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Skogen - en berättelse

A Forest Story

Look out of the aircraft window when coming in to land at Umeå on a clear winter’s evening and you’ll see an unforgettable sight: a carpet of darkness shrouding the endless forests of Norrland, extending for mile after mile over the horizon. Punctuated by scattered clusters of twinkling lights, rather like the night sky. The city of Umeå shines the most brightly as the plane approaches, and in the distance, on the edge of the darkness, you might just glimpse the lights of the little town of Vindeln.

This is where two men, each of them a headstrong genius in his own way, laid the foundations of a globally successful export industry that now employs thousands of people and generates billions of kronor in revenue.

Their work also spawned one of Sweden’s few truly effective advanced research and development clusters at Umeå University and SLU, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

What’s more, the businesses founded by the two entrepreneurs spun off subsidiaries which, over time, grew into new global companies.

All our companies combine research, development, production, marketing and service. That builds expertise, and that’s how our businesses here in Vindeln and Umeå became world leaders."

The first of these two men, Allan Jonsson from Vindeln, left school after six years to work as a logger. He went on to establish three businesses: Cranab, Indexator and Slagkraft. The other man, Lennart Bergholm from Umeå, ran a small mechanical workshop on Strandvägen where the Umeå Institute of Design now stands. He founded Umeå Mekaniska, which later became Valmet and is now Komatsu Forest.

This is the story of the man from Vindeln and the man from Umeå who created the world’s first efficient forest machinery and revolutionised that most quintessentially Swedish of industries: forestry.

Not only in Sweden, but all over the world.

Skogsarbetare

Better tools – the difference between life and death

In the years between 1910 and 1960, residents of inland farming communities would put away their scythes and pitchforks at the end of the harvest season and leave their homes to spend the winter working as loggers. It was a brutal existence and a tough job, paid at piecework rates.

They knew that, like thousands of other loggers, they would have to live in dirty, draughty bunkhouses miles off the beaten track. They knew that they would have to live on hard salt meat and frozen potatoes, that showers and toilets were something they could only dream of, and that resin was the only scent in the air.

These men – and they were always men – knew too that the only tools available to them out there in the forest were a crosscut saw, a logging hook and an axe. And they knew that, to earn a living wage, they would have to toil in many feet of snow.

Umeå Mekaniska

They didn’t make it to old age, or at least not in good health. Shoulder, back and knee injuries were part of the deal. Broken bones and fatalities were nothing unusual. Yet productivity in the forestry industry had been stuck in a rut for decades. A skilled logger could harvest two to three cubic metres of timber a day. That was nowhere near enough to meet the demands of pulp mills and sawmills. Although forests covered more than half the land area of Sweden, and timber was one of the country’s main exports, not enough pine and spruce trees were being felled.

Lack of good tools was the problem.

The thinking behind it was that we couldn’t let rookies get behind the controls of a machine costing four million kronor. It’s cheaper and more efficient to let trainee machine operators learn the ropes on a simulator."

Allan Jonsson knew all this. Having laboured in the forest and loaded logs on trucks, he began to ponder how this back-breaking work could be made easier. Loggers had started using chainsaws, but they were unwieldy, dangerous and difficult to operate.

In the late 1950s, by a chance series of events, Jonsson became a sales representative for a small excavator unit that could be mounted on an ordinary tractor and powered via the PTO. If the tractor was also fitted with caterpillar tracks, it could negotiate bogs and forests. The excavator could then be used to dig drainage ditches, another laborious task that had taken its toll on many backs and shoulders.

But Jonsson wanted to change the way the digging bucket and crane worked, believing it could be made more efficient. So he and his brother Rune set up a small workshop in a barn in Vindeln and began experimenting with different crane designs.

They unveiled their first crane in early 1960. It was mounted on a regular tractor, and tests showed that it worked very well.

Investment capital needed

However, this was where the problems started. Materials and machinery were costly to purchase, it took a while for Jonsson to get paid for the cranes he sold, and he ran out of money after having to invest in a lathe. Nothing was left to cover wages, materials or even food. As usual, the banks did not look kindly on a small business owner, especially one from a forest community with no manufacturing tradition.

The story of Allan Jonsson and his groundbreaking innovations might have ended here, had he not, as a last resort, asked his neighbours Sven and Seris Olsson to lend him 2,000 kronor. The Olssons ran the local shop and knew that money could sometimes be tight for small businesses. A few weeks later, they lent Jonsson another 1,000 kronor. These cash loans were enough to get him through the crisis.

