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Rodrigo Palazuelos

Senior Forestry Operations Consultant at RP Forest


Different harvesting systems in hilly areas used in South America

The global forestry industry faces cross-cutting challenges to ensure its sustainability. Companies in competitive environments, whose production processes depend on the supply of raw materials for the pulp, sawmills, sheet metal and coal industries, have advanced in the sense that their concern is not only economic and satisfies environmental issues and the well-being of its workers. Values such as the relationship with the community, security in its processes and efficiency are possible to be managed and continuously improved.

Global trends, such as reducing emissions and electrification, business growth in carbon credits (plantations and native forests) and decline in skilled labor, drive our industry to move towards high and efficient levels of mechanization (whatever it may be) in forest activity with a high standard of technology and digitization and operational excellence. In forest harvesting, this has been very evident and highly visible due to the relevance of the cost of wood.

In this context, forestry companies have developed and implemented strategies to improve the harvesting process, which have been carried out with specialists, equipment manufacturers and suppliers, resellers and contractors, with varying levels of success. The mechanization of harvesting operations in flat sectors has undergone sustained development for 40 years that has reached a very high point of sophistication all over the world.

But in areas with slopes, the reality has been different. Naturally, with higher cost due to low productivity and technological difficulty, these areas have been neglected in the development of a technology process. But there was a turning point in New Zealand in the early 2010s, when several contractors saw the urgent need to improve their safety performance, due to the unfortunate and recurring fatal, disabling and very serious accidents in their high slope harvesting operations.

Therefore, interest in mechanized dumping grew, adding inventions years later, such as winches to assist excavators and motorized trolleys with grapples. The first few years of mechanization were trial and error. Continuous and complex improvements in the performance of equipment and operators made it possible to find a solution, despite adverse geographical, climatic, cultural and planning conditions.

Contracting companies like Ross Wood Contracting, Climbmax and DC Equipment took the lead in their processes, developing prototypes that were tested in their operations, some of them with successful development until today. The Future Forestry Research initiative and its mechanized harvesting program, together with government support, was a relevant pillar.

Then came seminars and operational workshops , and these processes spread to countries with high slope harvesting operations with similar problems. This is how , mainly in the United States, Canada, Chile and South Africa (whose common denominator is the large-scale pine plantation forestry industry, with a large proportion on high slopes), mechanized harvesting operations were gradually incorporated into their Law Suit.

Currently, mechanized harvesting operations in sloping areas are widespread in most countries, with several challenges that projects of this scale had to face: technological improvement of equipment, transformation of forest planning processes for roads in the field, operator training, equipment maintenance, different security challenges, additional efforts in working capital and investment, variability in productivity and usage factor (utilization). The success stories were carried out by those who, in addition to being daring to move forward, knew how to approach and simultaneously improve each of these variables.

In the case of South America, Chilean companies currently have the highest levels of mechanization in hilly areas in the region and in the world. The joint development of forestry companies, equipment manufacturers and suppliers, and contractor companies has achieved a virtuous and exponential relationship that has enabled world-class safety and efficiency standards to be achieved. In Brazil, the development of mechanization of medium high slopes (less than 35 degrees centigrade) started years ago with short log production systems with auxiliary winches, but for larger slopes (greater than 35 degrees centigrade) there have been only a few advances since some years ago, with greater intensification in 2023. Colombia also faced a gradual process of improvement, but still with many technical and operational challenges in its implementation, from the beginning, for smaller companies these initiatives seem to be more distant.

In Ecuador there are initiatives under development, with study and implementation in very early stages.

Regarding processes in Chile, the most common and successful is the whole tree system , equipped with excavators with directional head and auxiliary winches for turning, mixed logging with hydraulic excavators, towers equipped with motorized trolleys with grapples, Skidder 6 by 6 assisted with winches, and field processing with harvester heads .

This is a 100% mechanized system that, depending on tree size conditions, can produce 15,000 cubic meters per month. The eucalyptus harvesting operations are carried out using the short log production system ( Harvester , Forwarder with auxiliary winches). The European log system with traditional towers (which involves manual cutting with chainsaws) is also still used, considering its 30 years of history. But its use has declined due to the greater efficiency and safety of the 100% mechanized system.

In Brazil, harvesting operations on high slopes (greater than 35 degrees centigrade) in whole tree systems ( Pinus species ) are undergoing a process of transformation from traditional and highly labor-intensive systems (chainsaw, tractor) to medium mechanization systems (traditional European towers) and with the great change to mechanized turning with excavator assisted with squeal for adoption.

In Eucalyptus , the short log production system ( Harvester , Forwarder with assisted synchronized winches) operates widely with high levels of productivity and safety. In Colombia and Ecuador, harvesting systems on high slopes are predominantly manual, both in turning and processing, with high accident rates and low productivity. Short log production systems with auxiliary winches have been successfully implemented in a fraction of their operations for some time now.

The challenge has been to consolidate the training of qualified personnel, evolve in planning processes, improve equipment maintenance systems, improve safety systems ( equipment overturning, accidents in maintenance work), monitor and improve productivity. Structured follow-up, analysis and continuous improvement processes are the common denominator for maintaining the sustainability of this activity.