New Zealand Logger - - Contents - Story & pho­tos: John El­le­gard

Our quar­terly fo­cus on the New Zea­land milling and pro­cess­ing sec­tor vis­its the op­ti­mis­ing log pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity es­tab­lished by Hiku­rangi For­est Farms just out­side Gis­borne, which has been the key to con­vert­ing its har­vest­ing crews to stems op­er­a­tions. It’s taken longer than ex­pected to get up and run­ning, but suc­cess is get­ting closer.

PLENTY OF PEO­PLE HAVE TOLD HIKU­RANGI For­est Farms (HFF) that the am­bi­tious plan to stop in-for­est log mak­ing in favour of trans­port­ing stems to a stand-alone op­ti­mis­ing plant near Gis­borne would never work.

By the end of July, HFF aims to prove all the doubters wrong as it puts the fi­nal touches to a project that be­gan some 18 months ago (not in­clud­ing the plan­ning).

It’s been a long jour­ney but the end is in sight, says Ian Brown, Gen­eral Man­ager of HFF.

There were times when the com­pany it­self doubted whether the Op­tilog op­er­a­tion at Matawhero would ever work the way it was en­vis­aged. The chal­lenge of tak­ing a ten-year-old log mak­ing line from Otago and turn­ing it into a state-of-the-art op­ti­mis­ing fa­cil­ity that would dou­ble its pre­vi­ous out­put was look­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult, as con­stant break-downs and a host of other is­sues took their toll.

It was, how­ever, the sort of chal­lenge that ap­pealed to Ian Brown.

Fresh from run­ning the Forestry Cor­po­ra­tion of New

South Wales Soft­wood Divi­sion and fol­low­ing 15 years in Ro­torua with Fletcher Chal­lenge Forests, Ian was ready to get his teeth into some­thing new.

“Af­ter nine years in Aus­tralia I needed a fresh chal­lenge, and this res­onated with me,” says Ian, who took over when Paul Ainsworth re­tired mid-last year.

When he ar­rived, the plant was al­ready in­stalled and work­ing, whilst har­vest­ing crews were in the process of con­vert­ing to cut­ting stems rather than logs. But the op­er­a­tion was run­ning nowhere near the pro­jected ca­pac­ity of 3,300 tonnes per day over two shifts.

“We dis­cov­ered that tak­ing a ten-year-old plant, cut­ting it up, ship­ping it north, putting it back to­gether, adding some new parts and ex­pect­ing it to work fine was wish­ful think­ing,” says Ian.

“It’s not like in­stalling a com­pletely new sys­tem. You have bear­ings that are wear­ing, ram sets had gone, prob­lems with elec­tron­ics – it just seemed to go on and on. So we’ve been go­ing through this con­tin­u­ous process of re­ju­ve­nat­ing the plant. From lit­tle things right through to re­plac­ing big items, like drive chains at $120,000 a pop be­cause they are ba­si­cally worn out.

“When we want to run for hours at a time, the re­li­a­bil­ity is not there. It’s been ter­ri­bly frus­trat­ing for ev­ery­one.

“We are now at the point where we are run­ning a main­te­nance pro­gramme and try­ing to get our­selves into do­ing pro­grammed pre­ven­ta­tive main­te­nance so we re­duce break­downs. Un­til re­cently we were just putting out fires and not get­ting ahead.

“Ev­ery so of­ten we run a four-day week and a six­day week, so it gives us a three-day week­end for pre­ven­ta­tive main­te­nance work, with ev­ery­one in the plant at the same time to get that done. Come Mon­day, we have all that out of the way. We are slowly get­ting on top of it. The down­time is down by around 50% com­pared to what it was be­fore Christ­mas.”

The idea seemed like a good one when HFF de­cided to make such a rad­i­cal shift in its forestry busi­ness on the East Coast.

Safety was a pri­mary driver, re­quir­ing less man­ma­chine in­ter­ac­tion on the land­ings, with the com­pany declar­ing a bold plan to reach zero-harm in its for­est op­er­a­tions by 2020.

En­vi­ron­men­tal con­sid­er­a­tions were also a fac­tor, through the elim­i­na­tion of log grade sorts in the for­est al­low­ing HFF to build smaller land­ings. The re­duc­tion in earth­works would also lessen sed­i­men­ta­tion from the fre­quent storms hit­ting the re­gion.