Lennart Bergholm

Lennart Bergholm

Recalling the laborious task of loading logs on trucks, Jonsson now turned his attention to forestry cranes.

“He didn’t want to go back to toiling, or not without better tools. So he became both an inventor and an entrepreneur. He only had a basic education and was a crofter’s son from Vindelånäset, but he believed in himself. He never saw problems, only opportunities.

“What’s more, my father had an amazing ability for hiring people with the right skills,” said Lise-Lottie Östlund, Allan Jonsson’s eldest daughter and then part-owner of Indexator, one of the successful companies he created.

Initially, Jonsson’s innovative cranes were controlled by wires, but this control method proved cumbersome, and the mechanism sometimes played up.

If it works in the forest, it’ll work anywhere."

After considering and testing a whole variety of possible solutions, the small business in the barn came up with the first hydraulic forestry crane. It was also fitted with a simple rotator, allowing it to turn through 280 degrees, and could be mounted on practically any farm tractor.

No-one had ever seen anything like it. It was an immediate success, and demand grew rapidly. The advent of this crane marked the beginning of the end for manual loading of logs.

In 1963, Jonsson teamed up with Karl Ragnar Åström, a farmer from Brännland, to form the Cranab company. In the 1950s, Åström had grown tired of shovelling manure and had invented the front-loader that started the Ålö brand of agricultural machinery.

Twiggy and Tviggen

Around the same time, Lennart Bergholm was busy in his workshop on Strandgatan in Umeå building a prototype of something that looked like three large ice augers in an oblong pod. Bergholm, who had set up Umeå Mekaniska in 1961, specialised in engineering mechanical solutions for heavy manual operations in the pulp industry. His main clients were the Bowaters plant at Strömpilen in Umeå and SCA in Obbola.

Sometime around 1963, Bergholm was approached by Allan Brånemo from SCA’s forestry division. The company was a major forest owner in Norrland, but despite employing large numbers of loggers was unable to ensure an adequate supply of raw material for its manufacturing operations.

SCA wondered whether Umeå Mekaniska could devise a machine for delimbing felled trees. Delimbing was a priority for mechanisation because it was time-consuming, dangerous, tiresome work in miserable terrain.

Lennart Bergholm decided to devote all his energies to building such a machine.

All the customers who bought the Tviggen machine became millionaires because they were able to increase production a hundredfold. But we didn’t get around to exporting any, and no-one at the company could speak or write English."

Skruven

Skruven

“My father and his fellow engineers usually created prototypes right on the shop floor, but he also used to borrow my Meccano to try out various designs,” recalled Bo ‘Bosse’ Bergholm, Lennart Bergholm’s youngest son.

Development proceeded apace, but cash soon started to run short at Umeå Mekaniska too. Materials and machinery cost money, but the banks refused Bergholm’s loan application without some form of security (which was not available, since all he had was an idea and a prototype).

“Eventually even the housekeeping money got spent on machinery. One day when my father and I went home for lunch, my mother served us each a plate of screws and bolts. That was her way of protesting about the lack of money for food,” said Bosse.

1965 brought the first breakthrough: Skruven (‘The Screw’), the pod with the ‘ice augers’ in its base. Bundles of felled trees were loaded into the bed of the unit and rotated, stripping them of their branches and twigs. The machine was incredibly efficient, and Umeå Mekaniska was unable to keep up with the demand for it.

Now that the company was an established player in the forestry sector, resources were available for ongoing development of forest machinery. The first truly revolutionary machine was launched in 1971 and named Tviggen in honour of the model Twiggy, reflecting its similarly slim profile.

The Tviggen was a combined delimbing and log cutting machine – known in the trade as a processor – and Umeå Mekaniska had nowhere near enough capacity to meet the demand for it. When it was exhibited at a major trade fair, customers offered cash up front if they could buy one on the spot. Out in the forest, meanwhile, loggers had no option but to continue felling trees by hand.

“All the customers who bought the Tviggen machine became millionaires because they were able to increase production a hundredfold. But we didn’t get around to exporting any, and no-one at the company could speak or write English,” recalled Bosse Bergholm.

