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January : Insourcing and modernising works for York Timbers

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11 January, 2021

Insourcing and modernising works for York Timbers

Insourcing and modernising works for York Timbers

By Joy Crane

Fire is the devastating enemy of the forestry industry and unhinges the whole wood-value chain. In the aftershock, however, fire is often the catalyst for new business strategies and re-engineered production processes.

In 2007 a firestorm in Mpumalanga tore through homes, vast tracts of agricultural lands and 84,000ha of trees, or roughly seven per cent of South Africa and Swaziland's total forested areas.

York Timbers and its staff and their communities were severely impacted. The company's Driekop Sawmill was raised to the ground along with thousands of hectares of its pine plantations under a sustainable yield regime of 20+ years.

Kuda Phairah, York's general manager for forestry, says swift operational decisions had to be made, as well as strategic decisions about the future. "We realised we had a greenfields opportunity to start over," he remarks.

Starting over

"We had a plan to transform our current plantation regime before the fire, and we now had a chance to implement the whole plan instead of a phased-in process;" Phairah explains. The plan included a shift to new products for the structural timber market, which required new silviculture and harvesting programmes.

"We wanted systems that would integrate customer requirements from the mills with accurate forestry resource and information. The entire process is dependent on managers and operators who could make data-driven decisions," he says. "We also wanted to offer skills development and job opportunities for people in the local communities."

Cut to length (CTL) system

York Timbers decided to go the insourcing route and embarked on a programme of capacity building and modernising its silviculture and harvesting systems. Phairah says that the transition from the traditional model of outsourcing mostly manual harvesting processes, to a greenfields model of insourcing and mechanised harvesting is "complicated and there are no shortcuts".

After a period of extensive research, York Timbers selected Ponsse and its cut to length (CTL) harvesting system as its technology provider. "There are other brands that offer the same or similar harvesting solutions; however, Ponsse's approach to the customer relationship convinced us to invest in eight top-of-the-range machines," he remarks.

"Ponsse specialises in CTL and knows the challenges faced by a company making the radical decision to modernise and insource at the same time. They were very particular about their offerings and responsive to our needs."

The pine plantations, largely patula and elliotti are managed on rotations based on a clearfell age of 20 years, and a harvesting target of approximately 3000 hectares per annum. In preparing for the new harvesting systems York trialled planting densities to determine the optimal spacing and time for thinning and clear-felling.

Ponsse machines

Two machines work in tandem in fully mechanised CTL harvesting. A harvester that fells, delimbs, debarks and cross-cuts the trees into logs according to cutting patterns determined by the sawmills. A forwarder extracts and transports the logs to the roadside landing. A smaller harvester and forwarder are used for thinnings because of limited space. 

York has a herd of eight-wheeled Ponsse machines:

  • Two six-wheeled Beaver harvesters for thinnings, but also working in clear felling
  • Two 15t load-bearing capacity Buffalo forwarders for thinnings, but also working in clear felling
  • Two Bear harvesters dedicated to clear felling. The Bear is Ponsse's largest harvester that supports an H8HD full processing harvesting head. It is fully optimised and can cut an assortment of logs required by the sawmills.
  • Two Elephant King forwarders with 20 tonnes carrying capacity are deployed to extract the big timber felled by the Bears.


Phairah says they opted for the wheeled rather than track-based carriers for various reasons. The machines have less impact on the environment and travel efficiently between compartments without requiring a low-bed truck to move them between worksites. Wheeled machines also offer flexibility because they work effectively on both flat and relatively steep terrain without any significant modifications.

An important consideration when investing in any machine is the prompt availability of technical back-up. Modern forestry machines are expensive, and downtime immediately impacts the return on investment.

Back up service by MTS

At the outset of the modernising project Nelspruit-based, MTS Parts was appointed by Ponsse to be their local technical partner. Phairah says that MTS is the first port of call when his team encounters a technical problem they can't solve.

Chris Odendaal, the managing director of MTS, explains that "Our technicians were trained in Finland in 2016 and in 2018, and we receive training locally from Ponsse trainers who travel to South Africa. MTS and Ponsse technicians are in constant contact, and we stay up to date by attending Ponsse's online academy."

If the technical problem persists MTS contacts Ponsse, and because Finland and South Africa are in the same time zone, the machine is soon back in action.

"What I enjoy most about working with Ponsse is how they build a close relationship with their customers," remarks Odendaal. "Their refreshing approach is 'we always listen to our customers because they are the harvesting experts'.We are proud to be part of York's journey of modernising forestry operations, and to be accepted into Ponsse's global network."

Learning curve

There is a steep learning curve when operating a modern harvester and forwarder. Hand-eye coordination must be spot-on, and the operator must be able to control the machine while handling computer systems and technology.

Insourcing requires skilled operators and York installed a simulator eight months before its harvesters and forwarders arrived in 2016. Odendaal says, "the timing was carefully planned so that the operators would be confident and well trained before the machines were delivered."

Ponsse Simulator

The simulator comprises the machine's cab, a real operator workstation and three large screens surrounding the workstation. It exposes the trainee to working in virtual harvesting sites in a safe yet realistic environment.

"From the outset, we wanted to upskill unemployed people from the local community," says Phairah. "We involved Roland Wenhold from Stellenbosch University to help us formally select unskilled operators according to their personalities, intelligence, psychometric and cognitive skills. He monitored their development during simulator training and infield."

Apart from the simulator training, the trainees were also exposed to theoretical courses such as log quality, log scaling, first aid, harvest planning and general forestry exposure.

The insourced operations commenced in May 2016, starting with the clear felling operations followed by the thinnings in July 2016. Every log that is harvested and merchandised is coded and tagged before it is transported from the landing to York's mills in Sabie, Graskop, White River and Warburton, and the plywood plant in Sabie.

It is four years down the line, and Phairah says the decision to modernise all aspects of their operations was the right decision at the right time. "There is still a lot of work to be done because changing technology presents more data and opportunities for making precise management decisions."

 Insourcing and modernising works for York Timbers