11 January, 2021
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.
"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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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."
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
"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
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