Exporting innovation

But there was now no stopping Umeå Mekaniska from growing exponentially while continuing to develop ingenious new forestry equipment. In time, the world started coming to Umeå to buy these phenomenal machines.

Meanwhile, Allan Jonsson’s company, Cranab, had begun exporting forestry cranes to Finland in 1964 and within a few years had captured 85 per cent of the Finnish market. Its next international expansion, to Yugoslavia, followed in 1967. The entrepreneur from Vindeln attended a forestry conference in Sarajevo, where his cranes were a big hit. His lack of English or German language skills seems to have been no impediment in selling to Yugoslav customers.

Most of the machines produced at Umeå and Vindeln proved popular in the forestry industry. Sales took off at both companies, enabling them to invest in their business. The money continued to roll in, and bigger companies started to take an interest in what those people in the north of Sweden were up to.

Today’s researchers and businesses recognise the value of working together."

Forestry – a key Swedish industry

About a third of the earth’s surface, or four billion hectares, is forest. One thousandth of that, or five million hectares, is felled annually. Half of the felled volume goes to make paper and pulp.

Sweden is right in the middle of the boreal coniferous forest belt and is especially heavily forested. Forest covers some 28 million hectares, more than half our land area. Västerbotten is the most heavily forested region.

Almost 40 per cent of Sweden’s forest is owned by private and state-owned companies. Over 220,000 hectares of trees are harvested annually, and nearly 70 per cent of all these pines and spruces are exported in the form of paper, pulp and timber.

So forestry was and still is one of Sweden’s key industries. Nevertheless, for the longest time the forestry industry was hopelessly outdated. Even in the 1970s, timber was still being harvested in largely the same way as it had been for the past 100 years. Chainsaws and tractors were the only innovations. Other sectors of industry had started introducing automation, computers and robots, but forestry was as labour-intensive and inefficient as ever. The Tviggen and similar machines had changed some aspects of the job, especially when combined with crane-equipped tractors (known in the trade as forwarders) to haul the timber to roadside landings. But the big forestry companies dreamt of a holy grail: a contraption that could take care of everything.

Tviggen

Tviggen

Opportunities were clearly there for innovative and visionary entrepreneurs in the forestry industry to devise even smarter solutions. With prospective customers all over the world, there was big money to be made.

However, it is hard for a large company to suddenly make an executive decision to get creative and think in new ways. This is much easier for a small, versatile business with innovation in its DNA. Notwithstanding their success, Cranab and Umeå Mekaniska were both still small companies.

In 1960, two to three cubic metres of timber could be harvested in a day’s work. Today, more than 30 cubic metres can be harvested – in one hour.

“The forest machinery industry has done more to mechanise the job than any other sector. In just 50 years, we’ve gone from saws, axes and horses to near-total mechanisation,” said Hans Eliasson, then chairman and part-owner of Cranab.

“In the old days, most people living in inland areas of northern Sweden worked in forestry, but nowadays it’s very few. So it’s true that our products have caused rural depopulation.”

Eliasson believes the Västerbotten region was perfectly placed to lead the transformation of forestry:

“When you have a lot of people working in the forest, you also have a lot of them wondering how the job could be made easier and less laborious. And because we also had, and still have, some clever entrepreneurs up here, we made it happen.

“But it took exceptional perseverance,” he added.

Umeå and Vindeln were not the only places where innovative forestry businesses sprang up. In various forest communities across Sweden, inventive people were coming up with solutions.

“ÖSA in Hälsingland did well, as did Sandbergs Mekaniska at Stensele and many others, but then the first generation of entrepreneurs gave way to people who squandered the opportunities. Companies were bought up, and expertise, development and manufacturing moved to other countries,” said Eliasson.

Umeå and Vindeln almost suffered the same tragic fate. With the sale of Cranab in 1973 and Umeå Mekaniska in 1976, both companies ended up with a merry-go-round of owners that continued until the mid-2000s.

If anyone should know, it is Hans Eliasson. His personal story is intertwined with the development of forest machinery.

The forest machinery industry has done more to mechanise the job than any other sector. In just 50 years, we’ve gone from saws, axes and horses to near-total mechanisation."

