Redefining Chipper Maintenance

New chipping drum yields dramatic changes, reduced downtime for Louisiana timber firm.

As the general public is finding out each week through shows like the History Channel’s “Ax Men,” offerings on the Discovery Channel such as, “American Loggers” and “Swamp Loggers,” and TLC’s “Heli-Loggers,” the timber and logging industry can be rife with surprises. While those shows tend to focus on all the things that can go wrong on a daily basis (equipment breakdowns, accidents, issues with employees—even alligators), it should be noted that positive things actually do occur to people in the logging profession. For Kenneth Halley, owner of Halley Timber, a Louisiana-based timber company, just such a surprise came in an unlikely place: with an equipment purchase. Prepared to do a regular hours-based replacement of an existing chipper, they took delivery of a newly redesigned Morbark 40/36 chipper and quickly became proponents of that unit’s capabilities. More importantly, however, they were able to confirm what the company had touted during the sale: the new unit’s drum—called the Advantage 3 high-performance chipping drum—yielded a dramatic reduction in maintenance-related downtime and wear part costs.

Surprises? Halley says he’ll take that kind any time.

Halley’s Meteoric Rise

Founded by Bill Halley and based out of Farmerville, La., about an hour and a half east of Shreveport, Halley Timber boasts a nearly six-decade record of service to the timber industry. In that time, what started as a short wood logging operation has evolved into a much more diverse company.

Halley_Jordan“My grandfather gradually built the company up and, in the late ‘70s to early ’80s with the addition of a chipping operation, it really grew into what we are today: a timber purchasing and harvesting company with a focus on long wood, biomass and a newly-added clean chip operation,” says Kenneth Halley, the current owner. “The real growth came with the addition of chipping, which we did throughout the ‘80s and into the early ‘90s. Things were great, but all through that period, the price of natural gas declined steadily to the point where area paper mills stopped buying chips altogether; the only wood fuel they were burning was produced inside their own chip mills.”

Halley says that, while there’s no denying that the loss of that market was a real challenge, they learned early on that theirs is a cyclical business. And, true to form, in 2008, with energy prices on a constant upswing, the chip market opened again and Halley Timber was there to meet the need.

Chipping Away at the Market

Since that rebound, the demand for all products has been fairly constant and sizeable. Today, Halley’s crews do about 200,000 tons of long wood and logs and have also restarted a clean chip operation, which they had shut down in 2009. Halley says the real turnaround, however, has been in the chipping operation.

Halley_IMG_3662“We went from an almost nonexistent market to generating about 120,000 tons of chips a year for biomass use alone,” he says. “Having that market is huge, not just from a standpoint of actually supplying chips to the mills, but also from the competitive edge it provides. Now, when we go to look at a tract of land where someone is interested in selling their long wood or logs, I can also make a deal to buy their slash and other non-merchantable material. By comparison, someone who doesn’t have a chipper is forced to leave that material in a pile or laying onsite and the landowner is not getting any income from it. That’s a huge edge in buying for us.”

All About the Drum

With its chippers once again proving critical to their operation, Halley approached Morbark for a replacement unit in mid-2009, then again in 2010. Based on their needs, Halley Timber chose the popular 40/36 model. Halley says that, going in to the second purchase, they were not aware that the machine had a secret “under the hood,” so to speak.

“We quickly learned that the drum had undergone a major redesign and, when we took delivery, we were asked by Morbark to keep detailed logs of every aspect of the machine’s performance. That included all wear related to holders, knives, holder bolts, anvils—we were asked to keep track of everything. Because we knew what we were getting with the old drums, Morbark obviously saw us as a good point of reference, an ideal way to compare old and new styles. So we agreed to do it but were not prepared for what we would find.”

What they found was a dramatic reduction in wear almost across the board. The combination of bigger bolts, bigger holders and thicker knives virtually eliminated bolt breakage. Knife holder wear, previously an issue, had been alleviated through use of far less-costly replaceable counter knives.

“The real eye-opener for us, though, was in the area of knife wear,” says Halley. “With the old drum, we were generally going through three sets of knives on a 10-load job—the new one reduced that to a single set per day. In fact, we now generally get 12-14 loads off of a single set of knives and, in a hardwood stand, have gotten up to 22 loads on a single set of knives. The difference has been incredible.”

Halley_IMG_3645Time is Money

While improved knife wear itself is a real plus, there are other peripheral benefits that derive from that improvement as well. For example, Halley says that the same man who feeds the chipper also maintains it. In the past, that operator would have to stop the chipping operation three to four times a day to change knives. With each change taking at least 20 minutes, that was at least an hour of lost production every day. The matter is complicated further by the fact that the skidder operator also had to stop his operation to assist in the knife changes.

“Now we simply change knives at the end of the day and have the unit ready for startup in the morning,” he says. “In addition, our knife sharpening time—and the labor associated with it—has been reduced by two-thirds. I don’t even have a full-time knife sharpener any more.”

The change was so measurable and so impressive that, three months after purchasing the 40/36 with the Advantage 3 drum, Halley retrofitted the 40/36 they’d owned for a year with the new drum as well. “Couple all those benefits with the fact that the chips are more uniform—which is better for our customers’ biofuel operations—and we can now get 18 to 20 loads of chips on a single tank of fuel, and it’s easy to see why we’re impressed,” he says. “In my estimation, this is the perfect combination of strength and durability in any drum available today.”

Playing to Their Strength

With its maintenance issues handled, Halley says they are better equipped to do what they do best: serve the customers of north-central Louisiana.

“Our landowners are very well-educated when it comes to timber because it is one of the staples that keeps people thriving in this area—most people own land primarily to grow timber,” says Halley. “At one time, we had four paper mills and a dozen sawmills within 50 miles of here. So they know the value of what they have and they want to maximize that investment. If we can go in and tell them we will purchase even the non-merchantable material, leave the site in great shape and make it ready for fresh growth, that’s what they want to hear.”

He adds that all of their work is for private land owners, and the majority of that is either repeat business or “call-ins”—someone who’s seen the job they’ve done for a customer, liked it and called them. In essence, every job Halley Timber does is a calling card, and Halley doesn’t take that lightly.

“My granddad had a great reputation for taking care of his customers, and I’ve worked hard to live up to that standard,” he says. “I have outstanding people working for me, I have subcontractors on the logging side that I would put up against anyone, and now I have some of the best-performing equipment on the market today. That’s a pretty nice place to be.”