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Mechanisation a Reality like “The Jetsons”

Looking back to when I first came on board this role, I found an article written in October 2018 that started off with me saying: “If mobile phones are anything to go by, technology advancement for machinery used in our forests is something that I think will go crazy over the next few years”.

Early adopters of technology 

I then went on to interview a couple of contractors who quoted they were passionate about mechanisation, and as early adopters they had been using it for the last 15 years.

The cost is high but it is important to rationalise that against the cost of a life and keeping our people safe is an easy decision. Another contractor brought up the fact that as labour was in short supply, technology was a way to stay sustainable.

Another contractor I interviewed was aware not to be left behind with the introduction of technology but also recognised the social impact - that technology could lost loyal staff. However I know that during the changeover for this company they did not lose people, rather they were able to upskill them in operating the machinery and they gained enormous production time. They recognised initial high debt but also suggested the principal did not realise the enormity of that debt on SME businesses.

Processors were just coming into fashion if you like, and even then, contractors realised it was a balancing act to keep some manual operators on but, in terms of workload, technology was a way of keeping up with production. 

So where have we got to nearly four years on?

I sent a survey out to FICA members a couple of months ago and called it the Mechanisation Stocktake asking how many logging crews who already owned a tower and swing yarder were using motorised grapple technology for extraction. 

Around 40% of the responses were using that technology and 20% were ground-based. Asking the same question around crews that were using winched assist technology, we had around 50% of the responses being a yes and similarly, 20% were ground-based.

Investment / Future Cost

The next few questions were looking forward on investment into mechanised harvesting and the intention to adopt winch assists. Over 60% of our contractors said they were going to be using that technology in the future. There were woodlot contractors that could not see themselves being able to afford the investment and others still sitting on the “proverbial fence”. The investment into motorised grapple was a given and most contractors had moved that way.

The comments that came out of that survey were most enlightening to me regarding where we have moved over the last few years in our thinking. The major challenges were of course the cost, particularly in the woodlots, where they were struggling against economies of scale and making the investment stack up financially. Most contractors are very supportive of mechanisation if they could get support financially.

“It’s been a good thing… no men on the ground”.

“We would definitely jump at the opportunity. Unfortunately our current tonnage rates do not reflect the move to be fully mechanised”.

“It is seen as the golden solution but going mechanised also has its own challenges which we think management forget about”.

“This is imperative for our future”.

“It’s the way forward”

Supporting the new challenges

So, understanding we have made “iPhone type shifts” with technology in our industry, we also have to be conscious of supporting the new challenges as someone put it above - the fact that we have people sitting in cabs 10 hours a day, means less exercise, less social interaction and the extra risks that come with repair and maintenance on these beasts of machinery.

It won’t stop. There are rapid advancements and now Te Uru Rakau is researching technology in the silviculture sector for planting which was launched recently in Rotorua by Minister Nash. The scope of mechanisation is never-ending as our people become less available with declining unemployment, safety becoming more paramount and production pressures continuing. 

Prue's column first appeared in the NZ Logger Magazine