Skogsmaskin

Innovation and production in one place

In 1972, Eliasson was hired by Allan Jonsson as an engineer at Cranab. When Jonsered acquired the company in 1974, he became plant manager. Following further ownership changes, in 1982 he and two partners bought out Cranab. The company went public in 1984 and was taken over in 1988 by Valmet, which had previously acquired Umeå Mekaniska from Volvo. Eliasson was appointed managing director at Valmet in 1991 and oversaw the sale of the business to the Japanese Komatsu group in 2005 – only to buy out Cranab again shortly afterwards in partnership with Fredrik Jonsson, Allan’s youngest son.

“In Umeå and Vindeln, we were successful in managing and developing the businesses created by the previous generation of entrepreneurs, rather than squandering that heritage.”

At the age of 60, Hans Eliasson approached Swedbank for a loan to finance the purchase of Cranab.

“I remember thinking I must be a bit crazy. But I also knew how much growth potential there was in the company and in the industry here in Västerbotten.”

According to Eliasson, being located in this neck of the woods is critically important if you want to be successful in the forest machinery business.

“This is where the expertise is. If we were to lose it to other countries, it would be totally impossible to ever recreate it here in the inland parts of northern Sweden.

“It’s not like the Volvo Trucks plant in Umeå,” said Eliasson. “They are supplied with drawings, production targets and everything else. Their job is simply to get on with producing trucks according to plan.

“All our companies combine research, development, production, marketing and service. That builds expertise, and that’s how our businesses here in Vindeln and Umeå became world leaders.”

For this reason, it would make absolutely no sense to move production to low-cost countries in pursuit of a fast buck.

“No, then innovation would be too far removed from production,” explained Eliasson, whose company had almost 350 million kronor in revenue at the time of the interview.

Eventually even the housekeeping money got spent on machinery. One day when my father and I went home for lunch, my mother served us each a plate of screws and bolts. That was her way of protesting about the lack of money for food."

Anything but finished

Although he had sold Cranab, Allan Jonsson from Vindeln was anything but ready to retire. At the time of the sale, he bought back a small subsidiary whose products included hydraulic valves.

Jonsson had another new idea: a hydraulic rotator that would be installed between the timber crane and the grapple or other attachment. A rotator would allow the grapple to turn through 360 degrees and be locked in position, which would greatly boost productivity. But all the available rotators were flimsy and lacked powerful hydraulics.

The rotator needed to be durable, convenient and powerful, and had to work in challenging forest conditions, which turned out to be a difficult combination to achieve.

Rototilt

“My siblings and I had grown up alongside the company in an entrepreneurial environment. So the tough few years we went through while developing the rotator taught us a useful lesson. We gained a lot of respect for money and hard work,” said Hans Jonsson, Allan’s son and now owner and chairman of Indexator.

It took Indexator five years to come up with a rotator that worked – five years of stubborn perseverance and constant money worries. More than once during this time, the company’s accountant advised Allan to close the business. Instead, Allan made sure that three of his children took over, and eventually the product was ready.

“When people in the industry saw that the new device could rotate and lock in position, word spread rapidly and the floodgates opened. We didn’t have to spend a penny on marketing, because the customers came to us anyway,” recalled Hans Jonsson.

As a result, Indexator grew to become the world’s largest manufacturer of rotators and tiltrotators (a variant that not only rotates but can also twist and tilt), with revenue of 380 million kronor. The production of tiltrotators later evolved into a successful company of its own, Rototilt Group AB, owned by Anders Jonsson, the other son of Allan Jonsson.

“We had a head start, and no-one has managed to catch up. In fact, we have no real competition on a global level,” said Jonsson.

Investing locally

He and his siblings have also taken a long-term approach. Although Indexator has enjoyed phenomenal growth in recent decades, they have continued to invest locally.

“When we were planning to build a new tiltrotator plant, we debated whether it would make economic sense to locate the production facility elsewhere. But we concluded that Vindeln was the best place for us. Here we have the expertise, a university and superfast fibre broadband – which is essential because our entire workflow is digitalised,” explained Jonsson.

Ola Boström, then marketing director at Komatsu Forest in Umeå, recalled sitting with his childhood friend Anders Jonsson (owner of Rototilt Group AB) watching Super 8 home movies of Allan Jonsson’s export sales trips to Canada. As they made their way home through Vindeln, the boys would sometimes see rows of chainsaws and loggers boarding a bus bound for a felling site.

“It was exciting for a kid like me to see how the forest could be your gateway to the wider world. I was born into the industry,” said Boström.