Fur­ther­more, the waste wood nor­mally cut off and left at the land­ings and skid sites would be re­moved from the for­est, elim­i­nat­ing the risk of this ma­te­rial find­ing its way into river systems. The waste pro­duced from the stems at the op­ti­mis­ing plant was ear­marked for chip­ping, destined for the Pan Pac pulp plant in

Napier and the Oji Mill in Kaw­erau.

Even the pur­chase of a sec­ond-hand op­ti­mis­ing log mer­chan­diser – for­merly used by Wenita For­est Prod­ucts at its Mt Al­lan su­per skid near Dunedin – rather than a much more ex­pen­sive new sys­tem seemed to make sense. Money saved from that decision would be required to de­velop the flood-prone site at Dun­stan Road, which was orig­i­nally go­ing to house a brand new saw mill un­til the 2008 Global Fi­nan­cial Col­lapse put paid to that project.

The chal­lenges weren’t, how­ever, only re­stricted to the plant. Get­ting the crews out in the for­est used to pro­duc­ing stems that would suit the new op­er­a­tion wasn’t a case of switch­ing from one for­mat to another.

“Ba­si­cally, we started off say­ing cut it as long as you can and what­ever it looks like, chuck it on a trailer,” says Ian.

“They ar­rive here and we see big bent corkscrews and you can’t get them through the plant. One as­sumes that ev­ery tree is straight be­cause they look straight when they are stand­ing in the for­est, but they are bent and twisted. So we de­vel­oped a spec­i­fi­ca­tion for stems and if they are too bent and twisted the crews do another cut just to straighten them out to get them through the plant. We are into our third it­er­a­tion to get it right.”

Even trans­port­ing the logs to the plant has cre­ated headaches. It’s not like the KPP plant in Kain­garoa For­est, which is fed by off-high­way trucks that can carry as much as 100 tonnes per load (Ian is fa­mil­iar with this be­cause he was responsible for the Webb Road fa­cil­ity when at Fletcher Chal­lenge Forests). All stems sup­plied to the Op­tilog op­er­a­tion at Gis­borne have to go on high­way, very sim­i­lar to the Pan Pac op­ti­mis­ing log sys­tem in Napier.

“The thing about estab­lish­ing a plant like this is not just putting it in and turn­ing on the key and let­ting it go, it ob­vi­ously changes the whole sup­ply chain from be­gin­ning to end,” says Ian.

“We’ve had to get stems trucks, which are dif­fer­ent to any other trucks, made spe­cially, with 5-axle trail­ers on a pole – the truck trac­tor is the same, al­though it has got a B-type chas­sis. The pole is ad­justable to take the vari­able length stems we have and you can cra­dle by putting the longer lengths on the out­side and shorter lengths on the in­side.”

HFF teamed with lo­cal cartage com­pa­nies Wil­liams & Wil­shire, Pa­cific Haulage and Watchorns to con­vert

the pre­vi­ous fleet of log trucks to stems, which took a while. Patchell built most of the trail­ers and there is now a fleet of 25, which are able to cart 30 tonnes each, though some run at 28.

They col­lect in a ra­dius of 100 kilo­me­tres from the plant, ser­vic­ing all the HFF forests, from Whar­erata in the south to Wairangi in the north, sup­ply­ing mostly pruned wood.

But not ev­ery­thing is com­ing out as stems, says Ian, adding: “We are still hav­ing to cut some as logs.

“Be­cause we are try­ing to get this whole sup­ply chain re­bal­anced you have to deal with a myr­iad of is­sues; the pro­duc­tion of the for­est may be too high and then you haven’t got enough trucks and then Op­tilog falls over and it’s a con­stant bat­tle to try and get it to a steady state. We are kind-of get­ting there now.

“We will never ditch mul­tis be­cause, whether you like it or not, you are go­ing to produce short lengths – you have break­ages, es­pe­cially with our ter­rain – and deal­ing with short lengths has be­come the big­gest chal­lenge for us.

