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.