Machine designed for dangerous work
There is nothing worse than seeing one of your own workers injured on the job, Brightwater logging boss Dale Ewers says.
"When you've got a rescue helicopter over your head and you are winching a man off the hill, it's not good.
"It's really upsetting for us, our staff, their families and the whole community."
It has driven him and his team at DC Repairs to do something about cutting the forestry industry's stubbornly high fatality and accident rate.
Since starting Moutere Logging in 1989, his company has recorded up to 1800 near-hits from incidents involving its own crews during the past 10 years, which sparked a search for solutions.
Better radio communications between those operating haulers and the men on forestry slopes who hook logs on to wire-rope systems brought some improvement but people were still getting hurt, Mr Ewers says.
"We had a bit of a brainstorming session and decided to remove those people by going fully mechanised."
After four years of trial and error and hundreds of thousands of dollars, DC Repairs has just begun producing a piece of equipment they are confident will help save lives and slash injuries by changing the way logs are gathered and hauled up slopes to skid sites. This process – known as breaking out – is responsible for an estimated 40 per cent of all forestry accidents.
However, the Falcon Forestry Claw takes almost all of the risk out of the operation by relying on technology to do the job.
It replaces the need to have men wrestling with heavy chains and hooks on often steep, debris-strewn hillsides while making sure they don't get hit by wayward logs or dislodged rocks.
The claw differs from other grapple hooks and carriages that Mr Ewers has imported from overseas, in that it is fully remotely operated by a worker sitting in a hauler machine up to 700 metres away who uses a hi-tech camera mounted on the grapple to guide it.
The camera beams live into the hauler cab on a flat screen while the operator can start or stop, open or shut or rotate the grapple left or right at a touch of a button.
It also has a better strength-to-weight ratio than its competitors, can bunch and take more logs, doesn't have to be brought back up the hill to reopen and has built-in safety devices such as a fire suppression system.
While the infra-red camera and engine are imported, all the other componentry is made in New Zealand and assembled locally, including the transmitters and receivers that allow the claw to be sent much further away from the hauler, out of line-of-sight and used even at night.
"We are not limited to front hill faces and short pulls; we can pull anywhere, any time."
Mr Ewers says the claw, which costs about $120,000, pays for itself in a year by eliminating two, possibly three jobs, in every logging gang because breakers-out and pole men are no longer required, saving companies money on labour as well as delivering production and safety gains.
It has already cut his company incident rate by more than 30 per cent, with the two gangs using the claw reporting no incidents since they have been using it. His company will not be making anyone redundant, preferring instead to retrain workers in other jobs such as operating haulers and manufacturing.
Mr Ewers says DC Repairs plans to increase its staff by three to 16 as it ramps up production. It has orders for eight machines, including three from New Zealand companies outside his group, and is attracting interest from overseas.
"Yes, there are strong possibilities of overseas sales – I don't want to say too much but people are ringing and asking questions."
It attracted the biggest-ever turnout to a Forest Industry Contractors Association field day at Brightwater last month, which director John Stulen says was an indication of how much interest there was in it.
"It's a significant step forward."
Mr Ewers says the claw has proved just as efficient as chains and men on steep country, and more productive on easier slopes.
"I've pulled out our daily target (of logs) on my own.
"In windthrow areas where half the wood is knocked over, we haven't even had tree fellers. We've just been picking the trees up roots and all."
He sees it as bringing environmental gains to an industry often accused of not cleaning up well after itself.
"You could put a different grapple on and clean slash out of gullies or those big birds nests on skid sites that get washed down in heavy rain and spread it evenly over the hill."
His team – which includes health and safety expert Rob Wooster, DC Repairs manager Barry McIntosh and chief engineer Daryl Peterson – are already working on other applications. They have been helped by Hancock Forest Management NZ, which has allowed them to trial their claw prototypes in its Nelson forests.
"This carriage is just step one of five. Step five is a fully automated hauler. We've got the major componentry; we just need to make it ergonomically better."
The next challenge, Mr Ewers says, is mechanising tree felling.
He has plenty of ideas on how to do that but for now is concentrating on producing the claw.
"But I believe we can build a carriage that can go anywhere, fell trees and break out so we won't have any men down the hill in those danger zones."
The key is having an "awesome team" who don't see technology as a threat but as a way of making forestry safer and more efficient, he says.
"When we get to a zero accident rate and can keep it at zero – and we believe we can – that's when we will be happy. That's what motivates us."