When he began his career as a newly qualified engineer in 1981, the company was still called Umeå Mekaniska. He stayed with the company throughout its journey from family business via Finnish ownership to today’s global corporation. Komatsu Forest is part of the Japanese Komatsu group, one of the world’s largest producers of mining, forestry and construction machinery, with annual revenue over 150 million euros (Komatsu Forest contributing 2.6 billion kronor).

When people in the industry saw that the new device could rotate and lock in position, word spread rapidly and the floodgates opened. We didn’t have to spend a penny on marketing, because the customers came to us anyway."

Hans Eliasson

Hans Eliasson

Motivated and inventive

“The fact that we have kept development and production in Umeå shows how motivated and inventive we are up here. The parent company has taken note and recognised the advantages,” said Boström.

As an example, he mentioned the single-grip harvester unveiled at the Skogsnolia trade fair in 1984: a purpose-built machine that could fell, delimb and cut in a single operation. It also featured a cab that could be rotated and levelled so that operators always had the work zone straight in front of them.

The machine caused a sensation at its launch and set a new standard for forest machinery. The first batch sold out before production was even under way. These machines further boosted productivity in the forestry industry, but manual labour was still needed for thinning and planting.

The machine also incorporated another innovation that attracted less attention initially but in due course sowed the seed of another fast-growing export business.

Forestry companies require the logs to be cut to set lengths to identify them as pulpwood or timber. In the trade this is known as bucking, and it is all about maximising the value of the logs.

Previously loggers had used a measuring tape to help them cut the right lengths, but the operator of a single-grip harvester had to try to guess the length from his position behind the controls, which did not work so well.

Business and academia

Ola Boström and his colleagues focused on developing a computerised system that would sense the exact length and diameter and control the bucking operation. But 1980s computers did not perform too well in the rough forest environment, and Ericsson, the company’s partner in the project, pulled out after this bruising encounter with the realities of forest life.

In search of another solution, Boström and his colleagues paid a visit to their neighbours at Umeå University:

“We presented our plans to staff and students on the systems analysis programme, and the university decided to make it part of the curriculum.”

The students suddenly had the opportunity to write code for real-life situations and to see immediately whether it would work on site in the forest. The project proved successful and popular, and forest machinery is still used in case studies as part of the course.

“Our working relationship with the university matters a lot, and we recruit many of our engineers from there. This is essential, because today’s forest machines contain 12 computer systems that need to be programmed.”

But Komatsu would also give the university something in return: a project that originated in the arms industry.

In 1994, Finland purchased 64 American-built F-18 Hornet fighter jets, dashing the Swedish aircraft builder Saab’s hopes of winning a big order for its Gripen jet from Sweden’s eastern neighbour. In the tangled web of countertrading that ensued, a 3D visualisation project was awarded to a Finnish company with offices in Montreal. However, they declined to take on the project, even though it was funded.

Instead, it occurred to the Finnish government that Valmet, as a developer of advanced forest machinery, might be interested. Although the relevant plant was in Umeå, Valmet was still a Finnish company.

“We were awarded the project but soon realised that building simulators was not really our thing, although we were certainly interested in using them,” said Boström.

That same year, Umeå University had embarked on a major, high-profile 3D project known as the VR Lab, intended to create visualisations for social purposes. Valmet agreed to let the VR Lab take over the entire Finnish-American project.

Simulating reality

Around the same time, Derny Häggström, an IT consultant, was looking for exciting new ideas to pursue. Having been in touch with the VR Lab in the past, he saw a future for 3D simulation.

“I realised that we could match the VR Lab’s expertise to Valmet’s needs,” said Häggström.

But Komatsu would also give the university something in return: a project that originated in the arms industry."

Ory simulator

After several years of fast-paced development work, Oryx Simulations was born, with Derny Häggström as its managing director: “The thinking behind it was that we couldn’t let rookies get behind the controls of a machine costing four million kronor. It’s cheaper and more efficient to let trainee machine operators learn the ropes on a simulator.”

What was more, with a few keystrokes the user could change the simulated environment from the chilly Siberian taiga to the Brazilian highlands in the pouring rain.

“And the trainees could harvest the same tree over and over again. For all eternity.”

The Oryx simulator soon proved a success.

“Our success was attributable to our high levels of technical expertise and to the fact that, through Valmet, we soon gained access to export markets such as Finland, the United States, Canada and Brazil. Although forestry is a tough industry, it was one of the first to globalise – and we were part of that,” said Häggström.

