.

Francois has introduced another innovation to the timber industry as part of a joint project which can improve efficiencies significantly. Current project outlines are to haul aluminium from the Bayside smelter in Richards Bay to Hulamin in Pietermaritzburg, where it is processed into various products. This means that the standard Timbernology trucks that carry timber from the Midlands to Richards Bay carry aluminium to Pietermaritzburg on their return journey. The only modification required to accommodate this load is folding bolsters that can carry load. This arrangement converts into significant cost savings all round.

Meanwhile, efforts are being made by the timber companies and transport operators to negotiate with the Mpumalanga traffic authorities to allow 'Smart' trucks to operate in that province as well. This could be a boost for timber growers in southern Mpumalanga, especially as it would reduce the cost of long-haul transport.

Published in August 2011

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