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Innovation and sustainability in forest activities

The definition of the optimal mechanization level of the forestry site must take into account many parameters, including the environmental ones. National forestry businesses need machinery suitable for the terrain and for the extent of the area

by Jacopo Bacenetti e Andrea Rosario Proto
October - November 2018 | Back

Although the economic contribution to the Italian GDP of the forestry sector is rather low, its importance is strategic for the correct management of the national forestry heritage. In this scenario, the Italian forestry businesses have to deal with northern Europe ones, which often operate in more favorable contexts, especially with regard to the average (lower) slope and the (upper) extension of wooded areas.  In fact, the possibility of working on larger surfaces, with homogeneous and orographically “difficult” features, has allowed foreign companies to mechanize all the phases of working in the forest. This is because the adoption of an efficient and sustainable mechanization has always been a key aspect as regards the agroforestry companies competitiveness, especially in the current context of a marked globalization of the wood products market. 

In fact, Italian companies are disadvantaged from the start, since the leading forestry machinery manufacturers are based in Northern Europe, and logically, they produce machinery capable of ensuring the best performance in those contexts, which, as mentioned, do not fit the Italian condition, and which is further penalized by a poor road network. Therefore, in Italy the purchase of machinery designed for Northern Europe is rarely the best solution; it is, therefore, essential to carry out accurate preliminary evaluations to look for the best combination.

On the other hand, the development by specialized Italian manufacturers of new solutions specifically dedicated to Italian forest areas requires not only clear and innovative design ideas but also an economic (sometimes considerable) availability to implement the first prototypes. Funding for applied research can facilitate this process, especially if provided at the European level, thanks to the collaboration of international groups, able to provide different levels of expertise.


Horizon 2020 projects in the forest sector:

the role of mechanization

As part of the Horizon 2020 European calls for tenders, about 70 projects relating to the forest sector have been funded since 2015; among them, however, only a few are those specifically focused on mechanization.  In fact, most of the projects concern the study of the interaction between forest ecosystems and climate change, as well as the development of “smart” solutions to increase the profitability of forest activities, both through a reduction in costs and through a greater exploitation of by-products.   Among the issues dedicated to mechanization, it should also be pointed out the “Forwarder2020 - Smart Forwarder for sustainable and efficient forest operation and management” project, coordinated by a German company and with a total budget of almost three million euros, which aims to develop a forwarder characterized by several innovative aspects, including:  mixed mechanical-hydrostatic transmission, able to reduce the fuel consumption by 30% compared to equivalent models on the market, by reducing the engine speed at high feed rates, in order to make work based on longer transport distances competitive, and at the same time allow greater autonomy (with relative increase in productivity, thanks to the reduction of the frequency of supply);  hydropneumatic suspensions, in order to increase the speed of work execution in the forest while maintaining a safe and comfortable control of the vehicle by the operator, and at the same time to reduce soil compaction by optimizing the dynamic load; joining the drive wheels with a steel overhead contact line, to double the contact surface between tires and ground, in order to reduce compaction and increase the load capacity;  loading arm driven by a hybrid hydraulic system, able to reduce fuel consumption by 30% in the loading operations thanks to the reduction in engine speed, with a simultaneous improved crane maneuverability.

Two prototypes will be made, to be tested in Germany, Romania, Lithuania and the United Kingdom, that is to say, in different contexts in terms of slope, forest species and forest management methods.   The results obtained will then be compared with those of the forwarders currently used in the same contexts, to highlight the best combination for economic and environmental sustainability. 

With nine partners coming from six different countries, and a total budget of just over two million euros, the project “Ontrack - Innovative solutions for increasing efficiency and reduction of environmental impacts of future wood supply” provides for the development of a forwarder characterized by an particular location of the control cabin and the endowment of rubber tracks, which compared to those in steel or other propulsion solutions already on the market allow an increase in the machine’s forward speed, with a reduction of compaction of the ground. Also, it is expected the use of a set of sensors that can automatically monitor and record the damage to the ground caused by logging operations. 

The aim of the project is to reduce soil compaction and the formation of furrows by 40-70% compared to a traditional forwarder, and at the same time develop “soil disturbance maps” that can help support the definition of the load capacity in the ground and for the identification of less impactful solutions.


The optimal hauling site

There are many parameters for identifying the best mechanized combination for an optimal hauling; in particular, it is necessary to understand which is the best “intensity” of the use of the machinery. It is not said, in fact, that, from an economic point of view (but not only), mechanizing a site at the highest level is automatically the most appropriate solution.

In this regard, three different hauling sites were compared, characterized by an increasing level of mechanization, both in terms of operational performance and of environmental impact, which is assessed through Life Cycle Analysis (or LCA), which is one of the most widely adopted approaches for the evaluation of environmental impacts associated with a product and/or service, as it takes into account the entire production cycle, while considering more environmental effects.  It is codified by specific standards (ISO, 14040 and 14044), and it is the most used method for environmental assessments and, although originally developed for the study of industrial processes, it is increasingly applied to agricultural and forestry systems.

The three sites were all in forests, mainly chestnut, located in Southern Italy (Calabria) and characterized by a variable slope between 15 and 80%. The thinning and felling are carried out in the same way by chainsaw, while for hauling four different solutions were provided: low mechanization: 100 Hp tractor with forestry winch; average mechanization; 150 Hp skidderda; high mechanization; motorized ropeway with two ropes, with max. length of 600 m.

The hauling highest productivity is a prerogative of the site with medium mechanization, while the high mechanization site recorded a value of 3.5 times lower.  However, when hauling is made with a cableway, it should be remembered that usually fewer operators are involved because set-up and hauling are carried out jointly. 

The environmental impact was referred to 1 m3 of logged timber setting, for each considered aspect, the higher impact equal to 100%. 

The sites that show the best environmental performance are the one with the tractor with the forestry winch (for three impacts) or with the skidder (for the remaining four).  The hauling with cableway is the solution that presents the highest impacts for all the assessed environmental effects. Moreover, it must be considered that this last option considerably reduces damage to the topsoil and to the fresh vegetation.  In fact, because of a lack of data collected both directly and in literature, the analysis could not take into account this aspect, which as it facilitates the achievement of a higher productivity in subsequent cuts, it could consequently also improve the environmental performance. 


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