“When we are run­ning long lengths – that’s 11 me­tre-plus – we know we can do 250 tonnes per hour, which would give us 2,800 tonnes a day over two shifts. But we also know we will get some shorts (less than 11 m) and re­gard­less of whether you are putting a piece size of 1 cu­bic me­tre through or 3 cu­bic me­tres, it takes the same time to go through the plant. So our pro­duc­tion slows to 80-to-100 tonnes per hour when we start to process shorts.”

The orig­i­nal idea was to cut 17.5 me­tre lengths to go onto the back of a stems truck, Ian ex­plains. In the­ory, cut­ting a tree in half in the bush would produce those lengths if the trees were 34 to 35 me­tres tall, which they are mostly, al­though some are sub­stan­tially longer than that.

“We soon dis­cov­ered that wasn’t go­ing to work be­cause the waste per­cent­age was too high in the plant,” says Ian.

“We found that the pre-emp­tive cut you make in the bush is ab­so­lutely critical to the amount of waste you have. It’s got to fit into a com­bi­na­tion of lengths of prod­ucts that you’re mak­ing out the back end of it.

“The first 17.5 me­tre lengths – the top end di­am­e­ter – is pretty large still, so you are wast­ing two or three me­tres off the end of those, which is huge vol­ume. What we’ve done is work on a ma­trix of prod­ucts

ver­sus tree length and give the pro­cess­ing op­er­a­tor in the bush a ma­trix that says if your tree length is ‘this’ and your pruned length is ‘that’ then cut it to this par­tic­u­lar length.

“That par­tic­u­lar length varies from 14 me­tres up to 17.5 me­tres. So it’s a kind-of sim­pli­fied cut plan and that’s helped enor­mously. It was just in­tro­duced in the last month and we’ve no­ticed the waste per­cent­age has come down. By waste we’re talk­ing about stuff that is shorter than 3 me­tres. We do have some sales with 2.8s but they are very rare, so nor­mally 3 or 3.1 is our min­i­mum length.”

Another com­pli­ca­tion is that HFF has, for the past 10 years, sup­plied logs to fill a ves­sel to Korea once a month – 30,000 tonnes in one big chunk.

“We know that Korea de­mands 3.7 me­tre lengths, so we are not ac­tu­ally op­ti­mis­ing be­cause you’ve just got to main­line those par­tic­u­lar lengths to be able to hit the tar­get on the ves­sels,” says Ian.

“All we do is tune up the 3.7 in the plant and it spits them out the other end and we put them on the ves­sel, but that hasn’t done us any good in re­cov­er­ing more value out of the for­est. We are in the process of spread­ing that out over three ves­sels, so we do three part-ship­ments.

“Be­cause we sup­ply about 50% Korea and 50% China we can have all the required lengths on the menu at the op­ti­miser all the time. It can then op­ti­mise – in the­ory the more choice it has the bet­ter it does with op­ti­mi­sa­tion.”

One of the big­gest ob­sta­cles that is hin­der­ing the suc­cess of the op­er­a­tion is that no one is sure what the real ca­pac­ity of the plant is at full tilt. When Wenita ran it, the old line used to spit out 1,600 tonnes from rel­a­tively small piece size trees per day. HFF wants to dou­ble that out­put over two full shifts and has in­stalled a new and faster in­feed, along with new JoeS­can op­ti­mis­ers and the lat­est soft­ware.

Ian ex­plains: “We are do­ing a trial at the mo­ment just to see what the ca­pac­ity of the plant is be­cause it is an un­known fac­tor.

“Building on an old plant we’ve never re­ally been able to run the thing flat out, be­cause you’ve got the shorts mixed in with the longs and we’ve had main­te­nance is­sues and what-have-you.

“We have a (Cat 568LL / SATCO 325T) pro­ces­sor on site that is tak­ing care of the shorts, pro­vided by Arana Kuru of A & R Log­ging (which fea­tured in last month’s New Iron).

“We are run­ning the trial for three months to see if

we can keep the shorts out of the plant al­to­gether and just run it on 11-me­tre-plus lengths and get an idea of what sort of pro­duc­tiv­ity it can do on two shifts. If we can get re­ally good pro­duc­tiv­ity and have spare space at the end of the shift then we can ob­vi­ously run the shorts at the end of the shift.

