A newly available remote radio-controlled cable skidder winching system could be a logging double play, delivering increased productivity—and reducing operator fatigue.
By Tony Kryzanowski
Canadian cable skidder operators can now install remote radio-controlled equipment that allows them to operate the equipment’s winch functions from outside the cab. If the forest industry embraces this technology—particularly in select cut hardwood environments where cable skidders are widely used— it could also have a dramatic impact on the role and long term employability of cable skidder operators. For example, it could mean fewer visits to the chiropractor and a reduction in work-related injuries due to falls when entering and exiting the skidder cab during choking operations.
A recent Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada (FERIC) study showed that a cable skidder winch operated by radio remote control increases operator productivity by as much as 25 per cent and drastically reduces fatigue. Ontario forestry equipment supplier G F Preston Sales and Service in Sundridge, north of Huntsville, has begun outfitting skidders with this newly available system that incorporates European technology. After working for over a year trying to introduce a French-built model into the Canadian market, Preston has opted for what it believes is a better German-built model through a company called HM Radio.
“The biggest shortcoming to the French model was price,” says G F Preston Sales and Service manager Don Preston. “It was over $10,000 to install. Our installed price on this HM Radio model is in the $4,500 to $7,900 range, depending on machine configuration. A lot of guys we talked to said if it was in the $6,000 to $8,000 range, they’d look at it.” He adds that the German unit is much smaller, more user friendly, more serviceable, and comes with self-diagnostic capability. So far, they have completed one installation and have three more on order. Former FERIC researcher Jean-Marie Golsse worked for 15 years with the research institute and one of his interests was improving operating conditions for cable skidder operators. “That job involves a lot of sweat, pain and suffering,” he says.
Golsse conducted a radio remote control study for FERIC, in which a remote control system was tested by Pembroke area logger Jamie Enright on a Timberjack 350 cable skidder. The contractor himself, part owner of M J Enright and Sons Logging, was so impressed with it that he bought the system used in the study. Radio remote control winching, and even remote control skidder driving, is very popular in Europe. There are over 500 units installed in skidders working primarily in mountainous European regions, such as the Pyrenees and Alps.
The success of remote control units in Europe begs the question of why North American cable skidder operators and manufacturers have not embraced this technology. In his FERIC report, Golsse says one reason is a general lack of knowledge among North American contractors of the availability and usefulness of the devices. “Remote controls are seen as a relatively expensive luxury item that skidder operators should be able to live without; thus, their purchase can appear wasteful of hard-earned dollars,” he wrote.
He concluded, however, that once operators tried a unit, that this perception of it being a frivolous purchase quickly fades. In an interview, Golsse added that it is a misconception that in Canada the cable skidder operator is required to stay in the cab during winching for safety reasons. He knows this because he was a member of the governing safety organization responsible for monitoring these issues. In his FERIC report, he wrote: “Since the operator can better monitor and control the load being dragged to the skidder, the operation can actually become safer to both the operator and any nearby fallers. Additionally, by reducing the need to frequently climb into the cab for winching, the remote control greatly reduces the risk of slips and falls from the machine.
Overall, the combination of benefits can make such skidding operations safer than those without remote controls.” Preston says he could see the potential of the product immediately because he was well aware of the problem of operator fatigue and safety. His company has been conducting research and development on a reliable, user-friendly, and affordable system for about six years. In a typical cable skidding operation, Preston says the operator enters and exits the cab well over 100 times per shift.
Given the operator’s ability to control the cable skidder’s winch outside of the cab by radio remote control, a remote control winching system has the potential to drastically reduce this need to repeatedly enter and exit the cab. The hand-held unit on the German-built model is much lighter and more compact than the original French version he investigated. It is robust, he adds, with all solid state circuitry. The company provides training in its operation, but generally, he says, “it is really simple to understand.”
Preston adds that loggers in the Sundridge area have been dealing with highly selective hardwood timber harvesting for a number of years, since the Ministry of Natural Resources began its evolution toward revitalizing areas of Ontario’s mixed hardwood forest. “We could see where a remote control winching system offers some real safety and production advantages,” he says. The results of the FERIC study involving M J Enright and Sons Logging speak for themselves. FERIC investigated one work site near Mattawa, Ontario and one near Pembroke between February, 1998 and January, 1999.
The average tree size, stand density and load size was constant, with loads averaging four trees in Mattawa and 6.2 trees in Pembroke. The study made a comparison between cable skidding with the remote control unit and without. Productivity gains with the unit ranged from 15 per cent in Mattawa to 26 per cent in Pembroke. Golsse noted that the difference in productivity was likely because Enright was more familiar with the system by the time he began the second job in Pembroke. All work cycle time elements were shorter with the remote control unit than without it. For example, loading times in the stand—which involved manoeuvring, hauling out the cable, choking and winching in the cable—were about two per cent shorter in Mattawa and 18 per cent shorter in Pembroke.
Landing times, which included travel into the landing, unchoking, piling and traveling back into the stand, were nine per cent shorter in Mattawa and 18 per cent shorter in Pembroke. Unchoking took at least 20 per cent less time with the remote control at both locations. While working in the stand without the remote control, the operator climbed into the cab an average of three times at Mattawa and four times in Pembroke for each work cycle. With the remote control, these numbers decreased by about 40 per cent on each site. At the landing, this improvement was even greater—48 per cent at Mattawa and 62 per cent at Pembroke. Surprisingly, travel times, both loaded and unloaded, decreased with the use of the remote control.
Traveling unloaded showed the greatest time saving at 19 per cent at Mattawa and 26 percent at Pembroke. “It is possible that travel represents the only part of the regular work cycle during which operators can catch their breath,” wrote Golsse, “and that this is less necessary when the remote was in use.” With the remote control system’s demonstrated ability to reduce environmental impact—as compared to conventional North American cable skidding methods—it may also provide loggers with a new tool to gain access to sensitive areas such as riparian zones and the banks of salmon spawning rivers. The system may also open doors to logging in the midst of tourism activity. Golsse says the need to log where people live and vacation is one reason for this method’s popularity in Europe, where plenty of logging activity occurs in highly urbanized areas.
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