Eco-harvester attracts global attention

02:47, Sep 03 2012
Nick Ross
COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL: Wellington industrial design graduate Nick Ross, and his award-winning tree harvesting machine prototype 'The Axolotyl'.

When Wrigley's began synthetically manufacturing its chewing gum base, Colombian gum tappers lost their livelihood, and many were plunged into poverty.

This cautionary tale - possibly apocryphal - set Wellington industrial designer Nick Ross on a quest to solve forestry's No 1 problem: deforestation.

"I stepped back and looked at the big picture and I thought, 'Why not tackle the root cause?' When you strip the forest, it has impacts elsewhere."

'The Axolotyl'
FOREST FOR THE TREES: 'The Axolotyl' award-winning tree harvesting machine prototype by Wellington industrial design graduate Nick Ross. It has been touted as having potential to revolutionise the forestry sector.

The former St Patrick's College and Scots College pupil then spent four months in Sweden brainstorming a solution with forestry insiders.

He grilled company reps, forestry specialists, machine operators and forest owners and found a possible answer - the Axolotl.

His prototype eco-tree harvester has since earned him international acclaim.


Touted as having the potential to revolutionise the forestry sector, the "selective bio-harvester" won the 25-year-old the New Zealand spot in the 2012 James Dyson international student design award.

It has put Mr Ross on the radar of New Zealand government forestry and research development institute Scion, and earned him acclaim from the international design community.

Now back in Sweden in the small city of Falun, he has gone back to the Skogstekniska research cluster, an umbrella think tank of Swedish forestry groups incubating forestry technology projects.

His latest Swedish sojourn is also an opportunity to discuss the Axolotl's commercial potential with big names in the Nordic forestry equipment game.

Named after the threatened Mexican walking fish, the Axolotl is designed to cut and separate tree trunks, branches and needles on site, and return nutrients in a naturally regenerative loop.

Using grapple shears rather than a chainsaw allows trunks to be cut closer to the ground, which gets 5 to 7 per cent more timber and means stumps rot faster. A "bio-log" produced by the machine from compressed, bundled branches can be used right away as on- site vehicle fuel.

The Axolotl's weight is spread more evenly over the forest floor than conventional harvesters while its tracks, or bogies, roll over the ground gently, leaving less of a footprint.

It also avoids traditional tree- harvesting methods requiring repeat visits to the forest by heavy trucks, which cause soil compaction and damage to surrounding trees.

Dyson award head judge David Lovegrove, from the Designers' Institute of New Zealand, praised the research behind the design and its environmental awareness too.

'He didn't set out to design a tree harvester. He approached the design with the simple question, how do you grow trees better? So we were encouraged to see sustainability was a core motivation in the product's development, and during the design process."

As for its commercial future, Mr Ross says: "I'm not that precious about getting the concept off the ground. It's just a conversation piece, really."

Without discounting its market viability, his real hope is that the Axolotl continues to inspire new thinking in forestry.

"Half of the battle with this project was bringing the impacts of globalisation and climate change to the fore. The other half was getting forestry on board."

The Axolotl will compete against designs from 18 other countries for the international James Dyson Award, to be announced in November.

The Dominion Post