“My feel­ing at this point, af­ter run­ning the trial for about a month, is that we are go­ing to fill up the two shifts with the long lengths and we are go­ing to have to start a third shift just to make shorts and then we’ll let the pro­ces­sor go.

“Hav­ing the pro­ces­sor on site causes a whole lot of is­sues in it­self. The whole site is geared around the mea­sure­ment through the scan­ner, so we have ab­so­lute con­trol over what comes out the other end and we’ve got all the data. Putting shorts through the pro­ces­sor means we have to marry the two bits of in­for­ma­tion. It is a chal­lenge and it is caus­ing us a few prob­lems, but we need to do it to get that sep­a­ra­tion and to un­der­stand what per­cent­age of shorts are com­ing out of the bush.

“We’ve planned for around 20% shorts and at the mo­ment we are run­ning about 30%, so we’ve got to get it down. With some of the crews now on freeflow stems only and not pro­duc­ing logs at all we are start­ing to get closer to that 20%. Then we can just run an ab­bre­vi­ated third shift and deal with the shorts as a spe­cial process and we can get op­er­a­tors who are re­ally good at run­ning shorts fast and not in­ter­rupt­ing the main pro­duc­tion ef­fort.”

Mean­while, waste is still a ma­jor is­sue, even though HFF has con­tracted Herb Reynolds to build a large chip­ping plant on the edge of the Op­tilog yard to deal with all the of­f­cuts.

“You gen­er­ate waste whether you like it or not and you’ve got to man­age it,” adds Ian.

“Un­for­tu­nately, Herb took a while to get his chip­per up and run­ning, so there is a mas­sive pile of residues there that is wait­ing for him. It makes the house keeping look bloody aw­ful. But he’s get­ting up to speed now and we’re see­ing the pile go down.”

C3 does all the log han­dling on site, as well as the steve­dor­ing and mar­shalling, and with three hectares of sealed stor­age space it also means that the Op­tilog yard can sup­ple­ment the stor­age at the nearby port. This en­ables just-in-time de­liv­er­ies to be made through a shut­tle that runs 24/7 be­tween the port and Op­tilog.

Ian says the next step in the process is au­tomat­ing the scal­ing, but that can only take place when ev­ery piece of wood is go­ing through the plant. In spite of the ex­tra ex­pense, Ian is keen to see this done as it will save hav­ing peo­ple on the ground, adding to safety.

“And then we’ll have the ideal plant,” he grins. On that note, it’s time to take a quick con­ducted tour of the site with both Ian and Op­tilog’s Man­ager, Ross McKeague, be­gin­ning with the weigh­bridge and stems off-load area where C3’s Volvo wheel load­ers stack them and also sup­ply the in­feed line. Just off to the side, the A & R Log­ging Cat / SATCO pro­ces­sor is get­ting stuck into the shorts.

Ross is a rel­a­tive new­comer to the for­est in­dus­try, hav­ing worked many years with Ful­ton Ho­gan building and main­tain­ing roads in the Gis­borne re­gion, al­though he did a prun­ing and plant­ing stint as a young man in Man­gatu dur­ing the 1970s.

He took the reins at Op­tilog while it was in the process of be­ing built and he says that be­ing in­volved in the con­struc­tion pro­vided good ground­ing “be­cause it gave me more of a han­dle on how it worked as I knew noth­ing about it”.

Be­ing a start-up op­er­a­tion fur­ther com­pli­cated mat­ters, says Ross, which led to a few sleep­less nights, adding: “It was a pretty fast learn­ing curve.”

Be­hind the in­feed the ground is yet to be sealed and Ross points out that be­cause the site is less than one me­tre above sea level and within a stone’s throw of the beach on one side and river on the other, the wa­ter ta­ble is never far from the sur­face and it be­comes a quag­mire in wet win­ter weather. To make this area more ac­ces­si­ble, stage two of the drainage and seal­ing pro­gramme is to be fast-tracked.

That will be wel­comed by the op­er­a­tors in the two cab­ins where all the op­ti­mi­sa­tion ac­tion takes place, as they won’t re­quire waders to move from their cars to the work­sta­tions.

Just three peo­ple run the Op­tilog op­er­a­tion per shift; the two op­er­a­tors – one for the scan­ner and the other on the saws – plus a gen­eral hand who fills in when they need a break and also keeps the waste chutes clear, along with Ross in his man­age­rial role and a lead­ing hand who keeps an eye on the op­er­a­tion and also does the saw doc­tor­ing.