Forestry in Brazil is largely associated with Amazon deforestation, but Ola Boström pointed out: “Our machines are too small to use in the rainforest. You need gigantic machines to handle those massive trees.”

Rather, it was Brazil’s fast-growing commercial eucalyptus plantations that provided a case study for what could be achieved using simulators. The Brazilians build their timber plants in the middle of eucalyptus plantations, start harvesting outside the front door and work their way round. This takes six or seven years, by which time the forest has regenerated and they can start back at the beginning. In order to get to work straight away, they need to invest in machinery.

“We sold 130 forest machines to a Brazilian company, but they didn’t have any operators. So the Oryx platform played a crucial role. There was no time to train operators in the traditional manner, so we used the Oryx simulator coupled with theory and soon got them up and running,” explained Boström.

“Oryx has one foot on the product side and one foot on the research side, so we now have a closer working relationship than ever with Umeå University. Not only do we recruit most of our graduate engineers from there, but we also do a lot of work to create and refine new products based on their research,” said Häggström.

Oryx currently generates around 40 million kronor. Potential new global markets for simulation technology are constantly popping up, including the mining, transport and oil industries.

However, 3D simulation is not a luxury confined to giant corporations. The technology also proved crucial to a small, innovative forestry company that had the vision but not the resources.

Most of the machines produced at Umeå and Vindeln proved popular in the forestry industry. Sales took off at both companies, enabling them to invest in their business. The money continued to roll in, and bigger companies started to take an interest in what those people in the north of Sweden were up to."

Vimek

Sustainable innovations

For some years, Lars-Gunnar Nilsson had been figuring out an entirely new design of timber bogie that would reduce ground damage and be suitable for use in miserable, sodden terrain. He and his son Johannes were confident they were nearing a breakthrough, but their small business lacked the funds to build a full-scale prototype (they had built a 1:10 scale model using plastic wheels and a bicycle chain).

“Our company can’t afford to spend money on a product that is still several years away. When we develop something, we have to be able to market it right away,” said Johannes Nilsson, who at the time of the interview was product manager at Vimek.

His father Lars-Gunnar was a founder of Vimek, which produces small, versatile machines that family forestry businesses can use for both harvesting and thinning.

At the time of the interview, 70 per cent of their product was exported, mainly to Poland and the Czech Republic. In 2016 the business had 82 million kronor in revenue after years of increasing numbers.

Cranab took a majority stake a few years ago, and the production facility is now in Vindeln, but the development department remains at Slipstenssjön.

As a result of climate change, forests are becoming soggier and more vulnerable. Vimek’s mission is to create small, versatile and gentle machines that can be deployed anywhere without damaging the ground.

Vimek’s new bogie design was intended to address several environmental issues.

A cluster emerges

The Nilssons found their solution in Vindeln, 40 kilometres south of Vimek’s base, at the head office of the Forest Technology Cluster – a grouping of 10 companies including Komatsu Forest, Cranab, Indexator, Vimek and Olofsfors. Maria Hedlblom was chief executive at the time:

“We started the cluster in 2004, because there was no forum for our industry to make its voice heard. Meanwhile, with an eye on the future, the big forestry companies were in need of new machinery, products and innovative solutions.

“It fell to relatively small companies to take care of those needs. At the same time, many forest technology companies were being sold to foreign owners and vanishing from the scene. There was a need for a forum that brought together researchers, businesses and government,” said Hedlblom.

A cluster is something that every politician dreams of: creative, innovative people teaming up to create new businesses, products and services which in turn create jobs, opportunities and tax revenue.

Over the years and all over the world, many millions in taxpayers’ money have been spent on ‘cluster’ consultants and other experts – almost always with little return.

Hans Eliasson put it bluntly:

“The term ‘cluster’ is misused. As is the word ‘innovation’. Clusters and innovation are not something that can be decreed from on high. They have to grow from the bottom up – as they have here.”

Since its formation, the Forest Technology Cluster has put together a network of forestry businesses, government bodies and researchers from Umeå University and SLU. Through this network, member businesses have raised millions of kronor in project funding and contributed to major forest-related research projects.

“Cluster members can attract development funding to their business, and we can bring together researchers and product developers,” explained Hedlblom.

We were awarded the project but soon realised that building simulators was not really our thing, although we were certainly interested in using them."