To­day, in the op­ti­mi­sa­tion cab there are two peo­ple be­cause Ja­son Tan­go­hau is train­ing up Mark Tutty to come in and act as cover when required. Mark works for Qual­ity Peo­ple, a lo­cal labour hire com­pany, so it means he can be called upon at a mo­ment’s no­tice when sick­ness etc strikes. Ja­son joined the op­er­a­tion in May of last year and prefers cut­ting logs to meat, which he did in his pre­vi­ous job at the meat works,

and he is en­joy­ing the job in spite of the frus­trat­ing break-downs.

The three over­head screens show the length of each stem as it ar­rives at the op­ti­mis­ing sta­tion and then de­liv­ers its cut­ting decision for the op­er­a­tor to ap­prove and OK.

In the next cab, 30 me­tres away, Re­nata Kee­lan watches that in­for­ma­tion come through onto his screens and checks that the stem is prop­erly po­si­tioned on the line be­fore or­der­ing the five disk saws to make their cuts. Then he sends them off on the con­veyor to the wait­ing C3-owned Lieb­herr LH 40 hi-load­ers to pluck and place on stacks be­hind them. Re­nata has worked in full saw mills in Northland, as well as at the lo­cal port, so he’s got a good back­ground with logs.

Off to one side is the ser­vice work­shop for C3 and Op­tilog, which also houses the saw store and sharp­en­ing beds. This area is overseen by Mur­ray Brown, who be­gan his life as a saw doc­tor be­fore mov­ing into other lines of work, re­turn­ing to his stock-in-trade when Op­tilog opened last year. Hav­ing an over­seer role in ad­di­tion to sharp­en­ing the blades makes for a sat­is­fy­ing work life for Mur­ray.

Of the blades used on the line, one is 2 me­tres in di­am­e­ter and the other four are 1.85 me­tres, another saw will be con­verted to 2m soon in or­der to take larger butt sizes. The good thing about mak­ing logs with these large blades, com­pared to a chain­saw in the for­est, is they stay sharper far longer and break­ages are rare.

Out in the yard, the logs are placed in large steel bunks to be QC-ed in the tra­di­tional man­ner and tagged, be­fore cart­ing to the port, East Coast Lum­ber or the mill on the for­mer Prime site across the road, which is also in the process of be­ing com­mis­sioned fol­low­ing its sale ear­lier in the year.

Ian says the new mill would have pro­vided a wel­come out­let for a wide range of lengths un­til re­cently, when the spec was changed from a range of lengths with 30cm breaks to 4.8s, 5.5s and 6.1s. He’s hop­ing they’ll ac­cept the smaller length breaks again when their mill is up to speed.

By then, Op­tilog will have over­come its own com­mis­sion­ing is­sues and should be meet­ing the ex­pec­ta­tions of its own­ers, al­beit later than orig­i­nally planned.


Far left: Saw Doc­tor and Lead­ing Hand, Mur­ray Brown, in­spects this newly sharp­ened blade be­fore it gets bal­anced. Left: Stand­ing by the tagged logs in the yard are Op­tilog Man­ager, Ross McKeague (left), and Ian Brown, Gen­eral Man­ager of Hiku­rangi...

The in­feed was one of the all-new parts of the Op­tilog in­stal­la­tion.

Above left: Trainee, Mark Tuffy, at the con­trols of the op­ti­mi­sa­tion process, overseen by reg­u­lar op­er­a­tor, Ja­son Tan­go­hau (stand­ing). Above right: Hav­ing gone through the JoeS­can, this screen tells the op­er­a­tor the cut choices the com­puter has...

The Volvo stacks stems onto the in­feed bed.

This Cat / SATCO pro­ces­sor, owned by A & R Log­ging, is cut­ting shorts in the yard as part of a 3-month study of the op­er­a­tion’s ca­pac­ity.

The Hiku­rangi For­est Farms’ new Op­tilog op­er­a­tion from the air.

This Wil­liams & Wil­shire Ken­worth re­ceives its last packet be­fore head­ing to the wharf 15 min­utes away.

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