The cluster have run several projects, ranging from training programmes and advanced research on the future of forestry to a study of how the industry can attract more qualified women. Society’s attitude to forests has changed in recent years. Rather than a never-ending source of timber, they are now seen as a vulnerable natural resource threatened by climate change.

These days, not only the delimbed logs are put to good use after harvesting, but also the leftover branches and stumps, which are used for power generation or in the chemical industry. The Forest Technology Cluster has funded master’s-level research projects at the Umeå Institute of Design on topics such as smart forest machinery. Meanwhile, the impact of machinery on the ground have been studied as part of a major project at SLU called Future Forest.

“Research funding applications carry more weight if we are involved in the project. Not many other applicants have the backing of successful small and medium-sized businesses,” noted Hedlblom.

Lars-Gunnar and Johannes Nilsson’s idea for a new type of bogie was therefore exactly the sort of thing that was of interest to the cluster.

UMIT

Research collaboration

UMIT was set up at Umeå University in 2011 to focus on advanced simulation and software technology. The centre brings together researchers in computer science, physics and mathematics, with the goal of working with industry to devise new interactive tools and processes.

Through the cluster, the Nilssons managed to secure the resources to build a prototype and made contact with the UMIT researchers. The outcome was that the researchers simulated Vimek’s design for a new bogie to see how it would work in real life.

“Forest technology is complex. It’s all about the natural environment, ground conditions, the dynamics of the machines. We soon find out whether our research is relevant, and companies find out whether their designs are robust and fit for purpose,” said Martin Servin, coordinator at UMIT.

“If it works in the forest, it’ll work anywhere.”

After a series of meetings, computer simulations and modifications, Vimek and the researchers identified the optimum design for the bogie, which has now been patented and is undergoing on-site testing in the forest.

“The more you work with forestry, the more complicated you realise it is,” said Johannes Nilsson. “Most of it is extreme stuff, and working alongside researchers and designers has given us a whole new perspective.

“Without the cluster, we would never have met them. We had a great working relationship, and now it feels like second nature to collaborate with researchers to develop new products – they’re just regular guys.”

Martin Servin also pointed out that the working relationship between academia and business had changed a great deal:

“There used to be a lot of scepticism, but today’s researchers and businesses recognise the value of working together.”

The fact that we have kept development and production in Umeå shows how motivated and inventive we are up here. The parent company has taken note and recognised the advantages."

New challenges

The wider world is encroaching. Globally speaking, the forestry industry is growing fastest in the southern hemisphere and in east Asia. More and more companies are trying to emulate their counterparts in Vindeln and Umeå and develop their own machines. Meanwhile, climate change is leading to a whole new set of demands regarding the machines’ performance. Changing consumer behaviour is complicating the situation, with newspaper circulation declining and books and textbooks going digital.

There are a few glimmers of hope for the forestry industry: increasing amounts of raw material are being used to generate power, to build bridges and high-rises, to produce textiles, and to make tissue paper products (for instance, incontinence pads for senior citizens now outsell children’s nappies in Japan).

But the fact remains: the industry effectively founded by two headstrong men in the 1960s – which has grown into a multi-billion-kronor business, employing thousands of highly qualified people, with close research ties to academia and advanced in-house development capabilities – is now facing a whole new set of challenges.

So, is there a future?

Definitely, according to those in the business. They believe total automation will be the next step. Robots that neither stop for a tea break nor are bothered by blackflies or resin will take care of harvesting. Remote-controlled machines will handle the heavy work of moving the logs, the time-consuming ground preparation, the laborious planting, and the unenviable job of thinning among the mosquitos and spruce twigs.

That will also eliminate the last vestiges of old-fashioned logging – the work that shaped an entire region and provided the backdrop to some of the great literary depictions of Västerbotten by authors such as Per Olov Enquist, Sara Lidman and Torgny Lindgren. It will spell the end, too, for the driving force that motivated the early entrepreneurs in Vindeln and Umeå in their unflinching determination to improve the working and living conditions of logging communities.

In the infancy of mechanised logging, they coined an expression: no man on the ground, no hand on the timber. As Hans Eliasson puts it, in the future it may well be a case of no man in the cab, no hand on the controls.

Less exciting, perhaps – but efficient, productive and unlikely to cost anyone their health. Time to hang up the last of those logging hooks.

 

Göran Nordell

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